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Spain’s willful amnesia

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On October 24 this year, the remains of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975) were exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen (‘Valle de los Caidos’) monument outside of Madrid. Upon the coffin’s arrival at the El Pardo cemetery in the city centre, it was greeted by around 100 far-right supporters. This begs the simple question: why? Why did people turn out to celebrate the legacy of the man responsible for the deaths of around 100,000 of their countrymen within living memory?

Franco has been dead for forty-four years now, yet his legacy in Spain is still divided. A recent El Mundo poll found that 32% of Spaniards see Franco in a positive light. To put that number in perspective, think about what the result would be if that same poll was conducted in Germany, with Franco’s name replaced with that of Hitler. When Franco’s descendants – led by his namesake grandson – petitioned the High Court to block the exhumation of his body they received support from many sections of society.

The Valley of the Fallen. Franco’s former resting place will now be a monument to all the Spanish Civil War fallen. Image: Wikimedia commons

Spain, like the rest of Europe, is undergoing a troubled time with high levels of migration and lowering standards of living, leading to a rise in the populist right. However, Spain, unlike the rest of Europe, has recent lived-experiences of a far-right dictatorial government. Despite this, the far-right VOX Party (only founded in 2013) are gaining support quickly. These groups use the image and myth of Franco as an example of a strong leader who can solve the nation’s problems, which only adds to Spain’s memory problem. The results could be catastrophic for European democracy.

Vox Party leader Santiago Abascal. Image: Wikimedia commons.

So why has Franco’s legacy survived so intact in the four decades since his death? The answer is simple – the liberal and conservative governments who have ruled Spain since its democratization didn’t want to acknowledge their role in the consolidation of Franco’s power. The only party who stood up to Franco after the Civil War was the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and it was they who introduced the ‘Historical Memory Law’ in 2007. The law acknowledges the crimes of Franco and the memories of his victims for the first time, yet it very nearly didn’t pass amid mass opposition from the conservative People’s  Party (PP) who claimed – and continue to claim- that talking about the Franco years is unnecessary as it brings to the forefront a difficult time in Spain’s past.

In recent years the populist far-right has also risen its ugly head in Germany and Italy, in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) and ‘North League’ (LN) respectively.

The re-burial fulfils an election pledge by Prime Minister and PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez. Image: Wikimedia commons

Both of these countries were of course formerly under fascist rule, and while these groups have large numbers of supporters (the working-class mass orchestrated by a elite minority is always the case with the far-right), opposition groups of both the democratic centre and centre-left – as well as groups of the far-left – have risen up to check their advance. This is because the legacy of fascism, and of their fascist leaders, is incontrovertible.

After the re-unification of Germany in 1990, the new government ensured that the horrors of Nazism were acknowledged across society, in education, monuments and the media. The truth couldn’t be denied. The same is true to a lesser extent in Italy, but in both cases this knowledge proved to be power. The lack of a similar program of reconciliation in Spain results in poll numbers that place Franco’s approval rating at 32% forty-four years after his death and contributes to a fertile ground from which the disease that is neo-fascism can grow.

Last modified: 6th November 2019

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