Did Spain’s democratic transition enable a “common shared history” of the Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship to emerge?

par Elisa GOMEZ ALEMAN, étudiante à Sciences Po

Since the late 1980s, transitional justice has been enshrined as a valuable set of tools that can be implemented in a country after a violent conflict1 . The goal of such mechanisms is to achieve long-lasting peace through dealing with past violations of human rights2 . The latter (most prominently, truth commissions) do not usually deliver legally punishable sentences, but instead seek to provide victims with an official platform from which to share their personal experiences of the attrocities they endured, as well as to potentially confront the perpetrators of such atrocities3 . Transitional justice advocates believe that a more nuanced ‘truth’ can be obtained through the sharing of individual memories4 .

A “common shared history” is thus meant to enable any given nation to ‘turn the page’ on a specific (and painful) chapter of its history, in view of strengthening social stability and the rule of law5 . The Spanish transition (1975-1978), however, is often cited as an exemplary peaceful transition that did not require transitional justice mechanisms to be implemented6 . Such swiftness was facilitated by a so-called “pact of forgetting”, which was formalised via an amnesty law in 19777 . Abiding by this law, Spanish elites officially renounced the prosecution of all those involved in the repression and the human rights violations throughout the Civil War and subsequently the thirty-six year military dictatorship8 .

In the first part of this essay, the reasons behind the implementation of such an amnesty law will be discussed. The second part will assess the seemingly renewed interest among the younger generations, and the resistance they have faced when attempting to break away from mainstream interpretations of the events promoted by the transition. The final part of this essay will evaluate the 2007 Historical Memory Law, which sought to formally condemn Franco’s legacy, as well as to recognise the suffering of those who experienced repression.

When General Francisco Franco died of old age in 1975, it was unclear which road Spain would take. The political elites in charge of Spain’s transition feared a military coup d’état from certain figures of the reactionary right, who found democracy distasteful9 . There was also a sense that the move towards democracy would be compromised by the armed extreme left, namely the Basque independentist terrorist organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), who had been behind the killing of Franco’s newly appointed prime minister, Carrero Blanco, in 197310 . Faced with such potential threats, the ‘moderates’ in power felt the need to promote a kind of ‘willfull amnesia’ in the form of the pact of forgetting, which would consolidate their power whilst they attempted to strengthen Spain’s democratic institutions11 .

The discourse that would henceforth be promoted by such self-proclaimed moderates was that of “Las dos Españas” (the two Spains)12 . In other words, a narrative was fostered according to which both sides (Nationalists and Republicans) had committed atrocities during the war: “a fratricidal tragedy” whose burden had to be shared equally13 . At the time, most Spanish people had not lived through the horrors of the Civil War, and thus had no clear picture of the events leading up to the Nationalist uprising against the democratically elected Second Republic in 193614 . Francoist propaganda meant that children growing up under the dictatorship had only had selective access to Spanish history, which had been filtered by the regime’s powerful censorship laws15 . Indeed, the Franquist regime had glorified the Nationalist victory, defining it as a national crusade against the communist traitors behind the Second Republic16 . Given the general obscurity surrounding what had actually happenened, as well as the intense fear that reopening old wounds might reignite the conflict, the Spanish population seemed to settle for the ‘fratricidal’ narrative17 . Even the Socialists under Felipe González, who were voted into power in 1982, chose to adhere to this ‘reconciliatory’ discourse18 . At the time, their priority seemed to be to establish themselves as a centrist force, therefore focusing almost exclusively on the country’s promising future as a member of the European Economic Community19 . Their rhetoric at the time, which placed a lot of emphasis on Spain’s envigorated youth, could be seen as a clear sign of their intentions20 .

