From Mouth to Page



Francisco Erice. Guerras de la memoria y fantasmas del pasado. Usos y abusos de la memoria colectiva [Memory Wars and Ghosts of the Past. Uses and abuses of the collective memory], Eikasia Editions, Oviedo, 2009.
Pilar Díaz Sánchez, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Autonomous University of Madrid
[email protected]

The flood of diverse work involving historical memory that emerges in different media forms )such as written, film and virtual)  has called for reflection upon the topic from a position in which the sole concern is critical analysis and scientific assessment. In Spain, there are few historians who would dare to embark upon the task of reviewing the publications of colleagues, obliging them to take a stance upon such slippery material. This is not the case of Francisco Erice in his recent book, Memory wars and ghosts of the past: uses and abuses of collective memory (Eikasia Editions, Oviedo, 2009). In this book, Erice discusses the theme of memory, beginning with the classic world of the antiquity where memory was a weapon servicing the needs of the dominant classes to legitimize their status. He then moves through the ages, up to the present time. On the other hand, Erice puts forward the idea that memory is a tool used by the dispossessed and  vanquished, as a way of re-vindicating their place in history. Hence,  memory wars that have been unfolding ever since.

Professor Erice approaches the study as any social scientist should do. He begins by considering the genesis of the word in Greece, then moves on, stopping at different periods in which history has been shaped as a scientific discipline, noting its development and denouncing the opposition of history / memory that has lasted until today. Erice expands Halbwachs’ 1952 concept of “collective memory”. He also discusses the link between this concept and the third generation of the Annales, drawing out a line of development from Durkheim to Bloch. “Collective memory”, he says, “is united, on the one hand, by driving mechanisms – the rites – and, on the other hand, by anthropological and social structures.” However, Bloch criticized “the slightly vague anthropomorphism” of Halbwachs’ concept of collective memory.

An interesting chapter in this journey through time to our present is that which treats the use of memory and its places. In that chapter,  Erice makes direct reference to the work of Pierre Nora in 1998. But if the subject of memory occupied the attention of the most conspicuous of historians in the middle of the last century, the emergence of postmodernity in the seventies and eighties is bringing a resurgence in reflections on memory. Indeed, postmodernism has inaugurated a fashion that has lasted up to our own day, including in Spain where this trend arrived a little later. The trend has developed to such a point of abuse that it has provoked the consternation of many.

As the author himself points out, “the abundance of memory does not mean a greater level of clarity or capacity to act with critical sense.” And it is because the cultural atmosphere – the climate – of postmodernity is ideal to develop an interest in memory until such a  point that it is posed in opposition to history. Here, a systematization is tacitly accepted whereby the victors take possession of history, while the vanquished become the bearers of memory. Collective memory is converted into a referential discourse which displaces history and renounces holistic explanations. Greater weight  is given to subjectivity and the affective, raising the grave danger that ideology will be displaced by sentiment.

In the second part of the book, “Memory as ethical and political imperative: the duty of memory”, Erice turns his attention to the Marxist tradition. He points out how Marx treated the theme of collective memory, highlighting the interest which the established power has in forgetting revolutionary memory. He also draws attention to how Marx denounced commemorative memory for the sake of creating a new revolutionary consciousness to substantiate, ex novo, its own symbols. Marx rejected the “reactionary cult of the past”, in contrast to Gramsci, who recovers and incorporates with critical reflection the value of remembering without over-valuing the mythic component of the popular consciousness. The link between the two authors is found in Benjamin, “at all times admired and not always assumed”. For Erice, the recovery of memory coincides on the one hand with the Benjaminian thesis, and on the other hand with those of the “duty of memory”. Memory, in any case, has the danger of being formed by mystifications and silences. These are two elements that threaten to convert memory into an unscientific matter, or at least something that is difficult to incorporate into a holistic approach. Collective memories are not univocal. Rather, they may be made up of diverse components: individual memories, generated or contested by power or cultures. In whichever case ,memories like ideologies correspond to determined political interests. The author concludes that memories are partisan.

With the terminology of memory defined, the book turns its attention to covering the battles of memory. The journey covers colonialism, the Second World War, the Cold War, the Holocaust, or the use of memory in the construction of the State of Israel, through to the case of Spain where partisan uses of memory have given rise to a bitter confrontation between the two main political parties.

