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In a Village Named After Franco, Spain Is Struggling to Overcome the Fascist Past

One of the three hundred settlements founded by Franco's regime, the village of Llanos del Caudillo is still today named in homage to the dictator. Villagers' nostalgia for his regime reflects Spain's failure to reckon with its past — and the ongoing struggle to gain recognition for fascism's victims.

Francisco Franco in 1936. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex Alvarez Taylor

The village of Llanos del Caudillo, in Spain’s Castilla La Mancha region, is one of three hundred “colonies,” or settlements, christened by the Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the decades after the Civil War. Its historic link to his regime is still today visible in its name: Llanos — “plains” — del Caudillo — “of the leader.”

Established in the 1950s by the agriculture ministry’s National Colonization Institute, the settlements reflected the Franco regime’s disastrous policy of economic “self-sufficiency,” beginning with the drive to repopulate or “recolonize” devastated rural areas in the aftermath of the war. This further served the regime’s ideological mission to create a new, predominantly rural society from both fascist and traditionalist elements. Drawing on Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, whose regime embarked on a città nuove (new cities) initiative, the Institute promised:

To “give” peasants a plot of land. To forge a New Man. To build a Fascist, anti-urban, anti-proletarian Man – tied to the soil and loyal to the regime. The new man is the debtor of assets controlled by the party: home, land, and work.

The settlers would, in theory, receive the property rights to their plot and home after working the land for a certain number of years. Nevertheless, at least in the case of Llanos del Caudillo, all documentation relating to the colonies seemingly vanished in the democratic transition of 1978. Despite this, today most of its residents insist on honoring the dictator who “gave” them their town and livelihoods. It thus finds itself at odds with Spain’s 2007 Historical Memory Law, which recommends the removal of Francoist symbols from public places.

The year following the passage of that law, the village was visited by filmmakers Lucía Palacios and Dietmar Post, resulting in the brilliant 2013 documentary Los colonos del caudillo (Franco’s Settlers). The film was soon met with censorship attempts, including a threatening letter by the son of one of the interviewees, seeking to prevent its screening at the International Film Festival in Valladolid (Spain’s second-largest). Also the directors of 2018’s La Causa contra Franco, the pair spoke to Alex Alvarez Taylor about the village, their work, and Spain’s struggle to overcome the legacy of a four-decade dictatorship.


AAT

Of the three hundred settlements built under the Franco regime, eleven still maintain their original names, contravening the historical memory law. Do the residents of Llanos del Caudillo know that they are in the minority — going against the grain?

LP/ DP

Of the eleven towns that were asked by the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces to remove direct references to the dictatorship, two did change their names in accordance with the law, as far as we know, and two more are about to complete the process.

As for the rest, some remain silent while others simply refuse to apply the law. Among the latter is Llanos del Caudillo. As can be seen in the film, in 2004 a referendum was held — and 87 percent voted to maintain the association with Franco.

To this day, the village is still determined to keep the name. Though the residents of Llanos know they are going against the grain, we don’t think they’re particularly bothered.

As to whether they know they are in the minority, we couldn’t say. It all depends on the perspective you take. We can imagine that, from their point of view, not only are they right but they can also count on important support from sectors of the Spanish media, as well as from numerous followers on social networks.

AAT

I think that your focus on the crimes of the postwar period helps to counter the popular, relativistic view that “both sides committed atrocities during the war.” In fact, the victors never stopped their so-called crusade against their enemies, whether perceived or real. The murderous intention and the systematic character of the Francoite rebels’ assault on the Spanish Republic led historian Paul Preston to talk of a Spanish holocaust. Did this loaded word ever come up in any of your conversations?

LP/ DP

During the filming of La causa contra Franco, we spoke to historian Francisco Espinosa about whether the word holocaust can be applied to the Spanish case. That it fails to appear either in the film or off-record has to do with us being faithful to the definition given in the Argentinean lawsuit, which does not speak of a holocaust but of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The word holocaust has two meanings: one, the mass slaughter of human beings, and two, the systematic extermination of Jews and other groups by the Nazi regime. If we take the first, we can indeed speak of a Spanish holocaust. In the Spanish case, the leaders of the Francoite coup often spoken in terms of “cleansing,” i.e. a political cleansing.

When discussing the regime’s crimes during the filming of Franco’s Settlers, a response we often received was: I don’t care what evil Franco did in other places, here he helped us and, therefore, we are grateful to him.

AAT

Franco is often regarded as a successful industrializer, but his failed agricultural policy is rarely mentioned. Did you ever discuss the famous “years of hunger” with residents?

LP/ DP

Of course, it was hard not to. The settler families who arrived in Llanos as of 1955 barely had anything; they had suffered the extreme shortages of the “turnaround decade” of the forties. Once in Llanos, and after years of unimaginable toil, many began to see an improvement. However, this did not happen thanks to any specific policy from Franco. General improvements in the economy were largely responsible.

