Spain’s New Memory Law Will Finally Recognize Franco’s Victims

Sebastiaan Faber

Even after Spain’s late 1970s transition to democracy, its political establishment maintained a tactful silence over the record of Franco’s dictatorship. But a bill advanced by the left-wing government insists on the need to acknowledge the dictator’s crimes — and identify the estimated 112,000 people lying in unmarked graves across Spain.

Josefa Peiro, 80 holds a portrait of her father, Jose Peiro, on August 29, 2018 in Tavernes, Spain. Jose Peiro was executed in Paterna on November 30, 1939. According to local authorities, over 2,000 bodies of victims of Franco's regime were buried in this cemetery after being executed since 1939 to 1956 following the end of the Spanish Civil War. (David Ramos / Getty Images)

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin

“We acknowledge those who are in mass graves, yet to be identified, and the enormous suffering that this situation, which is not fitting for a democracy, has caused.” So asserted Spain’s deputy premier Carmen Calvo, after the Socialist–Unidas Podemos coalition approved a new draft law that seeks historical redress for the victims of fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

The Democratic Memory Law — now all but certain to be passed by parliament — will see the state take legal responsibility for identifying the estimated 112,000 victims of Francoism still buried in unmarked graves across Spain. It will also convert the Valley of the Fallen — long the dictator’s mausoleum, and today a Catholic basilica — into a civil cemetery, and outlaw public exaltation of the dictator.

By the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), about 150,000 Republicans had been killed in the Francoite terror; a further 20,000 prisoners were executed in the immediate wake of the Nationalists’ victory. Yet with Spanish democracy refounded in the 1970s on a “pact of forgetting” and a bipartisan amnesty, it was only in the early 2000s, with the proliferation of grassroots historical memory groups, that momentum grew for the country to tackle this dark chapter of its history.

The institutional response, however, has so far fallen short of even basic international norms of transitional justice. Indeed, a 2007 historical memory law, passed under then prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his Socialist administration, was heavily criticized by the UN special rapporteur on historical memory for not going far enough in acknowledging victims’ rights.

According to author and the chair of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Sebastiaan Faber, the new law represents a break with the official consensus around Spain’s recent past, perpetuated by the post-Franco political establishment for decades. Yet talking to Jacobin, Faber also argues that the degree to which this new law can translate into concrete advances for victims’ families will depend on continued bottom-up pressure from activists and campaigners.

Eoghan Gilmartin

What is the importance of this new historical memory law for Spain?

Sebastiaan Faber

In part, it is proof of how since 2007 the needle of public opinion has shifted to a new type of common sense around historical memory. At the turn of the century, Spain’s democratic transition (1975–1981) was predominately viewed as a moment of reconciliation that ensured the country could focus on its future and leave its past behind. By 2007, due to the work of different historical memory associations, this had already shifted to the idea that however successful, the transition was an unfinished process and there was still work to be done. In the last few years, with greater media coverage on the issue from outlets like La Sexta, CTXT, El Diario, and even El País, public opinion has shifted again and now recognizes that the 2007 law did not go far enough to bring the country into line with international norms.

And the preamble to the current draft law does a good job recognizing the outstanding tasks. It recognizes the authority of the United Nations and the need for Spain to put into practice various international treaties it has already signed up to. These touch on the state’s responsibility on mass graves, citizens’ right to truth and historical justice, as well as the need to pay homage to Franco’s victims. It also explicitly embraces the categories and practices employed by the UN around historical memory — talking of the “disappeared,” for example. This was language that was developed, in large part, out of the experience of the Southern Cone nations in the 1980s, for many years rejected by the Socialist Party [PSOE] as not applicable to the Spanish context.

Yet, at the same time, in its current form there is also a lot of vagueness in the draft text, and it remains unclear how some of the proposed reforms will translate into concrete measures. For example, whenever the law mentions the notion of reparations, it stops short of specifying monetary reparations and so suggests we are only talking about some form of symbolic recompense. When you think about the enduring impact the forms of Francoist repression has had on the economic organization of the country, then symbolic reparations do not go far enough. Deputy Premier Calvo did hint that there might be some form of monetary reparations for those who suffered slave labor, but that this would involve voluntary contributions from the companies that had benefitted from it.

