Last Sunday marked the 41st anniversary of the death of General Francisco Franco which ended his violent dictatorship over Spain. The country has since successfully managed its transition towards democracy. Yet, this kind of anniversary shows that old wounds have not completely healed; the country is still polarised, notably regarding the interpretation of its history. Statues of Franco are still present in parts of the city, and thousands still praise Franco’s legacy. Emilio Silva, a political scientist and journalist likewise wonders “Can you imagine a church in Germany where the priest prays for the soul of Hitler? Can you imagine a square in Italy that is named after Mussolini?”
The Dictatorship 1936 – 1975
Franco was one of the generals who led the military rebellion that overthrew Spain’s democratic republic in the Spanish Civil War (1936—39). After his camp won the civil war, he established a brutal dictatorship that ended with his death in 1975. Under this dictatorship, all those who had supported the democratic Republic were demonized as ‘anti-Spain’. To legitimize this rhetoric Franco used an ultra-conservative reading of Spanish history based on the myth of a monolithic Spanish ‘nation’ born thanks to the Catholic Kings in the 15th century. In his reading of Spain’s history, hierarchy and cultural homogeneity were the source of Spain’s imperial greatness and had been safeguarded by integrist Catholicism.
Franco hence promised to “make Spain great again” by fighting the Republic’s ‘sins’ of modernity, notably enlightenment and a tolerance of cultural heterogeneity. In order to purify the nation from the the Republicans, Franco claimed that they carried the germ of ‘anti-nation’ which had to be cleansed to avoid the contamination of the healthy body of Spain. Purification and purging through extrajudicial murders and humiliation hence became the norm in the Spain in the 50’s. Children of the Republicans were removed from their parents and adopted by regime families or sent to state institutions since Republicans were unfit to raise them.
This brutal exclusion has often been compared to what happened under Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Comparably, outgroups were designed to discipline the nation. This discipline worked through collaboration and denunciation which led to the imprisonment and killing of thousands and which completely polarized the society. Yet, unlike the German case, Franco’s dictatorship was not overthrown at the end of the second world war. While he closely identified politically to the Nazis, he had not aligned militarily with the German-Italian Axis. Franco’s dictatorship was hence left in place by Western powers who were notably convinced by his commitment to the fight against Communism.
The beginning of the collective amnesty
The death of Franco in 1975 led to the return of democracy. However, unlike countries such as Chile or Argentina that have also suffered from military dictatorships, no “truth commissions” were set up to help the reconstruction of democracy and collective memory. The Francoist elites allowed the democratic transition in return for a de facto political amnesty, based on the ‘pact of silence’. Through this Amnesty Act of the 15th of October 1977, the new government ruled out any future legal inquiries into “crimes committed by public servants violating human rights”. They interpreted those events as a “type of collective madness” (Casanaova, 2014) where crimes had been comitted in both camps, because of the fear imposed by the dictatorship.
Until the end of the 20th century, victims hence had to silently accept that there would be no public recognition of their past and move on. Yet, from the years 2000’s onwards, more and more civil society groups started to research the truth on their relatives’ history. Most notably, the Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (ARMH) petitioned for the exhumation of those extra-judicially murdered in order to identify them and give the chance of family and friends to rebury them.
‘Forgetting is a strategy that enables life to go on, although some of us keep our finger on the trigger of memory, just in case.’
So far the government has not publicly recognised Franco’s atrocities. ‘Forgetting is a strategy that enables life to go on, although some of us keep our finger on the trigger of memory, just in case.’ wrote Juan Marse, one of Spain’s post-war trauma great novelist. This quote summarizes the tension between the need to move on and the need to achieve collective reparation. Yet, public remembrance is needed in order to start a process of private forgetting that many families still need to go through. Democracy cannot be constructed on a unacknowledged history where violent actions are left for individuals to be interpreted.
The complicated process of “public remembrance”
That public remembrance work slowly started in 2006 with the arrival of a socialist government under José Luís Rodríguez Zapater. At the end of July 2006, his government introduced a bill called the Ley de Memoria Histórica (The Historical Memory Act). The act notably called for the removal of Francoist symbols from public spaces, yet, it went unenforced in many places and was often criticized, notably by right wing parties as an unnecessary opening of old wounds.
« Spain’s problem is not the act of forgetting, it is obstruction so that the crimes committed during the civil war and Franco regime are never subject to probes, neither in or outside the country ».
For Amnesty Spain chief Esteban Beltran: « Spain’s problem is not the act of forgetting, it is obstruction so that the crimes committed during the civil war and Franco regime are never subject to probes, neither in or outside the country ». He explains that the court still refuses to probe victims’ family claims of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Because Spanish courts are still unable to act properly on those issues, judges from other countries have stepped in. Likewise, in 2014, Maria Servini, an Argentine judge, issued arrest warrants for 19 former Spanish officials, to face justice in Argentina for alleged crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, Spain rejected them as past incidents were too old and tacitly pardoned. Yet, for Ignacio Jovtis, an other Amnesty researcher, « these arguments go completely against international law. »
A society still polarised
Check the video of one of the gatherings: https://ruptly.tv/vod/20161120-039
Because this memory work has never been done, the polarisation of society is still very much felt. Likewise, on Sunday morning hundreds of far right supporters, nostalgic of the dictatorship took to the streets of the capital. Commemorations were organised by far-right organisations, notably Fuerza Nueva and the Falange. As shown in the video, most supporters were raising their right arm in the fascist salute and were carrying banners with the slogan “Make Spain Great Again” referring to Franco’s but also Donald Trump’s recent campaign moto. Also shown in the video, during the protest, a group of men started to beat up a homeless protestor holding a sign where “Franco asesino” (Franco murderer) was written. Masses were also organised by the Francisco Franco Foundation in a dozen of churches throughout the country, while hundreds of Franco’s sympathisers took part in a commemoration march which ended at the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), where lays the memorial and tomb of Franco.
Those events are important because there illustrate two trends. The first one, mentioned above, is the polarisation within the Spanish society. Likewise, while hundreds were joining this fascist march, others protesters also came to the Valley on Saturday demanding for the site to be converted into a memorial site for the anti-fascist struggle . Many Historical Memory Associations were also protesting in Madrid asking the government to finally withdraw all public symbols and names honouring those associated with the Franco regime from public places.
The second trend is the illustration of the danger in the manipulation of facts and history to get public support. It is what Franco did and it is what extreme right European parties sometimes do. Franco’s regime was a violent dictatorship and referring to this period as “great” is an insult for all of the victims. Using the “outgroup”/”in-group” to make citizens feel superior is a danger which European history painfully reminds us. Spain needs to deal with its history in order for its wounds to heal but mainly to learn from it and never do the same mistakes again. We all need to learn from history and not let fascist speeches left unanswered.
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