From Spain To Colombia - Ghosts Of Civil Wars, Past And Present

Soldiers during the Spanish Civil War
Soldiers during the Spanish Civil War
Diego Aristizábal

A father and son take shelter from the rain. Suddenly, a 76-year old man arrives, wedging himself in between the two of them. After a throwaway remark about the downpour, a question alters the course of the conversation.

“During the war, you weren’t in Fonfría by any chance?” the man asks the father, referring to the province in the north of Spain.

The word “war” transports them both straight back to the past; however, the memories that spring to the younger man’s mind — the best years of his life as a Falangist, a member of the fascist movement on one side of the Spanish Civil War — are not the same as the ones that Graciano Custodio Alvarez is referring to.

“Don’t you remember?” says Graciano. “Don’t you remember a man who arrived on foot with a child? That man was named Angel Custodio Reguera and he was my father. I am that child.” The father, we will find out later, was executed by Falangists in front of his son.

This is how in his novel Ayer no más "Yesterday No More" Spanish writer Andrés Trapiello broaches what is still the one of the most sensitive topics in Spain: the wounds of the nation’s civil war, which — 70 years on — are still unhealed. Through the eyes of different characters, Trapiello helps us see that, however much many Spaniards might like to “forget” this past, the dead and the survivors continue to demand justice.

The book’s protagonist, José, a university history professor specialized in the Spanish Civil War, is the Falangist's son — and now that he discovers the full story, he couldn’t find himself in a worse predicament. Despite the fact that his father didn’t pull the trigger, he could easily go down in history as the Fonfría killer. At the end of the day, justice consists of judging someone without worrying about whether that judgment stands as a symbol of something else. Such an approach is vital in making sense of a war in which it is often said that, although over half a million people died, nobody killed anyone.

Surrounded by questions, “Am I going to turn him in? Could I really do it? Is this what I want?,” another civil war erupts in the family: father against son. José believes that it is not just about identifying the final executioner of a killing, but the accomplices who have as much blood on their hands.

This novel demonstrates how, in conflict, the truth can easily fade because neither side feels any sense of guilt. Everyone is in search of whatever justification is needed for what they did, and feels entitled to be pardoned if indeed they did do something wrong. And thus such terrible phrases as “We did it for God, family and country” converts extremely serious crimes into shocking justifications.

And so the awful question must be asked: How can we convince the guilty that they committed crimes if all parties end up believing in their own innocence? Beyond the fundamental quandary of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, the only thing left is memory. Memory, of course, viewed from all angles. “We must remember, because remembering is a moral duty,” Trapiello writes. “We have a debt to the victims. By remembering and telling their story, we save the victim from a second death: death by amnesia.”

The trepidation with which the Spanish approach their Civil War, even 70 years later, makes me think about our conflict, here in Colombia, which still isn’t over. Our wounds haven’t even begun to heal, even as the list of victims continues to creep higher. Withstanding the war continues to weigh on the nation. At some point the next stage will arrive, where we can say that it happened just yesterday.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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