United Nations experts are urging Spain to investigate what happened to thousands of people who went missing during the Spanish civil war and under the Nationalist Franco dictatorship. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church has beatified 522 people killed by Republicans, rubbing salt into the open wounds of impunity and denial.
At the end of September 2013, after a fact-finding visit to Spain during which they met government officials and victims’ relatives in several regions, members of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said:
“The State must assume a leadership role and engage more actively to respond to the demands of thousands of families searching for the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones who disappeared during the civil war and the dictatorship.”
Franco-era crimes were pardoned under a 1977 amnesty law, passed two years after the dictator died. Thirty years of silence later, the socialist government of 2007 passed the Historical Memory Law, promising state help to find and exhume mass graves. But historical memory remains a politically contested space: the Partido Popular, which now governs Spain and opposed the Memory Law, promised “not one public euro for the exhumation of mass graves.” Funding has now been cut.
In 2008 the Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón – he who issued an international warrant for the arrest of former Chilean President, General Augusto Pinochet, for the murder and torture of Spanish citizens – supported the investigation of what took place during the Franco era. He ordered the excavation of mass graves.
Garzón’s move elicited a conservative backlash. In 2010 he was forced to drop the investigation and was suspended after Spain’s supreme court found that he had ignored the 1977 amnesty law supposedly passed in order to ease Spain’s transition to democracy.
On 13 October 2013 in a spirit of nationalist non-reconciliation supported by Pope Francis, who began his papacy emphasizing everyone’s common humanity and whose intimate knowledge of the dictatorship in Argentina should have led him to reflect more deeply, the Roman Catholic Church in Spain beatified 522 people, most of them priests and nuns killed by Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.
Left-wing groups had objected to the move, saying that it amounted to a glorification of the Franco dictatorship. But the Church hid behind the rhetoric that those honoured were martyrs killed because of their faith, conveniently forgetting that the Spanish Church played a significant role in the 1936-1939 civil war, lending political and moral support to Franco’s Nationalists.
In “Madrid’s dangerous attempt to distort the history of the Spanish civil war” (The Guardian, 6 June 2013) David Mathieson commented: “It is often said that history is written by the winners. But what is happening in Madrid is not just an asymmetrical exercise of historic memory. It is an intolerant, dangerous, dysfunctional way to treat the past and sits uneasily with the image Madrid likes to project as an open, diverse and transparent city of the future.”
In Europe, fascism is once again provoking tensions with its insidious ideology – certainly in Greece and Hungary and perhaps to a lesser extent in France and Italy. For the Roman Catholic Church to set 522 people above the rest is ill-conceived and contradicts the spirit of reconciliation expressed by this papacy. It can only aggravate the bitter injustices that have lain hidden for more than 76 years.