On December 10, the Pazo de Meirás manor house passed into the hands of the Spanish state, finally ceasing to be the property of the Franco family. The widely celebrated handover had been expected since September, when the courts annulled the 1938 donation of this property to the self-proclaimed head of state.
But this news has to do with more than the fate of Franco’s summer palace. It came at a moment when the battle over the historical narrative — alongside small advances in truth, justice, and reparations regarding the Franco era — has made the handling of Spain’s traumatic past a key subject of media debate.
The return of Pazo de Meirás may well mark a turning point in how Spain deals with its history — and the politics associated with this. For the first time, the media spotlight has turned to the economic plunder, repression, and labor exploitation perpetrated by the dictatorship and its functionaries.
We don’t yet know the full consequences of this move. For now, Franco’s heirs have launched a legal action over supposed “hate speech” by various journalists and researchers who have investigated their family’s enrichment. A Madrid tribunal has agreed to try the case.
So, forty-five years since the dictator’s death — even with Spain now having a government that looks favorably on the call for redress — what has really changed? What remains to be done, and what challenges does this pose to Spain’s institutions, historical-memory movements, and society in general?
What Was Francoism?
There have long been complex debates among historians as to the nature of Francoism and its historical development. But despite scholarly advances, society in general is yet to embrace any shared narrative. The coexistence of a variety of emblematic memories, the lack of institutional definition of the problem, and the imposition of silence for so many decades, have made it difficult for the public to take on board the key debates. This is fundamental for democratic societies that wish to deal with — and heal — the wounds of a traumatic past.
Yet this is not the only problem. For even in today’s Spain, we are still living with the pro-Franco negationism that exists in some of its main bastions of support. Apologias for Francoism have an enduring, institutionalized presence in the public sphere, and indeed the institutions bequeathed by the dictator remain an organizing principle of the state’s political, social, and economic life.
In recent decades, the flourishing of social struggles for a democratic memory culture — essentially linked to recovering the thousands of people “disappeared” by the regime and insisting on the right to information — has in a sense developed in tandem with the advances in historical scholarship.
This transformation process has been long and complex, but we can identify some key traits. As far as the historical scholarship is concerned, there has been a shift from quantitative studies, focused on overall numbers of victims, to new focuses on the many concrete and specific aspects of repression.
In social terms, there has been an advance from an explicitly politicized attachment to the past — uniform but also marginal — to a situation in which historical-memory discourse has achieved a relative hegemony in Spanish society. A social majority has embraced the demands of the historical-memory movement — and understands that institutions need to take action, without delay.
Yet there are contradictions here. In particular, this process has actually gone hand-in-hand with the progressive diminution of the Civil War’s specifically political legacy. For conceptions of this traumatic past have been transformed in recent decades. The Civil War has turned from a “war between democrats and fascists” or “between social transformation (/revolution) and fascism” to a simple “humanitarian tragedy,” “collective error,” or a “tragic episode.”
If the democratic order built after Franco’s death in 1975 was to be built on overcoming disagreements (which would now have to be consensual), the Civil War was presented to us as a process without lessons, values, or insights for the present. It was argued that this was a fratricidal conflict whose real depth could only be understood by stripping it from its context.
It thus appears as a conflict without victims or perpetrators; economic agendas or ambitions of social justice; people and oligarchy; conquerors and conquered. It was just an error, a past to be forgotten: “a long period of clashes and divisions” as current king Felipe VI put it. This narrative has gained traction at the same time as the traumatic past has occupied increasing media attention.
Memory Policy: Propaganda and Inaction
This was indeed visible in the previous round of legislative measures connected to historical memory. In October 2007, the Spanish parliament passed a law recognizing and widening victims’ rights, three years after this measure was promised. This was accompanied by measures promising to support those who had suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the dictatorship.
This “Law 52/2007” was a response to the demands of the growing historical-memory movement, which had since the mid-1990s insisted on the need to limit the impunity enjoyed by the dictatorship even since the post-1975 transition to democracy. The movement called for support for academic studies and for the recovery of the disappeared, alongside mechanisms to improve society’s awareness of the effects of the Civil War and Francoite repression.
According to its sponsors, this 2007 Law would “lay the bases for the public authorities to implement policies oriented toward awareness of our history and the fostering of a democratic memory culture.” But its final articles prompted major pushback in Spanish society. Beyond the predictable criticisms coming from conservatives, a large swath of the historical-memory movement chafed against its timidity and lack of ambition.
According to the Asociación Para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, the law did not “satisfy the three elements that make up programs for justice in the transition from dictatorships to democratic systems: truth, justice, reparations.” In the words of David Becerra, author of La Guerra Civil como moda literaria, the law obeyed and “reproduced an ahistorical, depoliticized logic.” He added that the 2007 law, “insufficient in all aspects,”
made no pretense to mount a rupture with the past, such as would have put an end to the privileges still today enjoyed by the victors of the Civil War, but instead further strengthens the model of constitutional coexistence set up in the [post-1975] transition.
If this marked a turning point in social mobilization and the fight against the dictatorship’s impunity, the law never came close to achieving its sponsors’ promises. The following decade saw a series of bills passed by Spain’s autonomous (regional and minority-national) administrations to make this national law a reality and patch up some of its flaws. Yet thirteen years later, it largely remains a dead letter.
