20 November marked the 33rd anniversary of the death of Francisco Franco. It also marks a year since the Spanish Parliament approved the Law of Historic Memory, condemning the actions of the Spanish dictator and attempting to redress the ambiguity of his place in history. The passage of time has done little to ease the debate over both the man, and the law written to damn him.
On 31 October 2007 Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero brought the Law of Historic Memory to a vote in parliament. Zapatero, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the grandson of a murdered Republican, succeeded in procuring formal condemnation of the actions of Franco.
Since Spain began its transition to democracy in 1975, the actions carried out under Franco’s dictatorship have been banished to the past and shrouded in silence. The historian Antony Beevor comments: “After Franco died, all the world admired Spain's move to constitutional monarchy and democracy. But the process required what became known as el pacto de olvido, the pact of forgetting.
"No generals or torturers stood trial. No truth commissions chronicled Spain's past. The regime died in its bed along with its founder.”
The bill of law aims to “acknowledge and increase the rights of those who suffered under Franco’s regime and establish measures to help those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War or the subsequent dictatorship.”
More specifically, the law aims to eradicate symbols pertaining to Franco, to provide financial support to those who suffered under the regime and to exhume the bodies of those murdered by Franco’s Nationalist forces in order that they might finally be laid to rest.
In 1936, Franco headed a coup d’etat in which he overthrew the democratically elected left-wing Popular Front to seize control of Spain. In defence of "traditional Spanish values" and his nationalist ideals of centralism, Franco ruled the church and state with brutal efficiency, silencing dissent with violence.
Although the number is widely disputed, it is estimated that anywhere up to 200,000 Republicans were executed by Franco’s forces following his rise to power. While leftists suffered most under Franco, atheists, gypsies, homosexuals and the intelligentsia also claim high death tolls under the Fascist regime.
Yet despite the carnage, from street names to metro signs, Franco’s presence can still be seen throughout Spain and the descendents of the murdered are forcibly reminded, at every turn, of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship.
“There are no streets in Germany bearing the name of Goebbels,” stated the leader of a left-wing Spanish political party, Izquierda Unida, in a recent television debate on the law.
His comment served to succinctly point out the incongruity of a democratic country which still bears visible signs of Franco’s dictatorship, almost 35 years after its transition to democracy.
However, the vice president of the opposition Partido Popular asserted: “Zapatero wants to divide and cause conflict amongst Spaniards.”
César Vidal, a noted writer and one of the voices of the Spanish right, has also said: “I believe that fundamentally it is politically opportunism."
Vidal accuses the prime minister of using the Law to link today’s centre-right parties, such as the PP, with the fascist ideology of Franco’s dictatorship in a bid to “demonise and marginalise” them.
Zapatero, however, maintains that it is essential that Spanish society remembers its dark past “in order that it might not commit the same errors again." He said: "The intention is not to rekindle old arguments, but rather to heal the wounds."
The PP has suggested that the Law contravenes “the conciliatory nature of the transition” to democracy.
Juan Antonio Barrios, deputy to Zapatero, clarified that the law did not make distinctions between victims of either side and questioned, with irony, why the PP had “so many problems” in legally condemning Franco’s regime. Some of Franco’s ministers, such as Manuel Fraga, are still working in politics and are now influential members of the PP.
The Forum for Memory, a federation for the preservation of historic memory, believes that Zapatero’s Law does not go far enough, claiming: “The fight against impunity includes the identification of the guilty.”
It seems that Spanish citizens, too, are divided over their opinion of the law. A recent survey by the Spanish centre of sociological investigations showed that 54.1 per cent of Spaniards agreed with the initiative whilst 43.3 per cent believed that it makes no sense to redress events which are already history.
Indeed, the famous Spanish historian, José Varela Ortega, stands opposed to the idea that "historic memory" can even exist.
“Historic memory is a ridiculous and metaphysical concept because history does not have a memory. Only individuals have memories.” Ortega has accused Zapatero of attempting to rewrite Spanish history.
Emilio Silva, the founder of the Association for the Recuperation of Historic Memory commented: “We are not trying to open old wounds. We want to heal wounds that Spain has still not dealt with. If the transition has done its job properly, we as an organisation would not exist.
“I recognise that a transition is basically a negotiation, and that perhaps a price had to be paid in order to move from a dictatorship to a democracy.” Silva, however, considers the absolute silence surrounding the darker elements of Spain’s history to be an “excessive” price to pay.
The most recent controversy surrounds the decision to overturn Judge Baltasar Garzón’s ruling to allow the opening of 19 of the 2,000 mass graves located throughout Spain – the final resting place of thousands of Republicans murdered during the dictatorship.
Spanish prosecutors claim that Garzón, a judge in Spain’s National Court, does not have the jurisdiction to pursue an investigation into crimes committed by Franco, citing a 1977 amnesty for atrocities committed during and after the conflict. Based on an appeal made by the head prosecutor, Javier Zaragoza, the National Courts ordered Garzón’s exhumation warrant to be suspended. Now it will be up to local courts to investigate the 19 mass graves chosen by Garzón.
