The Spanish Hunger Years (1939-1952) in the secondary school classroom

Date of news: 11 February 2022

Gloria Román Ruiz

On 9 November 2021, Dr Gloria Román Ruiz—one of the members of the Heritages of Hunger project—gave a talk on the “Spanish Hunger Years” (1939-1952) at the Doña Nieves López Pastor Secondary School (Villanueva del Arzobispo, Jaén). The activity took place within the framework of the “Villanueva Literaria” cultural days that are held annually in this town in Andalusia—one of the Spanish regions most affected by the famine. The activity was organised by the school’s Geography and History Department. The talk was addressed to students of the 1st year of Bachillerato (i.e., post-compulsory secondary education course in Spain for 16-year-old students) of Humanities and Social Sciences during History class.

gloria roman ruiz presenting to the classroom

During her talk, Dr Román Ruiz discussed the reasons that led to a famine in Franco's Spain. On the one hand, Gloria presented the official account of the regime, which blamed the food crisis on natural causes; the inheritance received from the Second Republic (1931-1936); the destruction caused by the Civil War (1936-1939); and international isolation, with the aim of pushing off any responsibility. On the other hand, the presenter questioned this official account, arguing that the regime's autarkic economic policy was the main cause of the famine. The regime’s inadequacy in rationing and providing Auxilio Social (Social Aid) were referred to as key causes for the devastation left by the famine. In the second part of her talk, Gloria addressed the consequences of hunger on the population. She emphasised the different social and geographical aspects that impacted the famine, which particularly affected the poorer classes in the south of Spain. Children were highlighted as one of the groups most affected by the post-war food crisis. Substandard housing, disease, poisoning, and starvation were also underlined as the most visible effects of the famine. In the third part, Gloria turned to her analysis of certain popular responses to hunger. She made a distinction between two types of strategies for combatting hunger: those that were lawful and those that were unlawful. Examples of lawful strategies were the preparation of ersatz products; the use of subsistence recipes; and the consumption of herbs and domestic animals. Unlawful strategies could be practices such as food theft, smuggling, illegal trade on the black market, or the buying and selling of ration cards.

Finally, the presenter made an attempt to answer the question “What remains of the famine today?” In this part of the talk, the continuities in the present of the traumatic memory of the post-war famine were addressed through the food practices of those who survived it. In this regard, special attention was paid to the cultural and symbolic value given by the elders to wheat bread, which was one of the staple foods that those who had been children in the post-war period had missed most. The Spanish famine was also placed in the European context, comparing it with other contemporaneous famines, such as the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944) or the Holodomor (1932-1933). In doing so, the talk took up one of the key objectives of the Heritages of Hunger project: to enhance the understanding of contemporary European famines in their transnational dimension through educational practices in schools.

Throughout the talk, the students were extremely interested in the content of the presentation. They were also very participative, especially in the part dedicated to the echoes of the famine today. This connection with their present and their family history was particularly interesting and stimulating for them, as it helps them to better understand what is happening in their immediate environment. Thus, when asked “What do you think is left today from the famine years?” they were prompted to tell personal stories about their grandparents. Some talked about their eating habits. Others presented some recipes of traditional dishes that the elders of their family still prepare, raising the possibility that they have their cultural origin in the post-war days.