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Oct 22, 2022

Spain Is One Step Closer to Exorcising Francisco Franco

The Democratic Memory Law passed by Spain’s parliament earlier this month seeks to bring ‘justice, reparation and dignity’ to the victims of the Franco-era civil war and the subsequent dictatorship of 1939-75.
Francisco Franco. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Sunday, October 9, 2022. The sun was setting on a crisp autumn evening in Madrid as the 15,000-strong crowd applauded on to the stage the musical band Los Meconios. As the first song opened with the line Let’s go back to 36…., there was delirious cheering all round. No one present needed to be told what that ‘36’ alluded to, for the reference could only have been to the year 1936, a watershed in the country’s recent history.

It was in July of that year that General Francisco Franco and his Falangist accomplices launched a military coup to topple the Spanish Republican government. The coup didn’t succeed right away, but it lit the fuse of the bloody Civil War (1936-39) which killed over half a million Spaniards, drove many more out of the country, destroyed Spain’s fledgling democracy, and delivered her into the arms of a savage dictatorship which mangled Spanish society for the best part of 40 years.

Clearly, when the Meconios band chose to invoke with gusto that bleak period in Spain’s history, it was celebrating the rise of Spanish fascism and the mayhem it had brought in its train.

It’s hardly surprising that this egregious roistering stirred up such a massive ovation that evening, for the venue was what Spain’s far-right Vox party called its Viva22 rally.

The rally was the grand finale to a three-day get-together of Europe’s far-right political formations to identify the best way forward for the European Right. It was coordinated by the Santiago Abascal-led Vox, which, in course of the mere nine years of its existence, has emerged as Spain’s third-largest political party, holding 52 seats in the 320-member Spanish parliament.

Vox is also a partner now in the regional governments of Castille and Leon under the leadership of the conservative Popular Party (PP). The war cry that went out from Viva22 that evening was: Spain must be brought back from the abyss’s brink where she was tottering thanks to ‘socialist anarchy’ and ‘unregulated migrant inflows’.

Fittingly, the rally featured videos of greetings from Donald Trump (“Spain must protect her borders…”), Italy’s Giorgia Meloni (“We must save the European civilisation from catastrophe”) and Hungary’s Victor Orban (“Our weakness is our enemy’s strength”). The Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was present in person, and he claimed national sovereignty was under attack everywhere from meddlesome internationalists.

“The family and its time-honoured structures must be protected at all costs,” Abascal said, demanding that Spain be returned to “solid conservative values”. The band’s barefaced celebration of 1936 sat perfectly with the far-right worldview that Viva22 projected.

If the Vox’s sabre-rattling took on an especially harsh clank that evening, it was with a purpose. Just days earlier, on October 5, the Spanish federal government led by Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) managed to get the Senate, the parliament’s upper house, to ratify a landmark legislation passed by the lower house in July this year.

Called the Democratic Memory Law, this piece of legislation aims at bringing “justice, reparation and dignity” to the victims of the civil war and the subsequent dictatorship of 1939-75. While piloting the Bill through parliament, Sanchez had said that, since its object was to help “settle Spanish democracy’s debt to its past”, the law had to be written in painstaking detail.

The legislation will “encourage a shared discussion on the defence of peace, on pluralism and on broadening human rights and constitutional freedoms”, the prime minister said. On the other hand, People’s Party, which was unseated in 2018 by Sanchez’s PSOE, bitterly opposed the new law, claiming it would serve only to “dig up old grudges”, and notified its intent to repeal the law when returned to power.

Placed much further to the right than even People’s Party, Vox has spared no effort to deride the legislation, throwing dark hints of violent resistance on Spain’s streets. There’s no doubt that the no-holds-barred rhetoric of Viva22 had a lot to do with the passing of the Democratic Memory Law.

Also read: Spanish Civil War: The Ecstasy and Agony of Barcelona in Her Finest Hour

So what is it about this legislation that raises the Spanish Right’s hackles so spectacularly? A quick recap of the years leading up to the law may help answer this question.

