2007 - 2021

Government from Beyond the Grave

Douglas Wilson writes for Bella from Madrid on the state of Spanish democracy.

As the trial of the ten democratically elected Catalan politicians and two independence activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, draws to a close this week in the Spanish Supreme Court, with testimony from more than 4oo witnesses having been heard, and the Spanish State Prosecutor reaffirming its draconian charges of rebellion against Esquera Republicana leader Oriol Junqueras and his colleagues for allegedly leading an attempted Coup d’Etat in Catalonia in 2017, it was another judicial ruling from the Court which stole the headlines last night in Spain, a ruling which referred to matters beyond the grave.

The exhumation of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 following his victory in the Spanish Civil War up to his death in 1975, was halted by the Spanish Supreme Court until a definitive finding could be reached on the legality of the decision of Pedro Sánchez’s government to move Franco’s remains from the gruesome, tax-payer funded Francoist monument, the Valley of the Fallen, on the outskirts of Madrid, to a private cemetery, in the wake of legal action by Franco’s heirs.

More incredibly still, the judicial writ made reference to Franco as “Head of State from October 1st 1936”, which is to say, two and a half years before the Civil War came to an end, a date during which the democratically elected Republican government was still in power in Madrid. Effectively, yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling included a wording which gave legitimacy to Franco’s bloody coup against a democratically elected government. Unfortunately, this is something which will come as little or no surprise to most observers of Spanish public life over recent years.

Spanish democracy has been called into question on these pages frequently of late, being described by contributors such Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte as a “post Fascist State”. Jamie Maxwell too raised the issue a couple of years back in an article entitled On Spanish Democracy. For their part, in the wider Scottish media, journalists such as George Kerevan and Ian MacWhirter have on occasions led us to believe that the Spanish Civil War was motivated by a desire to end Catalan autonomy and preserve the unity of Spain. While the unity of Spain has always been paramount for the Spanish Right, the context of 1930’s Europe – with Fascist coups in Germany, Italy and Portugal taking place before Spain’s rebellious Generals made their move – points to much more sinister, totalitarian motives at work than the desire to quash Catalan aspirations of autonomous rule.

Returning to Bernat and Whyte, as an analytical concept for political science, “post-Fascist” doesn’t really get us very far on the terms presented by its authors it seems to me, that is, at least as far as the continuity of personnel between totalitarianism and democracy goes. We know, for example, that thousands of former Nazis continued working for the German State following the restoration of democracy after the Allied victory, and that former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, one time Secretary General of the United Nations no less, was a former Nazi intelligence officer posted in Thessaloniki in Greece at the times of the mass deportation of Greek Jews, one of the great atrocities of the 20th Century. Even the most cursory glance at the history of 20th Century Europe will show that continuity between totalitarian regimes and successor democracies is the norm, not the exception. So, Spain, where plenty of erstwhile Ministers of Franco’s regime metamorphized into democrats overnight, is not so different in this aspect it seems to me.

Nevertheless, those who look for an explanation for the authoritarian response to Catalan demands for self-determination in the peculiarities of the Spanish Transition to Democracy have a very strong case it seems to me. For although Spain is a democracy – it scores well on all the democracy rankings, has a democratic Constitution and democratic institutions, a free press and an independent, albeit highly politicized, judiciary – it also seems by now undeniable that the pact between victors and vanquished known as the Spanish Transition to Democracy, established certain areas which are taboo and deemed to be out of bounds.

Which to say, Spain is a democracy with certain limitations, and with certain no-go areas. I think that is a more accurate albeit less colourful description of contemporary Spain than a “post-fascist State”; otherwise said, Spain is a democracy like any other in Europe… expect when it’s not.

One of these limits or no-go areas, obviously, is the unity of Spain, which explains the stark refusal of any Spanish party with chances of governing in Madrid to allow a binding referendum on Catalan independence, and the draconian crackdown by the Guardia Civil on the day of the non-official Catalan vote.

