Jim Lawley

Spain’s growing culture war over General Franco

(Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

There are hundreds of mass graves dotted around the Spanish countryside. In roadside ditches, down hillside gullies, dumped in pits and down disused wells lie thousands of bodies: civilians murdered in cold blood by Franco’s death squads during the civil war that convulsed Spain between 1936 and 1939.

Over the nearly forty years of Franco’s dictatorship, few spoke of what had happened during the war; silence and selective amnesia were safer. And even when Franco died in 1975, the overriding priority was the transition to democracy. The old Francoist establishment indicated that it would make way for the new era — provided that there was no digging up of the past and no reprisals.

Spaniards were happy to look to the future. People who had always been taught that the dictatorship had saved Spain were now being told that in fact democracy was needed; instead of trying to believe two contradictory things at the same time, many found it easier just to forget the past. So rather than ‘forgive and forget’, Spain’s transition to democracy became simply a case of ‘forget’.

Rather than ‘forgive and forget’, Spain’s transition to democracy became simply a case of ‘forget’

After Franco’s death, this pragmatic ‘pact of forgetting’ enabled the country to move quickly to democracy and then towards the holy grail of EU membership. For Spain, like other European countries with shameful 20th-century histories, joining the EU seemed the best way to escape the past.

While being careful not to mention the war, the left felt morally superior, regarding itself as the heir of the democratically elected government that Franco had overthrown. Meanwhile many on the right still felt that Franco’s military insurrection was justified and his victory was not such a bad thing.

Signs that the unwritten ‘pact of forgetting’ might crumble started to appear when, for the first time, the right-wing Partido Popular came to power in 1996.

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