Spain is finally facing up to its contentious past, but has the reckoning come at the wrong time?

By Matt Trinder

Juan Romero was the last of his kind.

The final Spanish survivor of the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where the Nazis worked hundreds of thousands to their deaths during World War Two.

He fought in vain for the Republicans against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War, before being captured by the advancing German army while fighting for the French Foreign Legion in 1940.

After Mauthausen was liberated by US forces in May 1945, Romero settled in France, where he died last week at the age of 101.

His was awarded the Legion d’honneur by his adopted country in 2016, but it was not until this year that Spain officially recognised his crusade against fascism.

In August, the deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, presented Romero with a certificate at his home recognising his life and Spain’s debt to its anti-fascists.

However, many thousands died without such recognition. Why has it taken so long for Spain to take this step as compared to Germany and Italy for example?

The longevity of the Franco regime is partly to explain. The dictator had 36 years at the helm to suppress the historical memory of his closeness to Hitler and the role the left had played in resisting totalitarianism.

Unfortunately, this continued long after the death of the ‘Caudillo’ in 1975. Spain’s gradual transition to democracy was accompanied by a national ‘Pacto del olvido’ (Pact of Forgetting). 

There would be no prosecutions for individuals responsible for state-sanctioned crimes during the civil war or the dictatorship. Difficult questions were ignored so as not to imperil ‘national reconciliation’. Spain tried to put its past behind it and look to the future.

But ignoring a problem rarely makes it go away.

What about the 100,000 people still missing? What about the many thousands of mass graves throughout the country? What about the statues of Franco and the street names honouring his generals?

It seems now, however, that the Pact of Forgetting itself has been all but forgotten.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, head of PSOE, the Spanish socialists, and in coalition with anti-austerity party Podemos since January, has been taking increasingly ambitious steps in the direction of righting the balance.

The remains of Franco himself were moved from the vast ‘Valley of the Fallen’ national monument to a low-key grave in Madrid in October 2019.

The act was far from uncontested-a poll for the El Mundo newspaper found that a third of Spaniards opposed it.  

Sanchez has since announced his intention to convert the monument, which contains the remains of 40,000 civil war dead, mostly from the Nationalist side, into a secular cemetery to honour all those who died.

In September, a judge in the north-west region of Galicia ruled a manor, where Franco spent many summers, was the property of the state and ordered the dictator’s family to hand it over. The government had instigated legal proceedings last year.

Sanchez has now proposed a new Law on Democratic Memory, which will prevent publicly funded groups from glorifying Franco. It will also seek to overturn sentences from political trials during the dictatorship and strip people of titles granted by the Caudillo.

Due to the coalition’s lack of a parliamentary majority, there is no guarantee the law will pass, however, and it is Spain’s fight against Covid-19 that is dominating the headlines at the moment.

The country was one of the worst hit in the world by the first wave of the virus in the spring, with the official death toll above 30,000 and climbing.

Infections are now rising again, with around 10,000 new cases currently being reported each day, and intensive care beds filling up once again, particularly in Madrid, where fresh restrictions on movement and socialising have just been imposed in many areas.  

The regional measures were demanded by central government, against the wishes of Madrid’s centre-right president Isabel Diaz Ayuso, who tried to use the courts to block their imposition.

Health matters are devolved under Spain’s federal system, and Ayuso had argued the central government “can’t impose anything,” but she has since agreed to implement them.

She tweeted: “Thanks for the chaos, Pedro Sanchez.”

This comes as the far-right party Vox, now represented in parliament after the April 2019 general election, accuse the government of showing “disrespect” towards the head of state, King Felipe VI.

PSOE’s coalition partner Podemos is not shy of airing its republican credentials and has heavily criticised the decision taken by Felipe’s father, the former Juan Carlos I, to leave Spain in August after being linked to an inquiry into alleged corruption.

Vox also voted on October 6 against plans to honour Manuel Azaña, Prime Minister of Spain during its second republican experiment in the 1930s, on the 80th anniversary of his death next month, calling the plans yet another “attack” on the monarchy.

Many Spaniards have been pulling their hair out in frustration as the political situation has become more polarised and debate more irrational at a time of genuine national crisis.

Sanchez’s full-frontal assault on the Pact of Forgetting is undoubtedly adding to a rise in the political temperature. Is this approach wise at such a crucial juncture?

Many welcome the steps the coalition are taking to right the historical wrongs that Spain has endured for so long. A challenge to the way authoritarian sympathy has become normalised in Spain is long overdue.

But these steps need to be taken with care. Can a besieged minority government facing the worst public healthcare crisis in a century afford to take such care?

It’s a tall order. At risk is the opportunity to once and for all exercise the ghosts of Spain’s turbulent recent past.

Many will hope that Sanchez really does know what he’s doing.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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