It ought to be pointed out that Rajoy’s government back at the time could have done a whole number of things to appease Catalan demands without allowing a Catalan independence referendum itself, which would have been the obvious answer. Rajoy could have offered a parliamentary commission on Catalan demands for a referendum, or indeed, asked the King of Spain, Felipe VI, to call a nationwide non-binding referendum on Catalan independence. That would have given an overall result for Spain, sure, but also an individual result for Catalonia and relieved a lot of pent up tension. These last two things could have been done without amending the Spanish Constitution, which is another one of the taboo subjects in Spain today. Any proposed constitutional reform is treated with acute suspicion by Spanish right-wing politicians and the media.

One of the main limitations of the Spanish Transition to democracy was that most of the key players who negotiated it had blood on their hands or else were compromised by their pasts in some way. The leading player of the Francoist reformist establishment, Adolfo Suarez, the first PM of the new democracy, was also the former leader of the The Movement, the fascist political party of Francoist Spain’s one-party State. Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Communist Party, which had provided most of the clandestine opposition to Franco, has been credibly linked to the mass slaughter of Franco supporting civilian prisoners held by the Republican authorities during the early days of Civil War at Paracuellos just outside Madrid. The King was hand-picked by Franco as his successor, with Juan Carlos’ father, Juan de Borbon, by natural right the king of a restored Spanish monarchy, being denied entry to Spain at one point by the dictator because of his liberal, democratic ideas.

All of these people, and many others of the Spanish establishment, had a vested interest in a general Amnesty Law and forgetting the past, as did much of the Spanish population – at least back at the time – whose friends and family were in jail for political activities. But the point is that if legal proceedings had been initiated for crimes of the past, almost every single one of the main brokers of the Spanish Transition would have probably wound up behind bars. This, obviously, was never going to happen.

The next step was to make sure Spanish society joined in with this act of collective forgetting, something which was easy enough to achieve, given that the Spanish people were desperate to enter into a new democratic era of civil liberties and put Franco, the Civil War and the dictatorship behind them, embracing modernity like the rest of Europe. They can hardly be blamed for that it seems to me. It can scarcely be overestimated just how embarrassed most liberal, modern Spaniards feel about Spain’s Franco past. They are welcoming, warm and very tolerant people for the most part – much more so than the British in my experience – in so many ways the very opposite of Franco and his totalitarian regime.

But just in case, the Spanish press, and the newspaper which symbolizes its role in the Transition more than any other, El Pais, made sure this was the case by basically working along with the new democratic forces of the Francoist regime to ensure nobody would prove too critical of the journey along the bumpy road to democracy. Dozens of journalists who, just a few months before the onset of the Transition had been working on Francoist newspapers singing the praises of the dictator, suddenly started singing the praises of democracy. Many of these journalists are still working today in the Spanish press, and still owe their loyalties to the political settlement of 1978 which, I think, explains their virulent hostility to Catalan demands to reopen that settlement.

A further taboo area is the Spanish monarchy and a dismissal of Republicanism as something akin to sedition. The monarchy is held up, in the official and mythologized version of the Spanish Transition, as having brokered the move from dictatorship to democracy, despite King Juan Carlos’s democratic credentials being anything but perfect with all that has come to light about his acquiescence to certain ideas around the time of the failed Coup of 1981 by Antonio Tejero. The predecessor regime of the Second Republic, which dates from April 1931, was a time of great intellectual ferment and saw the birth of one of Spain’s most gifted generations of artists, writers, painters and poets – Lorca, Dali and Buñuel to name just three – though it is written off by the much of the Spanish Establishment as a time of anarchy, chaos and bad government. The Spanish monarchy is presented as synonymous with peace and prosperity, though recent corruption scandals have done great damage to the image of the Crown.

