Spain: finally confronting its own demons…

There has been no shortage of angst spent on the question of whether to confront/leave behind the traumatic events of the past. Fewer places more so than here on Slugger. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, the past has not quite receded into a safe distance for some. But in Spain it has taken some 70 years before the country has been sufficiently comfortable with its much bloodier and traumatic past to begin to literally and metaphorically dig it up.

…the volunteers feel they are working against the clock. There is a sense that what they do not recover now will be lost forever. Very few survivors can tell the tale at first hand, and even fewer have been willing to come forward. “We, the grandchildren, were not supposed to have any contact with the past,’’ says Ortiz. “By the third generation, the forgetting should have been total, complete. Instead, we have gone in search of what happened.’’

Zapatero, the relatively new Socialist Prime Minister plans to bring a raft of new laws aimed at scattering replacing what’s left of the Franco era in the public domain. But:

…the proposed law makes no provisions for human rights trials or truth commissions and does not oblige the state to take over the task of locating the disappeared. Amnesty International is critical of the “law of historical memory’’, as it has been dubbed in the press. “It forgets justice, does not offer enough reparation for the victims, and does not advance sufficiently in the search for truth,’’ says the human rights group.

The Spanish right is also critical, but for different reasons. The conservative Popular party, the largest opposition group, says the bill is “unnecessary and inopportune’’. The party equates the desire for justice with a thirst for revenge. Rightwing politicians have accused Zapatero of playing politics with the past and of wanting to upset the delicate arrangement that became the foundation for Spain’s transition to democracy, and warn of dire consequences.

That arrangement was known as the “pacto del olvido’’, or pact of forgetting. “The years that followed Franco’s death were far from peaceful,’’ says Paloma Aguilar, a professor of politics at the UNED open university, who writes about “the politics of memory’’. “Franco’s repressive apparatus remained intact, and pro-democracy demonstrations and labour strikes were violently suppressed. I think it was the violence of the transition that rekindled the traumatic memories of the civil war. What Spaniards wanted, above all else, was to avoid a repetition of that conflict.’’

Senator Manuel Fraga who was an aide to Franco:

…has never apologised for being a Francoist, and he is not about to do so. “No one should condemn anyone in Spain,’’ he tells me in his office in the senate. “We had a good transition … What do we gain by removing statues and changing the names of streets? Look at the British: Cromwell decapitated a king, but his statue still stands outside parliament. You cannot change the past, it should be left alone. Spaniards should be thinking about the problems we have to resolve today, about their future, not about their past.’’

Meanwhile truth recovery continues apace, and largely beyond the remit of the state:

When the disappeared are found and can be identified, says Ortiz, the archaeologist, there is immense satisfaction in shedding light on what happened to them, and piecing together personal histories. In August he helped Modesto Diez, a retired miner from Leon, locate his father, who was kidnapped at the start of the war by the fascist Falange party. Modesto was seven when his father disappeared. “His father kissed him goodbye. The last image Modesto has is of his father being handcuffed and pushed out the door,’’ Ortiz says. “We found the unmarked grave in a field of rye. Modesto’s father was buried with two other men. Carlos, the grandson, exhumed the body under our supervision. It was a very moving moment for two generations of the Diez family.’’

Many older Spaniards, however, continue to feel uneasy about the unearthing of the past. Socialists such as Chavez admit that, after 70 years, the civil war continues to divide Spain. There is no shared narrative, no official history – a set of causes, events and an aftermath that Spaniards of all political hues can agree upon. “I do not think that a shared view of our recent past will be possible, at least in the short-term,’’ Chavez says.

As if to underline the thoroughly nasty and personal character of Civil War, Santiago Carcas, from the village of Boquineni, on the banks of the Ebro, north of Zaragoza:

“To talk about the past is also to talk about who profited from the repression. I had a great-uncle who fled to France and returned to Boquineni some years after the war had ended. He liked to play the accordion. One evening, the Falange took him to the hills and shot him. We know who did it, because we know which family kept my great-uncle’s accordion. Their children still play with it today.’’


  • foreign correspondent

    The new law is needed. The fascists got away with too much for too long under the pretext of a smooth transition.
    Should something similar be done in Eastern Europe regarding Communist repression and violence there? Of course.

  • Harry Flashman

    When we had our peace agreement the understanding was that a line was drawn under the past and we must move on, this was painful but accepted by most people.

    However I am amazed how this doesn’t seem to apply in other nations, the Chileans for instance also arranged their own peace agreement where Pinochet would stand down, be immune from prosecution in return for a stable transition to democracy. This arrangement was acceptable to Chileans but apparently not so for the polytechnic student union types ensconsed in European governments who insisted upon jeapordising this peace deal to further their own adolescent causes.

    So it is with Spain. We want to dig up the dead of the Civil War? Fine, let’s have it all out then, let’s hear the truth about the atrocities committed by the Left, the massacres and rapes of Catholic priests and nuns, or don’t they count?

    Just as in the case of the horrors inflicted by Marxist terror gangs, secret policemen and death squads around the rest of the world so it is with Spain; only one side gets to be the victim and the millions murdered by Leftist terrorists must rest uneasy, yet undisturbed, in their mass graves.

  • Thought this might be of interest as it came out today. The full report will be up on later on:


    Spain: Reform investigatory system to end torture and other ill-treatment by police

    Acts of torture and other ill-treatment by police officers in Spain are not isolated incidents, Amnesty International said today. The reluctance of successive Spanish governments to address the problem is exacerbating the climate of impunity which fosters further incidents of ill-treatment, the organization warns.

