Maddy Fry finds modern Spain is still tip-toeing around the history of its bloody civil war.
“The Spanish police were everywhere. They could make you disappear…”
So started a typical anecdote from my mum’s time in Madrid as a teenage nanny, a period when she made her first foray into a culture whose language would become a second mother tongue for her. It was the beginning of a decades-long love affair with Spain that she passed on to both her offspring.
Yet the country as she first knew it was tense and muted, one where the playgrounds were devoid of children and adults never walked in the public parks.
It was 1973, and life was as monochrome as her host family’s old-fashioned television set, which did little more than broadcast state functions glorifying the rule of El Caudillo – Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco.
More than three decades had passed, but the scars left by the civil war of the 1930s were laid bare every time people walked down the street. Those who had lost limbs or been blinded during the fighting, known as los ciegos, would sit on street corners, often under prominently placed Spanish flags, selling lottery tickets – one of the few jobs made available to them by Franco. Even then, they were more fortunate than the thousands who had been thrown into mass graves – a fate that befell those on both sides.
Overshadowing all this was the ever-present Guardia Civil, lining the motorways and the streets and ready to snatch away any dissenters. Perhaps as a result, people were reluctant to discuss politics or their memories of the civil war.
Yet this wasn’t the whole story. The family hosting my mother was quietly in favour of the status quo. They were aware that Franco was not popular in much of the rest of Europe, but were grateful for the sense of hierarchy and stability his rule had ushered in after the chaos of the war. Given how brutal and all-encompassing it had been, leaving few communities and households unaffected by violence, authoritarianism for many was a reasonable price to pay for peace.
Franco died in 1975, still in office, his legacy ending with a whimper rather than a bang.
For republicans it was less satisfying than a violent coup, but for others it was a relief, perhaps ensuring Spain’s transition to democracy would be bloodless, as was in fact the case.
When my mother returned to Spain in 1977, the country had been transformed. As she put it, ‘people in bars were literally dancing on the tables’. They were undeniably happy Franco was gone, but the euphoria was maybe possible because his disposal at the hands of natural causes had been quiet and unassuming. The country could move on.
I have only ever known Spain to be a vivid and lively place, so her descriptions of life under Franco felt alien. But a trip to Valencia in 2019 made me wonder – belatedly – how much the country really was at peace with the horrors of the previous century.
A vigil outside the city’s cathedral saw people holding up faded photographs of dead loved ones, many of whom had been part of the anti-fascist cause during the war and had disappeared after Franco took power. Most were long-lost and always would be. The sense of anger, laced with grief, was palpable. It was a scene that would haunt me.
The Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) was introduced by Franco’s successor, King Juan Carlos who, despite his open support for the dictator, had been conducting private meetings with pro-democracy groups for many years. The new edict mandated that those responsible for human rights abuses under Francoism would not face conviction. The armed forces from both nationalist and republican sides were given equal tribute, and the civil war was not blamed on any one group.
It inevitably meant that difficult questions about the past, particularly around culpability and blame, were avoided – or perhaps, suppressed.
So has this worked? Was a search for justice futile when wrongs were done on both sides?
Much has been made of the virtues of the left-wing republican cause and the wrongs committed by those who didn’t back it, including the complicity of many Catholic bishops in giving their support to Franco.
Yet the politics of the civil war were complicated and more morally fraught than a simple left-right split.
The war saw many innocent Catholics murdered by the those among the jumble of political allegiances on the Spanish left, which included anarchists and Soviet-backed communists as well as social democrats.
The bombing of churches and the slaughter of entire religious communities have since been eclipsed from popular narratives of the civil war, such as the film Pan’s Labyrinth and the celebrated accounts of the International Brigade by Ernest Hemingway. Yet the period known as the ‘Red Terror’ led to the deaths of nearly 7,000 members of the clergy and about 4,000 lay people killed for helping or hiding nuns or priests. One could be killed simply for wearing some religious artefact such as a cross.
These actions caused deep distaste outside of Spain and arguably reduced support for the leftist cause – to the point where people from across Europe and the USA joined the right-wing nationalist side. Britain and France both provided funding to right-wing Spanish militias, and republicans who went to fight in World War II were interred in French concentration camps even before the German occupation.
The years prior to this had seen Catholics brutally persecuted in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas during the country’s bloody revolution. Combined with the ideological turbulence of the 1920s and 1930s, when many feared that long-held values were about to be snatched away, it is perhaps unsurprising that Catholic Spaniards in particular saw Franco as their saviour and the civil war as one of self-defence.
The republican side could also be fractured and repressive towards its own members. In a discussion about his book The Ministry of Truth: a Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, author Dorian Lynskey described Orwell’s sense of shock at how “the Stalinist faction turned on the faction that he was part of, which was a very small, almost impotent ex-Trotskyist movement called the POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, in English). He was astonished that they had claimed his faction were working with General Franco, which they absolutely were not, and had started rounding up and killing some of his colleagues.”
