Spain’s right to memory under threat

The politics of public or “collective” memory are alive and well in Spain, where a controversial dictionary of national biography has whitewashed the career of its former dictator, General Francisco Franco.

In May 2011 Judge Baltasar Garzón, who pursued Chilean dictator Pinochet over human rights abuses, was suspended from his post as an investigating magistrate at Madrid’s national court while Spain’s Supreme Court tries him on charges of distorting the law by opening an investigation into crimes against humanity carried out under the Franco regime. Campaigners who have been seeking justice for those killed by Franco’s death squads before and after the Spanish civil war (1936-39) say that Garzón has become “the last victim of Francoism”.

Now, the country’s Real Academia de la Historia (royal academy of history) has triggered a row after publishing a publicly funded dictionary of national biography that includes an admiring description of Franco, widely seen as a dictator with blood on his hands. After 12 years of work and more than €6.5m (£5.7m) in taxpayers’ money, the first volumes of the encyclopaedia have been unveiled last week only for readers to discover that the dictator’s biography was written by Professor Luis Suárez, an 86-year-old Franco apologist who is better known as a medievalist.

The entry describes how Franco “became famous for the cold courage which he showed in the field” while a young officer in Africa and how his brutal years in power saw him “set up a regime that was authoritarian, but not totalitarian.” Speaking to a Spanish news agency, Suárez said, “This is an objective study, with no value judgments.” He claimed that since the term “dictator” was not used during Franco’s lifetime (there’s a surprise!), “A historian cannot use it.”

Suárez is a personal friend of the Franco family and a senior figure in the Brotherhood of the Valley of the Fallen. This group, which takes its name from the controversial underground basilica where the dictator was buried in 1975, is actively opposed to the so-called “historical memory” movement in Spain, which has recently been searching for, and digging up, the mass graves of the victims of death squads.

The right to memory is a question of justice. In all communities and societies, the choice of what is recorded or memorialised and the way it is represented are not neutral but take place in accordance with predetermined perceptions and policies. This politics of remembering and/or forgetting essentially constitutes a struggle for power. Wherever justice is absent, wherever a politics of enforced amnesia reigns, it falls to courageous individuals and civil society groups to take stand on history and public memory, even if it means having to face deep trauma. The right to memory symbolises the right to justice.

As Uruguayan writer and poet Eduardo Galeano pointed out in Patas arriba. La escuela del mundo al revés (1998):

“History is not mute. However much they burn it, however much they break it, however much they lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Time past continues pulsating, alive, within time present, although time present doesn’t wish it or doesn’t know it. The right to remember does not figure among the human rights consecrated by the United Nations, but today it is more than ever necessary to claim it and put it into practice: not in order to repeat the past, but in order to avoid it being repeated.”

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