UNAMUNO’S LAST LECTURE — You will win, but you will not convince! by Luis Portillo


Spain’s most eminent poet, philosopher, novelist and essayist of modern times, Don MIGUEL DE UNAMUNO Y JUGO, Professor of Greek at Salamanca University, became its rector in 1901, but was removed in 1914 for political reasons (in the 1920s the dictator Primo de Rivera exiled him to the Canary Islands). Re-elected in 1931 with the advent of the Republic he was  made rector for life in 1934, and in 1936 he entered the Cortes as an independent republican.

General Millán Astray (1879-1954)

The oldest of the “generation of 98” (the new wave in literature and politics that emerged in the aftermath of the Cuban War) he described himself as a “sower of doubt and an agitator of consciences”. Disillusioned with the republic, the military coup of July 1936 found him in Salamanca, the heart of nationalist territory. Initially, a supporter of the military revolt, believing it to be an attempt to “restore order”, within three months he had come to realise the true nature of Franco’s New Order. As an admirer of some of the young Falangists, he had contributed money to the rising, but by 12 October his view had changed. He had become, as he said later, ‘terrified by the character that this civil war was taking, really horrible, due to a collective mental illness, an epidemic of madness, with a pathological substratum’.

When the great National Festival of 12 October was celebrated in Salamanca University  — within a hundred yards of Franco’s headquarters (recently established in the bishop’s palace in Salamanca, on the prelate’s invitation) — it was supposed he was another captive intellectual . . .

The Ceremonial Hall in the University of Salamanca is a spacious chamber, used only on formal occasions, solemn, austere, the walls hung with tapestries. Through the huge windows enters a shimmering flood of iridescent light that deepens the amber glow of the century old plinth stones.

This was the setting.

The play was enacted on 12th October 1936 when Spanish Fascism was in its first triumphant stage. The morning was half-spent. The patriotic festival of the Hispanic Race was being celebrated.

Rome, May 1938: Mussolini, General Astray, José Mª Pemán and other leading Spanish and Italian fascists at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier

There they were on the presidential dais: the purple calotte, the amethyst ring and the flashing pectoral cross of the Most Illustrious Dr Plá y Deniel, bishop of Salamanca, Bishop of the diocese; the black robes of the magistrates; the profuse glitter of military gold braid side-by-side with the crosses and medals exhibited on presumptuously bulging chests; the morning coat, set off by black satin lapels, of His Excellency the Governor of the Province; and all these surrounded — was it to honour or to overwhelm? — the man whose pride in his incorruptible Spanish conscience was steadfast and straight: Miguel do Unamuno y Jugo, the 72-year-old Rector.

From the front wall, the allegorical picture of the Republic had gone, and there shone from a canopy the Caudillo’s effigy in plump insolence. To the left and the right, on crimson-covered divans, the silk of the doctor’s gowns and their mortar-boards with gay tassels in red, yellow, light blue and dark blue, symbolized Law, Medicine, Letters and Science.

A few ladies were scattered among the learned men; in a prominent place was Dona Carmen Polo de Franco, the distinguished spouse of the Man of Providence.

From a packed audience that faced the dais of the elect, with its protective balustrade of dark polished wood, there rose the confused murmur of expectancy. At the far end of the long hall glinted the rounded brasses of a military band ready to play the obligatory hymns.

The ceremony began. Don Miguel opened it with the ritual formula, spoken in that unforgettable voice of his, thin and clear. After the opening formalities, there were speeches by the Dominican Father Vicente Beltrán de Heredia, and the monarchist writer José Maria Pemán. Both delivered hot-tempered speeches as did don Francisco Maldonado, a short, fat, Professor of Literature and Salamanca landowner, who made a violent attack on Catalonia and the Basque country: “Catalonia, and the Basque country — the Basque country and Catalonia — are two cancers in the body of the nation.  Fascism, which is Spain’s health-bringer, will know how to exterminate them both, cutting into the live, healthy flesh like a resolute surgeon free from false sentimentality, and since the healthy flesh is the soil, the diseased flesh of those who dwell on it, Fascism and the Army will eradicate the people and restore the soil to the sacred national realm…”

He was followed on the speaker’s platform by don José Maria Ramos Loscertales of Zaragoza, tall and lean, with fluid gestures, flashing eyes, sober and precise of speech, his sensitive face in perpetual motion, expressing a subtle and enigmatic irony. He spoke of the mortal struggle raging at the time — yet another circumstantial speech. Its thesis: the energies of Spain at white-heat in a crucible of passion — and like gold from the crucible, Spain would emerge in the end, purified and without stain, in her true colours which rejected the taints artificially imposed on her. Clamorous ovation!