A fourth limitation and no-go area, and the theme which underlies all of the above, is that the Spanish Right won the Civil War, and that this victory is not to be undermined in any shape or form, nor indeed ever forgotten. The official Establishment narrative of the Civil War should not be challenged, nor Francois monuments removed, nor the victims of the losing side heard or respected, much less recompensed: history, as they say, is written by the winners, and that remains true in Spain today. The remedy to past suffering is amnesia, not reconciliation. This was probably a prescription which had to be swallowed back in the late 1970’s, but everybody knows that painful memories cannot be buried for ever, nor should they be in a democracy.

The entrenched and inflexible positions held by the Spanish Establishment on the abovementioned issued amounts to exploiting the social and political advantages secured by a forty-year totalitarian regime and an imperfect transition to democracy, to dictate terms to reality in Spain today. This, despite sovereignty residing in the Spanish people according to the Spanish Constitution of 1978. Yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court to suspend the decision by Pedro Sánchez’s democratically elected government to remove Franco’s remains is a clear example of this, as is the Spanish establishment’s trenchant refusal to even talk about a Catalan independence referendum.

The Spanish electorate have voted for a government whose policy is to move the remains of the dictator from a publicly paid site to a private one. The Catalan people have voted again and again for political parties in favour of holding a referendum, as argued for by some Catalan Unionist and all of the Nationalist parties. It is the democratic duty of the Spanish political class to respond to those quite reasonable demands. Who are the judges of the Spanish Supreme Court to block the sovereign will of the Spanish people? They have no right to do so, constitutional or otherwise it seems to me.

At the same time, and with all this said, to overly criticize the Spanish Transition to democracy seems to me to be churlish and mean-spirited. It is all too easy to be wise after the event and, while the Transition has many faults, it did actually work.

It did secure a relatively peaceful transition to democracy, albeit an imperfect democracy in some aspects as I have tried to illustrate, and the onset of a period of peace and prosperity such as Spain had never known, and it did so in the face of Spain’s fiercely Francoist military and a climate of fear as can be seen in Victoria Prego’s fascinating thirteen part documentary series, La Transición, available for free on Spanish public broadcaster RTVE webpage, which has some quite amazing footage, a lot of which was shot by German TV cameramen. A lot of people risked their lives for Spanish democracy and many even died, and their bravery and sacrifice should not be so easily forgotten.

But for the Spanish Establishment – its politicians, judges, journalists and business elite – to stick so grimly and steadfastly to the political settlement of 1978 against the wishes of the Spanish people threatens the very democracy that the fathers of the Constitution helped to create. Most of those who played a key role in the Transition have long since shuffled off this mortal coil – Adolfo Suarez and Santiago Carrillo are both dead – with the last main player, King Juan Carlos, retiring from public life just this week.

It’s time a new political settlement was reached in keeping with the wishes of Spanish society which, like any society, is constantly changing and adapting to the times, rather than to further entrench in the past, as I fear the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Catalan political prisoners will see take place later this week.

The merits of the Spanish Establishment’s success in steering Spain from dictatorship to democracy do not give that same Establishment the right, forty years later, to stop Spanish History and block all paths to change by constant recourse to the courts and a Spanish judiciary which, it would seem, is still hostage to a mummified corpse in a morgue in the outskirts of Madrid, and still haunted by the old fading ghosts of the dark days of Spain’s 20th Century past.


Comments (11)

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  1. Andy Anderson says:

    I found this article interesting and it gave me a clearer view of a situation which I had found confusing. It does however mean that we in the rest of Europe have a right and a duty to ensure that the full transition from fascism in Spain must continue with full sovereignty returning to the peoples in Spain. Because Spain should have been cleaned up when we were getting ride of Fascism in Europe.

  2. florian albert says:

    ‘It’s time a new political settlement was reached in keeping with the wishes of Spanish society which …is constantly changing.’

    Perhaps Spain in 2019 lacks a consensus necessary for such a political settlement to be achieved. In Scotland the absence of such a consensus over independence precludes a political settlement at present. Similarly, Brexit is an impediment to a lasting political settlement in the UK.
    Writing about ‘Spanish society’ rather glides over the divisions which exists within Spain. I doubt that many contributors to Bella Caledonia would refer to ‘British society.’