The most talked about proposed exhumation is that of Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet and playwright, executed in 1936 by Nationalist forces in an attempt to eradicate high-profile supporters of the Popular Front. Lorca’s family has recently dropped their long-standing objection to the excavation of his grave. However, for the time being, Lorca’s exhumation will not go ahead, as his grave is one of those on the list compiled by Garzón for investigation.
Spain’s former Prime Minister, José María Aznar, has openly voiced his opposition to the exhumations, stating: “It is not a government’s job to open graves."
Despite the disagreements, the PP voted in favour of some aspects of the law, such as providing financial support for victims, of either side, who had suffered persecution under Franco’s regime. They also agreed on the decision to ban Franco supporters from carrying out commemorative services and political rallies for the dictator in the Valley of the Fallen, the mausoleum where Franco is buried, built by imprisoned Republicans, many of whom met their death under harsh work conditions.
The PP remain, however, unimpressed by Zapatero’s blanket decision to remove all signs, symbols and statues pertaining to Franco and his regime, citing possible damage to art and historical artifacts. The prime minister has responded by confirming that due consideration would be given to items of significant historical importance. The last remaining statue of Franco was removed from Santander in May of this year.
Opponents have accused Zapatero of “denying Spain its history.”
Dozens of churches across Spain bear memorials to some of the 10,000 Catholics estimated to have been killed, when leftists tried to wipe out what they saw as Catholic resistance.
Under the new law, churches risk losing state subsidies if they fail to remove the plaques which list the names of Franco supporters beneath the phrase “Fallen for God and Spain.”
The move contrasts with the attitude of the Vatican, which last year beatified 498 Catholic “martyrs” of the Spanish Civil War.
In response to accusations that there are more pressing matters facing the Spanish government than enforcing the Law of Historic Memory, the leader of the Izquierda Unida said: “The quality of a democracy is not only based on social rights, or on the democratic participation of its citizens. A true democracy must also honour its grandparents. Above all, those grandparents who fought to achieve that very democracy.”
In the year since the law was passed, the debate has never left the pages of Spanish newspapers. In trying to fulfill the law’s objectives, officials have met objections at every turn.
Many believed that the law was well overdue, and that after 33 years of democracy, Spain should be able to look back on its past, however confused and divisive it may be, in an open and sensitive manner. Others continue to believe that the law cannot be beneficial to a society which, on the surface at least, appears to have put the past behind it.
Opinion in Spain remains very much divided over whether or not the Law of Historic Memory will truly heal the wounds of Spain’s violent past. It is a certainty, however, that the "pact of forgetting" pledged after the transition has finally been broken.
Britain’s history thankfully does not feature the same open wounds as are found in Spain; however, passions can still be aroused by the past. Historical accuracy and authenticity have taken on a nationalist flavour in Scotland since the implementation of devolution. Several objects of historical value have been, or continue to be fought over between Edinburgh and London, and in some cases between regions within Scotland.
The most high profile tug-of-war over national heritage in Britain took place over the Stone of Scone – popularly referred to as the Stone of Destiny. The origins of the relic are unclear: unconfirmed theories hold that it was once the coronation stone of the Dal Riada people of Ireland, who brough it with them when they settled in Strathclyde; or that it was the altar used by St Columba on travels spreading Christianity in Scotland.
Looted by King Edward I in 1296 and taken to London, it was installed beneath a chair to symbolise Scotland’s subjugation to England. In 1950 it was stolen from the Westminster Abbey by a group of students and returned to Scotland; however, when it was left with monks at Arbroath Abbey, police intervened and it was removed back to Westminster. It was only in 1996 that the Conservative government definitively returned the stone to Scotland.
More recently—in an echo of the debate over Gabriel García Lorca’s grave—the final resting place of Mary, Queen of Scots has been contested by SNP MSP Christine Grahame, who has demanded its return to her childhood home at Falkirk. Mary Stuart was executed in 1587 at the Palace of Westminster on the orders of her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, following her alleged involvement in plots to assassinate the monarch. "She was an iconic historical Scots figure and ultimately the victim of English plotting," said Ms Grahame, whose campaign is supported by the Catholic Church in Scotland. A replica of Queen Mary’s tomb can be found in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Debates over the location of artefacts aren’t limited to cross-border disputes. The Lewis Chessmen, a collection of 92 twelfth century walrus ivory and bone carvings discovered in 1831 on Uig in the Western Isles, are split between the British Museum in London and the Museum of Scotland. Several local councillors, MSPs and MPs from the Western Isles have requested the return of a majority of the pieces to Scotland, preferably to their place of origin. Margaret Hodge, Minister of State for Culture, Media and Sport has responded to the requests stating: “It’s a lot of nonsense, isn’t it?”