And then rose General Millán Astray, at the time an important if unofficial adviser to Franco. His black eye-patch, his one arm, his mutilated fingers made him a hero of the moment. With ostentatious humility, he chose to speak from his own place in the audience. His appearance was impressive. The General is thin, of an emaciation that pretends to slimness. He has lost one eye and one arm, and his face and body bear the indelible tattoo of horrible scars. These savage mutilations and gashes evoke a sinister personality; his angry and rancorous bearing kills any compassion his mutilations might have inspired. He had been the organiser of the ‘Tercio’, the Spanish Foreign legion, for operations in Africa; the creator of an iron, inexorable discipline to which the reckless fugitives from other social disciplines submitted of their own free will. He has gained those wounds that to many seem glorious, in those fantastic Moroccan campaigns, which had been Spain’s bitterest nightmare under the regretted aegis of King Alfonso XIII, called in his day “The African”. Yet the unquestionable nimbus that surrounded the figure of the General was due to the gruesome originality, to the mysterious paradox of his battle cry “Viva la Muerte!”  — Long Live Death!

Barely had Millán Astray risen to his feet when his strident voice rang out, as though bursting from that heroic chest bedizened with a galaxy of crosses, the testimonials and rewards of gallantry.

First of all he said that more than one half of all Spaniards were criminals, guilty-of armed rebellion and high treason. To remove any ambiguity, he went on to explain that by these rebels and traitors he meant the citizens who were loyal to the Government. In a sudden flash of intuition, one member of the audience was inspired to grasp the faultless logic of a slogan which common minds had thought the product of an epileptic brain. With fervour he shouted: “Viva la Muerte!” LONG LIVE DEATH!”  Impervious, the general paused and cast a despotic glance over the audience. And he saw that he held them in thrall. They were hypnotised to a man. Never had any of his harangues so subjugated the will of his listeners.’ Obviously, he was in his element… He had conquered the University! And, carried away with himself, he continued, blind to the subtle and withering smile of disdain on the lips of the Rector?

“Every Socialist, every Republican, every one of them without exception — and needless to say, every Communist — is a rebel against the National Government which will very soon be recognised by the totalitarian States which are aiding us, in spite of France — democratic France — and perfidious England. And then, or even sooner, when Franco wants it, and with the help of he gallant Moors, who, though they wrecked my body only yesterday, today deserve the gratitude of my soul, for they are fighting for Spain against the Spaniards — I mean the bad Spaniards — because they are giving their lives in  defence of Spain’s sacred religion, as is proved by their attending field mass, escorting the Caudillo and pinning holy medallions and Sacred Hearts to their burnous……”

The General lost himself in the maze of his own vehement outburst. He hesitated, irritated and defiant at the same time. In these straits, an enthusiastic Fascist came to his rescue and shouted: ARRIBA ESPAÑA! (up Spain!)

The crowd bowed their heads in resignation. The man went on, undaunted: ESPAÑA!!

Mechanically, the crowd responded: UNA (One)

ESPAÑA! he repeated. GRANDE! chorused the obedient public. ESPAÑA! the Blue Shirt insisted, implacably. LIBRE! they all replied, cowed. (“Spain, One, Great and Free” is the obligatory Falangist slogan which is converted on all solemn occasions into chorused responses to a leading voice.)

There was an obvious lack of warmth in the listlessness of these artificially produced responses. Several Blue Shirts rose to their feet as though pushed by invisible springs, and raised their right arms stiffly in the Roman salute. And they hailed the sepia-coloured photograph on the front wall.


The public rose, reluctantly, and chanted parrot-like: FRANCO! FRANCO! FRANCO!

But Franco’s image did not stir. Neither did the Rector,

Don Miguel did not rise to his feet. And the public fell silent and sat down.

Don Miguel’s speech

All eyes were fastened in tense anxiety on the noble head, on the pale, serene brow framed by snow-white hair. The uncertain expression of his eyes was hidden by the glitter of his spectacles.

Between the fine curve of his nose and the silver of his Quixote-like beard, his mouth was twisted in a bitter grimace of undisguised contempt. People began to grow uneasy. A few suddenly felt a recrudescence of their old rancorous abhorrence. Some admired the serene fearlessness of the Master and feared for his safety. The majority were gripped by the voluptuous thrill of imminent tragedy.

At last, don Miguel rose slowly. The silence was an enormous void. Into this void, don Miguel began to pour the stream of his speech, as though savouring each measured word. This is the essence at what he said:

“All of you are hanging on my words. You all know me and are aware that I am unable to remain silent. I have not learned to do so in seventy-three years of my life. And now. I do not wish to learn it any more. At times, to be silent is to lie. For silence can be interpreted as acquiescence. I could not survive a divorce between my conscience and my word, always well-mated partners.

