Vencer no es convencer: Miguel de Unamunos unexpected monologue against fascism

The university rector of Salamanca, Miguel de Unamuno, will not only be remembered for his books, but also for his unexpected monologue against fascism: Vencer no es convencer – winning does not mean convincing. This sentence was also the expression of a complete misjudgment of the situation at the beginning of the civil war.

Miguel de Unamuno during a conference in 1932
Miguel de Unamuno during a conference in 1932

When part of the Spanish army rose against the government, martial law was declared in the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca on July 19, 1936. The putschists took the city without much resistance. Only in the Plaza there were a few shots and deaths. In a café not far from the event, the famous writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno sat down and watched the spectacle. Although he made a calm impression, he was happy about the blow against the left government of the Republic.1Salcedo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 406

Miguel de Unamuno headed the University of Salamanca and was one of the country’s leading intellectuals. He was called “Don Miguel” and taught Greek. However, his person was not without controversy: hardly anyone had changed his opinions and attitudes as often as he had. Born in Bilbao in 1864, Don Miguel belonged to the Generación del 98, whose representatives believed “that only a regenerated Spain, based on Castilian history and values, could rise up and regain its status as a great country”.1Jensen, Geoffrey R.: Jose Millan-Astray and the Nationalist ‘Crusade’ in Spain. in: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 27, No. 3/1992, S. 425

Spain’s regression in comparison with the other European powers angered de Unamuno. As a proud Basque (he had done his doctorate on the Basque language) and passionate Spaniard, he saw the centre of Spain in Castile and Christianity.2Monzick, Martin: Miguel de Unamuno. New York 1971, p. 25 – 31 It is therefore hardly surprising that the works of the Basque remained so popular with the later nationalists. Francisco Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo, was a great admirer of Unamuno, for example.

Generación del 98

However, an analysis of the Generación del 98 is not as simple as it seems at first glance: after the loss of the last large colonies in 1898, intellectuals “[i]m fundamentally […] concerned about the deep crisis they perceived in […] Spain and sought means of ‘regeneration’ that were more spiritual than material”.3Jensen, Geoffrey R.: Recepción literaria y cultura bélica: la generación del 98, Ricardo Burguete y el nacionalismo militar en España. in: Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America. 84:7, 2007, p. 872 It was more a “nationalist culturalism” based on the great works of Spanish literature such as Miguel Cervantes. Politically, the representatives were closer to socialism and anarchism than to monarchy. Some historians and literary scholars even believe that the catastrophe of ’98 was more of a cultural than a political crisis.4Comellas, José Luis: Del 98 a la Semana Trágica 1898 – 1909 – Crisis de conciencia y renovación política. Madrid 2001, p. 67

Christian Socialism

In his youth Unamuno sympathized with socialist tendencies. In 1894, he joined the Agrupación Socialista in Bilbao, but left it three years later. The anticlerical tendencies increasingly disturbed him. “I dream that socialism can become a genuine religious reform when Marxist dogmatism fades away, so that it becomes something more than just economics”.5Monzick, Martin: Miguel de Unamuno. New York 1971, p. 74

Don Miguel did not reduce Christianity to a religion, but understood it “as the expression of a civilization among the Spaniards, a policy of order and reconciliation”.6Ortega y Gasset, Eduardo: Monodiálogos de Miguel de Unamuno. New York 1958, p.242 In his essay Mi religión (1907), the Christian believer wrote: “I consider anyone who calls on the name of Christ with respect and love to be a Christian, and I am repulsed by the Orthodox, whether Catholic or Protestant – the latter are often as intransigent as the former – who refuse Christianity to those who do not interpret the Gospel as they do “7Marias, Julian: Miguel de Unamuno. Buenos Aires 1950, p. 150/151

Spain did not take part in the First World War, but Unamuno made no secret of his support for the Allies, knowing full well that King Alfonso XIII was sympathetic to the German Empire. After the military coup of General Primo de Rivera in 1923, the Basque could not hold back with his criticism of the new military regime and the weakening king. Therefore he was sent into exile to Fuerteventura in February 1924.

The disappointed Republican

When a fall of the monarchy could be seen on the horizon, Unamuno announced that he would run for a socialist-republican electoral alliance in the local elections on 12 April 1931. Two days later he proclaimed the second Spanish Republic in Salamanca. With the new form of government, he hoped, Spain would finally be able to overcome the ongoing crisis and achieve new democratic strength. The interim republican government reappointed him as Rector of the University of Salamanca.8Monzick, Martin: Miguel de Unamuno. New York 1971, p. 101 – 111

From May 1931 on, Don Miguel was a member of parliament in Madrid. However, the many disputes, such as the Catalan Statute, exhausted him increasingly.

