Spain’s Memory Law Hasn’t Banished the Ghosts of Francoism

Spain’s Law of Democratic Memory was meant to end official silence over the Spanish Civil War and shed light on Franco-era crimes. But right-wing parties are using their power to ensure the truth remains buried.

Acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez, and acting minister of the presidency, Felix Bolaños, deliver the declarations of recognition and personal reparation during the ceremony on the occasion of the celebration of the "Day of Remembrance and Tribute to all the victims of the military coup, the War and the Dictatorship," on October 30, 2023, in Madrid, Spain. (Carlos Lujan / Europa Press via Getty Images)

“Would this also be your plan for Germany, Mr Weber? To bring back to the streets and squares of Berlin the names of the leaders of the Third Reich?” This was the question that Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, recently addressed to German center-right politician Manfred Weber, head of the largest group in the European Parliament. Center-left leader Sánchez was speaking to EU parliamentarians in Strasbourg, France, shortly after his reelection by Spain’s Congress last month, following a sharply contested general election in which the far right appeared close to reaching government for the first time since Francisco Franco’s death.

In that heated debate at the European Parliament, the Christian-Democrat Weber strongly criticized Sánchez for negotiating the support of Catalan pro-independence parties in order to remain prime minister. In exchange for their votes in Congress, Sánchez’s Socialist Party offered an amnesty law for those who participated in the failed Catalan bid for independence in 2017. Weber chided Sánchez for discarding the option of instead reaching an agreement with the right-wing Partido Popular (PP).

The conservative PP had in fact received the biggest vote share in the July 2023 general election, but could not reach a parliamentary majority even with the support of far-right party Vox. Pacts between these two parties had become widespread after last May’s regional and local elections across Spain, where the PP made major gains but often failed to secure absolute majorities. In these cases, Vox voted in favor of PP candidates after reaching agreements that sometimes included a place for this Spanish-nationalist force within the various regional and local governments.

It was this that spurred Sánchez to give EU parliamentarians an overview of the policies implemented by these right-wing coalitions. Sánchez asked Weber whether he was aware that governments reliant on Vox support are bringing back street names associated with leading figures of the Franco dictatorship, which ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. It was in this context that Sánchez quizzed Weber on whether he would be comfortable with Third Reich personalities being commemorated in his country’s street names.

The PP’s predecessor party, the Alianza Popular, was itself founded after the dictator’s death by Manuel Fraga, a minister in several Francoist governments. The right-wing party’s traditional line of argument is that the legacy of the dictatorship was overcome with the first democratic elections in 1977 and the approval of the current constitution in 1978, which represented a form of national reconciliation. Vox has been less circumspect about its views on the Francoist past. Although it does not openly defend Franco’s dictatorship, Francoist flags are a frequent sight at party rallies. More revealing were the words of Vox leader Santiago Abascal in September 2020. He stated that the broad-left cabinet headed by the Socialist Sánchez in coalition with the left-wing Unidas Podemos was “the worst Spanish government in the last 80 years” — that is, since before the Francoist regime was established.

Matilde Eiroa San Francisco, history professor at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, tells me that the differences between the PP and Vox on Francoism are more a matter of nuance than of essence. She explains that both parties understand the Second Republic (1931–36), the first democratic period in Spain’s history, and the ensuing Civil War (1936–39) based on their own historical biases.

They essentially contend that the Left is to blame for all the negative and violent periods in Spain’s modern history — a vision that long served as justification for Francoism, and which the regime itself propagated. Both the PP and Vox are also aware that studying and discussing the dictatorship period “sheds a bad light on important social groups that are at the origins of the current political right and far right,” adds Eiroa San Francisco.

Pact of Forgetting

Spain’s late-1970s transition to a democratic system was based on the agreed-upon fiction that Spain’s history was starting anew after Franco’s death. Those who had benefited from Francoism were content with washing away their undemocratic past, while those who had suffered the dictatorship or exile were too conscious of the new democracy’s fragility to demand a clean break with the past.

This collective silence, often known as “Pacto del Olvido” (Pact of Forgetting), was institutionalized in the 1977 Amnesty Law. The decision to guarantee legal impunity to those responsible for the regime’s crimes opened the door to the consolidation of a new democratic order. The price to pay was very high, however, as the victims of the Francoist forces during the Civil War and the dictatorship never saw their oppressors account for their crimes in a court of law.