One of the most significant contributions of this book comes in chapter eight, “Trauma and Memory: Uses and Abuses of the Holocaust”. Erice, in stockpiling a large amount of background information, extensively analyses the evolution of the Shoah / Holocaust concept. The concept is considered from its first appearance up to the revisionist drift and the breaks in collective memory relating to the anti-fascist struggle following the Second World War. The author criticizes changes in the way the anti-fascist resistance is viewed and evaluated. He explains these shifts by showing how they parallel transformations between communism and fascism in which an anti-fascist memory which is proximate to Christian Democracy has been constructed. That re-inscripted memory denies the role played by the Italian Communist Party during the War, thus “devaluing the Resistance as a movement manipulated by the ‘long arm of Moscow’”. From this point, the author goes further to denounce the generalization of the term totalitarianism as a way of examining the role of all communist experiences in the twentieth century. Paraphrasing Traverso, he says: “Following the fall of the Berlin Wall the notion, which had been falling into disuse up to that point, was reactivated as a means of legitimizing the neo-liberal order as the best of worlds in the face of a century of dictatorships”.

The reader is left with the conclusion that memory acts as an anchor for the struggles of the present. This is something that one should not forget. Although the book does not end with any sweeping conclusions, nor does it open up new paths for exploration, it has the significant merit of realizing an analysis based in the rationalism – the reasoned irreligion – of historical materialism.

Pilar Díaz Sánchez | [email protected]


Miren Llona, Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea/Universidad del País Vasco. AHOA, Ahozko Historiaren Artxiboa.

In the last decade, we have witnessed an increase in the number of research projects and publications which have as their background the violence and repression carried out by the Francoist State after the Civil War. Since the early twenty-first century, the dynamic opened up by the movement for the recovery of the history of memory in Spanish society has decisively contributed to the creation of the conditions for the resignification of an entire past, fortunately not forgotten. It had not been sufficiently explored. Not only does the work of Ángela Cenarro  contribute to this research impulse, it also provides one of the most solid historiographical reference points for the study of the Francoist universe, in all of its complexity.

In her book, The Children of Social Assistance, Ángela Cenarro suberges herself deeply into oral history, successfully overcoming the challenges and the difficulties confronting one who undertakes a project based upon research through oral sources. Ángela Cenarro has done a thorough job, producing dense and reflective research that enriches the panorama of oral history around us. From the establishment of a sufficiently large network of informants (twenty-one men and women), Cenarro has undertaken thirty-six and a half hours of recorded interviews and six-hundred and fifty pages of transcript, totaling some four million words of testimony.

One of the most important aspects of this research work concerns the hermeneutic position adopted by the historian with respect to the oral sources themselves. She makes it very clear in the book that the intention is to explore the subjectivity of the testimonials and to transcend their self-evident character. The influence of Italian oral historiography, and in particular the work of Luisa Passerini, is decisive. The work is an example of the superiority, in terms of results, of the interpretative attitude when conducting oral history work.

One of the most significant achievements of this research relates to the deepening of the subjective aspects of memory. From the beginnings of the process, the interviewer is conscious of the intersubjective character of the interview and the interviewer’s role as producer and intermediary of memory. Further, Ángela Cenarro confronts the paradoxical task of the oral historian, which involves a process of coming to understand the meaning of collective memory through an analysis of individual memory. What is born out in this research is the lack of homogeneous experience in terms of the social circumstances of the children who had been taken-in by the social welfare system. The memories collected attest to the plurality of remembered experience. So, although a large number of the testimonials lack a political perspective, some of the interviewees, as the author acknowledges, have shown a willingness to question the critical view of social welfare that her previous book, The Falangist Smile (La sonrisa de Falange), had put forward. With this particularity, the book is a good example of research that understands the difference of memories. It is also an excellent attempt at explaining these memories within the context of the Francoist regime.

Throughout the five chapters in which the same testimonials are considered, Ángela Cenarro posits a number of different questions. In the first two chapters, the social and familiar origins of the children who ended-up being taken care of by social welfare are considered. What becomes clear is that extreme poverty, difficult family situations, parental abandon and delinquency were all just as important a factor as the political logic as reasons for the children being institutionalized. The third and fourth chapters prove to be extremely emotional in content because they recover the experience of the children’s own agency. The chapters allow us to see the human being acting in very difficult circumstances and demonstrating high degrees of resilience. Finally, the fifth chapter helps us to understand the struggle of the interviewees in elaborating the memory of the past.
To conclude, the book offers us a new and rich contribution to oral history which confirms the fact that, over the last few years, the qualitative methodologies are extending their presence in contemporary Spanish historiography.

Miren Llona [email protected]