Civil wars contain few moral binaries. Assigning blame over 40 years later would no doubt have been a lengthy, murky, and perhaps futile process. And even more so now.
The triumphant dictator’s legacy was also not as straightforward as is sometimes painted. While he could be vicious towards anyone who opposed him, he refrained from indulging in the rampant anti-Semitism that characterised life under German fascism. He put a social security system in place that, rooted in deeply conservative ideas about family and patriarchy, provided financial support for countless married couples and families, including maternity and child benefit.
For all its ideological noxiousness, fascism is a complex phenomenon – more so than we would always like to acknowledge.
El Caudillo’s legacy in recent Spanish politics is hard to overlook. The right-wing Vox Party and its supporters has a distinctive voice in Spain’s labyrinthine political system, as of last year representing 15 per cent of seats in the Spanish Parliament. The party believes in the benefits of a ‘progressive dictatorship’ and has raged against efforts by politicians and campaigners to reopen the debate about the civil war, including the decision to relocate Franco’s body in 2019.
There had been a long build-up to recent tensions.The divisive shadow cast by the Generalissimo was shown by a 2006 poll stating that a third of Spaniards believed Franco was right to overthrow republicanism, the very rebellion that kicked off the civil war.
In 2007 supporters of Franco gathered at the Valley de los Caidos, or Valley of the Fallen, to protest against the Historical Memory Law, which banned political rallies outside the mausoleum.
2012 saw a statue of Franco erected by artist Eugenio Merino being strongly criticised by the National Francisco Franco Foundation for ridiculing the dictator’s legacy, one which they claim defeated communism and brought order and prestige to Spain.
The architects of the Democratic Memory Bill seem to disagree. Introduced in 2021 and building on the Historical Memory Law, the legislation sought to create a national DNA database to help people identify their deceased republican relatives, at least 50,000 of whom were thrown into mass graves alongside the bones of nationalists (whose graves were at least given markers). The law also included a ban on any group celebrating Franco, whose body was exhumed from the Valley in 2019 – an event once again met by illicit, stiff-limbed protests from members of the far right.
Organisations such as the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARHM), which have worked for years to uncover the bodies of those murdered by Franco’s forces, say that the Democratic Memory Bill doesn’t go far enough, naming victims but not the executioners. They claim that it also doesn’t place enough blame on Franco’s collaborators.
Furthermore, a frequently ignored aspect of Spanish fascism was Franco’s impact on the Basque Country, a region in northern Spain with a strong and controversial independence movement. Miren Egia Orrantia, a teacher whose family fled the region during the Franco years, explains: “Basque people were accused of committing treason, so everyone lived in fear. All the names on Basque gravestones were rubbed off by civil servants. You couldn’t speak Basque and there was no education or schooling in the Basque language.”
She added: “The torture that went on was awful. One of my relatives was tortured so badly it damaged his brain. People who went to visit prisoners had to travel for miles and often died on the way. The memories are still there for many families. There was no compensation for us.”
Similar policies were applied in the Catalonian region in the north-east of Spain, with its capital Barcelona. The Catalan language was effectively banned under Franco, together with all cultural expressions in that tongue.
The Pact of Forgetting, said Miren, hasn’t worked. “It’s emotional, but digging up the bodies has to be done. People are worried that it will bring back hatred and rancour, but I don’t think that has happened.”
An interesting recent parallel in the UK has come in the form of the government’s announcement of a proposed statute of limitations that would put an end to all Troubles-related prosecutions in Northern Ireland, on both sides. It was a move that promised absolution for all, but left many families feeling they had been denied justice.
Spain perhaps runs the same risk in being so careful not to assign blame in the way some campaigners would like. It is a difficult balancing act.
For some, their uneasiness about digging up the bodies has been exacerbated by Catalonia’s recent attempts at breaking away from the rest of Spain. Franco’s suppression of non-Castilian parts of the country kept a lid on independence movements. Examining the past risks making such long-silenced desires more vocal.
Those who don’t wish to see the country ripped apart at the seams have good reason to fear that more than just corpses might be excavated.
Examining painful parts of history is never straightforward. It poses the question of whose history is on trial, and for what purpose. Yet closure is not the same as revenge, despite what some might fear. It is also not the same as repression, despite what the Pact of Forgetting might have implied.
Graham Greene’s novella Monsignor Quixote, published not long after the death of Franco, includes a vignette where the Monsignor and his companion Sancho stand before Franco’s remains, one raging, the other praying. It seems to suggest that reconciliation is an ongoing process, one saturated with grief, anger, compromise, and perhaps finally, acceptance.
This immense and complex country is having to ask itself serious questions about what it means to be Spanish. Franco’s legacy, whether dug up or left to rot, will continue to play a role in that.
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