Spain starts to lose fear of the past

The peaceful way the country is dealing with Franco’s remains could lead to necessary reflection on his fascist rule.

A visitor takes a snapshot at the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum near Madrid, Spain.

In a giant mausoleum for those who died during the Spanish Civil War, there are more than 30,000 graves but only two with names. Soon there will be only one. After a unanimous ruling from Spain’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, the remains of Francisco Franco, dictator from 1939 to 1975, will be exhumed from the monument known as the Valley of the Fallen.* Franco commissioned the site to commemorate the victims of a war he helped begin. It’s now widely seen as a fascist monument.

The timing of the ruling, 44 years after Franco’s death, may seem odd. Yet it could be a sign that Spain is finally confronting his legacy. Most Spaniards have resisted addressing the decades of fascist rule or dealing with those still affected by it. Among the world’s democracies to emerge from dictatorship, Spain is the only one that never investigated its state terrorism.

During the country’s democratic transition, reformers adopted an unwritten “pact of forgetting.” They believed ignoring the evils of fascism would allow the country to move forward. They said Spain wasn’t ready to confront its past. Neighboring Portugal had tried the opposite and almost entered a civil war. Spain’s transition was widely successful, but its fascist monuments and mass graves remained.

The decision to exhume Franco’s remains is in part a political strategy by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez ahead of November elections. Supporters, however, say it will help right an unjust historical record; opponents say it opens old social wounds. Lost in the disagreement, though, is the peaceful way it is being handled. Franco may be a fraught topic, but no one is afraid of another civil war.

Any country with a checkered past has struggled over how to view its sins. Postwar Germany stands out as a model of repentance that earned forgiveness and turned the country toward peacemaking. In 2015, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier counseled Turkey and Armenia – two countries with decades of bad blood – on how Germany repaired its relationship with France. “After a difficult century, we have reconciled by not keeping silent about our historical responsibility,” he said, but by “working through the horrific things that happened.”

Just after World War II, Germany didn’t immediately address its people’s mixed complicity with Nazism. The process only started in the 1960s, when Cold War-era West Germany was capable of an honest review. It took responsibility, repented and reconciled. Germans realized few would benefit by hiding from the war’s atrocities.

The same should be true for Spain – a state with the second-highest number of disappeared in the world. Many Spaniards with relatives who suffered during the civil war or fascist rule still don’t know what happened to their loved ones. These parts of the collective memory have mostly been lost or forgotten. Moving Franco’s body is no solution, but combined with recent attempts to recover historical memory, it’s a start. Famous for forgetting, Spain is trying to remember. And with memory comes a sense of justice, even if delayed.

Franco relied heavily on nationalist appeals to Spanish history, often twisting the past to justify atrocities in the present. He made millions of Spaniards complicit in his harsh rule. Franco was a military general but history was his greatest weapon.

But if history divides, it can also unite. With Spanish nationalism again on the rise, the best way to counter lingering resentments is honest reflection. Unearthing long-buried bitterness allows reconciliation. History can be healing. Spain now seems ready to review it.


*The other named remains are those of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spain’s fascist party.

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