Many countries have been persuaded that it is better to ignore and suppress the past in the interest of forgiving and forgetting. Such arguments are often put forward by those who have most to hide and most to lose. The opposite argument – that past sins must be publicly acknowledged – recognizes that in violent conflict everyone is scarred for life.
In 2007 Spain’s Congress of Deputies ratified “The Bill to recognise and extend rights and to establish measures in favour of those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the Dictatorship” (commonly known as the Law of Historical Memory). It officially recognizes the crimes committed against civilians under the rule of the country’s long-time dictator General Franco.
Contemporary research leads most historians to acknowledge that some 100,000 people were summarily executed by Franco’s Nationalists during Spain’s Civil War (1936-39) and tens of thousands more afterwards. New histories and in-depth local studies support the conclusion that, “The wide-ranging nature of Nationalist terror was not coincidental, a by-product of civil war, but reflected a much deeper ideological outlook that sought to purge the ‘anti-Spain’ and eliminate the cancer of ‘communism'” (The Spanish Civil War, Andy Duggan, 2007). Franco not only knew what was happening, he personally authorized the crimes.
Franco died in 1975. In March 2006, the Permanent Commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the “multiple and serious violations” of human rights committed in Spain under Franco’s regime from 1939 to 1975. The resolution was the first official international condemnation of the horrors and it began the erosion of Spain’s pacto de silencio, intended to suppress dialogue about the past in the interest of moving on.
In 2007, the Spanish government banned official public references to the Franco regime and removed all statues, street names and memorials associated with it. In 2010 one of the last remaining statues of El Caudillo was taken down from the army headquarters in Valencia. Yet, one of the most notorious symbols of his rule still exists on a hillside 30 miles north of Madrid, where a 500 ft granite cross soars above a mausoleum hewn out of rock and built using forced labour.
After Franco’s death, King Juan Carlos decided to have him buried at Valle de los Caídos, a colossal memorial that in name honours all the casualties of the Spanish Civil War. Designed by Franco it is distinctly nationalist. In 2011 a panel of experts, convened to determine the fate of the Valley of the Fallen, recommended that Franco’s remains be exhumed from the site and the basilica converted into a place of reconciliation. But relatives of Franco opposed the move and so far nothing has been done.
Franco’s family is still living off the proceeds of terror and murder. Estimates of the family’s accumulated wealth range from 350 to 600 million Euros. In addition to Franco’s ill-gotten wealth, when he was sick, the Cortes voted a pension for his wife. At the time of her death in 1988, she was still receiving more than 12.5 million pesetas (four million more than Felipe González, the then head of government). Under dubious circumstances, the family took possession of several properties, including the Pazo de Meirás – a manor house “given” to Franco at the end of the Civil War – that the Galician authorities have long been trying to get back.
The fortune amassed by Franco during four decades of dictatorship was conveniently forgotten after the country’s transition to democracy. It provided the money for his extended family to maintain their opulent lifestyle. In the context of today’s more politically aware younger generation, and especially that of an economic crisis that has profoundly affected Spain, radical solutions are being sought to the political, social and cultural legacies of the civil war. Memories run deep, especially among those who suffered most.
Seventy-four years after the end of the Civil War, and thirty-eight years after the death of Franco, it’s time for Spain to renounce its pact of silence, to challenge impunity, to come to terms with its past, and to judge its legacy of oppression.