    Calling Franco’s Spain totalitarian is misleading. (Even calling it fascist is problematic.) Franco’s Spain is best understood as a military dictatorship. You can be a mass murderer, as Paul Preston has demonstrated beyond doubt that Franco was, without being a totalitarian or a fascist.

  3. Michael M Romer says:

    It may have been convenient in the short run after Franco’s death to leave the mass graves of either side undisturbed. In the longer term every effort should have been made to identify the dead and give them a decent burial, as has been done elsewhere as part of a reconciliation process. Some radio program said Catalonia was making far more effort than elsewhere in Spain to do this but using the DNA of relatives for identification becomes less effective with each successive generation and there are so many mass graves.
    If Franco’s was a military dictatorship , it was one that kept the rich rich and the workers working, with the Church assisting the process, not least by keeping half the population concentrating on kids, kirk and kitchen.

  4. Douglas Wilson says:

    Michael M Romer: there are Civil War graves being exhumed all the time in Spain, all over the country, by local voluntary groups called “Historical Memory Associations”.

    The question is whether these exhumations are financed with the help of government money or not. The relevant authority in that case according to Zapatero’s Historical Memory Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Memory_Law) is not the Spanish State, but local government.

    Right-Wing Partido Popular controlled local governments have almost always refused to offer any cooperation at all with local Historical Memory Associations, though there have been some exceptions in Andalusia where the PP did cooperate.

    I very much doubt there is any difference between exhumations in Catalonia and elsewhere like Andalusia which is the part of Spain with most mass graves by far. That, after all, is where Franco’s African Army landed on mainland Spain after being airlifted by the Luftwaffe from North Africa.

    So, when we talk about mass graves, we are almost always talking about the graves of the victims of Franco and his allies. The victims on Franco’s side of the Civil War were given proper burial during Franco’s dictatorship, often to great fanfare such as in the case of the founder of the Falange Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera who was executed by the Republicans in Alicante and then, after the war, exhumed and taken to Madrid in a mass torchlight procession to be buried in the Valley of the Fallen.

    Florain Albert: There can be no question that Franco’s State was a totalitarian State at least until into the 1960’s, though arguably it remained so then too. It certainly did open up somewhat in the 60’s, not least because of the influence of tourism and the influx of a new a generation of Francoists who hadn’t fought in the Civil War and some say it can be called an authoritarian State from then on, though from the evidence, I don’t agree.

    Because a totalitarian State is one which regulates the lives of its subjects right down to the bedroom. The Franco State was a one-party State, with one Francoist trade union, with mass censorship – everything was censored: films, books, politics -in which women were not allowed to open a bank account without their husband’s permission, which completely brainwashed its population with Franco’s ideology which is called “national-catholicism”, and which had a network of tens of thousands of spies working for it – your neighbour, or boss or brother-in-law or whoever.

    The fact that Franco’s ideology looked to the past – Franco’s heroes were Spain’s Absolutist monarchs like Felipe II and Fernando VII – rather than to any new-fangled doctrine like Nazism did should not deceive anybody about the ferocious level of control exercised on the lives of Spaniards for 40 years and the brutal and sadistic punishment meted out to anybody who dared challenge that ideology. Francoism also had a personality cult as its core as its very name suggests which again, doesn’t happen in merely “authoritarian” regimes.

