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Spain's politics of memory

The Madrid train-bombings on 11 March 2004 provoked a dignified outpouring of collective grief. But the moment was soon reclaimed by Spain’s enduring political warfare over the national past, says Guy Hedgecoe.

The centre-left Spanish government led by prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced in mid-February 2010 that it was going to “repair” the memory of the poet Miguel Hernández, a Republican former goatherd who died in prison in 1942 - the third year of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship - at the age of 31.

The deputy prime minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega explained the decision in terms of a pledge to “offer Miguel Hernández the tribute, the memory and the admiration that his work merits”. She continued: “We all share that same rejection of any form of oppression, that same rebellion in the face of injustice and that determination to dream and create a decent country and a better world.”

The news of this homage to a man venerated by the left, whose books were destroyed by Franco’s fascist regime, is both a reminder of the brutal aftermath of Spain’s civil war of 1936-39 and but one episode in Spain’s ongoing “history wars”.

Indeed, the political contest over national memory in Spain has been a permanent reality since the country’s transition to democracy after the death of the Franco’s death in 1975. The civil war and its legacies (including mass graves and public monuments) remain the most potent source of historical division between the country’s left and right. But many later events too - most prominent and tragic among them, the train-bombings in Madrid on 11 March 2004 (“11M”) which killed 191 people and injured almost 1,900 - have demonstrated Spain’s capacity to polarise over the past.

An embittered polity

The Islamist terrorists whose bombs exploded on commuter-trains approaching Madrid’s Atocha station that day created horrific carnage that has left a deep imprint on Spanish society. The sixth anniversary, like its predecessors, is an occasion for national mourning and remembrance. But the way the painful episode is marked is accompanied by a struggle over its meaning whose signs were apparent even in its immediate aftermath.

The atrocity took place three days before the general election in which the conservative Partido Popular (Popular Party / PP) of then prime minister José María Aznar (which had been in power since 1996) was expected to win a second term. But its instant response to the bombings, amid an enormous outpouring of national grief over the intense pre-election weekend, triggered an angry social reaction.

Aznar’s government insisted that the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), against whom it had taken a hard line, had perpetrated the attack. There was no direct evidence of ETA’s involvement, and it quickly began to seem that blaming ETA might be politically convenient - since to see the hand of al-Qaida in the bombings would invite the argument that they were a punishment for Spain’s (deeply unpopular) support for the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. As indications grew that 11M was the work of Islamists, many voters concluded that Aznar’s government had made Spain a target of terrorism and then lied about the consequences for political advantage. The result was a clear election victory for the opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

The Popular Party adapted to being ousted from power by seeking to undermine Zapatero’s legitimacy as the country’s new leader - and the events surrounding 11M were a prime weapon in the effort (see Mariano Aguirre, "Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge", 10 March 2006). Some PP politicians claimed that the socialists had circulated lies on the internet about the party’s handling of the attack, and thus “engineered” Zapatero’s victory; others, backed by some media outlets, even insinuated that bombings were the result of a bizarre conspiracy between jihadists and Basque militants, which had been covered up by the police, the judiciary and the government itself.

The influence of such fantasies in Spain’s post-2004 political discourse has meant that the horror of 11M acted not to heal but to compound the country’s already deep political and ideological splits. There is a contrast here with ETA’s armed campaign, in that the group’s assassinations of (for example) policemen and local councillors in the 1980s and 1990s had often united Spaniards across political boundaries in repudiation of terrorism. Such consensus over the Atocha bombings proved impossible; even now, many people still subscribe to the jihadi/ETA conspiracy theory. The regret here is that in so many ways the events of 11-14 March 2004 - from Spaniards’ dignified response to tragedy to their peaceable replacement of a government they felt had let them down - were a healthy affirmation of the nation’s democracy, yet cannot be remembered as such (see Ivan Briscoe, "A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida", 18 March 2004)

Zapatero has dealt well with this bitter political inheritance, especially by pushing through much of his progressive social agenda (including gay marriage and adoption, easier access to abortion) and by promoting more women to his cabinet. Perhaps equally controversial has been his “law on historical memory”, which seeks to provide moral redress for victims of the civil war (essentially Republican) and the ensuing repression by Franco. This law and the social reforms have enraged the political right, including the Catholic church - though its opposition has not been enough to stop Zapatero winning a second term in office, albeit his election victory on 9 March 2008 was by a narrower margin (see Ivan Briscoe, "From the shadows: Spain's election lessons", 11 March 2008). It is the severe economic recession that has buffeted in Spain in 2008-10 which has put Zapatero under the most acute political pressure.

