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Debate rages in Spain over how to remember or forget Franco’s dictatorship

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The legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship has become a flashpoint in political debates ahead of Spain’s snap elections on July 23, with conservative opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo pledging to do roll back historical memory legislation designed to bring justice to victims.

The Historical Memory Law, approved in 2007, obliges public administrations to remove Francoist symbols and monuments from buildings and streets, and to support efforts to identify and exhume victims of enforced disappearance. An estimated 114,000 people are buried in more than 3,000 unmarked mass graves across the country, nearly 50 years after the end of Franco’s regime. The incumbent socialist government defended the legislation and passed new provisions last October, known as the Democratic Memory Act.

According to recent opinion polls, Feijóo’s Partido Popular (PP) is on track to win the elections. But he is already working to undermine historical memory legislation with backing from the far-right Vox party. In October, PP and Vox blocked the renaming of six Francoist streets in Madrid. Following municipal elections on May 28, the two parties have formed a coalition government in Valencia that promises to repeal policies they say “attack reconciliation on historical issues”. This decision has raised fears that the new administration will cut subsidies allocated to the exhumation of victims.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of the Partido Popular opposition party, has blocked the renaming of six Francoist streets in Madrid

Photo: Alberto Gonzalez/Alamy Stock Photo

Despite its support for the law, the socialist government has also drawn criticism from historical memory associations for failing to fully implement the measures. Less than a mile from the Prime Minister’s official residence, the Arch of Victory still stands on one of Madrid’s busiest avenues. It was built to commemorate Franco’s victory in the Civil War. An estimated 5,600 other Francoist monuments and symbols survive in public and private places across the country.

Photograph of mass graves

Since 2015, photographer Miquel Gonzalez has been working on a project called Lost memory (lost memory) documenting the thousands of mass graves in Spain. The images, captured at the season and time of day that best matches each atrocity, reveal a desolate landscape of empty fields, village roads and parking lots.

This photograph from the Memoria Perdida series by Miquel Gonzalez shows a vandalized monument to victims of the Franco regime

Photo: Miquel Gonzalez

“I think the photographs show a bit of what I observed: a silence, a void,” Gonzalez says. He anticipated that the series would at some point become obsolete, as Spain progressed in exhuming the victims and building memorials at the sites. “It was not like that and, unfortunately, I think it will still be relevant for years to come,” he says, adding that he worries about the lack of education on the Franco era for the younger generations.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s political parties of right and left reached an informal agreement known as the Pact of Oblivion to avoid dealing with the legacy of civil war and dictatorship. The consequences of this policy can be seen today in the absence of official data on the victims of Francoism and the mass graves, or in the absence of a national museum dedicated to the conflict. Construction began last May on the first war museum with a national perspective, located in Teruel, Aragon, the site of a decisive battle. However, the project has already sparked controversy following the regional government’s decision not to differentiate between the Republican and Franco sides in the memorial.

Possible end for associations

“Most of the things have been done by civil society, and the problem for me is what will happen to this civil society with a change of government,” said Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of
historical memory. The association is one of the most important working on historical memory in Spain and, among other missions, organizes exhumations of mass graves and denounces violations of the law on historical memory, such as the case of the Arc de victory. Silva predicts that a victory for the Partido Popular could mean the end of associations dependent on subsidies, as was the case during the party’s last term between 2011 and 2018.

The lack of political will to come to terms with the past is what is most troubling, Silva believes. “For 40 years, all governments have maintained ignorance; it is the bad education of a society that is able to live and coexist with an arc that celebrates the victory of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, without being troubled by it,” he says.

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