Gratitude aplenty for Spain’s reconciliation

A new law to help find the remains of anti-fascist fighters in the civil war pays as much tribute as remembering those who restored democracy after Franco.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez walks past a wall with the names of people killed by late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's forces during the Civil War, in Valladolid, Spain, Oct. 24.

Many countries that have emerged from violent internal conflict – Colombia, South Africa, Tunisia, Cambodia, to name a few – have tried to mend their divided societies with a blend of justice and forgiveness for past atrocities. Then there is Spain. Its limited attempts to heal wounds from the Spanish Civil War have lasted nearly half a century since the end of the Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939-1975). The latest attempt is a new law, passed last month by a left-wing government, that aims to finally achieve national reconciliation.

The law would, among other things, devote state money to help families locate the remains of loved ones killed during the civil war (1936-1939). Up to now, the families have tried, with help from donors, to find an estimated 100,000 unmarked graves for people slaughtered by Franco’s nationalists. In sheer number of mass graves, Spain ranks first in Europe and third worldwide after Burundi and Cambodia, according to the United Nations.

The new official effort, said Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, will “settle the debt of gratitude that our country still owes to those who committed themselves to a democratic Spain.” Tracing the remains of anti-fascist fighters would help Spain “be at peace with its past,” as he put it.

This mix of gratitude and truth-telling about those killed would, in theory, lift a veil of silence over the war’s atrocities. School textbooks barely touch on this dark chapter of Spanish history. On Oct. 31, Spain held its first day of remembrance for Franco-era victims, part of the new law’s mandate for honoring those democratic heroes.

“If we know and understand our bad heritage, we can control it. If we don’t know it, and we don’t understand it, it’s this bad heritage that governs us,” novelist Javier Cercas told the Persuasion online publication.

Yet another view of gratitude has led to opposition to the law. Spain has enjoyed peace and prosperity, critics contend, ever since former associates of Franco joined with communists returning from exile to forgive each other in a 1977 law that set Spain on a path of democracy. The country can be grateful, they say, for a historic period of coexistence without digging up the Franco past.

“Spain has moved on by doing, by acting,” one academic told journalist Tobias Buck in a 2019 book, “After the Fall.”

The critics also say that individuals, not the state, should decide what evidence to remember about the civil war. A history imposed by a particular government is a tactic to control the present, they argue, and a denial of individual agency.

This struggle over competing views of gratitude for Spain’s democracy could be easy to solve. The new law, for example, gives high praise for the post-Franco leaders who set aside their differences to launch one of Europe’s most solid democracies. And most Spaniards support further efforts, whether private or public, to help families find the remains of Franco’s victims.

“There can be no [national] concord without memory,” states Manuel de la Rocha Rubí, a politician of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, in elDiario digital media outlet. And Spain has plenty of gratitude on both sides to finally find reconciliation.

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