Let’s not forget that from 1957 onwards, the so-called technocrats from Opus Dei took the reins of Franco’s government. They were behind the “Development Plans” that ditched the autarkic ambitions of the postwar period. We should also consider the way in which rural Spain was deeply affected by mass emigration in the 1960s, from the countryside to industrial areas (Madrid, Levante, Catalonia, and the Basque Country) or abroad (Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany). The historian Isidro Sánchez explains this very well in the film and provides a good deal of information regarding its tremendous “social cost.”

Simultaneously, anti-Franco forces and the Comisiones Obreras union were gaining ground, such that their wage demands could no longer be ignored. Following the development-plan reforms, the Falange had increasingly less influence and ever fewer positions of power within the government. However, the Ministry of Agriculture, upon which the National Colonization Institute depended, remained in the hands of the Falange right up until the end of Franco’s regime.

One interviewee said that living in the colony was like working in a “concentration camp.” Settlers were subject to arbitrary commands, constant inspections, imposed targets, summary dismissal for minor infractions, unpaid overtime, and given the least fertile patches while they had to seed the more fertile patches that the Institute’s “supervisors” kept for themselves.

AAT

The truth is that the settlers were cheated and exploited. Why do you think so many kept quiet about this?

LP/ DP

They kept quiet out of fear, ignorance, because they’d actually supported the regime, or because they were grateful to have a roof over their heads and some land to farm. The most critical were the few who had slipped into the village despite having had parents who had fought for democracy. They were the restless ones — the ones who wanted to change things.

AAT

Both documentaries are full of telling political and economic details that are usually either forgotten or treated as mere statistics. For example, you make clear that industrialization was only possible thanks to the cheapness of labor power in Spain. Strikes, civil unrest, and waves of state repression in response to industrial action were a constant fixture of the regime. How important was it for you to be able to portray the human and social cost of modernization?

LP/ DP

Throughout history, change towards a better and fairer world has always had its origin in social movements. During the Franco regime, change was achieved by the efforts mainly of workers, some intellectuals, and even parts of the Catholic Church, all of whom saw their freedom and even lives endangered.

Some still believe that Franco “gave” them democracy as a gift by naming [future king] Juan Carlos as his successor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Franco named him his successor because he was convinced that the king would continue his work.

AAT

What did the teachers you interview feel about their student’s views on Franco’s legacy? One of them said that the problem lies with the families, beyond the classroom. Do you think that your films can help to educate people outside of the classroom?

LP/ DP

Books, plays, films, and art in general can help us understand the world better. We believe that documentaries can raise awareness, although unfortunately many of the documentaries produced today are closer to Manichean political pamphlets in which there is only black and white, good and evil. They don’t show the world as it really is, that is, complex, full of contradictions, and with many shades of gray. In our documentaries we try to cover that range of grays.

AAT

To join a colony, workers needed to provide a certificate of good moral conduct. Did you ever see an example of one? What would a failed certificate read?

LP/ DP

The “certificates of good conduct” were issued by respective mayors, the Falange, the priest . . . the authorities. If a person’s certificate read along the lines of: “Son of a republican (not affiliated to the regime),” they would have significant issues not only finding work, but also in obtaining settler status and its corresponding plot of land. Despite this, some republicans did manage to do so. Someone must have given them a certificate “of good conduct.”

In the archives of the Manzanares town hall (which Llanos reported to), we came across a favorable certificate issued to a settler by the then-mayor of his hometown. The settler had been an old-timer, or camisa vieja, i.e. a Falangist militant even before the war.

AAT

One lady said that many of the problems we have in Spain today are attributable to the enthusiasm with which many women embraced the Sección Femenina — the “female branch” of the Falange party. What do you think she meant by this?

LP/ DP

To get an idea of how the regime calculated an individual’s worth, we only need look at how they classified the settlers. A male settler was worth one point, a female settler was worth half, and the son or daughter’s worth was calculated in line with their age. They were “producers” (the regime’s term for them).

A woman was worth half as much as a man because she “produced” less. Machismo was and is part of fascist ideology. The teacher you are referring to relates this past to the macho violence that unfortunately still goes on today.

AAT

In Franco on Trial, you document the development of the so-called “Argentine Lawsuit,” which aims to bring the principle of universal jurisdiction to bear on the Franco regime’s crimes. You spoke to María Eugenia, daughter of the notorious general Yagüe. She had no problem with her father’s silence — with the omertà, as it were — that he maintained regarding his actions during the civil war. As filmmakers familiar with postwar West Germany, did her acceptance of such silence remind you of an older generation in that country?