The actions — or inaction — of various governments, the media, and the judicial authorities have guaranteed the impunity of Francoism’s perpetrators. Meanwhile, there have been only minimal advances in terms of recovering the disappeared or drawing attention to the victims of the dictatorship and their relatives. However lukewarm the initial proposal, no one can doubt that there has been almost nothing by way of implementation.
The only thing able to alter this dynamic has been the production of cultural content and political propaganda — exhibitions, lecture series, TV and film, public conferences, and the symbolic commitment of major figures from the worlds of culture and politics. This has in recent years played an important role in amplifying the call for a democratic memory culture. It could even seem that some have turned to the cultural battle in order to make up for the lack of real material reparations.
In this sense, the Democratic Memory Law that the present government intends to pass in early 2021 has sparked great hopes across wide layers of society. The text introduces many new measures, from criminalizing the veneration of the dictatorship to scrubbing out Francoite rulings, asserting the state’s responsibility to exhume common graves to revoking the titles and decorations conferred on the perpetrators of Francoite violence. Unlike the Law 52/2007 it incorporates a system of effective sanctions.
But some of the most important historical-memory associations have publicly criticized the text. The Foro por la Memoria holds that despite the advances registered, “the law does not involve a break with the Spanish model of impunity” and the redress it proposes is “more symbolic than material.” The Asociación por la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica argues that many elements of the law are left hanging in the air, not specifying who is responsible for executing each of the measures stipulated, or through which mechanisms.
Toward Reparations — and Liberation
Some progress has been made. The exhumation of Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen in October 2019 (though this space has not been repurposed), and the imminent passing of the new Draft Bill on Democratic Memory (whatever the limits noted above) have restored hope to the parts of Spanish society fighting for truth, justice, and reparations.
In societies marked by pain, silence, and resignation, dealing with the traumatic past and transmitting it over time is a highly complex process. Behind the heated clashes in parliament is a deep social fracture over readings of the past, carried by the individual and collective identities of the present. But this also conceals a reality built on pain, plunder, death, and repression.
This is also a problem for our own time. For to reduce the traumatic past to a collective mistake, which can be put at a safe distance from our present-day realities, would be to grant the political, social, cultural, and economic impunity of Francoism’s perpetrators. It would deny any possibility of assigning blame — or achieving redress.
Still today, there are many evident signs of Francoism’s continuing importance. They range from the monarchy, which was re-established by Franco, to various judicial organs and military structures. So, too, the thousands of bodies still waiting to be recovered by their loved ones, and indeed the fortunes amassed through extortion, plunder, and theft by Franco-loyalists in every town across Spain. Francoism’s effects are still enjoyed by the aristocrats and bourgeois of the big property-owning families, and those who financed and backed the military coup and for decades profited from its success.
This is also why it is so important to focus the debate on the truly important questions and avoid a discussion that is only about banning the small foundations that openly celebrate Franco the individual. An emphasis on such marginal, minoritarian institutes should not distract us from the reality that Franco’s favorites and heirs can still boast the leadership of Spain’s biggest private businesses, and control over the main sources of both formal and informal power, including the monarchy.
Building a reparatory perspective must necessarily start from constructing a new framework for debate. This means involving a variety of social forces in reaching a new and shared way of framing our vision of the past. This would have to foreground the historic legacy of social justice, freedom and wealth redistribution that the oligarchy and the army sought to bury through the Civil War and the long decades of dictatorship.
In this sense, we should start out from the realization that Francoite repression had a genocidal character, and that this played a crucial role in the evolution of the society that followed. Through the systematic elimination of dissidents after the 1936 coup, the Francoite regime sought to erase the demands for social transformation that were achieving significant social support and power — and threatening the Spanish oligarchy’s privileged position.
The genocidal aspect of Francoism had its effects on the collective memory of its repressive actions. But so, too, on the collective memory of the social and political mobilizations that followed 1936 — and of those that preceded it. In this sense, repression and violence ought to be understood as the backbone of the Franco regime, and the elimination of dissent as one of its fundamental bases. It is my view (though some will dispute this) that the elimination of the “enemy within,” economic repression, and the cultural effort to build a regime based on the non-existence of alternatives, were not just one face of Francoism, but its spinal column.
Beyond “Neutral” Memory
Today, we face the challenge of bringing together the forces able to reorient the current handling of Spain’s traumatic past. This means defining a new, emblematic memory: one that guarantees “never again” but also bears an emancipatory narrative for the present. For despite the promise of (partial, symbolic) reparation for victims and their relatives — and emphasis on the need to clear the common graves and recognize the disappeared — the current majority narrative ends up diminishing the Civil War’s present relevance and erasing the political underpinnings of the traumatic past.
The idea of a “neutral” memory will merely conceal important keys to understanding the past and educating the younger generations in democratic values. Such neutrality will put the democratic government of 1936, with its transformative, modernizing, and redistributive project, on an equal footing with an antidemocratic oligarchy which defeated the legitimate government only thanks to the conspiracy of part of the army with fascist forces abroad. This also means concealing the systematic elimination of major sections of society once the war was over, silencing the effects of economic repression and the consolidation of a new economic-financial elite that still today dominates the business world.
Today, then, we face a key turning point. One option is to continue with a new promise of democratic memory, though knowing it to be partial, self-interested, and conservative. Or, we can demand and build a new analytical framework, a structural approach that shines a light on not only the Francoism of the past, but also those responsible for it — and their continuing power in Spanish society today.