“A country that looks to its future”, Pedro Sánchez (above) told the Spanish parliament after forming a minority government last June, “needs to be at peace with its past.” Yet as the country prepares for its third general election in just over three years this Sunday, Spain’s past seems anything but peaceful. Historical controversies have rumbled through a campaign that has been marked by angry rhetoric and the resurgence of the far right for the first time since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. For decades after the transition to democracy that followed Franco’s death, Spain’s “Pact of Forgetting” kept the past out of party politics. But a new generation of political leaders are forgetting to forget.
Since the transition, power has tilted between Sánchez’s centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the right-wing Popular Party (PP), whose ideological space former Prime Minister José María Aznar famously described as “everything to the right of the left”. Spanish politics, however, has been radically transformed in the last decade, upending the two-party system.
Left populist Podemos (“We can”) grew out of the 15-M/Indignados protest movement; opposition to Catalan nationalism produced the centrist Ciudadanos (“Citizens”); and a toxic swirl of angry nationalism has spawned the far-right Vox. Spain has a multiparty system that spans the full political spectrum for the first time since the eve of the Civil War.
The instability of that period hangs over the election. PP leader Pablo Casado describes a possible coalition of the PSOE, Podemos, and regional nationalists as a “Frankenstein” and a dangerous new “Popular Front”, a reference to the 1936 leftist coalition whose radicalism and instability many on the right believe provoked the military and far-right coup that Franco would eventually lead. Vox leader Santiago Abascal is more explicit: “those responsible for the Civil War were the PSOE”. Felipe González, the left’s leader during the democratic transition and Prime Minister from 1982 to 1896, responded to Casado’s accusations by describing the alternative right-wing coalition of PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox as a “Francostein” creation.
Until recently, such remarks would have been unthinkable in national politics. To allow the country to move on, the two major parties – and much of Spanish society – mostly ignored recent history. No justice was served against those who carried out decades of repression, nor were awkward questions asked about what actually happened; sleeping dogs were let lie. Only in 2007 did the PSOE government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero introduce a Law of Historical Memory to address the legacy of the dictatorship.
Francoist statues and symbols were finally removed from public buildings and spaces, plans were put in place to find and exhume thousands victims who had “disappeared”, and a 2011 expert commission recommended that Franco’s body be exhumed from the vast memorial he had built to the Civil War at Valle de los Caídos near Madrid.
Built in part by political prisoners, “the Valley of the Fallen” holds over 30,000 bodies exhumed (without their families’ permissions) from all over Spain and reburied there. While Franco had not intended the memorial as his own tomb, the transition government felt burying him in central Madrid would be unwise.
The cavernous basilica – so large that some of it was left unconsecrated to avoid exceeding the size of St Peter’s in Rome – feels deeply eerie, an underground relic of the neoclassical architectural style favoured by Franco, and his allies Mussolini and Hitler. Atop the peak above the basilica looms a 500-foot high memorial cross, visible from the nearby Escorial palace, resting place of five centuries of Spanish monarchs. It casts a long shadow.
The PP have long opposed action over historical memory as an unnecessary attempt to dig up a painful past, and tarnish the right with it. In 2011, just as an explosive book by the historian Paul Preston revealed the scale of Franco’s ideological “Holocaust” – hundreds of thousands were murdered in extra-judicial killings – Mariano Rajoy led the PP back to power in an election held on the anniversary of Franco’s death. Exhumation and public history plans were mothballed: “Let the dead bury the dead,” Rajoy told parliament. But the Catalan government’s 2017 illegal independence referendum has made the past impossible to ignore. The separatists characterised the Rajoy government’s hardline response of jailing Catalan leaders and imposing direct rule from Madrid as reminiscent of Franco’s repression of the province, while Rajoy justified his defence of the 1978 democratic constitution with a renewal of Spanish nationalism, an insistence that there is only one Spain.
Rajoy’s government fell last summer in yet another of the corruption scandals that have beset Spanish politics since the transition – political graft being perhaps the dictatorship’s greatest legacy. The PSOE has since cobbled together a minority government and resurrected the issue of historical memory. With the far right resurgent across Europe, and Catalan separatism threatening Spain’s integrity, Sánchez argued that a modern democracy cannot have monuments to nationalist dictatorship.
