The need for a public history in Catalonia in the case of monumentalism (or the pain of not having it)

As part of our ongoing series on the intersections between monuments and public history, César Sànchez offers an in depth look at the situation in Catalonia. In sharing specific examples of events that have unfolded over the last few years, he argues for the need for public historians in Catalonia. What are the issues facing public historians, and how could they contribute to the issue and legacy of monuments in this particular place?

El Pi de les Tres Branques: This tree is the “Pine of the three branches,” a monument/tree located in the town of Berga. It symbolizes the unity of the three main Catalan-speaking historical territories: Catalonia, the Kingdom of Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. It is often attacked by Spanish nationalists. It became popular following a 1888 poem by Jacint Vedaguer. Other similar trees throughout Catalonia also suffer vandal attacks.
Author: Cèsar Sànchez, founder, author and webmaster of the historical dissemination project www.historiesdeuropa.cat

There is a popular Catalan saying that goes “plou sobre mullat” (it rains on wet), which fits perfectly with the phenomenon of increasing attacks on controversial monuments in Catalonia as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. The debate concerning monuments in Catalonia has continued since the Second Bourbon Restoration (the proclamation of Juan Carlos I as successor in 1969 and as head of state in 1975) due to the large number of monuments that the dictatorship had erected as part of his ideological indoctrination. In each village, there were one or more commemorations: monuments to the fallen (the Francoists), street names, commemorative plaques or reminders to those responsible for the dictatorship as mayors and members of the Church. Despite the fact that they were being removed, in 2018 there were still about 3,000 fascist monuments in Catalonia. In 2010, “Memorial Democràtic,” a public agency of the Catalan government, even took a census.

On the other hand, while discussing this, we’ve also finally seen the drafting of a Historical Memory Act. However,  it is very limited and badly funded (2007), and does not include a monumental policy of restoring dignity for those who fought against the dictatorship. As such, despite this Act, the sentences made against politicians and democratic fighters by the government of the dictatorship still stand, though the Spanish judiciary denies it. In fact, the Historical Memory Act was intended primarily for the investigation of mass graves. We must remember that, after Cambodia, Spain is the second state in the world with the most disappeared people. This political and judicial situation, under which Catalonia also lives, had its maximum exponent during the exhumation of the remains of dictator Franco in 2019, which became an act of Spanish fascist exaltation, in the funerary monument that he himself had created with slave labor, the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen).

The debate, therefore, on monumentalism in Catalonia, like elsewhere, is political. And history and historians have not entered into it, nor have we been taken into account, because partisan political interests have prevailed, and not the researched judgment of experts. There has been a lot of talk about history, too much. It has been done in the framework of political debates by people mostly unprepared or inexperienced in historiography but with clear ideological interests. This total lack of ethics, and the lack of tradition of consulting experts, has ended up degenerating into pseudo-historical theories, which supporters of both political sides use as a “plot” weapon.

It is necessary to be self-critical, and to recognize that much of historical academicism is still home to many who support the preservation of its ivory tower. The academic promotion system does not value public dissemination, which has led Catalan society to a huge divergence between public debate (intoxicated by politics) and historical knowledge (very limited to experts and people who are particularly interested), while not easily accessible to public historians. The attempted 2016 retrospective exhibition about Franco is a good example of these diverging perceptions. The curator of the exhibition, university professor of history Manel Risques, the commissioner of memory programs of the City Council of Barcelona, and the professor of history Ricard Vinyes all defended the placement of a statue of Franco on horseback in El Born , an emblematic place for Catalan nationalism. From the announcement of the exhibition, the statue was a constant target of attacks. People threw eggs at the statue, painted, decapitated, and put an inflatable doll on it; they hung gay and pro-independence flags on it. After four days of these demonstrations, they knocked it down. It ended up being picked up as rubbish by a cleaning truck, while academics still justified its presence. Moreover, attacks on the statue were included in the exhibition, presented as things of the past that no longer held any social implications. Even though they had just happened!

El Pi de les Tres Branques

In the emergence of bizarre pseudo-historical theories, and the tense political debate over monumentalism with the absence of academicism, a third element has emerged: the debate on monuments considered racist. The origin of the debate could possibly be linked to the case of the monument known as “El negre de Banyoles” (the black man of Banyoles), which lasted from 1991 to 2000. This debate expanded to buildings and monuments erected in honor of, or by, slave traders. One of them, the monument to the Marqués de Comillas in Barcelona, was removed in 2018. But some of the most symbolic still remain, including the one that is causing the most disputes: the Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona.

