Spain Has Finally Overturned the Fascist Franco Regime’s Political Trials

For over 40 years since the return of Spanish democracy, the rulings of Franco-era political courts still criminalized those who resisted the dictatorship. Now, the country’s new Democratic Memory Law has finally cleared the names of the anti-fascist prisoners.

The Democratic Memory Law, approved October 19, 2022, establishes a Day of Remembrance and Tribute to all the victims of Francisco Franco's dictatorship. (Eduardo Parra / Europa Press via Getty Images)

When the Spanish anti-fascist poet Marcos Ana died in 2016, the local council in his home city of San Fernando de Henares held a minute’s silence in his honor. The honor was well-deserved: Ana was the longest-serving political prisoner during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, spending twenty-three years behind bars between 1939 and 1962. His prison poetry had become internationally renowned in the 1950s and ’60s, while his 2007 memoir Decidme cómo es un árbol (Tell Me What a Tree Is Like) had been a bestseller in Spain and translated into various European languages.

Yet not everyone accepted the minute’s silence. Objecting to the tribute, a councilor from the far-right party España 2000 accused Ana of having been a “murderer poet” who had killed two priests during the Spanish Civil War. The same smears, based on Ana’s trumped-up conviction in a Franco-era mass trial, had been used against the poet as he spearheaded the international amnesty campaign for Spanish political prisoners in the 1960s and ’70s. “There was practically no defense,” Ana recalls in Decidme cómo es un árbol of his 1941 court martial. “The lawyer, a Francoist official, only went so far as to request clemency, accepting the charges against us as already [proven] beyond doubt.”

Izquierda Unida (United Left) councilors subsequently brought a defamation case against the España 2000 representative in question, Sandro Algaba. Yet the Madrid regional high court ruled in the latter’s favor, citing the Francoist court martial as a still legally valid conviction under Spanish law. Indeed, despite the lack of incriminating material proof or witness testimony against Ana, the Madrid court found that given the fascist-era conviction, Algaba’s allegations were based not on “blind ideology . . . but on the reality of the facts as they happened.”

With Spain’s 1970s democratic transition having left the Francoist state structure largely intact, this type of abiding legal bias has dogged those whose only crime was defending the country’s Second Republic or subsequently fighting against the dictatorship. But now, for the first time in eighty years, Ana and tens of thousands of other anti-fascist democrats are no longer considered criminals in the eyes of the Spanish state. As part of the country’s new Democratic Memory Law, which came into effect on October 21, the Francoist regime and its political courts are declared illegal and all political and ideological convictions null and void.

The legislation comes too late for many to see it. But the new law finally recognizes that two generations of Spanish anti-fascists were on the right side of history.

New Legislation

The law also contains a series of other necessary reforms. These include the launch of a new state-led excavation program of Civil War–era mass graves, making the glorification of Francoism a criminal offense, outlawing the Francisco Franco National Foundation, and remodeling the Valley of the Fallen fascist monument as a place of democratic memory. “With the Democratic Memory Law we have fulfilled our commitment to advance justice, reparations, recognition and dignity for all victims,” Socialist Party prime minister Pedro Sanchez insisted after visiting one of Spain’s largest mass graves, which is currently being excavated in Valladolid.

Yet as Tom Wardle and I have analyzed before for Jacobin, there are also clear limits to the legislation, above all its failure to adequately address Spain’s legal duty under international law to investigate Franco-era crimes against humanity. In this respect, many memory activists have criticized the law as ultimately a missed opportunity to finally contest the pattern of impunity established since the Spanish Transition. This is particularly the case with respect to the failure to repeal the 1977 Amnesty Law, which has protected former members of the regime (including still living late Francoist officials) from criminal investigation for forty years.

But while acknowledging the law’s limits, the move to expunge all political convictions from the dictatorship, as well as the removal of the remains of the fascist butcher Queipo de Llano from the Basilica de la Macarena in Seville, should be celebrated as partial victories, albeit late ones. Officially clearing the names of Republican prisoners has been a central demand of Spain’s memory movement for decades, one that Ana saw as fundamental so as to “wrest from oblivion [their] struggle and sacrifice.” For him, the prisoners’ story formed an integral part of Spain’s democratic heritage, which he set out to tell at the end of his life through his own memoirs. The passing of the Democratic Memory Law should be seen as an opportunity to revisit their struggle as well as the life and work of Ana.

Spain’s Midnight

Arrested in 1939, aged nineteen, as a branch leader in the Communist-affiliated Unified Socialist Youth, Ana was brutally tortured in Madrid’s notorious Calle Almagro police station before being subsequently sentenced to death at his court-martial. But he was not alone. “With the loss of the war . . . thousands of men and women were driven like flocks of sheep through jails, torture centers and improvised slaughter houses,” he wrote in Decidme cómo es un árbol. “They were coldly and systematically killed . . . . It was a calculated genocide.” There are no exact figures but somewhere between 50,000 and 125,000 people were executed in the decade after the Civil War as the new regime sought to smash Spain’s democratic republican culture.

Twice during the initial post–Civil War years, Ana believed he was only hours away from his own execution. On the second occasion, his jailers chose not to inform him that his sentence had been commuted to a sixty-year prison term, instead allowing him to believe his execution was going ahead the next morning. “I spent what was meant to be my last night between the four walls of my cell submerged in the deepest loneliness. The hours passed slowly and my senses were alert to even the smallest sound . . . . My happiest memories and the faces of those I loved the most, and who I would never see again, passed before me.”

