Spain started the 1930s as one of the most advanced democracies at the time and ended the decade being one of the cruellest and repressive dictatorships, which lasted almost forty years till 1975 when the dictator Franco died. After his death, a monarchy was established and the Transition to democracy started through negotiation inside the dictatorship’s already established legality.
Written by: Paula O’Donohoe
One of the most crucial legislations of the period is the Law of Amnesty from 1977. This Law was intended to ease the political opposition who demanded amnesty for all political prisoners but it also forbade the perpetrators (Aguilar 2002). Considered a political pact of silence, this flooded Spanish society and culture until the 2000s, when victims and their families started an associative movement. This movement has been considered as the recovery of Spanish historical memory of the victims of Francoism, as from its beginning, the memories of the victims irrupted in the public and political spheres and became a constant in Spanish media and culture (Aguilar 2007, Férrandiz 2008, Rigby 2000).
Memory took over the cultural sphere, and in the last twenty years, there has been a proliferation of books, series, movies and documentaries focused or set on the years of the dictatorship. This escalated the point that when a new movie comes out you can hear recurrent comments, with people for instance commonly saying “just another movie about the Civil War”. These cultural products recovered the long-forgotten perspectives and experiences of both the victims of the War and the Francoist dictatorship, in general. However, Spanish media has had its own path and is still divided in how to talk about the past.
Figure 1: Proclamation of the Second Republic, 14 April 1931. Source: Alfonso Sánchez Portela, Museo Reina Sofía | Figure 2: Madrilian newspapers with news of Franco’s death, 19 November 1975. Source: Anonymous, 65ymás.com
How does Spanish media address its difficult past?
A first glance is enough to realise that Spain never got over the division between Republicans and Francoist, losers and winners, because we still find the same division today under the terminology of both left-wing and right-wing parties. We can look at how different newspapers echoed the approval of a new draft bill of Law of Democratic Memory at the end of 2020. Specifically, this Law introduces new developments on memory issues like:
The attribution of responsibility and an active role in the search, exhumation and identification of victims of forced disappearance to the State.
The creation of a Specialised Public Prosecutor to promote the legal processes of search, location and identification of the victims.
The coverage of victims status to those who suffered human rights violations during the Civil War and Francoism.
Moreover, this Law nullifies the sentences issued by courts-martial and the Tribunal of Public Order, together with the sentences issued for political, ideological or belief motives.
On one hand, therefore, the traditionally right-wing newspapers La Razón and El Español, are focused on defending the narrative of the Transition as the foundational myth of Spanish democracy, echoing the discursive elements of peaceful national reconciliation and equidistance of violence of both sides. But these newspapers fall into sentimentalities and fail to critically address the specifics of the law. On the other hand, the traditionally left-wing newspapers El Diario and Público, do go into detail about the specifics of the future Law, how it addresses and implements the victim’s claims of the last twenty years and the State’s new responsibilities in memory issues. They are also critical to the State, but because they consider there is much more that could be done and that it is a late first step.
We find the same division in the political sphere. This divorce between right and left parties, and their stance on memory issues have become part of their political DNA. In fact, it is intrinsic to their political identities that the left defends the memory and the victim’s claims, and the right rejects the memorial movement. Historically, this division makes sense if we consider that the left comes from the anti-Francoism movement and suffered the repression since the beginning of the War, whereas the right comes from those Francoist politicians that stayed in power after the Transition.
It is easy to find examples of this division as the language of the Civil War and Francoism is still being used every day. To give some quotations from the right parties: Esther Muñoz, from Partido Popular (PP), said: “15 million so you can dig up some bones” referring to the national budget for exhuming mass graves from the Civil War; and Manuel González Capón, also from PP, claimed: “those who were sentenced to death deserved it”, referring to the thousands of victims of the repression. On the other side, from the left parties: Podemos, for instance, issued a statement claiming: “After forty years of national-Catholicism the heirs of the structures that sustained a bloody dictatorship do not want to stop reminding us that they are still here, painted in green or blue” after Madrid’s City Council took down statues in commemoration of Socialist politicians Francisco Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto; and the president of the Spanish government, Pedro Sánchez from Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) claimed: “today’s Spain is the outcome of forgiveness but it cannot be the outcome of oblivion” after Franco’s exhumation from the mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen.
But probably one of the most striking examples is when VOX, the extreme-right party, won some seats in the Madrilenian parliament and recovered the well-known usage of one of the banners that the Republic hang in the city during the War. At this time, the Republican “they will not pass” turn into “we have passed”. The conveyed message is that they are identifying themselves with the Francoist Regime and the related symbology and memories are employed accordingly to legitimise their existence and political gains.
There is thus a public recovery of the Francoist regime heritage which has fostered the apparition of a nostalgic movement that is taking over the public sphere, and allowing for this kind of comments to be the daily norm. This recovery legitimises statements such as the one the President of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso from PP, said on national television: “if they call you a fascist is because you are doing something right … you are on the right side of history”.
Figure 3: Banner with ‘¡No pasarán’ in a Madrilenian street during the Civil war. Photo by: Mikhail Koltsov. Source: Revista Código | Figure 4: Tweet from Vox, 27 May 2019. Source: Twitter
Memorial narratives in media
With these examples, it is clear that there are different memorial spaces in Spain and depending on where you are you will find one memory or the other, anti-Francoism or pro-Francoism. In the cultural sphere, there seems to be a tacit agreement on echoing the suffering of the victims during the war and the dictatorship. On media and the political sphere, there is a clear division between right-wing and left-wing, but on both there is a constant mentioning of mass graves, the war and the Transition. So, after eighty years, the past continues to be problematic and unsettling. There is not one narrative being transmitted but different opposite ones, and there are many narrators who foster the conflict.
Accordingly, the public arena has become a boxing ring of memorial narratives and historical experiences that fight in a zero-sum game where they can only be one winner. And one of the main problems is that media creates bipolarised bubbles of communication. We only see, read and listen to things we already agree with. Thus, we fail to see the other side of the coin and fail to realise that our opinion is not ‘common sense’ but part of a political ideology.
About the author
Graduated in Cultural Anthropology, with a MA in Euroculture Paula O’Donohoe is specialised in memory, heritage and museology. She is now a PhD student at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and her research focuses on the transgenerational transmission of memories in Spain. Additionally, for the last three years, she has been a group coordinator for European Heritage Volunteers.
Aguilar, Paloma (2002). “Justicia, política y memoria: Los legados del Franquismo en la Transición Española” In: Barahona, A., Aguilar, P., & Gónzalez, C. (eds.) Las políticas hacia el pasado. Juicios, depuraciones, perdón y olvido en las nuevas democracias. Ediciones Istmo: 136-193.
Aguilar, Paloma (2007). “Los Debates Sobre La Memoria Histórica” Claves De Razón Prácticas, N. XX: 2-6.
Ferrándiz, Francisco (2008). “Cries and Whispers: Exhuming and Narrating Defeat in Spain Today” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, 9(2): 177-192.
Rigby, Andrew (2000). “Amnesty and Amnesia in Spain”, Peace Review, 12 (1): 73-79.