The danger of Spain’s Democratic Memory Law
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.
I view the Spanish Civil War as an excellent geopolitical lesson. Sometimes both sides of a war can be human garbage. Murderous fascists on one side and murderous communists on the other. If anyone wants to start moralizing about how one side or the other were technically “good guys” in the conflict, I would like to remind you of something. Both sides saw liberals as an enemy to be liquidated and would line them up against a wall and shoot them. Democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press had no place where they were going.
I disagree with your assumption that Liberals are the good guys, rather then the same human garbage. Liberalism started with French Revolution, where aristocracy & peasantry alike were slaughtered by liberal maniacs. And in pretty much every situation, where liberals were put against the wall, you could find that liberals themselves were responsible for the collapse of order into chaos and mass murder.
This seems to me like the older generation teaching the younger generation how to hate.
I lived and worked in Spain for many years (rural Murcia) and read much on the civil war, but my impressions of the aftermath of that war were informed more by the behaviours of the locals than by any history book. The civil war tore some of the local villages apart and many people suffered during the Franco regime that followed. The animosities between different families in the village were obvious, even to a naive foreigner like me. Not blatant hostilities – never any violence or doing someone deliberate harm – but low-level animosities. Even decades after the death of Franco, these low-level animosities determined which bar people would frequent, which estanco people would buy their cigarettes from, and whether anyone would talk to the old man who “did something bad” during the Franco era.
This, though, was increasingly the attitude of the older generation. Foreigners like me were happy to frequent any bar or shop, as were the younger generation of Spaniards (below about 25 to 30 at the time, but this was 10 years ago when I left Spain). It seemed like the idea of “forgetting the past” was working (and had already borne fruit, as there was little or no political violence after the transition to democracy – at least after the farcical attempted coup in 1981). It seemed to be working just as well as, and maybe even better than, the concept of “truth and reconciliation” as adopted elsewhere after civil conflict. Slowly, the younger generation in that village I lived in were forgetting (or more likely ignoring) the old animosities.
So why bring in the ‘democratic memory law’ now? It can only sow divisions. Teaching the young people how to hate. Maybe that’s what the likes of Podemos and the other far left groups that PSOE has got into bed with want, with the woke elements of the PSOE going along with it. But I can’t help feeling that, in places like those where I lived, it will drive more people towards parties of the right like Vox.
When you look at what the republicans did at the start of the civil war, you have to conclude the only reason they aren’t considered the villains now is that the Francoists won.
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.”
This is what’s currently happening in the US. Old hatreds are being rehashed in a cynical attempt to divide and conquer while corporations and academics make money coming up with a ‘solution’.
While those on the right in Christian countries tend to be like the tax collector standing in the Temple and calling for forgiveness as a “Miserable sinner”. Those of a left wing persuasion tend to be like the Pharisee thanking God that they are superior to and unlike the despised tax collector etc. They don’t have the insight to recognise their own sins and wickedness but believe they are the pure entitled Godlike to judge the quick and the dead. Hence they are happy to open the door to the hell of mortal judgement involving past conflicts. Judge not that thee be not judged is a salutary warning.
As Orwell recognised in 1984 with the regime’s “Two minutes Hate” the left thrives on the promotion of hate.
The subtext is Sánchez’s Faustian deal with parties committed to the break-up of Spain (Bildu, ERC) or promoting a quisling Spain in the face of Putin’s aggression (Podemos) – whatever it takes señores and señoras to allow Sánchez to cling on to power for longer (how ironic that quisling France and Britain in 1936 allowed Franco to eventually triumph). Imagine Starmer with a minority government scratching up a “Frankenstein” coalition with Sinn Fein, the SNP and Communists.
As for the Law on Democratic Memory, it is sectarian and vindictive and will only lead to perfidy. Putin must be lapping it up, another domino destabilised in the EU/NATO space
I don’t understand your use of the term ‘quisling’ – OK if you want to insult the present population of Spain but it has no contextual meaning for France and Britain in 1936. Many Brits did fight in Spain and there was no UN to empower either of those countries to enter the fray. In any case the RAF was not yet in a position to take on the modernised Luftwaffe. In case you’ve forgotten – Quisling was a person not a nation.
“Quisling” as used in my previous reply to González Garrazga, the author of the opinion piece, is an adjective, a qualitative description, it is not used to denote a person or a nation or to refer to the original Quisling (capital Q). Sorry for the pedantry.
Britons did indeed fight in Spain, and valiantly, but the official position of THE GOVERNMENTS of Britain and France was to appease by doing nothing and by doing nothing they gave a free pass to the fascists.
As for the “it’s OK if you want to insult the present population of Spain” can I assure you I have no such intention – a country I adore and know very well. May I ask you please to read carefully, take a breather if you must, before drawing erroneous conclusions and, I’m sorry to say, making silly comments. Let’s keep it cordial. Thank you.
We are also sidetracking, besides. The new Law on Democratic Memory is the CENTRAL ISSUE and it has to be recognised for what it is: partisan legislation with an unwholesome dollop of score-settling that will shape the historical narrative for future generations. If Spanish society cannot agree on its history, how can Spain face the future with confidence?
“Quisling” as used in my previous reply to González Garrazga, the author of the opinion piece, is an adjective, a qualitative description; it is not used to denote a person or a nation or to refer to the original Quisling (capital Q). Sorry for the pedantry.
Britons did indeed fight in Spain, and valiantly, as volunteers but the official position of THE GOVERNMENTS of Britain and France was to appease by doing nothing and by doing nothing gave a free pass to the fascists.
As for the “it’s OK if you want to insult the present population of Spain” that was a bit random if you don’t mind me saying so. May I ask you please to read carefully, take a breather if you must, before drawing erroneous conclusions and, I’m sorry to say, making silly comments. Let’s keep it cordial. Thank you.
For the record, it’s never ok to insult anybody least of all a country I adore and know very well.
We are side-tracking, besides. The new Law on Democratic Memory is the CENTRAL ISSUE under discussion and it has to be recognised for what it is: partisan legislation with an unwholesome dollop of score-settling by some with an axe to grind and unfortunately this new law will, by framing the historical narrative for future generations, have long-term impacts. If Spanish society cannot agree on its history, how can Spain face the future with confidence?
Sheer insanity. Even a basic read of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a pro-Marxist and manifestly anti-Francoist work from the period makes it clear that the Republic was not all bread and roses.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” ― George Orwell, Animal Farm
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