    “The Spanish authorities must end the state of denial regarding torture and other ill-treatment by police officers. The lack of political will to address the problem has led to further human rights violations,” Rachel Taylor, Amnesty International’s researcher on Spain said.

    Amnesty International’s report, Spain: Adding insult to injury: The effective impunity of police officers in cases of torture and other ill-treatment, highlights cases of people who have been hit, kicked, punched and verbally abused by police officers, including while handcuffed, both in the street and while in police custody.

    In some cases, the complainants have claimed that they were threatened with a gun or knife, whipped on the soles of their feet, and received death threats from police officers. In one case a detainee was told that if he did not cooperate, the police officers would rape his girlfriend. In another, a man lost hearing in one ear for several weeks as a result of blows to his head from police officers.

    Amnesty International’s research indicates that the cases documented in this report are not isolated incidents but are examples of pervasive and structural shortcomings in the prevention, investigation and punishment of torture and other ill-treatment.

    Victims of ill treatment and torture by the police frequently do not receive justice. Often, court decisions are biased towards police testimony and victims of abuse may end up in prison and have their lives and careers ruined.

    “Police officers often take the law in their own hands, while the authorities turn a blind eye to their practices which are in clear violation of Spain’s international legal obligations,” Rachel Taylor said.

    “Torture may not be routine but it goes unchecked despite Spain’s commitments under international law.”

    Amnesty International has identified the factors contributing to effective impunity for ill-treatment by law enforcement officials in Spain which include:

    Obstacles to lodging a complaint;
    Lack of independent, prompt and impartial, investigations or an outright failure to investigate;
    Incomplete or inaccurate medical reports;
    Intimidation of complainants by the police;
    Failure to impose appropriate sanctions or trial cases ending in acquittal due to the non-identification of the officers responsible.

    “Until the government takes effective action to investigate allegations and bring to justice all those responsible for torture and other ill-treatment, police officers will remain above the law and the climate of impunity will spread,” Rachel Taylor said.

    Amnesty International calls on the Spanish authorities to introduce a range of legislative, judicial, and administrative measures to prevent torture and other ill-treatment. The organization also recommends that the authorities ensure the prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigation of any case where there is reason to believe torture and ill-treatment may have occurred. Furthermore, the authorities are required to ensure that persons responsible for such human rights violations are brought to justice in fair proceedings and to ensure an effective remedy, including reparation, for victims.

  • Dewi
  • susan

    Dewi, thank you so much for that link. By coincidence, I’d never read those stanzas from Orwell at the close until just last night, when I read an article by Christopher Hitchens a friend forwarded me.

    It concerns Hitchens’ mixed emotions encountering the family of a young Irish American soldier killed in Iraq who’d been motivated to enlist, in part, by Hitchens’ own arguments for war

    Not related to the Spanish Civil War, apologies, but Hitchens’ musings about ultimate causation, personal responsiibliity, sacrifice, waste and the myths and realities of war do tie in with several current threads.

  • Dewi

    Susan – his letter to his widow:

    “One thing I have learned about myself since I’ve been out here is that everything I professed to you about what I want for the world and what I am willing to do to achieve it was true. …

    My desire to “save the world” is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you.”

    Teribly moving. Thanks for reference.

  • Joey

    ‘Just as in the case of the horrors inflicted by Marxist terror gangs…only one side gets to be the victim and the millions murdered by Leftist terrorists must rest uneasy, yet undisturbed, in their mass graves.’

    More gross nonsense from you. Your only contribution seems to consist of ranting on hysterically and emotionally about Marxism and how it is the only evil in the world. Vey little intelligence, very little actual history as befits nebulous understanding.

    Perhaps you were unaware General Franco was a fascist dictator, who only distanced himself from the Tripartite Pact once he became aware that they might be defeated in World War Two. There’s some evidence he even had to be paid by Churchill – Swiss bank accounts and all – to stay neutral and resist joining th other European fascist nations. He did however arrange for the Luftwaffe to practice shelling a number of unfortunate Spanish towns, and Mussolini as well as Hitler provided material as well as ideological support for Franco’s terror. Even Dr Salazar in Portugal arranged transport and flight from Lisbon for Allied anti-Nazis – a genuine repudiation of the politics of Germany and Italy – but you wouldn’t know about him so I won’t confuse you.

    You’ll find Catholic priests were excellent informers and provided much information to the nationalists. Their information was responsible for the killing of Republicans, so you can see where those Republicans were coming from can’t you? There has not been one reference to the fact that in February 1936 the Popular Front was democratically elected and assembled. They were not some kind of Comintern clique (in fact the official Comintern was ambivalent to the Popular Front, as documented in Orwell’s lyrical Homage To Caalonia). Given your patent reverence for the despicable Franco/any other right wing tyrant, perhaps it was understandble you missed that.

    If you can avoid ranting inanely and utterly incongruously about Marxist ‘horrors’ somehow relating to Francisco Franco – his terror claimed the lives of over 200,000 – you win a prize: a history book.

  • Although, as a good liberal, my sympathies are firmly with the Republican camp in the Spanish Civil War, the left certainly carried out their share of atrocities in the Spanish Civil War. And once the Sovs got involved, there were plenty of atrocities carried out on other parts of the Republican coalition not acceptable to Stalin (like liberals).

    There’s a one-sided attitude to the brutalities of the 20th Century, which ends up minimising the horrors of totalitarian communism. Alberto Korda’s inconic photograpgh of Che Guevara appears on t-shirts over the world; try doing that with a picture of, oh, say Albert Speer and see what happens.

  • Harry Flashman

    Sammy, that sums it up for me exactly.