Therefore, if society had by and large accepted the narrative of the ‘two Spains’, what triggered the profound questioning of the country’s so-called exemplary transition? Most notably, the consolidation of democracy in the 1990s provided Spanish civil society with the confidence needed to tackle divergent perceptions of what had happened between 1936 and 197521 . In this light, the Socialist educational reform law (LOGSE) aimed to promote a new conception of the role of history, stating that children should be taught to recognise “the plurality of perceptions and interpretations of the same social historical reality”22 . Such a statement proved to be profoundly controversial. In fact, whereas conservative publishing houses continued to adhere to the transitional narrative of the ‘fratricidal tragedy’ for which both sides were equally responsible; more leftist establishments began to replace the official discourse with a more blunt representation of the military uprising, and a detailed recollection of violent episodes committed by each side.

Henceforth, it became increasingly obvious that there was no single ‘commonly shared view’ of the Franquist era. In the political sphere, tensions peaked when the conservative Partido Popular (originally founded by a group of Franco’s ministers) rose to power in 1996, promising to deliver a fatal blow to the educational reform law23 . Esperanza Aguirre, the new minister of education, would come up with a Plan for Improving the Humanities whose main aim seemed to be the promotion of “the unitary character of Spain’s historical trajectory”24 . As has been clearly stated by historian José Álvarez Junco (1997), what was really at risk for the conservatives was the “control of the myths upon which the legitimacy [of the Spanish] institutions is based”25 .

Spanish intellectuals equally disagreed on the matter. The consolidation of the Spanish democracy had also enabled more proudly unapologetic, conservative authors to bring back “the ideologically charged narratives of the Franco decades”26 . A clear example would be well-known journalist Pío Moa, who sought to shift the blame for the war from the military uprising onto the left-wing strikers who had attempted to stage a revolution in 193427 . On the other side of the political spectrum, left-wing intellectuals such as Vicenç Navarro, denounced the need for a truly “antifranquist culture”, without which there could not be a genuinely “democratic culture” in Spain28 . It seemed like the consolidation of the regime had brought with it a belated Pandora’s box in the form of unresolved ideological disputes29 .

Another reason for this seemingly renewed interest in the civil war might be linked to a generation change. In the late 1990s, those born in the last few years of the dictatorship (or indeed after Franco’s death) felt a strong urge to satisfy “their curiousity about [Spain’s unspoken] past”, and took it upon themselves to recover the collective memories “of those previously silenced”30 . A prominent example would be Emilio Silva Barrera, founder of the Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (ARHM)31 . After uncovering the unnamed common grave of his grandfather, a victim of Nationalist violence, Silva Barrera founded the ARHM in 2000 in order to uncover the thousands of unmarked mass graves that still exist throughout Spain32 . Gradually, gruesome footage of “mass graves and mutilated cadavers” began to be broadcast regularly in the media, reaching millions of younger Spanish people who began to realise the actual magnitude and the barbarity of the war and subsequent repression33 .

Civil society even managed to exercise some pressure on the PP government at the time, which reluctantly passed a resolution in November 2002 conceding “moral support for the victims of the civil war […] and the dictatorship.”34 Crucially, the resolution refused to assign any sort of responsibility for the war35 . Furthermore, the conservative administration went on to refuse government funding of exhumations, as well as turning down requests to access enclosed military archives36 . This has come in stark contrast to the PP’s unconditional support of the initiative seeking to identify the bodies of Spanish soldiers who assisted Hitler’s army during World War Two, known as the Blue Division37 . Such sectarian policy choices only reinforce the view that there was never a genuine consensus regarding what actually happened between 1936 and 1975 in Spain – there was only a political imperative to look past it.

When Zapatero rose to power unexpectedly in 2004, associations such as the ARHM were hopeful that the self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ government would support their cause38 . Zapatero was too young to have played a part in Spain’s transition, and was presumably not bound by a sense of responsibility towards it39 . Nationalists had also shot his Republican grandfather during the Civil War40 . Still, nearly all factions who took part in the official debate have generally deemed the final draft of what would become the 2007 Historical Memory Law unsatisfactory41 . First, it should be noted that the law itself is perhaps not even worthy of its name, since it purposefully avoids all references to “historical or collective memory”, focusing only on “personal and family memory”42 . In doing so, it hoped to avoid assigning responsibility for the war to any specific sector of Spanish society, thus enshrining the right for every Spanish citizen “to remember the past in their own way”, while still asserting the need to recognise the suffering of the victims of war and repression43 . All in all, the law itself had limited ambitions.

