Memories of dead heroes

By Tapani Lausti

Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis. Bloomsbury 2003. (Spanish original: Soldados de Salamina. Tusquets Editores 2001.)

The Spanish civil war was a violent conflict about which many left-wing people felt so strongly that they actually joined the fighting on the side of the Spanish Republicans. They felt that democracy was under attack in a way that would have repercussions elsewhere. The price of not defeating fascism in Spain would be frighteningly high for the rest of Europe.

The tragedy was that as soldiers in the International Brigades many of these well-meaning idealists ended up serving the Soviet Union’s interests. These interests demanded the suppression of the social revolution which had raised such high hopes about a different future for Spain and could have inspired new visions elsewhere as well. And yet, foreigners fighting on the Republican side took their commitment seriously by putting themselves in physical danger. Many paid with their lives.

How different the times are now. These days many intellectuals feel comfortable with urging other people to do the fighting, whether in the Balkans or the Gulf. From the safety of their studies they calculate the pros and cons of military interventions. Thus they participate in sending soldiers to kill and get killed, with no personal price to pay.

These thoughts as such are not directly connected with Javier Cercas’s fascinating novel about the Spanish civil war. Yet, for some reason they often entered my mind whilst reading about a war in which the consequences of the protagonists’ personal choices often were enormous.

Cercas throws light on a small group of men who did their utmost to provoke the war. The novel focuses on Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a minor poet and novelist who was Spain’s first fascist, having become an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini during his stay in Italy. “… Sánchez Mazas thought he’d discovered in fascism the ideal instrument to cure his nostalgia for an imperial Catholicism and, especially, to forcibly mend the reliable hierarchies of the ancien régime that the old democratic egalitarianism and the vigorous, new Bolshevik egalitarianism were threatening to annihilate all over Europe.”

Sánchez Mazas believed in the fascist myth of the “squad of soldiers” which, like the Athenians at Salamis, at the last moment “saved civilisation”. In spite of such “heroic” fantasies, Sánchez Mazas himself was afraid of violence. However, with his blazing rhetoric of the clash needed to preserve the world he believed in, he helped to push the country into a tragic slaughter.

To Sánchez Mazas’s disappointment, the society which emerged after the Nationalists’ victory was not what the original Falangists had imagined. It all “was eventually going to be diluted into sanctimonious, predictable, conservative slop.” Franco is described in the novel as “the chubby, blustering, effeminate, incompetent, astute and conservative soldier” who in the end usurped the Falangist ideology into “the increasingly rotten and meaningless paraphernalia with which a handful of boors struggled for forty gloomy years to justify their shitty regime.”

Parts of the novel read almost like a detective story when the journalist, who wants to write Sánchez Mazas’s story, tries to locate the Republican militiaman who could have killed the novelist but instead only looked at him and walked away. The journalist finds a man who was in the area but who denies that he was the militiaman in question. However, his version of events illuminates the sadness of the civil war in a humane way.

Now that some degree of militarism has again become fashionable in some Western liberal circles (as long as the dying is done by someone else), it is worth thinking about what the old veteran of the civil war has to say: “Heroes are only heroes when they die or get killed. The real heroes are born out of war and die in war. There are no living heroes, young man. They are all dead. Dead, dead, dead.” The old man weeps when he remembers his mates: “They were so young… They all died. All of them dead. Dead. Dead. All of them. None of them tasted the good things in life…”

See also:

How Stalin destroyed revolution in Spain

openDemocracy, 31 January 2002

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