What in the name of Sam’s hell was going on? The law, that’s what. Implementing the law, more like it. On April 27, 2017, a full fifteen months before the early morning skirmish of Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz, as it has been come to be known, a meeting of the Cebolla town council was held to address the matter of changing the names of several streets in the town in accordance with the Law of Historical Memory, a controversial piece of legislation which had been passed by the Spanish National Parliament a full ten years before in 2007. The Law of Historical Memory has been one of the most hotly debated decrees in recent Spanish memory, as is anything having to do with the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. It was passed with the hope of bringing closure to a very painful time in this country’s recent past; it may have just opened the wounds further.
For some Spaniards, though, closure had already occurred decades before when the Generalissimo died on November 20, 1975. The ensuing period of switching from a repressive dictatorship to a democracy under the format of a constitutional monarchy (known as La Transición in Spanish) played out without too much trouble. I say this with a large degree of hesitation, but let me explain. Those involved in the Transición look upon the achievement with pride. The image one has of those years is that of a peaceful and level-headed process, where sanity superseded visceral emotion, where pragmatism outdid revenge. And it’s fairly accurate in the sense that the country did not implode or rewind back to the explosive days of the 1930s. Society more or less cohered. But goodwill and pleasantries were not across the board by any means. Terrorist attacks by numerous separatist and Marxist groups inflicted hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded. And you can’t ignore the fact that parts of the most conservative sections of the armed forces attempted to overthrow a legitimately elected government in 1981. By no means was it perfect sailing, but the Spanish seemingly pulled it off.
How was it done? First of all, it wasn’t easy. You see, having your government run by a fascist dictator for 36 years is a stain on any country’s resume, but to help with the healing process, a Pact of Forgetting was agreed upon in 1975 by parties and factions on both sides of the political spectrum so as not to stir up unpleasant memories of the past. The feeling was that by not addressing the horrors of the past and not demanding anyone own up for their wrong deeds, the nation could focus on caulking the fissures and bringing about a smooth transition. This unofficial deal was institutionalized two years later with the Law of Amnesty of 1977, by which the parliament formally released any and all political prisoners, deleted their police records, and banned criminal procedures against anyone from that period, regardless of which side they were on. Basically, the idea was to erase the board and reset.
The political far right was game for the idea. Who wouldn’t want to be criminally responsible for tens of thousands of human rights violations and get away with it scot free? The political left earned a reputation for acting with extreme generosity and uncommon understanding. Having achieved that, everyone leaders then got together to create a new framework for Spain’s future. All sides sculpted a well-thought-out constitution, restored democracy and got on to being just another stable Western European country, with great museums, terrific vacation spots, an unmatchable historical heritage, outstanding cuisine, annual entries at the Eurovision Song Contest, and to top it off, a World Cup soccer title in 2010. What more could a European country ask for?
Meanwhile, reminders from the past were slowly but surely being plucked away from visibility. Between 1980 and 2000, statues, signs, monuments which had in any way honored the Franco period had been retired from public view, many times under the cover of the night to avoid confrontation. Streets were renamed, as were squares, fountains and other landmarks. Plaques were unscrewed and pried off building walls, paintings and pictures sent to the basement or just tossed all together. The cleansing was fairly comprehensive, but far from complete, especially in the small towns, where the vestiges proved more resilient. Was enough, enough, or was a more thorough job required?
In 2007, the Socialist Party, under Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, decided to propose a bill to deal with a number of issues associated with the sensitive past which had not been fully addressed. These went beyond just unhinging a bust or rechristening a lane. They also included financing the locating, identifying and exhumation of bodies buried in many of the countless number of common graves that littered the country, where the remains of an untold number of victims of the war lay. The most high-profile controversy was the mother of all disinterments, that of Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos Basilica (The Valley of the Fallen). The Franco-period church-monument-monastery built in honor of all victims of the Spanish Civil War, was never meant for the caudillo himself to be there in the first place, as he was not a victim of the war. He personally asked not to. But that is precisely where he ended up. The result was predictable, since the landmark acquired a kind of pilgrimage status for those who yearned for the days when you good suppress your opponents instead of rely on democratic voting. And while participation in these tributes has waned since the first few years, the fact remains, the old dictator still occupies a place of honor in the side of a mountain twenty-five miles from Madrid. 44 years later, left-wing parties are in the midst of a legal dispute with the Franco family, as they dispute where his final resting place will be. He’ll probably go, but when and where is a mystery.
The Spanish Civil War and Francoism still hold a firm grip on the psyche of parts of this society, even though many citizens are hopelessly unaware of it. In fact, the two Spains that historians often refer two have their origins in conflicts that hark back to the 19th Century, but it’s the war “la Guerra” that continues to be most relevant to them.
It may be tempting to say that bickering over events that occurred 40, 50, 60, 70 and up to 80 years ago is absurd, but it’s a more complex issue and more widespread phenomenon than people think. Some Americans, for example, are still coming to terms with visible reminders of their very own civil war. They may wrestle to recall the name of a general or a battle or even forget which century the conflagration took place, but that doesn’t matter. There are matters left unresolved, they’ll say. Just in the past few years, statues have been toppled and flags taken down, and crowds still fill the streets on occasion to protest the commemoration of former Confederate soldiers and leaders. Mind you, we are talking about an event that took place 150 years ago. So, it’s not really for us to judge others, which is a shame, because judging others is one of my favorite pastimes.