There are similar ambiguities when the bill talks about teaching the Civil War in schools. Calvo insisted that young people must “learn where we come from,” and that is positive, but how exactly will such a change in the curriculum be implemented? Education is a regional competency — so implementing this will be in the hands of the autonomous regional administrations, many of which are governed by right-wing coalitions.

Ultimately, the law’s success will depend on how these reforms are further specified in parliamentary negotiations and then implemented, with the buy-in of various interest groups and civil society being crucial. We have already seen with the coalition’s guaranteed minimum income scheme how progressive legislation can fall apart in its implementation, and so the worry is that this new law will be another case of not enough follow-through from the government.

Eoghan Gilmartin

One of the questions around implementation is the sheer scale of the program that is needed to recover the remains of the estimated 112,000 disappeared people — and the complexities associated with it.

Sebastiaan Faber

Yes, and one of the consequences of the campaign for historical memory having been a largely grassroots and decentralized movement is that even those figures are unproven. There is no official census around the number of disappeared, and so the default number is around 112,000. One of the things we do know, however, is that many of these mass graves no longer exist — because they have been dug up without anyone knowing or because freeways, industrial parks, and new neighborhoods have been built over them. With the country having developed so much over the last eighty years, it remains unclear to what extent all of them are recoverable.

The other major issue is the need to have further debate around the model of funding for this program. The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory [ARHM] is currently saying that it will boycott the grants the government has announced for exhumations because it continues with the same model as the 2007 law — that of outsourcing the recovery process to civil society organizations. If the state is acknowledging its legal responsibility for recovering the disappeared, the ARHM believes it must attend directly to the family members, not least because only the state can grant them formal status as victims. This was something the UN rapporteur Pablo de Greiff’s report criticized Spain for in the wake of the 2007 law — that outsourcing the recovery process resulted in institutional indifference.

The ARHM’s criticisms are also important because ultimately it is their role, as well as that of other civil society groups, to try to push the government as far as possible on these points and ensuring the necessary debates are had — whether on the question of reparations or the recovery of victims’ remains.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Another aspect of the proposed law receiving a lot of attention is the proposal for the Supreme Court to appoint a special investigator into human rights abuses under the Francoist dictatorship. Do you see this as working as a type of Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

Sebastiaan Faber

Well, repealing the 1977 amnesty law is one of the things the UN recommended that Spain implement, and it is where this law most obviously fails to follow through on its recommendations. The PSOE was not willing to put this on the table. But if the amnesty law does not allow for people to be tried and convicted for human rights abuses under the Francoist dictatorship, it does not say anything about investigations. As the Southern Cone model showed, you can have a full investigation and revelation of truth without then having convictions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid was similar.

In this sense, the idea of a special investigator could do a lot of good work — not least around questions of transparency and the opening up of archives, as well as in terms of coordinating different grassroots investigations.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Historical memory has become a battleground in Spain’s renewed culture wars. But arguably the Right has had very mixed success in harnessing the issue to its advantage: if the extreme-right Vox party is able to gain traction around the issue and mobilize its base against the Left’s supposed desire for vengeance, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) has a much more complicated problem, insofar as it is a broad-tent party of government. As you mentioned earlier, there has been a certain shift in common sense on this issue within Spanish society. So how do you expect the Spanish right to react to this new law?

Sebastiaan Faber

Unlike the question of Catalan independence, polarization around memory issues is not effective for the Right. From the Left’s perspective, it is a useful way to prove its progressive credentials — particularly for PSOE — but for the PP, there is little electoral gain to be had from contesting the issue. Even [PP’s hard-line leader] Pablo Casado, who politicized the pandemic to a degree not seen in other European countries, realizes this. Much of the Spanish right just want Francoism to go away. It’s an embarrassing legacy for the PP — even more so now that most of the real nostalgics have jumped ship to Vox.

In this sense the idea that this law involves normalization to a European standard — that Spain will be brought into line with countries like France and Germany — there is a very powerful political motor behind it. The PP, and Casado in particular, want to position the party as a modern mainstream European force, and so there is a certain leverage that can be used to pressure the PP to at least abstain on the new law, or maybe even vote in favor.

