The controversial Valley of the Fallen, outside Madrid

Digging up Franco, burying history

The resurgent Spanish left wants to exhume the former dictator’s remains and even outlaw any favourable mention of his legacy

The democratic transition that transformed Spain’s government between 1976 and 1978 was unique. Never before had a firmly established modern authoritarian regime been peacefully democratised from the inside out, using the dictatorship’s own law and institutions without the impact of international war or violent revolt. Though much of the political history of modern Spain is a record of failure, this was a singular achievement. It pioneered the model of democratisation later employed in Latin America, post-communist Eastern Europe, and a number of Asian and African countries.

After a motion introduced by the communists in 1977, and at the unanimous behest of other leftist deputies, the new regime voted a blanket amnesty for all those involved in killings and other politically-based infractions during the revolutionary civil war of 1936-1939 and the resulting dictatorship (1939- 1975). The new leaders agreed that history should be left to historians and that the cycle of vengeance against former foes inaugurated by the Republic of 1931-1936 should be rejected. This policy was also followed, mutatis mutandis, by the great majority of the numerous post-dictatorial parliamentary regimes in other parts of the world during the generation that followed.

The parliamentary regime inaugurated by King Juan Carlos quickly achieved stability and has governed with greater or lesser success for more than 40 years. Power has alternated between the socialists and the more conservative Partido Popular, extending the social development and economic growth initiated under Franco. During these years Spanish society has grown steadily more secular in spirit and much more liberal in culture, until by the early 21st century it ranked as arguably the most tolerant country in a very tolerant Western Europe and, according to surveys, the one with the least patriotic spirit. The latter seemed to accord with the most distinctive feature of the new constitutional regime: its extreme decentralisation, with slight variations in regional statutes, especially for the Basque Country. This resulted in an anomalous structure that some political scientists have called “asymmetric federalism”. Although it is not a federal system per se, in some respects not even Switzerland is so fully decentralised.

A woman attends the exhumation of a Republican relative’s body
A woman attends the exhumation of a Republican relative’s body

The conservatives won an absolute parliamentary majority for the first time in the elections of 2000, but on the eve of the next contest four years later, a major Islamist terror attack killed 200 people in Madrid. After a clumsy response by the government, the socialists returned to power. Elsewhere a major terrorist assault normally prompts the citizenry to rally behind their government; however, as Franco’s tourist posters used to say, an increasingly disunited Spain is “different”.

The new government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero moved the country farther left, promoting sex-and-gender legislation sometimes more advanced than in Northern Europe. It also tried to promote a new political alliance with Catalan and Basque nationalists, who exploit every concession to exact further privileges. The proposed entente failed, instead helping to touch off the current cycle of extreme Catalan agitation.

This coincided with the rise of the “historical memory” movement, the Spanish variant of one of the most fundamental motifs of the political correctness doctrine in the Western world. History, or what is claimed as history, plays a special role in this ideology beyond what has existed in any other radical doctrine of the modern era. Essentially it replaces the old binary Marxist emphasis on exploiters/exploited with the new moralist (and often ethnic) doctrine of perpetrators/victims.

In Spain, there had been more victims than in most West European countries. The Civil War was one of the most savage of Europe’s revolutionary struggles during the first half of the past century. The total number of violent deaths — fewer than 300,000 — was not in itself remarkable, amounting to scarcely more than one per cent of the population. Much more extraordinary was that nearly half were victims of political executions. While military combat produced about 150,000 Spanish fatalities, there were approximately 50-55,000 executions.

The estimates of those slaughtered by Franco’s Nationalists vary from a low of 35,000 (undoubtedly too low) to a high of 120,000 (undoubtedly too high). In addition, Franco’s military tribunals decreed death sentences for an additional 20,000 persons in the first years after the war ended. Many of these had been involved in the lethal deeds of the revolutionaries, but others were charged with so-called political crimes.

The historical memory movement had begun with the laudable goal of recovering the remains of executed Republicans buried anonymously, sometimes dumped in pits. It soon broadened into a much more ambitious project that involved many, though not all, sectors of the leftist parties. Some began to take the more extreme position that the democratic transition under Juan Carlos had been seriously flawed from the start. They condemned it for not prosecuting Francoist perpetrators, not restoring a leftist republic and not shifting political power decisively to the left. It charged the leaders of the democratisation with having imposed a “pact of silence”, despite the fact that the tacit agreement formed in the first years merely affirmed that history would not be brandished by the political parties for partisan purposes and the fact that the study of recent history in Spain has arguably had been greater than similar attention in any other West European country.

