It risks opening up old wounds between rival camps
Over the past week, Spain has taken on a controversial effort to confront its Francoist past. The so-called ‘democratic memory law’, which passed through the Spanish lower house of Parliament last week, is an attempt to radically upend the nation’s official record of its recent past. In doing so, it risks reawakening long-defunct animosities.
At General Franco’s death in 1975, representatives of all political parties — some newly legalised —launched a democratic transition premised on the ancient Athenian imperative against mnesikaken, or “wielding memory like a weapon”. By pardoning all seditious acts committed against Franco’s regime while expunging that regime’s crimes against opponents, the amnesty bill passed in 1977 hoped to consign the Civil War (1936-1939) and Franco’s ensuing 40-year dictatorship to the dustbin of history, never to be stirred anew.
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But following the rise of Pedro Sánchez to power in 2018, this all changed. He and his coalition partners — a constellation of far-Left and regionalist parties — saw the Civil War as a Manichean endeavour where morally unimpeachable progressives fought to safeguard freedom and democracy from a sordid coup by Hitler’s Spanish allies. This is a simplistic reading of Spain’s past, which is reflected in the bill. It begins by declaring Francoism itself and all its court rulings illegal, something hitherto unseen since Spain’s legal order was entirely reborn in 1978. It then continues by vastly expanding the category of “victim” to include political exiles, anti-Francoist guerrillas —however violent — and sexual minorities. It also steps up state-led efforts to recover an estimated 114,000 missing bodies — Republicans only — through a DNA repository and a map of known mass graves. And finally, it opens Franco’s crimes up to the jurisdiction of international tribunals and commissions a revision to school curricula.
But perhaps the bill’s oddest feature is a rider appended by Bildu, Sánchez’s far-Left, pro-Basque independence ally. The rider sets up an investigative commission to look into rights violated between Franco’s death and 1983, which includes the first year in office of former PM Felipe González, who is himself a socialist. During that window, González’s Interior Ministry was famously in cahoots with the GAL, a Right-wing paramilitary group fighting the ETA, a Basque terrorist group. What is the purpose of this elongated time window? Many fear it will be to validate as a worthy act of anti-Francoist resistance the ETA’s wanton terrorism against innocent civilians, something that would help whitewash Bildu’s own links to the terrorist group.
Beyond the Orwellian attempt to memory hole Republican crimes against churchgoers and other innocent civilians throughout the Civil War, the bill marks one crucial step forward in Pedro Sánchez’s plan to undermine what Spaniards call their “regime of 1978”. That dispensation had sought to reconcile Spaniards by casting the Civil War into oblivion. The new one amounts to weighing the war’s moral ledger anew with a verdict predetermined to favour Sánchez’s coalition, thus dangerously pitting Spaniards against one another again.