Supporters of far-right political party VOX attend a rally at the Palacio Vistalegre pavilion in Madrid, Spain, October 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Franco died in 1975, but a bewildering medley of many competing trends made it impossible for the country to break cleanly with its Francoist past. Spain was a fractured society, and political and cultural fault lines ran deep across it. The Catholic church – which had seen its giant wings clipped during the brief Republican interregnum – now held in its vice-like grip nearly every institution of the state. The army also remained deeply entrenched in the country’s every power structure, and no one put it beyond hard-line generals to step in if they saw an opening.

On the other hand, the progressive forces had been left exhausted by decades of violent government repression that had seen tens of thousands killed or ‘disappeared’, many more imprisoned, and a staggeringly large number forced to leave the country. So, while there was a broad consensus favouring Spain’s return to democracy, the transition was necessarily hobbled by many contradictions.

Thus, the monarchy was left untouched, and King Juan Carlos, who had once famously described Franco as “that exceptional man whom Spain has been immensely fortunate to have”, now became the head of state. (Carlos also made no secret that he believed the Civil War had caused “sad but necessary sacrifice and suffering”.)

Symptomatic of this wobbly approach to restoring democracy was the extraordinary Pacto del Olvido (the Pact of Forgetting), which all stake-holders were persuaded to make the cornerstone of the democratisation project. The Pact was a social-political compact that resolved not to look back at the past – effectively enjoining upon all sides to ‘forget and forgive’. This curious – and, many believed, ahistorical– covenant was later written into the contentious Amnesty Law of 1977.

This piece of legislation was made out by its sponsors to be non-discriminatory and even-handed, but, by virtually putting a lid on the quest for justice for the regime’s countless victims, it was clearly loaded in favour of the perpetrators of the state’s crimes. So, while initially the Amnesty law passed the parliament without any serious challenge, it soon began to be questioned on grounds of legitimacy.

Also read: The Battle That the Victors Lost: The Artistic Legacy of the Spanish Civil War

Angry debates raged through the 1980s/1990s over how and when to junk the Olvido/Amnesty anachronism. Years later, the UN’s Special Rapporteur also wrote scathingly about how the Amnesty law defied common sense, was unjust, and needed to be aligned urgently with international human rights good practices. (This report played an important part in shaping the ‘memory laws’ discussed later in this article.)

Another absurdity that infuriated most Spaniards was the massive memorial complex in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, not far from Madrid, ‘dedicated’ to those who died in the Civil War. Called the ‘Valley of the Fallen’, it is a monument which, incredibly, was commissioned by the very man who had ignited the war – Franco himself.

In a show of unsurpassed sanctimoniousness, he called the project “a national act of atonement and reconciliation” and wanted it built on a scale matching “the grandeur of the monuments of old, which defy time and memory”. It is truly gargantuan: spread over 3,360 acres, or 13,6 square kilometres, the complex includes the largest Christian temple in the world – the Basilica de la Santa Cruz – and is capped by a 500-foot-tall cross which, on a clear day, can be seen from over 30 kilometres away.

What is truly bizarre is that, along with the over 40,000 of the Civil War dead who lie buried here in unmarked graves scattered across these grounds, there lay in state, till very recently, the dictator himself and his chief Falangist ideologue Primo de Rivera. This lumping together in a single memorial of the victims and the victimisers made El Escorial a monstrous anachronism to many. And what they found particularly galling is that, every year on the anniversary of Franco’s death, his admirers used to converge on his grave here to celebrate their ‘dear departed leader’, while his numerous victims lay in cold, anonymous pits all around. (A PSOE-led federal government outlawed these celebrations after 2006.)

Francisco Franco escorted by the Moorish Guard visits San Sebastian once the war is over. Photo: Pascual Marín/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Also read: With Franco Exhumed, Spain May at Last Leave Behind Its Fascist Past

The first serious attempt to dismantle the Amnesty law was made by the Luis Zapatero-led PSOE government, elected to power in 2004. But the push-back from the Spanish Right was massive, obliging Zapatero to drop his initiative.