LP/ DP

The German and Spanish cases are very different. Franco died tucked up in bed and there never really was a break with the regime. In Germany, the Nuremberg, Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other trials took place. In some cases, the children of former Nazi leaders completely broke things off with their parents. In Spain, there are few such cases because no national debate was held, nor was there any official condemnation of fascism in parliament.

Having said that, not all of the post-Nazi generation distanced themselves from their parents or grandparents. As such, German historical memory is far from having achieved its goal. A recent survey reported that 36 percent of Germans believe that their grandparents were victims of Nazism rather than its perpetrators. These are very worrying figures. For this reason, some critics are talking of the failure of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung [“struggle to work through the past”].

AAT

The Argentine judge María Servini thinks that there is hope that one day the regime’s torturers will be brought to trial because the wounds of Spanish society haven’t healed. She sees unresolved pain as a sign of hope. Did you feel more optimistic about Spain’s prospects after shooting the two documentaries?

LP/ DP

That’s a tough call. When we began our research for Franco’s Settlers in 1999, the theme of historical memory was not on many people’s lips. You did have a rather harsh discourse from the conservative Partido Popular under José María Aznar, a rather civil war–like rhetoric. Only in 2000, after the first DNA-based exhumation in Priaranza del Bierzo, did a new phase begin. A civil movement emerged that turned the theme around.

Since then, a lot has changed. Increasingly, Spanish citizens no longer believe the official Francoite ideology of two warring factions. Rather, they realize that there was only one “side” (made up of monarchists, the military, fascists, and the Catholic Church) — one that had attacked a legitimate and democratic government. There is a vast gap separating today from the day when Franco’s crimes will be tried in court. Dietmar is optimistic that this will happen one day, Lucía is not.

AAT

I noticed that you were able to elicit responses by showing your subjects old photographs of the colony in its early days. But when interviewees brought their own artifacts before the camera, such as when General Yagüe’s daughter showed us items that belonged to her father, you made sure that they explained the story behind them. What role do everyday items play in your documentary work, and how important is it to let people speak for themselves?

LP/ DP

Much of today’s documentary filmmaking seeks sensation, emotion, and even outrage or indignation. Our work differs radically, for one because we don’t go to people’s homes with a preconceived idea and/or a written script of what we want them to tell us.

This is not to say that we haven’t investigated beforehand. On the contrary, much of our documentary work is focused on the research phase. For La Causa contra Franco, we prepared files on each defendant in the Argentine lawsuit. In the case of General Yagüe, we prepared a file detailing the crimes he had committed. We’re motivated out of curiosity for the things people tell us.

The photos, letters, and documents function as springboards for recollection, activating a kind of “tactile memory” or simply to make associations. Mrs Yagüe is very proud of all the documents and paraphernalia she has of her father. When we arrived at her house, we didn’t know what awaited us. She voluntarily brought everything out and let us film. Nothing is staged. At any given moment, both she and the audience know that no tricks or deceptions are going on.

This “open” way of documentary-making is under threat because more and more of them are either scripted and/or based on deception. Instead of taking the person they are filming seriously, they exploit them and use them for instrumental ends, be they commercial or political.

AAT

To this day, thousands of Franco’s victims remain in mass graves. What was it like to film an exhumation?

LP/ DP

The exhumations by the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory are always open to the public, if such a term can be used. One of their main objectives is for everyone to see how they work. In addition, there you can consult the lists of people believed to be buried on site. For me (Lucía), most impressive was witnessing how relatives consulted such lists and found the name of their grandfather, uncle, father. . .

To film an exhumation, you need the permission of the Association, which sets certain limits to prevent the camera from intimidating the relatives. It is an understandable measure that must be respected because, as filmmakers, we should not interfere in such a private matter, so full of emotion and pain.

The same goes for mourning. We recommend everyone to go and see an exhumation. You see just how respectfully and with what care the forensic experts and volunteers, many very young and from many different countries, work.

AAT

What was the reception like when you toured the films in Spain? Were there any unforeseeable responses?

LP/ DP

We organize a project of “itinerant cinema” inspired by the “educational missions” of the Second Republic. The aim is to bring film to places where there are no longer cinemas — to villages and neighborhood associations, for example.

Commercial documentary film, with its quasi-neoliberal belief in “genius” and individual artistry, has lost touch with the public. Our demand is for a cooperative cinema that frees documentaries from the market and turns them into a “common good.” For this reason, within the German documentary filmmakers’ union AgDok, a small group is working on an ambitious project titled “Docs for Democracy.”

As for the tours, every single one of the screenings was exceptional. However, two stand out: the presentation in Llanos del Caudillo in front of two-thirds of the residents and the official premiere at the Seminci festival in Valladolid, which almost didn’t take place due to a prior censorship attempt.