In the shadows of the past

It was a typical Spanish Sunday afternoon. Family and friends filled the room, young children competing with the old and infirm for the right to be heard. Amid the general chaos, one old lady turned to me with tears in her eyes and, producing four photos from her purse, said: ‘Here are mis cuatro muertos (my four dead ones)—my father, my husband, my daughter and Generalissimo Franco’.

Her son, a man in his mid-40s, turned to me and said, ‘things were better under Franco—there were jobs, no drugs and the streets were safe. Everyone wants to criticise Franco but he did a lot of good things’.

As a relative newcomer to the country, what does one say when confronted with the melancholy of nostalgia for a dictator who divided Spain and ruled over it ruthlessly for four decades? I smiled weakly.

When you first arrive in Spain, it is easy to be impressed by the country’s transition to democracy. A devastating civil war and nearly 40 years of fascism seem, to the outside observer, to have simply evaporated upon Franco’s death in November 1975. By 1978, Spain had a new constitution and now possesses a democracy so robust and successful that it is almost impossible to imagine this vibrant, somewhat hedonistic nation cast out by the outside world and withering under repression for so many years.

However, if you scratch a little below the surface, Spain is a country with deep scars whose survival as a modern democratic state has depended upon a veil of silence which masks its past.

Every family in Spain is still marked by the civil war and the years of Franco, divided in memory, if nothing else, between those who were for and those who were against Franco. In Madrid, you can buy a souvenir statue of Franco, as easily as a toy soldier. There are statues to Franco in cities throughout Spain and many towns still have a street named Avenida de Generalissimo Franco, as if he were some benign, fatherly figure of folklore rather than a man who admired Hitler and Mussolini, routinely tortured or killed government opponents and, even as late as 1975, demanded the fascist salute of an outstretched arm when greeted. And again a phrase keeps recurring—‘Franco wasn’t all bad, he did some good things’.

And yet, Franco’s time has forever passed. Very few, apart from old men and women lost in the myths of their nostalgia, could imagine a return to the dark days of fascism. Fascist political parties or other far-right groups consistently fail to win 0.5 per cent of the popular vote in elections. A return to the days of Franco would not only be unthinkable but would quite likely cause a nationwide revolution.

Writing in The Guardian in September 2002, Giles Tremlett said, ‘Visitors to Madrid often ask what happened to the hundreds of thousands of stiff-armed, blue-shirted Franco supporters who used to pack the Plaza de Oriente for his rallies. The answer, 25 years later, is that many are dead, most were only there for the free trip to Madrid and the rest are a powerless rump known simply as los nostalgicos, or the nostalgists’.

Nevertheless, to understand the ambivalent role which Franco and the country’s fascist past still plays in Spanish society, it is necessary to revisit Spain’s transition to democracy.

There was no South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nor was there anything resembling the path of post-war Germany’s Nuremberg Trials. Indeed, what distinguishes Spain’s transition to democracy is the fact that the prime ministers who oversaw the transition—first Carlos Arias Navarro and then Adolfo Suárez—had been life-long Franco loyalists. The Spanish armed forces also remained under the control of those who had carried out Franco’s repressive policies until well into the 1980s. Such was the pervasiveness of Franco’s bureaucratic and military apparatus that, apart from exiled opponents of the regime, there were few Spaniards in any positions of power during the years of transition who had not been loyal foot-soldiers of the dictator.

Even King Juan Carlos, the man who would later cement Spain’s democratic future, was a Franco protégé, a monarch schooled by Franco since the age of ten in the ways of fascism and who swore an oath of eternal allegiance to Franco’s ideals and promised to uphold them in perpetuity.

The only thing that did change was the fact that the Spanish people, restive and released from the shadow cast by Franco’s strangely charismatic presence, were clamouring for change. Without the dictator’s bloody-minded resoluteness in the face of a discontented country, none of his functionaries, themselves so many years cowed and marginalised by Franco, possessed the necessary standing to force their personalities and policies upon a hesitantly, but newly emboldened population.

There were serious missteps along the way. An inability and an unwillingness to halt repression in the Basque Country fanned the flames of separatist anger, giving new momentum to the terrorist group ETA whose existence remains one of Spain’s great unresolved issues. ETA killed 38 people under Franco, yet has murdered 779 (including 118 in 1980 alone) since the advent of democracy, a fact largely attributable to the newly democratic Spanish leaders’ failure to understand the goodwill required to bring Franco’s enemies into the fold.

Rumours of coup plots were rife from the early days of the democratic transition and would continue until the mid 1980s. Under the 1978 constitution, the Spanish military was charged with the task of safeguarding ’the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ and few trusted the army.