The Zapatero government responded to these demands in part, gaining parliamentary approval in October 2007 for new legislation colloquially known as the Law of Historical Memory. Despite the dubious propriety of seeking to legislate historical opinion, it labelled as “democrats” the Republican revolutionaries who had torn up Republican democracy before and during the Civil War. It provided grants to groups seeking to uncover the remains of anonymously buried leftists, and to others studying or publicising the Civil War in approved ways. It also provided compensation for selected leftist victims and created a new documentary centre on the civil war in Salamanca.

This measure was deemed totally insufficient by the extreme left, whose following increased greatly during the subsequent Great Recession. Venezuelan money helped to found a radical new left-populist party, Podemos. The extreme left groups, who by 2016 garnered more than 20 per cent of the vote, demanded regime change, invoking a Third Republic. They seemed to have little “memory” of the real history of the disastrous First and Second Republics, and recommended deposition of the new king Felipe VI (who succeeded to the throne in 2014), despite the crucial role of his father in ending the dictatorship and in introducing and safeguarding democracy, or the significance of the monarchy as a crucial stabilising force in a deeply divided country.

Though he had been dead for decades, Franco grew into an obsession for the “historical memory” movement and for much of the left in general even though there was no neo-Francoist movemen and the culture and mores of 21st century Spain had as little to do with him as could be imagined. The farther Franco receded in the memory of Spaniards, the more grandiose grew the Franco myth brandished by the left until “Anti-Francoism” became a banner to cover the absence of serious policies for the complex problems of the new century.

By 2005, 30 years after his death, Franco’s great monument to those slain in the Civil War, the Valley of the Fallen, 30 miles north-west of Madrid had became a bone of contention. Both austere and grandiose, this may be the most impressive memorial constructed in the 20th century , consisting of an enormous basilica-mausoleum carved directly into the side of a rocky hill, crowned by a gigantic cross. It contains the bones of nearly 34,000 of those slain in combat, both Nationalist and Republican. When Franco died in 1975, King Juan Carlos and his government decided that he, too, should be interred there. Over the years, it became a tourist site and the scene of occasional commemorations by pro-Franco nostalgists.

During the Zapatero years, detractors insisted it was a monument to “fascism” that should be shut down or even blown up. The Zapatero government restricted access but did not dare close a basilica of the Roman Catholic Church in violation of the law. Critics maintained that, at the very least, Franco’s remains be disinterred and moved to the small cemetery where his wife is buried near the 18th-century palace of El Pardo. Just outside Madrid, this was for many years his official residence and is now a national historical site. After returning to power with an absolute majority at the close of 2011, the moderate conservative government of Mariano Rajoy reopened access to the basilica, but eschewed the country’s culture wars. It reneged on its campaign promise to abolish the Law of Historical Memory, but ceased funding it. Rajoy was content to leavenearly all cultural initiatives in the hands of the left while concentrating on the economic crisis.

The new leader selected by the Socialist Party in 2015, Pedro Sánchez, veered yet farther left than Zapatero. In 2017, with little pushback from conservatives, the socialists introduced a new proposal for a second, more controlling and punitive history law. This detailed 31-page draft proposes to identify all leftist victims of repression from the beginning of the Civil War and provide reparation, as well as giving full access to data and systematic publicity on role in opposing the Nationalists. To be removed are all public symbols and monuments honouring the latter, though not those honouring the revolutionaries, universally labelled with the euphemism “democrats”. This process was to be supervised by a national “Truth Commission”.

Franco: No Resting in peace

This apparently reflected the assumption that history was too serious a matter to leave to historians, even though most history departments in Spanish universities are highly politically correct. It was clearly an effort to remove ambiguity and complexity from Spain’s very complex recent history, to disguise the character of the revolutionary side in the Civil War and to suppress any neutral or favourable discussion of the Nationalists. This Orwellian legislation proposed that the Ministry of Justice prosecute any future infringement of these terms.

Violators would be subject to imprisonment for up to four years, to fines of as much as 150,000 euros, and, in the cases of teachers, to suspension from their profession for a number of years. All this was in clear breach of the spirit and the letter of the constitutional democratisation of 1976-1978, which has since ensured that Spain has enjoyed greater freedom of speech than most European countries.

At that point, after severely divided elections, a minority Rajoy government remained in office as a short-term caretaker administration. In a typical gesture, it failed to criticise the socialist proposal on its merits but instead vetoed it on fiscal grounds.

Pedro Sánchez succeeded in becoming prime minister in June 2018, forming another minoritarian government in a manoeuvre of dubious legality that failed to meet the constitutional requirement of presenting a viable replacement majority when tabling a vote of no confidence. His administration has fewer than 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and faces imminent new elections, meanwhile being unable to pass a budget or transact any other urgent business.

