We tend to think of the past from what we can remember or have heard viva voce from our closest ancestors. The American civil war happened in 1861–1865, and nobody currently alive has met any witness or participant. In contrast, the Spanish Civil War in 1936–1939 can be still present in the memory of Spaniards because grandparents have talked about it to descendants who will still live for many more years. Despite the time gap, the similarities between these two civil wars can be instructive.
The two countries, the United States and Spain, had similar populations at the time, about 30 million and 25 million, respectively, and in both cases, the number of casualties was about 2.5% of the country’s population: about 750,000 in the US and about 540,000, plus 50,000 executed in the immediate postwar, in Spain. In neither of the two cases did the civil war explode overnight, however.
Factional Violence is America’s Normal
In the United States, angry riots and revolts, such as we have seen in recent times, are no new phenomenon, and the period previous to its civil war was likewise one of increasing confrontation.
The generation of the so-called Founding Fathers provided the revered first five presidents. But the election of General Andrew Jackson, who is Donald Trump’s favorite president, as the seventh president opened thirty years of partisan turbulence and mayhem. For several decades, the average turnout in presidential elections was 80% of eligible voters, a level that would never be reached again by far. Congress was a verbal and physical battlefield, including more than one hundred incidents of violence in the House and Senate chambers.
In her recent book, historian Joanne B. Freeman has studied that “field of blood,” in which “armed groups of Northern and Southern congressmen engaged in hand-to-hand combat on the floor… Fighting became endemic and congressmen strapped on knives and guns before heading to the Capitol every morning.” By her description, the incidents “involved physical action —punching, slapping, caning, lunging, shoving, dueling, wielding weapons, flipping desks, breaking windows, and the like.”
Divided Politics Breed Resentment
This polarization, mostly around the slavery issue, culminated in the 1856 and 1860 presidential elections. In the former, the pro-slavery Democrat candidate, James Buchanan, won the majority in the Electoral College with a minority of around 45% of the popular vote against the divided anti-slavery candidacies. In 1860, reversing the situation, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln carried eighteen of the thirty-three states then existing, with less than 40% of the popular vote, against the divided pro-slavery candidacies. The subsequent secession of eleven Southern states triggered Lincoln’s military response and the civil war.
In Spain likewise, the institutional crisis previous to the civil war had been developing at least since the military coup d’état in 1923. During the period of the Second Republic (1931–1939), there were also elections with less-than-straightforward results. In 1933, the right, consisting of Catholics and monarchists, received support from 34% of voters, but together with some center-right republican parties managed to collect a majority of seats in parliament against the divided republicans and socialists. Then, in 1936, the united left, as the Popular Front, won a majority of seats with the support of only 46% of voters against the divided center-right and right. The subsequent military uprising triggered civil war.
Civil War Memories More Alive Than Most Think
If you visit Washington, DC, today, you will see that the civil war still appears as a major foundational moment. The Lincoln Memorial, which is an enlarged copy of the Parthenon, is the most revered and visited monument both by American and foreign tourists. All across the city, there are equestrian statues with generals of the Civil War, more numerous than those commemorating the previous American Revolutionary War. On the other side of the Potomac, the civil war seems just as present. Some time ago, I was at a high-level academic event at George Mason University, in Virginia, when the keynote speaker ended a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of decentralization with the reflection: “And that’s why we lost the war.” It has been only in the last few years that monuments and street names dedicated to the leaders of the defeated secessionist Confederacy have begun to be removed in some southern states.
Of course, the big difference is that in the United States the winners restored democracy (although slavery was to be replaced with racial segregation for several decades), while in Spain, the winners held the country down and secluded for forty years. Nevertheless, the foundation of the Spanish democracy in the 1970s was also strongly marked by the dissuasive memory of the civil war. Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez commented that he won the first election “because I was moving the Spaniards away from the danger of a confrontation after Franco’s death. They did not support me out of wishful thinking and longing for liberties, but out of fear of that confrontation; because I separated them from the horns of that bull.”
With a little emotional and physical distance, one can notice how, in Spain, a verbal civil war is still often latent in bitter partisan confrontations, the shouting of certain opinion-makers in the media, and the quarrels that take place in a polarized parliament. In the United States, one might have expected more forgetfulness because nobody alive has ever met a person who had seen a slave. Yet, political polarization between the North and the South remains a deep rift, still heralded by the extreme right with Confederate flags.
When does a civil war stop being a major element of political confrontation? It may be that any traumatic civil war can produce endless reverberations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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