On 23 February 1981—a date etched into the memory of a generation of Spaniards—a recalcitrant and fanatically pro-Franco lieutenant-colonel, Antonio Tejero Molina, stormed the Spanish parliament during a nationally televised swearing in ceremony, firing shots into the air. For 24 hours, he held hostage the entire Spanish political class, not to mention the nation. Throughout a very long night, as the outcome hung in the balance and some army divisions pledged support for the coup and sent tanks onto the streets of Valencia, Spanish families waited to hear whether their country was to return to a military dictatorship and, most likely, follow the path of many Latin American countries to perennial instability. A nationally televised address by the king, in which he ordered the troops to return to barracks and assured his subjects that the coup did not have his support, ultimately defeated the coup.

The events of 23 February were a watershed in Spanish democracy. On the one hand, Spaniards took to the streets in numbers which only Spaniards can muster in support of democracy and reclaimed the transition as their own. The underlying message of the people was that they, and not politicians nor the army, were the true guarantors of Spanish democracy.

At the same time, an unreconstructed army remained in the wings, armed with constitutional justification for intervention. Fearful of more coups, the government wound back the movement towards regional autonomy and actively sought to appease the military and pro-Franco sections of society by paying more attention to their concerns.

Twenty years later, the consequence has been an unassailable democracy, but one with elements which would be unthinkable in any other country.

The Partido Popular (Popular Party; PP), which ruled Spain from 1996 until March 2004, was founded as the Alianza Popular in the early days of the transition. Its founder, one Manuel Fraga, had been a loyal interior minister under Franco. Fraga, now in his 80s, still heads the PP ticket in Galicia and is the north-west region’s premier.

In 2002, it was announced that the Francisco Franco Foundation—an archive of 27,000 Francoist documents overseen by the former dictator’s relatives—received 83,000 euros from the Culture Ministry to modernise its archives. That this represented 10 per cent of the ministry’s budget for such projects and was the single largest subsidy was even more controversial given that the foundation’s archives are, and have always been closed to anti-Franco historians and the general public.

On Madrid’s main thoroughfare, Gran Via, stands a wood-panelled gentlemen’s club, Gran Pena, which is a bastion of Francoist sympathies and where the veterans of the Blue Division—a 40,000-strong volunteer Franco army who fought for Hitler during World War II—come to listen to former Franco luminaries. In the entry hall is a bust of Franco which was erected in 1992.

Given the fragility of the post-Franco years, the argument that Spain’s survival as a democracy depended on a national act of forgetting is a compelling one. At the same time, Spain’s collective silence about its past continues to ensure that Spain remains a scarred and divided nation.

On 12 October 2004, the annual military parade saw, for the first time, a former member of the republican army, which was defeated in the 1936–39 Civil War, marching alongside a veteran of the fascist Blue Division. The government boldly announced the move as a step towards national reconciliation, but was drowned out by a wave of criticism from Franco’s victims, not to mention those uncomfortable with the symbolism of allowing a once pro-Hitler soldier to participate in this day of national pride.

Undaunted, and despite the dangers of opening old wounds, the Socialist government has continued to pursue an unprecedented policy of confronting the past.

The central pillars of the new approach include repealing Francoist laws (Spain is the only country in Europe not to have repealed some 1940s fascist legislation) and removing Franco symbols (statues, street names etc) from public spaces. More controversially, the government is investigating the possibility of a truth commission, launching official tributes to the victims of Franco, offering compensation to victims and formulating new school curriculum as it relates to the Franco period. There are also moves afoot to redress the injustice of the implicit pardoning of men such as Manuel Fraga while no such official exoneration has ever been granted to the thousands who were executed for their opposition to Franco.

More important for many victims, however, is the issue of mass graves, the unmarked resting places of men and women who died because they were deemed to be anti-Franco. The London School of Economics’ eminent historian, Professor Paul Preston, who has compared Franco to Saddam Hussein, recently told Spain’s El País newspaper that ‘the mass graves in Iraq are not much different from those now being dug up in Spain’.

The fact that the government is yielding to demands which no Spanish government has previously contemplated is due in part to the persistence of groups like the Association for Recovery of Historical Memory. Their president, Emilio Silva, stated in September: ‘In other countries, those who resisted dictatorships are national heroes and receive a range of public assistance—it should be the same here’. But it is difficult to find a more compelling reason for acting than 100-year-old Francisca del Río, whose husband was killed by Franco’s soldiers in Malaga in the 1930s: ‘José Sastre was the love of my life. My only wish is to bury him in a place where I can bring him flowers’.

The highly symbolic act of Spain counting its muertos, of women such as Francisca finally being able to bury their dead, may be the defining act of Spain’s transition to democracy and the ultimate test of its maturity. In the process, Franco and all that he represents may at last be condemned to history in disgrace.

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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