The one grand gesture that it could make was to propose the immediate exhumation of Franco’s remains, arguing that the Valley of the Fallen had become a monument to the former dictator. Seven years before, the Zapatero government had appointed a national commission of experts, who concluded that reburial elsewhere was advisable, but only after consensus had been reached between the state, religious authorities and the Franco family. It also recommended the family have authority to select the new site. These stipulations were ignored by the Sánchez interim government, which alleged “extreme urgency” (after 44 years!), while conservative and centrist deputies abstained. The Franco family appealed, sending the matter to the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision on 23 September. In addition, it rejected the earlier commission’s recommendation, denying the request by Franco’s grandchildren that, if the remains were to be moved, they be reburied in the family crypt in the Almudena, Madrid’s cathedral near the centre of the city. Such a directive by a high court denying the right to bury a family member in the family crypt may be unprecedented in the history of Western constitutional government and raises questions concerning civil rights and freedom of religion.

The socialists’ proposed new law reflected the assumption that history was too serious a matter to leave to the historians

Further obstacles remain, at least temporarily. A district court has stayed exhumation until questions regarding safety and environmental issues associated with digging up the two-ton seal of the burial site can be resolved. Second, the Basílica Pontificia de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos is a basilica of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Prior in charge has refused permission for interference — that is, desecration — by the state. This matter can be resolved only by the papacy. A representative recently dispatched to Rome failed to obtain approval, though the betting is that Pope Francis will eventually cave to political pressure.

In the meantime, Catalan nationalists carried out their attempted independence referendum in September 2017. All three of the Spanish constitutionalist parties (conservatives, centrists and socialists) rallied in support of unity and constitutional order, though the Rajoy government received negative publicity abroad for firmly shutting down the illegal balloting. While the top figures escaped abroad, 18 leaders were arrested and indicted, eight of them released on bail. Beyond that, there was no restriction of the numerous unconstitutional policies of the regional government. Catalan political institutions still functioned normally and the agitation of the nationalists continued unabated, with no effort to curb their customarily vehement propaganda and educational indoctrination. The Spanish government further extended the large subsidies needed to sustain the massive deficit of the Catalan regional administration. The Madrid government, so to speak, continued to finance its own subversion. A more indulgent autonomous system could scarcely be imagined.

After two years, Spain’s Supreme Court delivered its verdict on the leaders: nine were convicted of “sedition” and “misuse of public funds” and given sentences of 11 to 13 years, whereas four others were acquitted of major charges but convicted of “disobedience of the law” and received fines. In a declaration that same day, Prime Minister Sánchez observed that the majority of Catalan voters had not supported independence and that therefore “Catalonia must engage in dialogue with Catalonia. What is now at stake is no longer the territorial integrity of Spain but co-existence within Catalonia.”

Spain is the only West European country that has never formed a coalition government, having been ruled for four decades by administrations that either enjoy an absolute majority or ad hoc voting alliances for key issues. Since 2016, it has been governed by minority caretaker administrations under Rajoy and, from June 2018, Pedro Sánchez.

The general election this month will be the fourth in three years as Spain reverts to its earlier pattern of political futility. Spanish conservatives lack leadership and vision and live in mortal fear that the left will call them “Francoists”. Roman Catholicism, once a mainstay of Spanish conservatism, has declined greatly in influence, though most people still identify as Catholic. The Citizens centre party is politically schizophrenic and indecisive. The left is divided between the weakened socialists and the more radical Podemos, the latter apparently now in decline.

According to opinion polls, the political sympathies of Spanish citizens are more leftist than those of voters in any of the other five largest West European countries. This is especially the case among younger Spaniards between 18 and 24 years of age, 31 per cent of whom identify with the extreme left, which is much more than in any of the other four largest states. Of those who have remained in school until the age of 20, the figure rises to 44 per cent.

Spanish sentiment is currently the most politically correct in Europe. About 63 per cent of Spaniards view the European Union either positively or very positively, 15 per cent above the EU average. Similarly, anti-immigrant sentiment is lower than almost anywhere else. Though Spain has the most “unequal border” of any European country (its per capita income is nearly seven times greater than that of Morocco) and has three million unemployed, 49 per cent of Spaniards approve the free entry of immigrants so long as there are jobs for them. How such work could be provided is totally unclear. Fifteen percent even advocate open borders. Of all Europeans, Spaniards rank climate change highest on the list of national problems, indeed as the number one problem. In one survey, only a minority of young people expressed willingness to volunteer and fight if their country were to be militarily invaded. In Italy, the large country most similar to Spain, extreme left sentiment is much lower and patriotic feeling distinctly higher, so Franco’s tourist bureau apparently selected its slogan well.

Some time before his death, Franco warned of the return of what he called the country’s “familiar demons” of severe disunity and political sectarianism. In the 21st century, much of the Spanish electorate seems dedicated to proving him right.

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