“I know that the naive Spaniards who vote by referendum for any regional statute must repent, that those who have individuality are aware of their voice when the region oppresses them, and that they must go to Spain, to integral Spain, the most united and indivisible Spain, to protect their individuality.”9Salcedo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 355
Miguel de Unamuno
on 23 August 1931 in El Sol

The disagreement among the Spanish also made itself felt in parliament. This frustrated de Unamuno. Although he continued to believe in the republican form of government, he realized that the status quo would not unite the Spaniards and nor lead to new strength.

He became bitter over the years, which was also due to some deaths in the immediate family circle. After he had fallen out with the El Sol newspaper, he had to find a new medium for his articles. The self-proclaimed “old liberal” was attacked by left and right parties. His choice of words became harsher and harsher: after the coup he is said to have called for the suicide as a “patriotic act” of the left-wing Republican President Manuel Azaña.10Salcedo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, S. 369 – 388 & 407

Supporters of the rebellion

When the fascist Falange held a rally in Salamanca in 1935, it was possible to arrange a meeting between the founder and dictator’s son José Antonio Primo de Rivera and Don Miguel in his office. The fascists tried to win him for their cause, but the aged university rector refused. In the course of the conversation the difference between de Unamuno’s passionate patriotism and the fanatical nationalism of the Falange became clear.

While Don Miguel stressed the importance of the spirit and culture that places man at the centre, Primo de Rivera spoke of “an indestructible faith in Spain and in the Spanish language.” The fascists also praised the Basque for his stance against Spanish regionalism. Unamuno was more concerned with the fact that Catalonia and the Basque Country, for example, “put their spirit into Castilian”.11Salcedo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, S. 389/390 & 355

After the election victory of the Frente Popular in 1936, Don Miguel believed that Spain was “on the brink of death” and that Marxism had divided its citizens.12Nozick, Martin: Miguel de Unanumo. New York 1971, p. 120 He welcomed the coup d’état in July 1936 in the hope that the Republic could be fundamentally reformed and secular and Christian civilization could be saved. “He interpreted [the coup] as a fleeting political episode, one of many military expressions”13Ortega y Gasset, Eduardo: Monodiálogos de Miguel de Unamuno. New York 1958, p.241 wrote Eduardo Ortega y Gasset. Such episodes abounded during the lifetime of Unamuno.

His biographer Emilio Salcedo simply assumes that Unamuno misjudged the situation in an extremely naive manner.14Salcedo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 406f

“There is talk of a war of ideas, but in this war there are no ideas to discuss. It is about defeating a tyrant. “In Spain there is an epidemic of madness. We are facing a wave of destruction, murder and crime of all kinds. The communists never had a conception of constructive politics. The anarchists, for their part, were not deprived of such an idea. These men are attacked with raging delirium. Perhaps it is a crisis of despair. “15Salcedo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 409
Miguel de Unamuno
in conversation with Le Matin in summer 1936

The doubts come up

On 26 September, Don Miguel signed a declaration by the University of Salamanca calling on European and world intellectuals to support the rebels. A few days later, Franco was appointed caudillo and set up his headquarters in Salamanca. He regularly received Unamuno, who now faced a difficult task: as Rector he presided over the comisión depuradora (purification commission), where he had to decide whether academics and teachers should be denounced for their political activities or not.

The decision on life and death gnawed at the 72-year-old Don Miguel. Every day he received letters from families and friends of the academics concerned, asking him to spare this or that one. Friends and acquaintances of de Unamuno also fell victim to the nationalists, such as the socialist José Andrés y Manso or a Protestant priest. While he was still in prison, his wife handed over a letter to Don Miguel. In it she explained to him why her husband was a Freemason and asked the university rector to explain this to the military before it was too late.16Salcedo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 411/412

He also realized that the rebels he thought were the saviours of Spain were supported by the German Nazis and Fascist Italy, two regimes he had criticized in the past.17Nozick, Martin: Miguel de Unanumo. New York 1971, p. 121

Día de la Raza

As a respected rector and intellectual, Unamuno was invited to attend the Día de la Raza on October 12th, the solemn ceremony commemorating Columbus’ discovery of America at his university. Other participants included Carmen Polo, General José Millán-Astray and the Catalan Bishop Enrique Plá y Daniel.18Saceldo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 413

General Millán-Astray stood like no other person for the horrors of war: his left arm was amputated and his right eye was shot out. His face was marked by an eye patch and bad teeth. As founder of the Spanish Legion, Millán Astray was a close confidant of Franco and a fanatical military man.