“I will be brief. Truth is most true when naked, free of embellishments and verbiage. “Let us waive the personal affront implied in the sudden outburst of vituperation against the Basques and Catalans in general by Professor Maldonado. I was myself, of course, born in Bilbao in the midst of the bombardments of the Second Carlist War. Later, I wedded myself to this city of Salamanca, which I love deeply, yet never forgetting my native town. The Bishop [here Unamuno indicated the quivering prelate sitting next to him], whether he likes it or not, is a Catalan from Barcelona.”

“I want, however, to comment on the speech — to give it that name — of General Millán Astray who is here among us.”

The General stiffened, provocatively.

He paused. Faces had grown pale. The short silence was tense and dramatic. Expectation neared its peak.

“Just now, I heard a necrophilic and senseless cry, ‘Long live Death!’ To me it sounds the equivalent of ‘MUERA LA VIDA!’ — ‘To Death with Life!’ And I, who have spent my life shaping paradoxes that have aroused the uncomprehending anger of others, I must tell you, as an expert authority, that this outlandish paradox is repellent to me.  Since it was proclaimed in homage to the last speaker, I can only explain it to myself by supposing that it was addressed to him, though in an excessively strange and tortuous form, as a testimonial to his being himself a symbol of death.

“And now, another matter. General Millán Astray is a cripple. Let it be said without any slighting undertone. He is a war invalid. So was Cervantes. But extremes do not make the rule: they escape it. Unfortunately, there are all too many cripples in Spain now. And soon, there will be even more of them if God does not come to our aid. It pains me to think that General Millán Astray should dictate the pattern of mass psychology.

“That would be appalling. A cripple who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes — a man, not a superman, virile and complete, in spite of his mutilations — a cripple, I said, who lacks that loftiness of mind, is wont to seek ominous relief in causing mutilation around him.”

His words rang out crystal clear. The heavy silence gave them resonance.

“General Millán Astray is not one of the select minds, even though he is unpopular, or rather, for that very reason. Because he is unpopular, General Millán Astray would like to create Spain anew — a negative creation — in his own image and likeness. And for that reason he wishes to see Spain crippled, as he unwittingly made clear.”

At this point General Millan Astray could restrain himself no longer and shouted wildly: “MUERA LA INTELIGENCIA!” — “To death with Intelligence!”

At this General Millán Astray was unable to restrain himself any longer. ‘Death to intellectuals! Down with intelligence!’ ‘¡Mueran los intelectuales!’ [‘¡Abajo la inteligencia!’] he shouted. ‘Long live death!’ [‘¡Viva la Muerte!’]

‘No, down with false intellectuals! Traitors!’ [‘¡No! ¡Viva la inteligencia! ¡Mueran los malos intelectuales!’] corrected José Maria Pemán, a monarchist journalist from Cadiz, anxious to paper over the cracks in the nationalist front. A few voices seconded him; hands were clenched to check an impudent impulse to applaud the aged Rector. The Blue Shirts felt tempted to become violent, true to totalitarian procedure. Arguments flared up round the names of academicians who had disappeared or been shot. Irritated “shushes” came from various sides. Some gowned figures had gathered round don Miguel, Blue Shirts round their vilified hero.

At last the clamour died down like the sound of surf upon the beach, and the groups dispersed. Don Miguel again became visible to the assembly, very erect, his arms folded and his gaze fixed straight ahead, with all the stature of a stoic. Once more his word dominated the hall:

“This is the temple of intellect. And I am its high priest. It is you who are profaning its sacred precincts.

“I have always, whatever the proverb may say, been a prophet in my own land. You will win, but you will not convince. You will win, because you possess more than enough brute force, but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack — reason and right in the struggle. I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain. I have finished.”

The controversies flamed up again, interrupted by sudden waves of unanimous silence.

Don Esteban Madruga, Professor of Common Law, a straightforward and good man, then took don Miguel by the arm, offered his other arm to doña Carmen Polo do Franco, and led them out of the room. Unamuno walked with dignity — pale and calm. Franco’s wife was so stunned that she walked like an automaton.

October 12, Salamanca: Miguel de Unamuno being escorted from the University after his last lecture.


miguel-de-unamuno5The junta in Burgos was consulted; then came Franco’s inexorable orders. If the offence was considered grave enough, the Rector of Salamanca was to be executed without delay. The offence was indeed considered to be so, but somebody better advised realised that such an act would fatally injure the international standing of the nascent “National Movement of Salvation” and it was never carried out.

Don Miguel retired to his home which remained constantly thereafter surrounded by the police. Miguel de Unamuno died, suddenly, on the last day of 1936, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage, achieving lasting peace.

(Based, primarily, on the account left by Luis Portillo, father of former Thatcherite Conservative MP Michael Portillo. First published by Coptic Press/Centro Ibérico in 1970 in its series ‘Facts on the Spanish Resistance’)