The power of the “Pacto del Olvido” was plain to see when the Socialist Party led by Felipe González won the elections in 1982, returning to national government for the first time in over four decades. The last Socialist prime minister, Juan Negrín, had died in exile after fleeing the Francoist troops, but González, who stayed in power until 1996, left the past untouched. It was not until the government of Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero formed in 2004 after two consecutive PP governments that Spain initiated the first attempts to deal with the period of the Civil War and Francoism.

Despite PP opposition, in 2007 the Spanish Congress passed the Ley de Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) which declared illegitimate the political trials staged by Francoist tribunals and ordered the removal of symbols and street names related to the regime period. Furthermore, it established that the state would provide funding to excavate the mass graves where tens of thousands of Republicans had been buried during and after the Civil War, without proper graves and without their families’ knowledge.

The very limited advances of the Law of Historical Memory were halted after PP leader Mariano Rajoy became prime minister in 2011. During his seven years in power, Rajoy’s government did not abrogate the Ley de Memoria Histórica — but did starve it of public funds, which ultimately had a similar effect. Governmental funds had been dedicated to the excavation of mass graves, exhibitions, documentaries, and congresses. These activities were barely able to survive thanks to international prizes and private donations.

After the Socialists returned to the national government in 2018, the new cabinet led by Sánchez proceeded to exhume Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen. This is a well-known monumental site of Francoist triumphalism outside Madrid, where more than thirty thousand Republicans were buried without proper graves and without their families’ knowledge.

In 2022, the broad-left government led by Sánchez approved the Ley de Memoria Democrática (Law of Democratic Memory), a further step forward compared to the 2007 measures. Under the new legislation, the state assumes as its responsibility of identifying and providing a decent burial to the Republicans who were buried in mass graves. The new law also recognizes a broader range of victims of the 1936–39 conflict and the dictatorship. Both the PP and Vox opposed this legislation.

Turning Back the Clock

Still, the Law of Democratic Memory itself has major limits. The main one, which largely results from the 1977 Amnesty Law, is that it continues to be very difficult to bring anyone responsible for Franco-era crimes to court. It is also important to consider that, due to Spain’s relatively decentralized political system, the different regional governments play a major role in applying historical memory laws. This has given latitude to the regional parliaments in Catalonia and the Basque Country, special targets of Francoist repression, to approve particularly ambitious such legislation.

However, in the political context that followed the right-wing advance in the May 2023 regional and local elections, the vast powers of regional parliaments regarding historical memory policies have had a very different effect. In regions such as Aragon or Extremadura, the PP and Vox established coalition governments. In others, such as Cantabria or the Balearic Islands, the two parties agreed that the PP would govern alone, but on condition that it implemented some of the measures championed by the far right. In these regions where Vox is decisive, the far right has consistently demanded that none of the measures established by the Law of Democratic Memory should be implemented and that regional legislation building on the old Law of Historical Memory must be erased.

The case of the Balearic Islands is paradigmatic of the far right’s power to remold historical memory laws even from outside of high office. Before the May 2023 regional elections, the Socialists had held the presidency here for some eight years, in two different coalitions with left-wing parties. In contrast to what happened at the national level and in many regional parliaments, the PP in the Balearic Islands voted in favor of the regional Law of Historical Memory in 2018. But as a result of the political agreement between the right-wing parties that gave the PP the presidency of the Balearics in summer 2023, the PP announced that it would abrogate the regional parliament’s 2018 Law of Historical Memory.

Maria Antònia Oliver París, president of the Memory Association of Mallorca, tells me that her association has been kept in the dark by the current PP government in the Balearic Islands. It has continued the program it inherited from the previous administration to open mass graves and identify the victims of Francoist repression during the Civil War and its aftermath. But it has done so with significant delays and secrecy.

This contrasts with the previous government’s policy, which she considered a success because of the constant communication between the regional government and civil society organizations that advocate for historical memory. She states that “memory needs to be public, to be part of society, to be spread and promoted.” Instead, under the current government “the victims of Francoism and their relatives are used as a bargaining chip” to appease the far right.

The situation in the Balearic Islands after the May 2023 vote, as in many other regions and cities where the PP is in power and Vox plays a key role, remains paradoxical. While limited in important regards, the Law of Democratic Memory approved in 2022 is the most ambitious national law ever to deal with the almost four decades of Francoist repression. Nevertheless, as historian Eiroa San Francisco points out, it is possible that the Law of Democratic Memory “is reduced to nothing in those regions where the Popular Party and Vox participate in the government.”

If recent Spanish history has shown us something, it is that social rights and advances toward a healthier conversation about the Francoist past are never permanent. Any move to shed light on the dictatorship is always at risk of being overturned, as long as large sections of Spanish society insist that the past is better left alone.