Can Europe Make It?

Mortal remains: Spain and the legacy of Franco

The removal of Franco’s body following 16 years of campaigning and legal battles can only be a first step on the journey towards reconciliation with the past and historical memory.

Eleanor Rosenbach
29 October 2019, 9.02am
Protest for justice for the missing in Madrid, Spain, 17 Oct 2019.
SOPA /PA.All rights reserved.

For all those who suffered at the hands of the Franco regime, the removal of the former dictator’s body from the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) memorial monument is a significant act – a necessary reparation to victims and their families. But to call the exhumation of his remains a definitive break with fascism as it has been widely dubbed in the UK media, is to grossly oversimplify the complicated relationship of a nation with its past.

This is not to undermine the immense symbolic importance of the exhumation of Franco. All the while that his body was in Valle de los Caidos, historical memory was deeply damaged. The site has a complex and bloody history – it was built by Republican prisoners and is now effectively a state-run mausoleum housing the remains of around 30,000 victims of the war, many of whose families do not want them to be there. It has long attracted both tourists and supporters of the former General and his ideology.

To understand Spain’s current relationship with Francoism it is crucial to recognise that the transition to democracy occurred not after violent overthrow or popular uprising against the dictator, but following his peaceful death as an old man in his bed. Whilst the transition to democracy is rightly lauded as an immensely important process, it by no means did away with support for fascism or Francoism in Spain.

The transition encouraged the nation to reconcile by looking forwards, while simultaneously allowing much of the power, wealth and influence of the dictatorship and those fundamental to it to be maintained de facto. The former King Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014 following a series of scandals, was crucial to the consolidation of democracy in Spain. He had been named as Franco’s successor in June 1969, after a period in which he was educated in Spain and in close contact with Franco. Beyond the monarchy’s historic links with fascism, many of Franco’s ministers found new homes for themselves in some of Spain’s biggest banks and corporations, and others seamlessly formed part of the new ‘democratic’ political class.

Meanwhile, titles handed out under Franco to those who were responsible for and collaborated with the dictatorship have been maintained. Streets, squares and monuments still bear the name of Francoists. Legally operating organisations such as the Franco Foundation celebrate the ‘life, thoughts, legacy and great work’ of the dictator, despite recent requests from the European Parliament for the Spanish government to outlaw this and other pro-fascist entities.

But perhaps the most significant barrier to effective democracy in Spain was the passing in 1977 of the Amnesty Law, which prohibits the investigation into the crimes of the Franco era and the sentencing of those responsible. As a result, tens of thousands of bodies of those murdered during the civil war or forcibly disappeared throughout the subsequent decades of Franco’s dictatorship, lie uninvestigated throughout Spain. The recovery of their remains from mass graves and myriad unknown locations, as well as the investigation into the circumstances and multiple crimes surrounding their deaths, is arguably of far greater significance than the whereabouts of Franco’s remains.

Forcible disappearance is a legal figure relating to the removal of an individual by the state or its actors, with no later disclosure as to their whereabouts. After Cambodia, Spain has the highest number of forcibly displaced people in the world. Although estimates vary, there are between 140,000 and 250,000 thousand forcibly disappeared people in Spain. Denied the right to know what happened to these individuals, the prolonged lack of justice for these victims has turned their families into victims as well.

Deep divisions

This situation has attracted international condemnation from human rights groups and supranational bodies alike. But whilst international human rights law and the conventions and treaties to which Spain is party require it to investigate these crimes and process those responsible, attempts to do so have been met with major reprisals. The most notable backlash against the investigation of Franco’s crimes came in 2010 when Baltasar Garzón, a former Spanish judge in the national courts, following his attempt to carry out an inquiry into crimes against humanity during the dictatorship, was suspended as a judge.

Baltasar Garzón (left):
Baltasar Garzón (left): "Europe has become the human rights dump", 2013.
Wikicommons/ Miguel Angel García-Sánchez. Some rights reserved.

Beyond political and international legal considerations, the response of the Spanish public also undermines the idea that the nation is turning its back against fascism. Open support for Franco has never ceased: each year the anniversary of his death is marked by mourners and protestors. His family have bitterly resisted the decision to exhume his body, finally reaching the Supreme Court who ruled against them. Unsurprisingly then, last week’s exhumation of the former Spanish dictator was accompanied by scenes of protest and cries of ‘Long live Franco’, while a number of high-profile politicians from Spain’s right wing and far right parties decried the move as a betrayal of the transition and a ‘necro show’. As Spain’s political parties prepare for their fourth general election in four years, it is likely that the tensions that this move has surfaced will be exploited for political gain, in particular by the far right.

Spain is not alone in experiencing deep divisions amongst the populace over a dictator’s legacy. Nor is it alone in finding that a vocal minority of the population still openly support their former dictator. From Italy to Greece to Chile, support for fascist regimes is far from extinguished. But Spain is among a minority of post-dictatorship nations who refuse to examine the open wounds of the past. The removal of Franco’s body following 16 years of campaigning and legal battles is a step forwards, but it can only be considered a first step on the journey towards reconciliation with the past and historical memory. The transition required the country to look forward, but four decades on, the nation must look inwards. The crimes of Franco and his regime must be examined, and those responsible must be brought to justice.

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