It is thus extremely telling of the profound cleavages within Spanish society to this day, that such a cautious law caused remarkably “divisive and rancorous” debates44 . The two most contential aspects of this law were undoubtedly the issue of Francoist court sentences, and the removal of Francoist symbols from the public sphere45 . Concerning Francoist military courts, memory advocates such as the ARHM (unsurprisingly backed by left-wing political parties such as Izquierda Unida) wished to formally nullify the sentences issued by these courts, which allowed for the unjustified slaughter of the regime’s political enemies46 . As expected, right-wing deputies (notably the Partido Popular) vigorously accused the Socialist government of trying to place itself above the rule of law47 . In the end, the Zapatero administration delivered a sort of halfway compromise, declaring the sentences “unjust” but not invalid48 .

The battle was equally fierce when it came to the prohibition of Francoist symbols in the public sphere.  Here again, the provision was met with staunch opposition from conservative deputies but also from the Catholic Church, whose display of such symbols was still widespread49 . The result was a partial victory for memory advocates and their left-wing allies. On the one hand the Zapatero administration achieved the Church’s compliance only after threatening to withdraw state funding50 . On the other hand, however, the conservatives in Congress were granted one crucial loophole according to which monuments and symbols of vital “historical or cultural significance” would not be included in the general provision51 . Such a vital nuance excluded the ominous Valle de los Caídos – Franco’s resting place and a mausoleum originally built to celebrate the “Great Crusade” against the corrupt Second Republic52 . The Socialists were perfectly aware that any serious attempt to reform El Valle would be met with “the ire of the sectors of the Spanish society that still venerate Franco”53 . Indeed, just the ban on tributes to the General at the mausoleum led to incidences of vandalism against Socialist legislators from extreme right-wing groups54 . One legislator returned home one evening only to find a graffitti on his front door which read: “El Valle no se toca” ((Ibid, p.168)) .

Once again, it seemed as though the different factions within Spain’s public and private sector were completely at odds with one another. Conservative media outlets such as the daily newspaper ABC accused the government of “distracting the nation” and “opening old wounds”55 . Church spokespersons and right-wing intellectuals joined the general outrage amongst their own ranks, with journalist Pío Moa notably accusing the government of promoting “a new sectarianism”56 . On the other side of the political spectrum, articles in El País were more optimistic about the future of the law, and progressive commentators such as historian Alberto Reig demanded to know: why was “the democratic right […] so reluctant to repudiate Franco?”57  Although the law was finally passed (notably without the support of the PP), the lasting sensation was that of repressed bitterness and hostility between alternative versions of the events that shook the country between 1936 and 1975. It begs the question though, whilst political elites and intellectuals expressed their diverging opinions so vociferously, what did the Spanish population at large think of the Historical Memory Law, and the debates it triggered?

A 2008 study by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research (CIS) showed that a considerable majority of the Spanish population (50%) considered the new law to be “very good” or “good”, with a further 17.1% deeming it to be “average”58 . This seems to correspond with an interpretation of the Francoist era that concedes that “[civil war victims were] recognised differently according to their political affiliation” (72.9%), “basic human rights were violated” (79.6%), and “people did not express their opinion for fear of retribution” (88.2%)59 . It is therefore clear that a consensus on the very basic (albeit fundamental) characteristics of the Francoist regime has been reached. Nevertheless, one finding in particular revealed exactly what the latent issue has been when dealing with Francoist repression via memory laws in Spain – 58.8% of the public credited General Francisco Franco “with both good and bad things”60 . This last finding might be credited to the ‘dos Españas’ discourse so actively promoted by the elites in charge of Spain’s democratic transition, who used it as a moral justification to the 1977 Amnesty Law. The deeply ingrained belief that such a conflict was indeed a “fratricidal tragedy”, coupled with the later success of the democratic transition, and its consolidation as the founding moment of contemporary Spanish society – 73.8% of Spaniards still take pride in how the transition was carried out, according to the same 2008 study – has led to a general unwillingness to actively pursue retroactive transitional justice61 .

