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The War Seen Through The Eyes That Suffered It

June 8, 2011

They say that history is written by the victors. But the combatants, fundamental to the outcome of war, rarely appear in this history ““ whether victors or vanquished. University of the Basque Country anthropologists Pío P©rez and Ignazio Aiestaran have rebelled against this injustice, “uncovering” the memory of those who fought in the trenches in the 1936 war in Spain. They studied ten autobiographical accounts to produce Oroimen iheskorrak: gerra zibileko sufrimenduaren inguruko hausnarketak, euskaraz idatzitako testigantzen ikerketaren bitartez (Elusive memories: thoughts on suffering in the Civil War, using research on testimonies written in the Basque language, and drawn up thanks to an Eusko Ikaskuntza Agustín Zumalabe grant.

Researchers usually focus on the technical aspects of war rather than on the suffering that the actors therein undergo. Pío P©rez and Ignazio Aiestaran, on the other hand, have reclaimed the importance of these testimonies. As Mr P©rez explained, “I was involved in studying historic memory, when I found these manuscripts belonging to the Zapirain family from Errenteria (in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa) and I thought it curious that, when the father, Joxe Zapirain, was told of two of his sons being executed by a firing squad, he broke out into song rather than tears. Why would he sing? So that the events might be recorded for posterity. Tragic testimonies such as this have two functions: so that others might read them and for the authors to pour their hearts out”.

Ten autobiographies

Precisely, autobiographical accounts (Zigorpean {Under the jackboot} and Espetxeko negarrak {Tears from prison}) written by Xalbador Zapirain Ataño, another of Joxe Zapirain’s sons, were studied by P©rez and Aiestaran. Their intention was to gather all the autobiographies written in Basque about the 1936 war; they found ten, many published on the initiative of Antonio Zavala by the Auspoa publishing house. Besides the two accounts in Ataño, also writing their experiences in books in Basque were Sebastian Salaberria (Neronek tirako nizkin {It was I who shot you}), Agustín Zinkunegi (Bizi naiak lege zorrotzak {Desire to live, harsh laws}), Iñaki Alkain (Gerrateko ibilerak {Episodes of the war}), Balendin Enbeita (Bizitzaren joanean{In the course of my life}), Santiago Onaindia (Oroi-txinpartak {Sparks of memory}), Jose Mari Etxaburu (Neure lau urteko ibillerak {My four years in the war}), Iñaki Isasmendi (Nire denboraldiko ibilerak {My years in the war}) and Fermin Irigaraik (Gerla urte, gezur urte {Year of war, year of lies}).

There is great diversity amongst these nine authors as regards motives for writing. Enbeita and Onaindia, for example, were strong EAJ-PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) militants, and considered it essential that they be involved in the war. Zinkunegi’s opinion was quite different. “It can be seen that his autobiography is a constant flight from the war. The time comes when he is obliged to join the war and, even when he is fighting, his great obsession is how to escape. Finally, he manages to escape but the national (Franco’s) forces capture him and force him to fight on their side”, explains Mr P©rez. The case of Sebastián Salaberria is also curious, given that he is the only one, amongst these testimonies, who opted to fight on the side of Franco’s forces. Moreover, he had a brother on the opposing side, which made him afraid that one day he might find the cadaver of his brother, since he was in charge of examining the bodies lying on the battlefield. As it happened, Sebastián Salaberria lost a leg and when his brother visited him in hospital, the latter told him that it was probably him who had inflicted the wound; thus the title of the book (Neronek tirako nizkin – It was I who shot you).

Pessimism

These two researchers also found great similarities amongst all these accounts. For example, with regard to the chronology: “All of the accounts tell of how the fascists invaded and how the Basque Battalion reacted. And they coincide with the historical facts”.

They also coincide as regards pessimism: “On being defeated, it cut to the bone. Some events are really sad, especially when they see the end of the war coming, feeling, as they did, defeated”. Not even Salaberria considered himself a victor. “They won but he did not feel that that war was his. He lost a leg and that was something that marked him for the rest of his life. Besides, some victors made money out of it, but not him. They gave him some job at the Town Hall, but he did not get anything else”, explained Mr P©rez.

Coherence peppered with incoherencies

From an anthropological viewpoint, this research poses questions that are food for thought. For example, the evasive relationship between the autobiographies and coherence. Mr P©rez explained that, in the autobiographies, their authors “try to give coherence to a life full of incoherencies”; i.e. they attempt to provide the narrative with a certain logic, and incorporate all the events, feelings and other things within this logic. “And we accept the result of this combination as something true and objective”. In reference to this, the relation between the fictionalised testimonies and reality could also be subject for debate. Nevertheless, Mr P©rez made it clear that the aim of this study was not to gather historical data, but to see the war through the eyes of the eye witness.

P©rez and Aiestaran anticipate presenting the first presentation in June, but aim to continue working on this topic after this presentation; how this suffering manifested itself, the importance of the testimonies, how the Basques viewed the war while it was happening and a posteriori”¦ They are now looking at another topic, too: “We perceive another perspective of the civil war; here it was not perceived as a fight against fascism. In all the testimonies, it is pessimism that is perceived as regards the struggle, the Spanish Republic”¦ there is a lot more here to be looked at and that is what we might do now”.

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