Instead, he settled on an expedient new legislation which, while not overwriting the Amnesty, would help undermine some of its most contested provisions even as it recorded the Spanish state’s first official condemnation of Franco’s crimes. This was the Historical Memory Law enacted by the parliament on October 30, 2007, which gave sanction to recognising the victims (on both sides) of the Civil War and the Francoist state; decreed the removal of all Francoist memorials, statues and symbols from public spaces; promised state help in exhuming from mass graves and identifying bodies still not accounted for; banned all political events at the Valley of the Fallen (as mentioned already); granted Spanish nationality to surviving members of the International Brigades (without requiring them to renounce their own passports) who had fought on the Republican side in the war; and accorded aid rights to victims of the war (and their descendants) and the subsequent dictatorship.

Understandably, the Right strongly opposed the new law, citing its incompatibility with the Amnesty, and alleging it only opened up old wounds and slowed Spain’s progress to democracy. Indeed, when the People’s Party came to power in 2011, it withheld state aid to victims and families, and discouraged exhumation of bodies from mass graves.

Critics on the Left, on the other hand, pointed out how the Memory law did not go far enough on such crucial demands as overturning sham political trials via which the Franco regime had framed and convicted countless political resisters.

Human rights and Memory groups critiqued the legislation because it did not mandate a state-sponsored project for excavating mass graves, leaving the task in private hands in large measure. Overall, the Historical Memory Law was recognised as an important first step – but only the first step – towards sizing up the grisly legacy of the Franco era.

The threads could be picked up only in 2018 when a Mariano Rajoy-led People’s Party government fell apart, courtesy a massive corruption scandal and a PSOE coalition came to power once again. One of the first few legislative actions of the new government was to propose an amendment to the Historical Memory Law facilitating Franco’s exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen memorial. There was stiff opposition from the People’s Party and the far-right, but the amendment passed through parliament in August 2018 nevertheless.

When the exhumation happened one year later and Franco’s family was obliged to bury him privately, a sigh of collective relief seemed to go through much of Spain, putting the wind in the government’s sails over reviewing the Historical Memory Law. The Democratic Memory Law which was passed in parliament on October 5 this year is the culmination of that review.

Why does this legislation get the Vox Party’s goat? Well, because it breaks new ground in several areas. One, it mandates, for the first time, secondary  school curricula to include lessons on the Civil War and the dictatorship. Two, it shifts the onus of exhuming and identifying the dead in mass graves from private to governmental responsibility. Three, it assures victim families of reparations, though the shape and size of such help is yet to be crystallised.

Four, it re-signifies the Valley of the Fallen as a national cemetery for and monument to the civil war dead, implying that the victims now rotting in dark, unnamed crypts can hope for a proper burial now. Five, it stipulates steep financial penalties for those who persist in flaunting Francoist symbols and mementos. And finally, it bans the Francisco Franco National Foundation, an organisation around which Franco apologists find it easy to rally.

The Valley of the Fallen. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Also read: The Two Guernicas: Innocence Will Overcome Destruction

There are other important provisions as well: like creating a national register of victims which would pool information scattered over many sites, agencies and civil society groups. Where necessary, the state will also facilitate DNA testing to help identify victims dumped in mass graves dotting the country. (It is instructive to remember that, till this day, over 114,000 Spaniards remain untraced.)

The Democratic Memory Law is clearly an advance from the 2007 legislation, but it still falls short on several counts. It does not override the anachronous Amnesty Law, thus continuing to deny true justice to victims because the perpetrators of Francoist crimes continue to enjoy impunity. It is as though the spotlight is forced on to the victims, while the crimes of Francoism remain conveniently hidden from view.

Be that as it may, the new law bugs the far-right no end. The show of strength at the Madrid rally of October 9 proves that. It also reminds us that Spain will likely face many more hurdle before she can hope to exorcise Francoism in full measure.

Anjan Basu can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.

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