Debate rages in Spain over how to remember—or forget—Franco’s dictatorship

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The legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship has become a flashpoint in political debates ahead of Spain’s snap election on 23 July, with the conservative opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo pledging to roll back historical memory legislation designed to bring justice to victims.

The Historical Memory Law, approved in 2007, requires public administrations to remove Francoist symbols and monuments from buildings and streets, and to support efforts to identify and exhume forcibly disappeared victims. An estimated 114,000 people are thought to be buried in more than 3,000 unmarked mass graves around the country, almost 50 years after the end of the Franco regime. The incumbent Socialist government has championed the legislation and passed new provisions last October known as the Democratic Memory Law.

According to recent opinion polls, Feijóo’s Partido Popular (PP) is on course to win the election. But it is already working to undermine the historical memory legislation with the support of the far-right Vox party. In October, PP and Vox blocked the renaming of six Francoist streets in Madrid. Following municipal elections on 28 May, the two parties formed a coalition government in Valencia that promises to repeal policies that, they claim, “attack reconciliation in historical matters”. The move has prompted concerns that the new administration will scrap the subsidies allocated for the exhumation of victims.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of the opposition party Partido Popular, blocked the renaming of six Francoist streets in Madrid

Photo: Alberto Gonzalez/Alamy Stock Photo

Despite its support for the law, the Socialist government has also drawn criticism from historical memory associations for not fully implementing the measures. Less than a mile away from the official residence of the prime minister, the Victory Arch still stands over one of the busiest avenues in Madrid. It was built to commemorate Franco’s victory in the Civil War. It is estimated that 5,600 other Francoist monuments and symbols remain in public and private places around the country.

Photography of mass graves

Since 2015, the photographer Miquel Gonzalez has worked on a project called Memoria Perdida (lost memory) that documents the thousands of mass graves in Spain. The images, captured in the season and time of day that most closely corresponds to each atrocity, reveals a desolate landscape of empty fields, village roads and car parks.

This photograph from Miquel Gonzalez’s Memoria Perdida series shows a vandalised monument to the victims of the Franco regime

Photo: Miquel Gonzalez

“I think the photographs show a bit of what I observed: a silence, an emptiness,” Gonzalez says. He anticipated that the series would at some point become obsolete, as Spain made progress in exhuming the victims and building memorials at the sites. “It was not like that and, unfortunately, I think that it will still be a current issue for years to come,” he says, adding that he worries about the lack of education about the Franco era for younger generations.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s political parties from both right and left reached an informal agreement known as the Pact of Forgetting to avoid dealing with the legacy of the Civil War and dictatorship. The consequences of this policy can be seen today in the absence of official data on the victims of Francoism and the mass graves, or in the lack of a national museum dedicated to the conflict. Construction began last May on the first war museum with a national perspective, located in Teruel, Aragon, the site of a decisive battle. The project has already sparked controversy, however, following the regional government’s decision not to differentiate between the Republican and Francoist sides in the memorial.

Possible end for associations

“Most things have been done by civil society, and the problem for me is what will happen to that civil society with a change of government,” says Emilio Silva, the president of the Association for the Recovery of
Historical Memory. The association is one of the largest working on Spain’s historical memory and, among other missions, organises exhumations of mass graves and denounces breaches of the Historical Memory Law, such as the case of the Arch of Victory. Silva predicts that a victory by Partido Popular could mean the end for associations dependent on subsidies, as was the case during the party’s last mandate between 2011 and 2018.

The lack of political will to come to terms with the past is what is most troubling, Silva believes. “For 40 years all governments have fostered ignorance; it is the bad education of a society that is able to live and coexist with an arch that celebrates the victory of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, without being troubled by it,” he says.

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