    I’m afraid the combination of terror and brainwashing Franco imposed on Spain for 40 years is still felt today by many Spaniards, especially on the Right. There are also lots of liberal and entirely democratic Spaniards in the Centre or even the Left in their 60’s or 70’s who find it much easier to think they lived under an “authoritarian regime” rather than a totalitarian State, because Franco, after all, died in his bed. And there are plenty of Spaniards who feel shame and guilt about that fact, though of course, they have no reason to…

    Totalitarian State like Franco’s complete fck up people’s minds and in fact their whole lives, for ever in some cases…

    1. florian albert says:

      The word ‘totalitarian’ was coined to describe dictatorships such as arose in the 1930s which were different from traditional dictatorships like those of Tsarist Russia.
      These dictatorships attempted to assert total control over society, usually through a single party.
      Franco’s Spain does not fit into that template. (The word was used much less frequently when it became clear that dictators such as Mussolini exerted far less control over society than had been previously assumed. The Chinese surveillance state may revive its use.)
      Franco wanted – and got – a population cowed into submission.
      One key point about Franco’s Spain is that the traditional sources of power in Spain – the Church, the landowners, the army – remained intact. Had Franco chosen to take on the Church, it is not certain that he would have triumphed. The army might well have withdrawn its support.

    2. Michael M Romer says:

      If Douglas Wilson has the information, it would be interesting to know how long the Historical Memory Associations have been doing their work and what sort of proportion, hard to be precise of course, of the mass graves have been examined and identification of the occupants attempted.

      One narrative in Spain is that there were massacres on both sides, a corollary to Trump’s there are good people on both sides, perhaps. But civil wars do tend to have a lot of victims on either side and Stalin, for example, is not associated with the sanctity of human life. In one sense it would be good to think that hardly any of the mass graves are of Franco’s troops or supporters but is that likely?

      1. Douglas Wilson says:

        Michael, here is the webpage for the Association For the Recovery of Historical Memory if you are interested: https://memoriahistorica.org.es/

        The Civil War unmarked graves are almost always Republican as I say – unless there is some chance discovery, they are always Republican – and next of kin wouldn’t go near them out of fear for many, many years, more or less until just 15 years ago when PM Zapatero passed the legislation to provide for funds for next of kin to exhume their remains.

        Because, you see, in many cases, family members would know, or have a rough idea, where their father or mother or sister or brother had been executed, because there would be favoured sites in local towns and villages where the killings would always take place.

        So, for example, the local cemetery, or a certain grove of trees just out of town….but under Franco you would have risked your life if you had tried to recover their remains. Not so in democracy, but many older people were still scared and probably are still scared, the few that are still alive that is.

        The killing behind the lines – so not battlefield killings – is estimated to be roughly, if I remember correctly, 50,000 extra judicial killings behind Republican lines and between 150,000 and 200,000 extra judicial killings behind Franco’s Nationalist lines. So, an absolute bloodbath…it’s no wonder that the effects are still felt today in Spain. The overall total for the Civil War is 800,000 dead I think, though there are no official figures.

        Florian: Franco was first and foremost a soldier as you rightly say, but you cannot run a regime for 40 years on being a soldier, you need an ideology. So he used the Spanish version of Fascism, the Falange, for that to begin with, but when the Allies won the war he had to downplay the Falange and resorted to the Church, ultra Catholicism and ultra Spanish nationalism were his main ideological weapons.

        The Catholic Church was so important to Franco that he even won a concession no other leader in Christendom had ever won in modern times which was the right to name Spanish bishops. It was Franco himself who handpicked Spain’s bishops… his regime exercised a control of the lives of Spaniards right down to the bedroom as I say – adultery was a crime under Franco, not just a sin.

        Why is Francoism described as authoritarian and not totalitarian so frequently? Because when the Cold War started, the West suddenly needed Franco and the US wanted to set up military bases in Spain, which they duly did. Franco, a fascist dictator, was an embarrassment for the Americans and the British because they had just beaten two other Fascist dictators in Mussolini and Hitler.

        So it was much more convenient to describe Franco’s as an “authoritarian regime” suddenly and reserve “totalitarian” for Communist countries… it was good propaganda. That, and the fact that Spain’s intellectuals, politicians,govt officials, – the Spanish establishment in a word – not to mention its tourism industry, all felt much better, and in many cases still feel much better, to have collaborated with an authoritarian regime rather than a totalitarian one…

        Any political regime which has a network of tens of thousands of informal spies can only be described as totalitarian. Who were these spies? We don’t know, because the Spanish Minister of the Interior at the very end of Francoism, Martin Villa I think it was, had the entire archive of the Fascist National Movement incinerated at a plant in Barcelona just before the onset of democracy….