In sum, it is perhaps fair to say that, for a majority of Spaniards, the consolidation of democracy, coupled with the emergence of a rich societal discussion, “more than compensates for the lack of transitional justice.”62  Whereas a ‘common shared history’ of the Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship might never be officially enshrined, the interest in such events has not waned since the so-called ‘memory-boom’ took over in the 1990s. A plethora of novels, films and documentaries on the subject are still widely purchased, viewed and shared to this day63 . It might thus be argued that, as long as Spaniards remain interested in finding out more about the events that took place between 1936 and 1975, there will be continued opportunities for civil society to develop a more nuanced, consensual narrative on what really happened. Such a narrative need not be enforced by the government itself (perhaps too burdened by the legacy of the transition upon which its very legitimacy is based), but might develop organically amongst increasingly inquisitive citizens.

Bibliography

Aguilar, P. (2002). Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition to Democracy (1st ed.). New York: Berghahn Books.

Almuiña, C. (n.d.). Humanidades e Historia de España en la ESO: La propuesta de la Fundación Ortega y Gasset. Ayer – Historia Y Sistema Educativo, 25-62. Doi: 90.79.201.160

Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), 133-148. Doi: 10.1177/0002716207312760

Brants, C., & Klep, K. (2013). Transitional Justice: History-Telling, Collective Memory, and the Victim-Witness. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 7(1), 36-49. Doi: 0070-ijcv-2013142

Davis, M. (2005, August). Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(3), 858-880. Doi: 10.1353/hrq.2005.0034

Encarnación, O. (2014). Chapter 6. Post-Transitional Justice in Zapatero’s Second Transition. The Politics of Forgetting Democracy Without Justice in Spain, 158-186. Doi: 10.9783/9780812209051.158

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Mihai, M. (2016). Chapter 1 – Transitional Justice: Optional or Imperative? Negative Emotions and Transitional Justice. Columbia University Press. Doi: 10.7312/miha17650-003

Preston, P. (1990). The Politics of Revenge: Fascism and the Military in Twentieth-Century Spain (1st ed.). London: Unwin Hyman.

Sikkink, K. and Booth Walling, C., The Impact of Human Rights Trials in Latin America, 2007, Journal of Peace Research, Vol.44 (4), p.427

