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March 11’s divisive legacy

The sixth anniversary of the 2004 Madrid bombings is a reminder of how a terrorist attack helped set the tone of Spanish politics. Moreover, the divisions it highlighted are just as visible today, as the country stubbornly refuses to face up to its recent past.


In the middle of February, the Spanish government announced that it was going to “repair” the memory of the poet Miguel Hernández, a Republican former goatherd who was jailed by the dictator Francisco Franco and died in prison in 1942, at the age of 31.

The Socialist government pledged to offer Hernández, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, “the tribute, the memory and the admiration that his work merits,” said Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega. “We all share that same rejection of any form of oppression, that same rebellion in the face of injustice and that determination to dream and create a decent country and a better world.”

The news of this homage to a man lionised by the left but whose books were destroyed by Franco’s fascist regime was a reminder of Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and brutal aftermath.

But it also came shortly before the anniversary of another, more recent, violent event that made its own deep imprint on Spanish society and which highlights how the country continues to wrestle with its past and entrenched political divisions.

On March 11, 2004, Islamic terrorists struck in Madrid to devastating effect, killing 191 people and injuring nearly 1,900 with a series of bombs placed on commuter trains.

The immediate and surprising consequence of the bombings was that the conservative Popular Party (PP) was ousted from power in elections held three days later, as voters reacted angrily to the government’s erroneous insistence that Basque group ETA had been responsible for the attack. PP Prime Minister José María Aznar’s hard line against the Basque separatists had been popular among voters. Invading Iraq, however, had not been, and the government feared that it would suffer at the ballot box if Spaniards believed they were being punished by terrorists for supporting the US-led invasion. Many of those who voted against the PP thought it had made Spain a target of terrorism and then cynically lied about who the terrorists really were.

In opposition, the Popular Party subsequently attempted to undermine Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s legitimacy as the country’s new leader for much of his first term. Some of its politicians claimed the Socialists had engineered Zapatero’s victory by circulating lies on the internet about the PP’s handling of the terror attack. Others even insinuated, with the help of certain media, that the March 11 attack was the result of a bizarre conspiracy between Islamic jihadists and Basque separatists, with the police, judiciary and government all covering it up – an utterly discredited theory that has never been supported by evidence.

Democracy and division

In a way, the events of March 2004 were a healthy affirmation of the nation’s democracy, as Spaniards were able to replace a government they felt had let them down. And yet, aside from the horrific loss of life, one of the great tragedies of the terrorist attack was that it further divided a country already deeply split along ideological lines. ETA’s murders in the 1980s and 1990s had often united Spanish society in repudiation of terrorism via mass marches through towns and cities across the country. But with Spaniards unable to agree on so much of their history, they could not even find consensus on who had carried out this latest attack. To this day, there are plenty of Spaniards who still subscribe to the ETA conspiracy theory.

And against this bitter political backdrop, Zapatero has pushed through a progressive social agenda, including introducing gay marriage and adoption and a reform to allow abortion on demand, all of which has enraged the right, including the Catholic Church. Perhaps just as controversially, he has introduced a Historical Memory Law, which seeks to provide moral redress for – essentially Republican – victims of the Civil War and the ensuing repression by Franco.

The combination of an embittered right and a left determined to tackle issues that had previously been politically off-limits has tended to drop the tone of political debate and entrench both sides in tribal warfare. The PP, particularly, has been willing to cast aside statesmanship and use any issue for political benefit, even the fight against ETA terrorism.

And the latest manifestation of this political schism in Spain is directly linked to the dictatorship. In 2008, the country’s best-known judge, High Court investigative magistrate Baltasar Garzón, attempted to bring to trial members of the Franco regime responsible for human rights violations, including the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people. Several Latin American countries and post-war Germany had already done the equivalent long ago, but Spain had rejected such a process as it sped from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy with the help of a “pact of forgetting.” Garzón eventually stopped his own investigation by passing it on to local courts. However, the damage had already been done and in a barely credible turn of events, the judge himself, the only person to have attempted to investigate the atrocities of the dictatorship, now finds himself facing a private prosecution for overstepping his powers.

The group which brought the initial writ against him is a far-right union, which has been joined by the Falange, the party of Franco himself. While Garzón is a former member of the Socialist Party, he has gone after politicians of all stripes in recent years in his zealous way. There is an element of revenge-tinged glee in all this – Garzón is a hate figure for many on the right, including some fellow judges, due to his near-celebrity status. But the more worrying aspect of this case is that it represents a country’s stubborn refusal to face up to its past.

“If the untouchable wounds of the war have not healed in three-quarters of a century, their only hope for healing is surgery,” says the writer Rosa María Artal, in reference to the Garzón case. That surgery, it seems, is still too painful to undergo.

It has become a cliché to say that there are two Spains: left and right, liberal and reactionary, European and parochial. But as the country contemplates the sixth anniversary of the Madrid bombings and their divisive aftermath and continues to struggle to come to terms with its past, the words of Hernández, a poet imprisoned for fighting for the Republic, ring down the decades in his poem Llamo al toro de España (I Call the Bull of Spain):

“Split in two parts, this centuries-old bull,
This bull that lives inside us:
Split in two halves, with one it would kill
And with the other it would die fighting.”

A version of this article also appears on Open Democracy.

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Published: Mar 10 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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