When the first speaker began to give his speech in front of the hundreds of Falangists and legionaries, Unamuno pulled the pastor’s widow’s letter from his jacket. He then took notes with a pencil. After the applause of the last speaker had died down, de Unanumo got up and went towards the lectern.

“Reconstructing what was said is an almost impossible task,” writes de Unamuno biographer Emilio Saceldo.19Saceldo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, S. 414 Therefore, I refer to the version by Rafael Núñez Florencio.20Núñez Florencio, Rafael: Encontronazo en Salamanca: “Venceréis pero no convenceréis“. in: La Aventura de la Historia, Vol. 184/2014, p. 37

Venceréis no es convencéis: you will win, but not convince

“[…] Silence sometimes means agreement, because silence can be interpreted as a sign of agreement. I said I didn’t want to say anything because I know myself. But I have to get rid of it. People have spoken here of an international war for the defence of Christian civilisation. I have done it myself elsewhere. But this is our uncivilized war, not a guerra civil. I was born into a civil war, I know what I’m talking about.

Vencer no es convencer – winning does not mean convincing and the latter must be done above all else. But you cannot convince hatred to let love take its place. This hatred is directed at the intelligence, which is critical and curious, which differentiates. We have spoken here of Catalans and Basques and have called them ‘anti-Spanish’. Well, they could talk about others for the same reasons. And here sits the Bishop of Catalonia, who teaches you Christianity, which you do not want to know. And here I am, a Basque, who all his life wanted to teach you the Spanish language that you do not know. This is my empire, the Spanish language and not…”

A furious Millán-Astray tried to interrupt Unamuno several times with a “May I speak?”. Now he struck the wooden table with his only arm, so that the muffled noise echoed through the hall. The general addressed the audience and defended the Nationalists’ motives. Finally he lost control and shouted: “Death to the intellectuals” or “Death to intelligence”.21There is disagreement about the exact choice of words. Some also assume the phrase “Death to traitorous intellectuals.” He also hurled the title of the legionnaire’s song “Viva la muerte” at the audience. The blue shirts answered with a loud “Viva!”. Unamuno continues:

“I have just heard ‘Long live death’. That sounds like ‘May life die’. And I, who had spent my whole life creating paradoxes that annoyed those who did not understand them, I tell you, as someone who understands something about this matter, that this paradox seems to me ridiculous and repulsive. In an excessive and tortuous form, this was the saying of the speaker, who himself is a witness to a symbol of death.

General Millán-Astray is a war invalid. It is not nice to say this in a quiet tone. Cervantes was also an invalid. […] Unfortunately, there are too many invalids in Spain today and there will soon be more if God does not help us. It pains me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the standards of mass psychology. An invalid who lacks the great spirit of a Cervantes will feel more bearable when he sees the mutilated people piling up around him. General Millán-Astray is not a chosen spirit: he wants to create a new Spain, in his own image. For that he wants to see a mutilated Spain, as he made clear.

This is a temple of intellect, and I am their chief priest. You desecrate his venerable campus. It’s true that I have always been a prophet of my own country. You’ll win, but you won’t be convincing. You will win because of your brutal strength, but you will not convince because you lack something in this struggle: reason and justice. It seems unnecessary to ask you, you who think of Spain.”

After these words the hall became increasingly restless. Miguel de Unamuno was booed and called a traitor. At the side of the lectern, some legionaries grouped around Millán-Astray. His bodyguard aimed a machine gun at the university rector. The Basque was saved by Carmen Polo, who stretched out her hand to protect him. Millan-Astray signaled the headmaster to give her his hand. Polo finally helped the frail rector to disappear from the stage, while the hall raged and continued to scold.22Thomas, Hugh: The Spanish Civil War. New York 1989, p. 488

The monologue forms the climax of the film “Mientras Dure La Guerra” (2019) by director Alejandrio Amenábra

Death under house arrest

At the entrance of the university a car was already waiting to take Unamuno home. In the afternoon he went as usual to his casino, where he was honorary president. The morning’s incident was discussed in secret. But soon the voices became louder, that the red traitor should be thrown out of the casino. The commotion grew and finally Tomás Marcos Escribiano said to Unamuno: “You should not have come, Don Miguel. We’re sorry about what happened at the university today, but you shouldn’t have come to the casino this afternoon.”23Saceldo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 416

Armed soldiers guarded Unamuno’s house around the clock. They followed him wherever he went. So he retreated from public life. Finally, he was deprived of his place at the university and many of his books gradually disappeared from the libraries. The great Spanish intellectual Miguel de Unamuno died under house arrest on 31 December 1936, but his hope that common sense would prevail in the end was not fulfilled.24Saceldo, Emilio: Vida de Don Miguel. Salamanca 1970, p. 417/418