The chains of liberty

This week’s celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence bring to mind a wall in a modern police station with a large reproduction of the famous Goya painting of the insurgents of Madrid who died in 1808 facing a French firing squad.

That year, Emperor Napoleon I sent troops to occupy Spain, an ally of France.  Coming in the name of the enlightened values of the revolution, they entered mostly unopposed.

The Peninsular War (1808-14), one of the first wars of national liberation, began on May 2, 1808, when the people of Madrid rebelled against the French occupation. The next day, hundreds of Spanish resistance fighters were rounded up and executed.

Meanwhile, the Spanish masses continued to support the reactionary Ferdinando VII, “the Traitor King,” who in 1814, when the monarchy was restored, abolished the constitution and pursued the opposition. They cried “Long live our chains” to endorse, in the name of security, the abrogation of their civil rights.

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya, who had supported the ideals of the French Revolution and hoped for similar developments in his country, was among those who initially welcomed the French as emissaries of Enlightenment egalitarianism but found himself in a very difficult position when he experienced the occupation of the foreign troops.  

After the expulsion of the French in 1814, Goya approached the provisional government, offering to commemorate the May 2, 1808, insurrection. His famous painting, The Third of May 1808 (which the Prado entitles The Third of May 1808 in Madrid:  The Executions on the Prince Pio Hill), honors the Spanish resistance by depicting the French reprisals during the early hours of the morning following the uprising.

Scenes of revolt and repression, accompanied by sounds of machine-gun fire, open and close the film The Phantom of Liberty (1974) by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel.

Its notorious opening in a way merges the rebellion of 1808 and the restoration of 1814.  Defiant patriots facing a French firing squad shout “Long live our chains” or, according to the English subtitles, “Down with liberty.”  The presumed forces of liberation (the French soldiers), who have turned into an occupying army, are executing the presumed forces of resistance (the Spanish loyalists), who will eventually welcome local oppression.  Revolution begets a new tyranny:  The people who fought for their freedom will soon forge their own chains.    

Later on in the film, a reproduction of Goya’s painting is hanging on the wall of the inspector’s office in a police station.  The new regime makes sure to honor the revolution that brought it to power.  At the melancholic end of The Phantom of Liberty, which takes place in the present, two police prefects, instead of quarreling over which one of them is real, work together to put down a new insurgency of people who are shouting “Down with liberty.”  The previous victorious uprising created its own chains and has provoked a new uprising.  Will the tragedy of the revolution repeat itself again?

The fetters of tyranny stir up the revolutionary desire for freedom. But, beyond state commemorations, which socio-historical conditions might make liberty more than a phantom?  

20 March 2021

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