Obviously, Vox will vote against — with the extreme right aiming to harness the law so as to paint itself as the martyr in a left-wing crusade. You can already see this with the proposal to ban the Francisco Franco Foundation, which has provoked the foundation to claim that its freedom of expression is being curtailed. The irony of such a statement coming from the Franco Foundation is seemingly lost on them.

But I have been wondering to what extent these types of measures included in the law could end up being counterproductive, simply reconfirming parts of the Spanish right in its view of itself as an embattled, misunderstood, and repressed political grouping. In a context of political polarization, the German model around historical memory of outright banning organizations and expressions of fascist exaltation could simply allow Vox to exploit such resentment. We already know what the reaction to these types of policies looks like: the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany telling people they do not need to be ashamed of their history.

Spain’s recent history around limiting free expression also points to the question of whether this will set a dangerous precedent. Vox is already coming out asking if exaltation of Franco is to be banned, why exaltation of communism should not also be made illegal.

Eoghan Gilmartin

It is very common to talk of Spain’s exceptionalism on historical memory. But you have distanced yourself somewhat from this idea that the Spanish experience represents an anomaly in Europe.

Sebastiaan Faber

Historically speaking, Spain is anomalous to northern Europe in the sense that it had a fascist or semi-fascist dictatorship until the mid-1970s. But this is not so radically different from the experiences of Greece or Portugal.

Northern Europe has antifascism in its constitutional DNA, but Spain does not — and this has meant that certain positions, which would be totally unacceptable to voice in Northern Europe, are tolerated in Spain. For example, the default position in Spain is to take an equidistant position on the two sides of the Civil War. As my historian friends always say, why does Richard Evans not have to constantly apologize for being a pro-Allied World War II historian, but Paul Preston has to defend being a pro-Republican historian of the Spanish Civil War?

At the same time, the challenges Spain faces are not that different from those facing many other countries. Italy has a very troubled relationship with its own fascist past and even the technical challenges of reparations are not that different from those facing the United States around slavery. How do you deal with illegitimate transfers of wealth that happened three generations ago?

Eoghan Gilmartin

You are the chairman of the Lincoln Brigade Archives, as well as the online editor of its journal the Volunteer. How would you compare how the Spanish Civil War is remembered in the United States and in Spain itself?

Sebastiaan Faber

As an event, the Spanish Civil War has been a major chapter in many different collective memories. But these collective memories have developed almost independently from each other over an eighty-year period. And so the way the Spanish Civil War is remembered by the American left, the Dutch left, or the East German left have very little to do with each other and even less to do with what developed in Spain.

If you take the way the Spanish Civil War has survived in the narrative of the American left and how it is remembered in Spain, the temptation would be to say that the American left has long bought into an idealized, romanticized version of what the war was about. And clearly, there is a large degree of truth to that. But when you think about it, the memory that survives in the United States — that this was a major chapter in the fight against fascism, and that the Republican defeat had disastrous consequences for this international struggle — is in fact more historically accurate than the domestic  Spanish narrative, which until recently framed the war as a national tragedy that pitted brother against brother and one from which we need to move on as quickly as possible. The dominant narrative in Spain was heavily shaped by forty years of Francoism and then the political needs of the transition. This arguably left an even less true story than the very idealized version we have in the States.

Another key factor determining these narratives both in Spain and internationally was the Cold War — whether you are talking of the Lincoln vets with the FBI on their heels or International Brigades veterans climbing the ranks of the Stasi in East Germany. You also had exiled Spanish anarchists and Poumistas being recruited by the CIA and becoming the most virulent anti-communist cold warriors. Or the example of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which between 1938 and 1950 only sold six hundred copies from its initial 1,500 print run. It was only in the 1950s, as the Cold War really took off, that it became a best seller — offering a romantic [anti-Communist] narrative.

In the end, with all these different memory communities around the world, it is not easy to say which one is more historically accurate. It much more interesting to ask what impact do these narratives still have today — and how are they mobilized.