Spain confronts Franco's legacy

Article published on July 19, 2006
Article published on July 19, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

On July 18 1936, civil war broke out and opened the way for decades of repression. Today, 70 years after, the memory of the past still haunts Spanish politics

How is it possible that in a democratic country such as Spain, Falangist inscriptions still deface countless streets and residences? How is it possible that the debate to remove Franco’s statue from the Military Academy of Zaragoza was launched only a few months ago? Why is it that Francisco Franco Bahamonde and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist party Falange, are buried with full honours in a public place, namely the monumental mausoleum Valle de los Caidos, constructed for the thousands of war victims? Would that be possible in countries such as Germany or Italy? How is it possible that 70 years after the coup that sparked a civil war, there are still more than 30,000 unaccounted deaths and that once in a while one discovers a mass grave in the countryside? Why is it that in almost 30 years of democratic rule no reparations have been made to the victims of repression?

Our silence, or selective amnesia, answers some of these questions. Politicians chose to forget the war during the transition period hoping to favour the delicate process of democratisation. The conservative eurodeputy, Jaime Mayor Oreja, confirmed this during a session of the European Parliament in July 2006. The former Minister of the Interior not only refused to openly condemn the dictatorship but also advocated against entering ‘a second transition period’. In addition, he underscored the importance of keeping the spirit of ‘consensus in the constitution’. During that same session, the socialist president of the Parliament, Jose Borell, condemned Franco’s regime and said one should remember those difficult times. He also stressed the importance ‘of not shunning reality with comforting lies but of confronting it’.

Turning the page does not mean forgetting

While many may be reluctant to admit it, times have changed. For Spaniards, the fear of slipping back into authoritarianism is almost non-existent. The protagonists of the transition era are either pensioners or have started retiring from politics. Not to speak of the protagonists of the Civil War, a majority of them are now dead and burried. The argument regarding the protection of the democratic consensus might have been valid in 1977. But now, thirty years on, it is not only unsubstantial but also serves numerous conspiracy theories, negativist reasoning and arguments in defence of Francoism. We must not forget the words of the Polish eurodeputy, Maciej Gyertic, most typical of the 1930s, who extolled Franco and justified his coup of July 18 1936 as a reaction to a ‘communist government’.

From words to deeds

It’s now or never. The moment has come to face the reality of the Spanish Civil War, to condemn the 40 years of the Franco dictatorship without evasive manoeuvring and to heal the psychological damage done to the victims of the repression. Choosing 2006 as the year of remembrance is a first step in the right direction. Yet symbolic acts are not enough. Before the year ends, the government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose grandfather was executed in 1936 by Francoist troops, will have to have approve a definite Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory. Such legislation would confront the problems of selective forgetfulness which slows down the process of democratisation since the transition period.

The ambivalent condemnation of war criminals from both factions and of repressive elements during the dictatorship is no longer possible. We must compare these attitudes to what happened in Germany after the Second World War and, more recently, to the process of lustration in post-communist Poland. Regarding the new legislation in Spain, we must honour our victims by finding and identifying the dead and paying reparations to the thousands of survivors of the Franco regime repression. We should also encourage the creation of a research centre for the understanding and interpretation of the civil war capable of giving objective and satisfactory answers.

In short, dignity and truth are the only components that could put an end to this turbulent era and allow for the permanent healing of the Spanish society.