  1. Sikkink, K. and Booth Walling, C., The Impact of Human Rights Trials in Latin America, 2007, Journal of Peace Research, Vol.44 (4), p.427. []
  2. ICTJ (2016) What is Transitional Justice?  [Online] Retrieved November 14, 2016, from https://www.ictj.org/)). Notably, transitional justice can involve “judicial measures” (such as trials) or indeed “non-judicial measures” ((Ibid. []
  3. Mihai, M. (2016). Chapter 1 – Transitional Justice: Optional or Imperative? Negative Emotions and Transitional Justice. Columbia University Press, p.34 []
  4. Brants, C., & Klep, K. (2013). Transitional Justice: History-Telling, Collective Memory, and the Victim-Witness. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 7(1), p.48 []
  5. Mendeloff, D. (2004). Truth Seeking, Truth-Telling, and Postconflict Peacebuilding: Curb the Enthusiasm? International Studies Review, 6(3), 355-380, p.360 []
  6. Davis, M. (2005, August). Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(3), 858-880, p.880 []
  7. Guarino, A. (2010), Chasing Ghosts: Pursuing Retroactive Justice for Franco-Era Crimes Against Humanity, 33B.C.Int’l&Comp.L.Rev.61, <http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/iclr/vol33/iss1/4>, p.62 []
  8. Ibid, p.61 []
  9. Davis, M. (2005, August). Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(3), 858-880, p.864 []
  10. Labanyi, J. (2007). Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War. Poetics Today, 28(1), 89-116, p.97 []
  11. Guarino, A. (2010), Chasing Ghosts: Pursuing Retroactive Justice for Franco-Era Crimes Against Humanity, 33B.C.Int’l&Comp.L.Rev.61, <http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/iclr/vol33/iss1/4>, p.66 []
  12. Davis, M. (2005, August). Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(3), 858-880, p.866 []
  13. Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), p.135 []
  14. Davis, M. (2005, August). Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(3), 858-880, p.865 []
  15. Preston, P. (1990). The Politics of Revenge: Fascism and the Military in Twentieth-Century Spain (1st ed.). London: Unwin Hyman, p.41 []
  16. Ibid, p.33 []
  17. Aguilar, P. (2002). Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition to Democracy (1st ed.). New York: Berghahn Books, p.132 []
  18. Davis, M. (2005, August). Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(3), 858-880, p.878 []
  19. Labanyi, J. (2007). Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War. Poetics Today, 28(1), 89-116, p.99 []
  20. Ibid, p.99 []
  21. Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), p.136 []
  22. Ibid, p.139 []
  23. Ibid, p.140 []
  24. Almuiña, C. (n.d.). Humanidades e Historia de España en la ESO: La propuesta de la Fundación Ortega y Gasset. Ayer – Historia Y Sistema Educativo, 25-62, p.31 []
  25. Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), p.140 []
  26. Ibid, p.141 []
  27. Ibid, p.141 []
  28. Ibid, p.143 []
  29. Ibid, p.144 []
  30. Ibid, p.142 []
  31. Ibid, p.143 []
  32. Labanyi, J. (2007). Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War. Poetics Today, 28(1), 89-116, p.96 []
  33. Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), p.143 []
  34. Ibid, pp.143-144 []
  35. Ibid, p.144 []
  36. Davis, M. (2005, August). Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(3), 858-880, p.877 []
  37. Ibid, p.878 []
  38. Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), p.135 []
  39. Encarnación, O. (2014). Chapter 6. Post-Transitional Justice in Zapatero’s Second Transition. The Politics of Forgetting Democracy Without Justice in Spain, 158-186, p.159 []
  40. Labanyi, J. (2007). Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War. Poetics Today, 28(1), 89-116, p.96 []
  41. Encarnación, O. (2014). Chapter 6. Post-Transitional Justice in Zapatero’s Second Transition. The Politics of Forgetting Democracy Without Justice in Spain, 158-186, pp.172-175 []
  42. Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), p.145 []
  43. Ibid, p.146 []
  44. Encarnación, O. (2014). Chapter 6. Post-Transitional Justice in Zapatero’s Second Transition. The Politics of Forgetting Democracy Without Justice in Spain, 158-186, p.170 []
  45. Ibid, p 167-169 []
  46. Ibid, p.169 []
  47. Ibid, p.169 []
  48. Ibid, p.170 []
  49. Boyd, C. P. (2008). The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617(1), p.145 []
  50. Encarnación, O. (2014). Chapter 6. Post-Transitional Justice in Zapatero’s Second Transition. The Politics of Forgetting Democracy Without Justice in Spain, 158-186, p.167 []
  51. Ibid, p.167 []
  52. Labanyi, J. (2007). Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War. Poetics Today, 28(1), 89-116, p.93 []
  53. Encarnación, O. (2014). Chapter 6. Post-Transitional Justice in Zapatero’s Second Transition. The Politics of Forgetting Democracy Without Justice in Spain, 158-186, p.168 []
  54. Ibid, p.168 []
  55. Ibid, p.172 []
  56. Ibid, p.174 []
  57. Ibid, p.174 []
  58. Ibid, pp.181-182 []
  59. Ibid, pp. 183-184 []
  60. Ibid, p.184 []
  61. Ibid, pp.185-186 []
  62. Ibid, p.186 []
  63. Labanyi, J. (2007). Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War. Poetics Today, 28(1), 89-116, p.112 []

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