Miguel Unamuno was a writer, philosopher and academic who was the rector of the University of Salamanca for three different periods of his life, firstly at the age of 36 and finally being removed from the post by Franco in October 1936.
Originally from the Basque city of Bilbao, Miguel went to Madrid at the age of 16 to study Philosophy, graduating with distinction at the age of 19. He achieved a doctorate the following year on the subject of Basque language and nationalism, after which he embarked on a prestigious career as an academic and writer in both Spanish and Basque languages. In 1891 he married his childhood sweetheart Concha Lizárraga, with whom he had nine children.
Unamuno was an active contributor to the social and cultural life of Salamanca and an outspoken critic of king Alfonso XIII and of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. In 1920 he was condemned to 16 years in prison for insulting the king, but the sentence was never carried out. He went into voluntary exile in France for six years and was received back in Salamanca to scenes of jubilation.
Miguel de Unamuno was an enthusiastic supporter of the Second Republic and was a member of parliament from 1931 until 1933. However he became disillusioned with the Republic’s policies and political class and when the Civil War broke out, he supported Franco’s rebels in the hope that they would restore stability to the country and defend Christian traditions. However, he soon became a witness to the imprisonment, torturing and execution of many of his close friends and associates, whilst his appeals to Franco for clemency fell on deaf ears.
On 12th October 1936 Unamuno presided over a solemn, patriotic event to celebrate the Day of the Spanish Nation. The event was attended by Franco’s wife along with founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion Millán Astray. After a speech decrying the evils of Basque and Catalan identities a group of black shirted Falangists gave the fascist salute to the portrait of Franco hanging on the wall. In response Unamuno, who had not intended to speak, rose and gave an impassioned speech which ended: “This is a temple of intelligence, and I am its priest. You are profaning this sacred place. You will conquer because you have brute force, but you will never convince, because to convince you have to persuade, and to persuade you need what you lack, right and reason”. This let you a huge outcry with people reaching for their guns. Unamuno was rescued from immediate arrest by Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo, which took him by the arm and led him home.
Unamuno’s final days were spent under house arrest in a stage of resigned desolation and despair. He died suddenly on 31st December 1936 whilst talking to some friends. The poet Antonio Machado wrote of his death “He died suddenly, as one does in war. But who was he fighting against? Perhaps against himself”.