Throughout his memoirs, Ana also insisted that the limits to fear were found in the solidarity between prisoners and their collective sense of dignity:

In prison, especially among the Communists, we felt bound by an unwritten pact to maintain group morale . . . . We were like an orchestra, more worried about being out of tune with the collective than our own personal problems. . . . We organized ourselves into communal groups, a movement that was perfected over time, so as to share both hunger and bread. Whoever managed to receive a small package from their family would divide its contents with those in his group.

Questions of culture and education became the central battleground between the prisoners and the Francoist regime. This included forms of daily resistance, such as the majority of prisoners beyond the front rows responding “Rancho, Rancho, Rancho” instead of the obligatory  “Franco, Franco, Franco” at the end of prison masses. But beyond that it also involved organizing underground study groups, clandestine newspapers, and later even theatre performances as a means to combat the obscurantism of Francoism.

Ana came from a very humble background. His father had been an illiterate caretaker, killed by a Luftwaffe bombing raid during the Civil War, but in prison, he found himself surrounded by intellectuals, artists, and party leaders — with Burgos jail nicknamed “the university.” His first tentative steps as a poet were taken in a punishment isolation cell: “My friends [on duty in the block] passed me some readings, leaving loose sheets of paper with poems by Rafael Alberti, Pablo Neruda and Antonio Machado wrapped up in my bedding,” Ana writes. “I read and reread them a thousand times. I learned them by heart and recited them aloud, filling the solitude and silence of my cell with rhythm and images. And, in that climate, I began to write.”

His work was smuggled out of prison beginning in the 1950s and published under the pseudonym Marcos Ana, which was a combination of the first names of his two parents. Neruda described Ana’s work as “burning, militant poetry that exalts the voice of a people seeking the light of dawn. . . . [They are] verses of struggle and hope.” In one of his most famous poems, “Life?,”  Ana fears that his memories of the outside world have faded after decades behind bars

Tell me what a tree is like.

Tell me the song of the river

when the birds flock above.


Talk to me about the sea, talk to me

of the scent that fills the countryside,

of the stars, of the air.


Twenty-two years…Now I forget

the dimensions of things,

their colour, their smell…I grope

for words: “sea,” “fields”…

I say “forest” but have lost

the design of a tree.

[translated: David Duncombe]

The Meaning of Freedom

The response from the authorities to any political activity was brutal, however. In 1943, prison guards discovered a copy of the clandestine newspaper of which Ana was one of the main organizers. Various prisoners broke under torture and gave the authorities some of the names of the publishers, including Ana’s. “I decided to break this chain and offered myself as the only one responsible for the newspaper so that other comrades would avoid being implicated,” he explains. “I lost all the sense of time but it is possible that I was viciously tortured for twenty days.”

“When you are being tortured, imagination and an ability to conjure up a sense of the future play an important role in being able to withstand the physical and psychological pain,” Ana recounts. “I imagined two ways in which I could return to prison: defeated and ashamed of myself, unable to look my comrades in the eyes, or returning physically broken but with my conscience intact.”

On one of the days when he returned to his cell after being interrogated, a fellow detainee at the police headquarters placed a piece of paper under his door: “It was a portrait of Lenin ripped from a book. My heart rate accelerated on seeing Lenin’s face and realising with relief that I was not alone — that he and everything he stood for was on my side and encouraging me to be stronger than my tormentors.” After twenty days, Ana lost consciousness and, scared that he would die in their custody, the police sent him back to prison.

“I had discovered that there was a hidden force within us, which, nourished by our convictions, we can call on in such extreme situations,” Ana writes. “There are ethical mechanisms and forms of [mental] defense that strengthen you and allow you to put to the test your ideals.”

Yet Decidme cómo es un árbol is also very frank about the toll taken on both prisoners and their families, with many who had spent fifteen to twenty years behind bars unable to rebuild their lives once released back into Spanish society. In the first weeks after leaving prison in 1961, Ana would become dizzy whenever he looked at the horizon, with its depth and extension overwhelming him having spent so many years in the “closed, vertical spaces” of prison. Within months of his release, however, he was smuggled across the French border where, from exile in Paris, he founded the Centre for Information and Solidarity with Spain (CISE), with Pablo Picasso as its honorary president.

An Unfinished Transition

Returning to Spain in January 1977, he was a witness to the “tragic week” of the country’s democratic transition as hardcore elements within the regime unleashed state violence in an attempt to wreck a negotiated settlement between the government of Franco’s heir, Juan Carlos de Borbón, and the democratic opposition. “There is still a debate around whether the transition was proportional to our struggle and sacrifice. . . . Without a doubt, it was not, nor did it represent historical justice. But politics is the art of the possible and is defined with respect to a balance of forces that exist at a given moment.”

Forty-five years later, the limited nature of this transition still haunts Spanish democracy. If a cleaner break with the Francoist state was not possible at the time, the type of democratization-from-above that was negotiated in the 1970s has left the Spanish state anchored in a series of opaque and unaccountable institutions, beginning at the top with the monarchy. The new Democratic Memory Law does not address this wider deficit but it does seek to attend to the basic demands of Franco’s victims. And many of the younger generation of anti-fascist prisoners from the 1960s and ’70s are alive to see their convictions expunged. Meanwhile, for the families of those executed by the regime, the new legislation marks the end of a decades-long struggle to clear their loved ones’ names.

“I will not live to see a future where our noble ideals are victorious,” writes Ana at the end of Decidme cómo es un árbol. “I am proud of my life, of the comrades that accompanied me in the struggle and the ideas which gave meaning to my existence. . . . I now trust in the new generations in whose soil we have sown our history. They will continue our struggle for a more just and humane world, one without hunger, wars or social inequality, where the sun rises and warms everybody.”