Some 350,000 Spanish citizens died during Spain’s calamitous civil war (1936-39) and a further 200,000 afterwards – of hunger.
In the words of historian Andy Durgan, the country that emerged was faced with “a hybrid authoritarian regime, which aimed like fascism, to secure complete freedom of action for the ruling oligarchy through the untrammelled exploitation of the working class.” It was a country where “millions of ordinary Spaniards… would suffer the consequences of the dictatorship’s punitive social, economic and political policies for decades to come” (The Spanish Civil War, 2007). For Franco, it became a decades-long policy of institutionalized revenge and repression.
In September 2018, Spain took what many consider to be a non-negotiable step towards reconciling the many legacies of the civil war. The government approved the exhumation and private reburial of the remains of General Francisco Franco, who has lain in splendour since 1975 in the Valley of the Fallen, a Catholic mausoleum outside Madrid. This while an estimated 140,000 of his opponents lay and still lie in some 2,000 mass burial sites around the country, interred where they were summarily executed both during and after the war.
Spain’s council of ministers voted in favour of the move, which was opposed by the right-wing People’s and Citizens’ parties. However, the decree only needed a simple majority to pass. The Socialist party of the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, the left-wing Podemos, and the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties (both regions suffered disproportionately at the hands of Franco) all voted in favour.
The decree means that the removal of the former dictator’s remains will go ahead despite long-standing opposition from Franco’s family. The decision would have pleased Salvador de Madariaga, once nominated for both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize, who was an avid opponent and critic of Franco.
In Spain: A Modern History (1958), Madariaga wryly commented, “The ambition of every Spanish general is to save his country by becoming her ruler.” That salvation – unhesitatingly endorsed by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church – took the form of a fascist state that long survived the two that had brought it into being: Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
In 1977, an Amnesty Law prevented any criminal investigation into the Franco years. Yet, since then statues of Franco have gradually been removed from public places and many streets have been renamed to erase obvious signs of the country’s fascist past. In 2007, the socialist government of the time passed a Historical Memory Law, recognising war victims on both sides and providing some help for survivors of Franco’s dictatorship and their families.
By rights, shrines to the memory of dictators should have no place in today’s world. Spain’s civil war – sometimes treated as a sideshow or prelude to World War II – was criminal. No one should be allowed to glorify it, nor should its history be forgotten. Recognising Franco for the tyrant he was is a step in the right direction.