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Spain’s conflicting memories refuse to fade

The recent controversy sparked by the publication of an apparently pro-Franco dictionary is the latest in a string of developments that highlight Spain’s continuing tussle with its historical memory.


Franco was "not totalitarian," says the Diccionario Biográfico Español.

The now infamous entry in Spain’s recently published biographical dictionary describes General Francisco Franco as a courageous figure who set up an “authoritarian, but not totalitarian” regime. Written by 86-year-old historian Luis Suárez, the entry paints Western Europe’s longest-serving dictator in a favourable light, extolling his military prowess.

This account of Franco’s reign differs sharply from that outlined by British historian Paul Preston in his latest book, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination during the Civil War and After. In fact, Professor Suárez makes no mention of Francoist atrocities at all.

The furore sparked by Suárez’s dictionary entry is indicative of a wider issue in Spanish society: the lack of consensus about how to remember the civil war and its aftermath.

Already this year, Judge Baltasar Garzón has taken a case to the European Court of Human Rights in response to charges against him for attempting to investigate human rights violations during the Franco dictatorship. Lauded by some, and loathed by others, the judge had been suspended from his post in the Spanish High Court for allegedly abusing his power in taking the decision.

In a similar vein, 2011 also marked the publication of the map of the location of over 2,000 civil war graves compiled by the Spanish government, although there are no plans for a state-led attempt to excavate and identify the bodies. While this is an important step towards the recognition of the suffering of both sides of the conflict of 1936-9, for many, it is a case of too little, too late. For others, the necessity of the movement for the recovery of historical memory in a country where the last remaining survivors of the civil war are dying out, is questionable.

These developments are merely two examples of the ongoing memory battle that continues to grip the country, more than 70 years after the war’s end. While groups demanding public recognition of Francoist repression now have to align their objectives according to the limitations of the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, this symbolic measure has not brought both sides any closer to reconciling their memories of the past, as originally intended.

The monument to Franco at the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid is an embarrassing blight on the landscape of an otherwise dynamic Western European country. It also remains to be seen whether justice will be served to the families affected by the “stolen babies” scandal, which began with the forced separation of mothers from their children in Francoist prisons. But given the recent nationwide protests against the political class, it could be argued that the Spanish government has bigger fish to fry than a re-examination of the country’s troubled history, such as soaring unemployment and a disgruntled youth.

Where then to draw the line? Would Spain even benefit from a full reckoning of the past so many years after a successful transition to democracy? In the meantime, it seems that memories of conflict have merely been replaced with conflicting memories.

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Published: Jun 3 2011
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Spain’s conflicting memories refuse to fade”

  1. I find the suspension of Garzón absolutely mystifying and it just goes to show the entrenched nature of the far right in Spain in positions of authority in this case in the courts. It will be interesting to see if these dinosaurs in the judiciary and politics as well as education as exemplified by this dinosaur who has written this rubbish will be moved by the ongoing protests against corruption and influence in Spain

  2. Deirdre Finnerty

    People protested outside the Real Academia de la Historia yesterday too. Some of the authors of other biographies are very angry and are calling for the edition to be revised or reprinted but it’s not clear if this will happen. And other well-known historians were not invited to participate in the edition. Baffling really.

  3. Charles Butler

    @Valencia Property – it certainly wasn’t very mystifying to the socialist judge, sponsored into his position by Elena Salgado, that filed the original complaint against Garzón. Nor was it to the tribunal that decided to proceed with the charges – unanimous vote of left and right wing members. The case that he overstepped the legal limits placed on his office has legs, one’s personal view of Spanish politics notwithstanding.

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