        There were thousands upon thousands of ordinary Spaniards who spied for Franco… and it’s something nobody ever talks about in Spain, today….just like nobody talked about all the mass graves – and there are thousands of them – until about 15 years ago….

  5. mince'n'tatties says:

    Douglas is clearly erudite and committed; so why the obvious gap? A chasm on the Church. Make no mistake, the French Revolution traumatised the Catholic Church in Spain. It was only 140 years before Franco. French radical anti-clericalsism [ or radicalism or communism or republicism ] rolled into Spain with all its attendandant barbarism. What reactionary behaviour followed was inevitable. Brexit should tell us that there are no absolutes in a democracy. Frozen polarisation.
    At least recognise the fact.
    That Stalin ordered the communists to annihilate the anarchists speaks volumes about left unity of purpose.
    Franco kept Spain neutral in WW2. Other than the doomed Spanish Legion sent to Russia, he outfoxed Hitler and saved Spain from another hell. Don’t believe me? Check out Mussolinis WW2 ‘liberation’ ie hell of Italy.
    His memory should be more nuanced.

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      Again, you’re just repeating more Francoist propaganda….

      Franco didn’t cunningly keep Spain out of the WWII – it is one of the most frequently repeated propaganda lines – he made a series of territorial demands in North Africa in exchange for Spain joining in with the Axis forces, a series of demands which were wildly beyond what any Spanish contribution could be worth in military terms, and and Hitler rejected his demands outright…. then the war started to turn in favour of the Allies.

      Besides, Hitler couldn’t stand Franco. After they met, he said he’d rather have his teeth pulled than have to sit and talk again and for a few hours with Franco.

      There were terrible atrocities carried out against priests and nuns, especially in Catalonia by the anarchists who burned down every church in the city. That is certainly true and those are war crimes also, no doubt about that.

      But again, I fail to see how that redounds to the glory of Franco or justifies him in any way? He was a mass-murderer, one of the biggest mass-murderers in 20th century history.

      And, in case you’re in any doubt, the Basque clergy stayed loyal to the Republic and Franco had what he called the “red priests” shot too…

      1. mince'n'tatties says:

        Do believe this Douglas; I do find your articles informative on a Spain that pulsates beneath the veneer of fitba’ and the Costas. That said, you wield a keyboard cudgel
        that ends in hyperbole.
        Franco was ‘one of the biggest mass-murderers in 20th century history.’ No lists fom me that measure mankinds atrocious behaviour to one another, but really?
        What really puzzles me though is the deep inherent decency of that countries people. Always amazes and sometimes leaves a little shame. Where’s the bitterness? Surely not all down to the climate.
        So again thanks, everything you write has info nuggets. Nevertheless I hold that Francos legacy is not all black and white.

        1. Douglas Wilson says:

          Mince, you would get on like a house on fire with Rajoy, Aznar and the PP. Maybe you could be a Partido Popular PR rep in Scotland? They could certainly do with one.

          For every Italian that Mussolini killed, Franco killed 10,000 Spaniards… yet Mussolini has much the worse reputation I would say. History really is written by the winners… Anyway, the Spanish Civil War is in the past, it’s over and there will always be disagreement about it among Spaniards.

          The question now to ask in the present is: should a democratic State like Spain be funding the grave and the tomb of a dictator like Franco who was a sworn enemy of democracy with so much blood on his hands? The answer can only be no. The plans to turn the Valley of the Fallen into a Memorial Site and Museum dedicated to all of those who died during the Spanish Civil War is the right thing to do, and the democratic thing to do…

          As for Spain, it’s a fantastic country and I agree the Spanish are great people, very welcoming and friendly and funny too.

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