Most monuments representing historical events and figures in Catalonia, especially in Barcelona, ​​were erected in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries (Columbus, Joan Prim, Pau Claris, Rafael Casanova, Serafí Pitarra, for example). Whereas, after the dictatorship, the monumentalist choice was design-oriented and made with an effort to look modern, trying to avoid any historical reading susceptible to political interpretation (the Mariscal prawn or the face of Roy Lichtenstein, for example). By contrast, there are no large monuments to the maquis (underground fighting), as there are in France, just a few discreet plaques at the site where some died. Nor are there statues of anti-Franco figures, such as Lluís Maria Xirinacs. Instead, Xirinacs is commemorated with a single monolith in the middle of the mountain where he was found dead. In 2012, though, there was a popular initiative to place a statue in front of the Model prison, where he spent two years protesting the incarceration of political prisoners. Following the policy of “information boards” in 2019, one was put up to signal the Barcelona Terror Police Station, a place where hundreds of political detainees were tortured and even killed, in Via Laietana. In just two days it was burned due to hooliganism. These are examples of the consequences of not having a policy of monumentalism with a public history that supports it.

Since 2010, it has been necessary to consider a fourth element, which was, until then, just an underlying one: the political conflict between Catalonia and Spain. Generally, sectors coming from post-dictatorship “light” policies (permissive policies that allow for continuity of elements of the dictatorship), including hidden Spanish sectors, concentrate their efforts on denouncing Catalan historical monuments, including monuments of enslavers. They have taken advantage of the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement since the killing of George Floyd, through which they have seen their positions “reaffirmed.” The independence movement is divided: while the progressives (large majority) support the reconversion of monuments (without attacking them), a very local minority of the independence, guided by pseudo-historical theories, defend the “Catalanness of monuments” at all costs, especially of Columbus, whom they consider Catalan. Between pseudo-historians who want Columbus to be Catalan and Spaniards who want to destroy Columbus on the pretext of being a slave symbol, there is constant fuel added to this pseudo-historical discourse. Even just recently in 2020, a book was published with some success and media coverage in Catalonia. Pseudohistòria contra Catalunya refutes, for the first time, the conspiratorial pseudo-historical theories on both sides, through arguments based on reliable and researched sources.

A victim of the crossfire between these two sides was the Sabadell Nomenclature Affair in 2018, known as the Machado Report. This was one of the rare cases in which a local historian was commissioned (but only given two weeks to analyse a city of 200,000 inhabitants!). The political commission ended with a media lynching of the report’s author by all parties. Where he exposed inconsistencies, some equated him with ideological positions; where measurements were made, some equated them with opinions and finally the author was reproached because of his personal and ideological background (he is a left-wing pro-independence activist) as a supposed argument that would invalidate his historical rigor. The funny thing is that he measured an excess of religious names in the nomenclature, being a practicing Catholic, and nobody said anything about that. That is, there is an absolute ignorance at the social level of what the historical discipline is, a fact recognized by many university professors who, precisely, avoid positioning themselves in public debates, if they can, to avoid problems with their jobs.

Still as a consequence of all this, the (non) monumentalist politics, with the lack of a public history, has a serious problem in Catalonia: mainly, right-wing Spanish unionism. Distorted views on the recent historical past, called historical revisionism, mainly looks to the Republican period (1931-1936). This revisionism indirectly seeks, through the criminalization of the republican period, to justify the dictatorship as a way of bringing prestige to the current monarchical regime. This trend goes against the few monuments of republican figures, such as the only democratically elected president shot in the twentieth century in Europe – Lluís Companys – who has a bust in his hometown, El Tarrós. This monument has suffered countless Spanish nationalist attacks, including the theft of the bust. The last attack, up to the writing of this piece, was in June 2020. For all this, it is urgent for public history to have a presence in Catalonia: it must be accessible, and has to disseminate historical knowledge easily to the general public. The absence of a public history is a constant source on which conflicts overlap in Catalonia. Behind the debate on monuments, there are the politics of the relationship between Catalonia and Spain.

Monument dedicated to Lluís Companys in Barcelona, near the Arc de Triomf, July 2017. Photo credited to and published with permission of: Joan Camp.

What could public history be? First of all, it could deal with debates on political issues that stem from the historical realm. Political debate degenerates into media spectacles, which often end up in the courts, resulting in illogical decisions. Public history has been regaining social space that was previously lost in favor of pseudo-historical theories. For example, the conflict over the ownership of the Sixena monastery’s works of art. The works had been legally acquired by the Generalitat (the Catalan government) (1983-1992), but the Spanish government expropriated them by deploying a large number of police officers. This expropriation was the result of lawsuits based on lies and historical inventions (2017). After the looting, one of the people who had participated in the spreading and inventing of lies, Marisancho Menjón, was rewarded with a political position at a good salary. Public history must encourage a change in the social perception of history via the professionalization of historians in areas that directly affect society. It is necessary to take history out of the university sphere, and make it reach the society.


Cèsar Sànchez studied History at the University of Barcelona and is the founder, author and webmaster of the historical dissemination project www.historiesdeuropa.cat.


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