The combination of an embittered right and a left determined to tackle previously taboo issues, in the context of unresolved disputes over history, has in the six years since 11M tended to coarsen public debate in Spain and entrench the country’s political tribal warfare.

A split country

The enduring potency of Spain’s deep political schism is evident again in a current dispute over the country’s best-known high-court judge, Baltasar Garzón. In October 2008, Garzón attempted to bring surviving members of the Franco regime to trial to face justice over human-rights violations under the dictatorship (including the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people). This approach sought belatedly to emulate what several Latin American countries had done after the military dictatorships of the 1970s-1980s (and Germany after 1945); what made it harder in Spain is that the country - via the mechanism of the pacto del olvido (pact of forgetting) - had already chosen a different model in the post-1975 years as it sped from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy (see Sebastian Balfour & Alejandro Quiroga, The Reinvention of Spain: Nation and Identity since Democracy [Oxford University Press, 2007]).

Garzón soon halted his own investigations and passed them on to regional courts. But his effort had inflamed opponents of his initiative, and now the only person to have attempted to investigate the dictatorship’s atrocities finds himself facing a private prosecution for overstepping his powers.

The initial writ against Baltasar Garzón - a former member of the PSOE who has nonetheless zealously pursued politicians of all stripes - was brought by a far-right group, which has since been joined by Francisco Franco’s own Falange party. There is an element of revengeful glee in the effort - Garzón’s near-celebrity status as well as his political leanings have made him a hate-figure for many on the right. But the more worrying aspect of this case is that it again highlights Spain’s inability - or refusal - to face the truth of its past. The writer Rosa María Artal, in reference to the Garzón case, says: “If the untouchable wounds of the war have not healed in three-quarters of a century, their only hope for healing is surgery”. That surgery, it seems, is still too painful to contemplate.

The idea of two Spains - left and right, liberal and reactionary, European and parochial - often descends into cliché. But the enduring struggle over the country’s past makes Miguel Hernández’s use of the image in Llamo al toro de Espana (I Call the Bull of Spain) more pointed and melancholy than ever:

“Split in two parts, this centuries-old bull,
This bull that lives inside us:
Split in two halves, with one it would kill
And with the other it would die fighting.”

About the author

Guy Hedgecoe is co-editor of the website Iberosphere, which provides news, comment and analysis of Spain and the Iberian world. He was previously editor of the English-language edition of El Pais, and founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin and the Qorreo website

Read On

Qorreo.com

La Matanza del 11M - El País

11-M, Masacre en Madrid - El Mundo

Sebastián Balfour, The Politics of Contemporary Spain (Routledge, 2005)

Sebastián Balfour & Alejandro Quiroga, The Reinvention of Spain: Nation and Identity since Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Paddy Woodworth, Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy (Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 2003)

More On

Guy Hedgecoe is co-editor of the website Qorreo.com, which provides news, comment and analysis of Spain and the Iberosphere. He was previously editor of the English-language edition of El Pais, and founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin

Also by Guy Hedgecoe in openDemocracy:


"Losing Ecuador" (26 April 2005)

"Ecuador's energy-fuelled politics" (28 June 2006)

"Ecuador's election surprise" (17 October 2006)

"Ecuador: protest and power" (28 November 2006)

"Ecuador’s politics of expectation" (1 February 2006)

"Ecuador's hyper-political wave" (30 September 2008)


"Rafael Correa: an Ecuadorian journey” (29 April 2009)

ETA and the Basque labyrinth” (20 August 2009) 

Spain, Europe and the world: Zapatero’s moment” (11 January 2010)


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