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‘Turning its back on victims of Franco’: Spain’s right accused of whitewashing fascism

Activists fear that right-wing local governments are attempting to rewrite the country’s violent 20th-century history

A large cross mounted on a stone block greets visitors to Zaragoza’s Torrero cemetery. This monument was built during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and was one of many dedicated to those who died fighting for his side in the 1936-39 Spanish civil war.

In recent years, many such monuments across Spain have been removed from public display on the grounds that they glorify Franco’s regime. This has been part of a drive by left-leaning national and local governments to prioritise historical memory and acknowledge the victims of Franco during the civil conflict and his ensuing four-decade dictatorship.

But historical memory activists in Aragón and elsewhere in Spain fear that new right-wing local governments are reversing the progress made over recent years and are attempting to rewrite the country’s violent 20th-century history.

“The Aragón government is turning its back on the victims of Franco,” says Enrique Gómez Arnas, of the region’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. He is speaking in the cemetery, next to a small park dedicated to Franco’s victims.

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“It’s historical revisionism, putting the blame for what happened in this country on the left.”

After taking office last summer as a coalition, the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox announced they were rolling back a local Democratic Memory Law introduced in the region by the previous, Socialist government in 2018. That legislation had sought to remove symbols of the Franco regime in public spaces – although the Torrero cemetery monument remains – and implement a protocol for the exhumation and identification of the remains of victims.

The announcement of the law’s withdrawal was made on November 20th, the anniversary of Franco’s death in 1975, a day still commemorated by right-wing extremists. Gómez Arnas said the choice of date was “a wink” to right-wing voters.

Mar Vaquero, second deputy president of Aragón, insists it was a coincidence and she defends the elimination of the region’s existing law.

“It was a sectarian, divisive and incomplete law because it continued to support the spirit of one side against the other,” Vaquero, of the PP, told The Irish Times. “And what we want to do is to leave that behind and recover the spirit of the democratic transition.”

No law has been introduced to replace it, but her administration intends to present a “harmony plan” by the summer. Vaquero said it will broaden the scope of the region’s historical memory to include acknowledging and exhuming victims of ideological violence during the 1931-1936 left-wing Second Republic.

“We are in favour of recovering any remains from any mass grave, whether it’s from the era of the Republic, the era of the civil war or the era of the dictatorship,” she said. “We believe that ideology is not inherited.”

However, critics say the harmony plan is no such thing. These apparent efforts to put the Franco regime and the democratically elected Republican government on an equal moral standing infuriate historical memory campaigners. They also appear to endorse far-right revisionist narratives that query the established mainstream theory that a coup d’état by right-wing army officers against the Republican administration triggered the civil war.

The Hispanist Paul Preston, who has documented the violence of the civil war and the Franco regime in a number of acclaimed books, told The Irish Times that “the principle qualitative difference [between violence during the Republic and during the dictatorship] is that the Francoist repression was official policy whereas the Republican authorities were trying to prevent violence.”

Inmaculada Rebla, from a local historical memory association in Aragón, pointed to the PP’s foundation by Franco regime ministers and said the region’s government had rolled back the law “because it makes them look bad in a historical context”.

She added: “We are not going to allow them to lie about the history of Spain and what happened in this country.”

Rebla and other campaigners fear that funding and support for the exhumation of the approximately 1,000 mass graves in Aragón will be cut under the new regional government plan. Vaquero counters such concerns by saying that exhumations will receive 10 per cent extra funding this year.

The Aragón government’s approach to historical memory has been replicated in other regions where the PP and Vox are governing in coalition. Last month, the government of Castilla y León presented a “harmony law” to replace existing historical memory legislation. “There has never been a consensus about the Second Republic, the civil war and Francoism,” reads the text of that law, which asserts that younger generations have received a “distorted view” of the conflict.

Spain’s most prominent historical memory organisation described the Castilla y León law as “a great example of whitewashing fascism”.

Similar legislation has been introduced in Valencia, where the PP and Vox also govern in coalition, and plans are under way to replace existing laws approved by the left in the Balearic Islands and Cantabria.

The issue has also been played out in the national political arena. Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, whose government introduced a nationwide historical memory law in 2022, has threatened to appeal to the Spanish constitutional court, the EU Parliament and the UN in a bid to stop regions from reversing existing local legislation.

“We haven’t come this far to allow this wave of far-right revisionism which the most advanced democracies in the world are seeing, including Spain,” he said.

Pablo de Greiff, a former UN special rapporteur on truth, justice and reparation, described the PP and Vox initiatives as “denial”.

“I don’t understand what kind of concept of ‘harmony’ can be based on false equivalence and the refusal to acknowledge victims who still have legitimate grievances,” he said.

The PP has long opposed efforts by Socialist governments to tackle historical memory and the last time it governed Spain, between 2011 and 2018, it eliminated funding for organisations carrying out exhumations.

However, many believe the catalyst for the recent wave of revisionist laws is Vox, which takes a particularly belligerent stance on the issue.

“Necrophilia, division and rancour have returned,” tweeted the far-right party’s leader Santiago Abascal, in response to images of Sánchez visiting the Valley of Cuelgamuros, Franco’s former mausoleum where scientists are identifying remains civil war victims from both sides.

Abascal added that Sánchez was using the issue “to cover up the corruption of his coup-mongering government, propped up by criminal forces”.

Vox’s influence on the PP has been evident in many town and city halls and regional governments where the two have been in coalition since last summer, with, for example, a number of gender equality departments being eliminated and LGBTQ flags being removed from public buildings. Although Vox does not explicitly express admiration for Franco or his regime, some of its politicians have hinted they sympathise with the dictator and his ideas. The Facebook profile photo of the head of justice in Aragón, Esmeralda Pastor, showed her posing in front of a Franco-era flag.

Gómez Arnas says that Spain’s history has become “another part of the culture war”.

“We lost the civil war,” he says. “But all the suffering that came afterwards, society needs to know about it because otherwise there’s no guarantee that it won’t happen again.”

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