What Spain can Teach America About Historical Remembrance

Spanish dictator Francisco Franco ruled Spain for 36 years after he led a successful fascist coup that overthrew the elected socialist government in 1939. The civil war that Franco started killed at least 150,000 Spaniards, and many more disappeared after the fighting ended when Franco’s regime persecuted political enemies and groups the government considered undesirable. 

This history has become increasingly relevant in Spain over the past few years as prime minister Pedro Sánchez announced his plan to remove Franco’s remains from their mausoleum to a more discrete family crypt. Franco’s mausoleum is located in the Valley of the Fallen, a battlefield of the civil war, which according to NBC News is also the resting place of about 40,000 soldiers from both sides of the civil war. 

Since the death of Franco in 1975, the Spanish left has claimed that the mausoleum glorifies a brutal dictator and has demanded the removal of the body. In 2007 the governing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) passed the Historical Memory Law, which formally condemned the Franco regime, recognized the victims of Franco’s regime and aids victims of Franco’s government and the civil war as well as their descendants. Most importantly the law banned the glorification of Franco on public land; this clause laid the legal groundwork for the government to exhume Franco. 

All of Spain’s major conservative parties condemned the move as a politically motivated stunt that will reopen the wounds of the past before the Nov. 10 election. The right also claimed that this action was an act of revenge from the PSOE which was the very party that Franco overthrew in 1939. The International Business Times reports that Santiago Abascal, leader of the Vox party, the first far-right party seated in Parliament since Spain’s transition to democracy, stated: “the aim [of the move] is to rewrite history, the aim is to delegitimize the monarchy and the aim is to topple (King) Felipe VI.”

Because of political objections and a legal battle with Franco’s family members, the anticipated move could only take place after the Spanish Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the exhumation is constitutional. On the day of Franco’s removal, Sánchez tweeted that “The Spain of today is a complete opposite of the one the Franco regime represented, “and went on to state that the Valley of the Fallen will now be a memorial to the “victims of intolerance.” 

Despite the recent controversy, debates about historical remembrance are not isolated to Spain. Dr. Adams, professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, mentioned that monuments are built in a specific historical context, which influences how we should interpret the symbols. Adams related the exhumation in Spain to debates about Confederate monuments in the United States saying: “the Confederate monuments were not built in the direct aftermath of the Civil War, but instead in the twenties and during the Civil Rights movement to uphold white supremacy.” Adams stated that likewise Franco’s tomb was built to glorify a dictator. 

More broadly, Adams related that when analyzing a monument it is important to understand what about this figure is the structure celebrating. Do the current inhabitants want that structure to represent them and is it becoming a rallying point for extremists? If so, she states that it is reasonable that as times change, our relation to monuments will change too, and if the living want divisive symbols removed or modified to reflect a current understanding of history that is fine. Adams reflected that resistance to certain symbols makes history political. “Confederate monuments and the tomb were built at times of repression with an apparent consensus, and recent objections are the effect of oppressed peoples speaking up.” 

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