Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco. Contemporary Spain is a modern, democratic nation but still struggles with the memory of its dictatorship. A battle is still taking place to determine if the country should resuscitate its past or leave it untouched. Bones of the victims of the repression of the Civil War still lay in the ground, undisturbed and unidentified.
After seizing power in a bloody civil war (1936-39), General Franco led the country through his repressive dictatorship. The Civil War was an ideological conflict, in which Franco’s fascist Nationalists fought to overthrow the leftist Republican forces, with atrocities committed on both sides.
Franco’s regime remained in power until his death on the 20th of November 1975 – 40 years ago today. Unlike in other political scenarios, there was no clear power vacuum left by his death, as the Spanish monarchy was reinstated, with King Juan Carlos I, who had sworn allegiance to Franco’s movement, being crowned just two days later. Instead of obeying the general’s orders, the King put in place the foundations for democracy, appointing a provisional government, which led Spain until democratic elections could take place in 1977.
In the last decade or so, the violent past of the dictatorship and of the Civil War is beginning to be discussed but crucially, at the time of the transition to democracy, dialogue about the past was suppressed. Prioritising democracy ahead of demanding accountability for the bloody Civil War, the Socialists decided to overlook memory of the past. There was the risk that pointing the finger for starting the bloody Civil War could endanger the transition to democracy. An amnesty law was passed, pardoning crimes committed by the regime and against it, which effectively sealed a decision to avoid memory of what had happened. Democracy was successfully achieved in 1977 and, to facilitate the democratisation of the country, the left and right agreed to refrain from discussing the painful memories. This silence endured until 2007.
With the passing of years, fewer and fewer Spaniards remain who experienced the Civil War and the dictatorship and therefore consequently there is less fear with regards to approaching the past. In 2007, Spain’s governing Socialist Party passed the Law of Historical Memory to confront the memory of the Civil War and the dictatorship. The law condemned the regime, recognised violence on both sides of the Civil War, and promoted the exhumation and identification of victims of Francoist repression. Again, this divided the right and the left in Spain. The centre-right Partido Popular – Spanish Conservatives – accused the law of unnecessarily opening old wounds. Indeed, the Partido Popular’s foundations originate from Franco, having been formed with politicians from his regime upon the reinstatement of democracy. The PP came back into power in 2011 and repealed many of these laws.
The 2007 law animated the Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory, whose aim is to literally uncover Spain’s deliberately-untouched history. The organisation is best known for locating mass graves of the ‘forcibly disappeared’, and to dignify their memories by exhuming and identifying the bones and acknowledging them. Naturally, this has been met with controversy, which underlines the degree of division in Spain today with regards to its history.
Whilst part of the Civil War’s legacy lies beneath the ground, even today, just North of Madrid, stands the monumental Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), the most obvious contemporary symbol of Francoism in Spain. This basilica hosts the General’s body and is a sore point still. It was constructed with the use of political prisoners and is a memorial exclusively to the victors of the Civil War and Franco’s Catholic and fascist ideology. The basilica is still used as a point of tribute to Franco and to fascism and today, will host a Mass in Franco’s honour on the 40th anniversary of his death. The site often fluctuates between being open to the public and closed, seemingly dependent on who’s in government; the Socialists or the PP.
The struggles between the Socialists and the PP in Spain demonstrate that reconciliation between the Spanish left and right with regards to the country’s history has not been achieved. The divisions caused by Franco still show themselves today, even 40 years after his death. Franco’s ghost still looms in debates surrounding mass graves, the Valley of the Fallen and the country’s democracy. The attempt to address Francoist repression was only made in 2007 and the battle of dignifying the remains of his victims still rages. Spain’s passage to democracy and modernisation once depended on silence but now that has been achieved, the time has arrived to address the country’s violent history.