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.’’

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty