The Hunger Years: History and Memory of the Francoist Post-War Period: New Research

Miguel Hernández was a Spanish poet born in Orihuela (Alicante) in 1910. At the end of the Civil War in 1939, he tried to leave Spain but was arrested by Franco's authorities on the border with Portugal. Although he was initially condemned to death, his sentence was commuted to thirty years in prison. While in Alicante prison, he received a letter from his wife in which she said she and their son only had bread and onions to eat; because of this, he wrote the poem ‘Lullaby of the Onion’ (‘Nanas de la Cebolla’), which he dedicated to his son. During the post-war period, penitentiary conditions were deplorable, and suffering from tuberculosis, typhus and hunger, Hernández died in 1942.

La cebolla es escarcha
cerrada y pobre:
escarcha de tus días
y de mis noches.
Hambre y cebolla:
hielo negro y escarcha
grande y redonda.

En la cuna del hambre
mi niño estaba.
Con sangre de cebolla
se amamantaba.
Pero tu sangre,
escarchada de azúcar,
cebolla y hambre.

‘Nanas de la cebolla’, Miguel Hernández, 1939.

The onion is frost
shut in and poor.
frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
large and round.

My little boy 
was in hunger's cradle.
He was nursed
on onion blood.
But your blood
is frosted with sugar,
onion and hunger.

‘Lullaby of the onion’, Miguel Hernández, 1939.


Collection of essays

Since 2017, the research project History and Memory of Hunger: Society, Everyday Life, Social Attitudes and Politics during the Franco Dictatorship (1939–1959) (MEMOHAMBRE; funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation) has recovered and thereby given new value to the memory of those who, like Miguel Hernández, perished because of the Spanish famine. Directed by Dr Miguel Ángel Del Arco Blanco (University of Granada), the project involves twelve researchers from both Spanish and British universities. Within the framework of the project, the international seminar ‘History and Memory of Hunger under Franco (1939–1952)’ was organized at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Granada from 7–8 June 2018. That academic event resulted in the collection of essays Los “Años del Hambre”: Historia y Memoria de la Posguerra Franquista (The Hunger Years: History and Memory of the Francoist Post-War Period), recently published by Marcial Pons. The volume was recently reviewed favourably in several Spanish newspapers, including Público.

Los años del hambre: Historia y memoria de la posguerra franquista

In this work, authors including Teresa Mª Ortega López, Claudio Hernández Burgos and Jorge Marco, engage with some of the main lines of the MEMOHAMBRE project, such as that the worst years of the food crisis (1939–1942 and 1946) constituted an actual famine. The essays also point out that the years of hunger had political causes related to the continued perseverance of the Franco regime to maintain economic autarky. Making these points, this collection seeks to dismantle the Francoist narrative about ‘the years of hunger’ that attributed the shortage to the Civil War, drought, and international isolation. In addition, the book frames the Spanish famine in a broader European context, for during the same period there were similar episodes of famine such as the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944–1945) and Greek Famine (1941–42).  Another topic crucial to the research project is also addressed in Los “Años del Hambre”: the popular memory of hunger that many men and women managed to preserve and transmit and that was an affront to the authorities’ attempts to silence the famine. In retrospect, it becomes clear that those recollections of hunger conditioned the later attitudes of ordinary people towards the dictatorship in the 1950s and 1960s.

The book also pays attention to the use of hunger as a political weapon in the hands of the rebellious military during the Civil War, who used bread distribution as a form of propaganda when taking many towns and cities. Additionally, the book examines the Francoist narrative about hunger and its perception by the population, as well as the contrast between dictatorial propaganda (for example, through the charity Auxilio Social) and the reality of misery and famine. Likewise, the book studies the role played by peasant women during the post-war period, for they, according to the Francoist model of ideal femininity, would be very useful in the fight against scarcity. Economic crime (such as theft of food to be sold on the black market) that emerged during the post-war period in response to hunger, as well as attitudes of solidarity within the community are also discussed in the book. Los “Años del Hambre” furthermore dedicates space to criticism on the management of the Francoist supply crisis expressed by the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) while in exile abroad, and to the PCE’s vain hopes that hunger would destabilise the dictatorship. Among the topics addressed are also diseases caused by infection and malnutrition that especially affected the poorest classes and the impact of famine on the height of Spanish youth as shown in anthropometric data. Finally, the book analyses the phenomenon of clandestine emigration to France between 1945 and 1950, largely motivated by hunger, the echoes of which still resonate in Europe today. As a whole, the book addresses discourses, everyday experiences, resistance and popular memories about the Spanish years of hunger. With this, it intends to honour the words that Miguel Hernández wrote at the end of the Civil War: ‘Keep hunger in mind: remember its past.’

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This blog was written by Gloria Román Ruiz. 

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Intercultural Dynamics
History, Art & Culture