Wednesday, 8 June 2011

What's all the fuss about at the Royal Academy?

SPAIN (El Pais/Tereixa Constenla) If you look at our weekday feature 'Today's headlines', you will have noticed references about the Royal Academy of History. Here is an explanation of the considerable controversy. With great pomp last Thursday, Spain's Royal Academy of History presented its great work, the Dictionary of Spanish Biography. But this magnum opus suffers greatly from the lack of objectivity shown in the biographies of some 20th-century personalities (though others are respectable). The fault lies partly in the selection process for the biographers: historians who belong to the Academy could freely choose whom to write about - which excluded renowned researchers.Luis Suárez, for example, offered to write the article on Franco, with whom he so openly sympathized that for years he was the only person the Caudillo's family allowed to consult the material in the Francisco Franco Foundation. The result is a Franco-friendly hagiographic text in which the dictator is never once referred to as such, but always as "Generalíssimo" or "Head of State," and bears no resemblance to what other historians might have written about him. Suárez, who presides the fascist group the Fraternity of the Valley of the Fallen, ignores the regime's well-documented history of repression, and anything else that might seem reprehensible.
The biography of Manuel Azaña, meanwhile, was written by Academy member Carlos Seco Serrano, to the detriment of Santos Juliá, the Republican leader's best-known biographer, whom the Academy ruled out.
On Tuesday the Ministry of Education, which provided principal financing for the work - it has received 6.4 million euros since 1999 from the Education and Industry ministries - demanded that the Academy rectify "those biographies that do not reflect the necessary objectivity of academic work." Culture Minister Ángeles González-Sinde called for the revision of entries that "do not correspond to reality," and for the deficient presence of women (3,800 biographies, 8.8 percent of the 43,000-entry total) to be remedied in the rest of the work and in its internet version.

It is not only the biographies on important 20th-century figures that are in dispute. In other entries consulted in the 20 volumes so far available (up to the letter F), the atrocities committed in the Civil War by Franco's forces are systematically omitted, while those committed in the Republican zone are given minute attention. A sample:

Escrivá de Balaguer, Josémaría. There is no doubt the biographer believes in God. He tells how the founder of Opus Dei (born in Barbastro, 1902; died in Rome, 1975) decides to become a priest: "One day in the Christmas holidays of 1917 he saw in the snow the footprints of a barefoot Carmelite monk. They aroused a vehement commotion within him, inspiring him to intensify his spiritual life. Feeling these first foreshadowings of a divine call, he made the decision to become a priest..." Escrivá's every step has an otherworldly origin, which the historian describes as matter-of-factly as a telephone call. "On February 14, 1930, while celebrating holy Mass, God gave him to understand that Opus Dei was also addressed to women." And, "On February 14, 1943, while celebrating holy Mass, the Lord made known to father Escrivá the juridical solution that would make possible the ordination of priests by Opus Dei: the State Society of the Holy Cross." And who wrote this entry? The same Luis Suárez, academician, specialist in medieval history and author of the Franco biography.

Asensio Cabanillas, Carlos. Army officer who supported the coup d'état. His entry is a succession of military successes in the Civil War against the Republicans, who are always mentioned as "the enemy." The text is the work of José Martín Brocos Fernández, a professor at the Universidad San Pablo-CEU, who relates some events as if he were aligned on one side: "On June 17, with the forces under his orders, he took part, as his service record reads, 'in the Glorious Military Rising, Savior of Spain.' On the 5th he occupied Santos de Maimona where an enemy column was defeated, formed by all the military forces in Badajoz. On the 7th he continued the march to Mérida, occupying Almendralejos, where he remained, normalizing public life [...]."

The "normalization" the biographer refers to consisted in the following, as detailed by Paul Preston in The Spanish Holocaust: "According to press reports, more than a thousand persons (including 100 women) were shot in this wretched town. Before the shootings, many women were raped; others were shaven and made to drink castor oil. The men were given a choice: Russia or the Legion. Russia meant execution." Asensio, who participated in one of Franco's "death columns," became a minister under Franco, who, according to the biographer, was his personal friend.

Asensio Torrado, José. Also an army officer, but loyal to the Republic. His entry is likewise the work of José Martín Brocos Fernández, but the glorifying language of the previous case disappears, and he writes in a distanced tone. "From the 5th to the 8th of September, with large numbers of troops and heavy air support, he launches a heavy counterattack on Talavera de la Reina, but cannot break through the defensive lines of Asensio Cabanillas. [...] His forces are easily defeated, and unable to slow the unstoppable advance of the National troops." The National forces are never "the enemy." According to Brocos, he suffered a smear campaign "mounted by the Communists, in which La Pasionaria and ambassador Rosenberg stubbornly demanded his dismissal." The remainder does not do the personality much honor: "...General Franco himself catalogued him as intelligent and a good soldier, though without any ideals other than his stomach, being convinced that his adherence to the Republic was for geographical reasons, merely because the Rising found him in the red zone, and affirming that in the course of the war he sent several letters offering to collaborate with the Army Staff."

Altolaguirre Altolaguirre, Santiago. This Trinitarian, beatified by the Vatican in 2007, was one of the members of religious orders murdered in the red zone. María Encarnación González Rodríguez writes an entry in which no detail is spared concerning the cruelty of his death. "They took them to the church and began to torment them, binding them tightly by the wrists and arms, setting them in a position of prayer; meanwhile battering them with rifle butts. Under their nails they pushed splinters torn from the floorboards, then feigned a shot, then hung them from the roof... Thus the torments went on, leaving them in a state of great anguish." The monk was murdered on July 26 in Villanueva del Arzobispo, near Jaén.

On Monday Gonzalo Anes, director of the Royal Academy of History, said that "it is very difficult to achieve absolute objectivity" in writing about recent historical personalities. Meanwhile Joan Saura, a senator for the leftist party ICV, demanded that the first 25 volumes of the Dictionary of Spanish Biography be withdrawn, because they were "a compendium of Spanish fascist thought."

In a TV interview on Monday Luis Suárez, author of the Franco entry, declined to use the term dictator in connection with his subject. "He never dictated anything," Suárez ventured to assert.

Culture Minister Ángeles González-Sinde on Monday jumped into the fray over the Diccionario Biográfico Español, a new compendium of biographies of Spanish personalities that, she said, "does not reflect reality."
The minister decried the "extremely scarce presence of women," who represent only eight percent of the biographies, and said she trusted that the Royal Academy of History would revise the first 25 volumes as well as the online version to make them more contemporary.

"There is an important field where improvements can be made," said González-Sinde. The Spanish Biographical dictionary has received 6.4 million euros in government subsidies since 1999.
Several prestigious historians who were not involved with the project said that the vision offered by the Diccionario of some historical figures is biased. Franco, for instance, is described as "Generalísimo or Head of State," rather than a dictator.

The dictionary brings together more than 40,000 biographies of leading individuals in all the fields of knowledge and all historical periods. Over 5,000 specialists participated in the project.
González-Sinde said that because the Royal Academy of History is "a rigorous institution," it will carry out "a good review" of its magnum opus, otherwise "it will cease being attractive to readers and as a tool for research."

The academy director, Gonzalo Anes, stated that responsibility for each biography falls to its author, and that "it is very difficult to achieve absolute objectivity" when it comes to people closer in time to us. "The Academy is not a censor nor is it responsible for the contents of each and every biography."

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