July 28, 2021 - 12:36pm

Spain has had uninterrupted democratic rule now for longer than General Francisco Franco was in power. But the dictator — whose passing in 1975 finally allowed for a new constitutional settlement and free elections — remains a top priority for the current Spanish government. At least rhetorically.

The government’s proposed Law for Democratic Memory, which it submitted to Congress last week, would ban public acts ‘exalting’ the dictatorship and military uprising that started the Spanish Civil War. It would outlaw non-profit associations dedicated to these purposes. The law would also create a special state prosecutor’s office, charged with investigating crimes committed during and after the Civil War, and provide for the promotion of ‘democratic memory’ throughout the education system.

Proponents argue that the law is a long-overdue attempt to offset decades of imposed ‘totalitarian memory’, which commemorated the deaths (‘for God and for Spain’) of those fighting on Franco’s Nationalist side during the Civil War, while ignoring those on the side of the Republic and denying their subsequent repression. Opponents view the law as one-sided and harmful, liable to rekindle the divisions that caused the Civil War, and which the country’s post-1975 transition to democracy (lauded as exemplary around the world) was supposed to have overcome.

Detractors also argue that the law’s real target is not Franco, whom a majority of Spaniards barely remember and only a marginal band of nostalgics continue to celebrate, but the centre-right opposition. Assailed by public dissatisfaction with its handling of the pandemic and the recent concessions to Catalan separatists whose support it needs to pass laws, the government is betting that political polarisation will halt its decline in the polls, rallying its base and allowing it to paint the opposition as irredeemably Francoist.

The law would be unremarkable if its impact were limited to a political squabble. But its significance is greater, as it would cement a Manichaean division of Republicans and Nationalists into ‘democrats and fascists’, ‘good and evil’. Spain had laboured to avoid such a split since 1975, not only because it would have hampered national reconciliation, but because it conceals the shared tragedy (and shared culpability) of the Civil War, which saw democrats fighting on both sides and totalitarians gradually dominating both, aided by the Soviet Union and fascist Germany and Italy.

By impugning the Franco regime, some on the Spanish Left also hope to undermine the monarchy, which the dictator restored and which was nevertheless instrumental in the democratic transition. This faction has long viewed the current constitutional settlement as illegitimate because it was arrived at through peaceful (if drastic) reform instead of violent revolution. In a way, this law is their attempt to declare final victory in the Civil War, 82 years later.

Diego Zuluaga is a Spanish policy expert based in London. He previously worked at the IEA and the Cato Institute in Washington.