After months of wrangling with the dictator’s family and the Benedictine monks who control the basilica, Franco’s exhumation is finally set for 10 June, unless the election results or the Supreme Court intervene. Across Spain there are plans to bring up more bodies, and new research is revealing more of the regime’s hidden history, including its hundreds of concentration camps. Polls indicate public support for the PSOE’s plans, but significant opposition among right-wing voters. The atmosphere of defensive nationalism sparked by the Catalan crisis is not one suited to collective historical reflection.
Nor is it only the recent past that is beset by political controversy. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Hernán Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs, and Mexico’s populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador wrote last month to the King of Spain (and the Pope) to call for an open dialogue on shared history and – most explosively – apologies for the crimes of conquest and colonialism that Spain committed for centuries in the “New World”.
Like other former imperial powers in Europe, Spain has significant problems with structural and cultural racism, but only Podemos highlighted the need to address the dark history of colonialism. The Sánchez government say no apology will be forthcoming, but the letter sparked outrage on the Spanish right. Casado deemed it “defamation”, arguing that Spanish colonialism compared favourably with that of other European countries and that “we are one of the most important nations in the history of humanity”. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera called the letter an “intolerable affront”, while Abascal insisted Spaniards should never apologise or feel shame in their past.
To many this was yet more evidence of a resurgence in the “Black Legend” that has damaged the country’s reputation for centuries, and whose alleged continuation has become increasingly prominent in Spanish public history. The head of public broadcaster RTVE defended Spain’s “civilising mission” in the Americas by comparing the Aztecs to the Nazis (making Cortés a liberator), while María Elvira Roca Barea’s 2016 book defending Spain’s empire from “imperophobia” has become a fixture on bestseller lists (and a favourite of Abascal).
Different sides are using the idea of the Black Legend to further their political narratives. PSOE foreign minister Josep Borrell believes Spain is losing the public relations battle with Catalan nationalists because “the Black Legend has returned” in the absence of a positive post-Franco national history, leaving the separatists free to demonise Madrid.
The unionist Ciudadanos see negative interpretations of Spanish history as a threat to Spanish unity by undermining the idea of the nation. Their manifesto includes a plan to combat “the Black Legend” at home and abroad, while Casado sees a “complex-ridden left” focused on identity politics as the source of a “new Black Legend” through their unwillingness to “defend” Spain.
At times these historical preoccupations border on the absurd. Conservatives have opposed government plans to collaborate with Portugal in this year’s 500th anniversary commemorations of the first circumnavigation of the globe, an expedition headed by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan but funded by the Spanish monarchy and completed by Basque Juan Sebastián Elcano. Last month a front page of the conservative daily ABC championed a historical opinion (sought by the editor) that the voyage was “fully and exclusively Spanish”. “Serious nations claim their history,” insisted Casado, arguing that Sánchez’s alleged “rejection” of Spain’s past is evidence that he is not up to the job of leading “a great nation”.
One does not have to look far in past or present to see the dangers in branding political opponents part of what Franco once called “Anti-Spain”. “Traditional” values, they say, are under threat from immigrants, “feminazis”, and the “politically correct”, with promises to defend bullfighting, ban abortion, end regional autonomy, and repeal gender violence laws. Claiming to speak for a Spain that feels it has been culturally and economically left behind, Vox desires to “keep Spain Christian”, build an “insurmountable wall” around the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and deport tens of thousands of “illegal” migrants and asylum-seekers. The far-right party – a political non-entity until the past few months – is polling at over 10 per cent.
“History matters”, Abascal says of his desire to “make Spain great again”, and Vox launched its election campaign in Covadonga, site of an 8th-century Christian military victory over Spain’s medieval Islamic rulers, with a promise to begin a “Reconquista” of the country from its enemies foreign and domestic. As the PP and Ciudadanos turned right to head off Vox’s challenge, Abascal mocked Casado’s own promise of a Reconquista in a social media post showing the Vox leader proudly wearing the iconic helmet made famous by the Spanish conquistadores. Once ignored by agreement in Spanish politics, history is becoming the language of its new cultural and nationalist politics.
Yet these chest-thumping assertions of national unity and historical greatness only serve to emphasise the country’s diversity and divides. It is hard to see a resolution to the Catalan question, or Spain’s other challenges, without maturity replacing mythmaking. Despite the cultural conflicts of the campaign, voters’ top concerns remain unemployment and corruption, and the three-legged race to the right has left the PSOE occupying the wide centre ground almost by default. Opinion polls put the governing party ahead, but likely to require support from Podemos and/or the Catalan and Basque nationalists to secure a majority. Many different Spanish futures could be open after Sunday’s results. The question is whether Spain can reach them without finally facing its pasts.
- Spanish daily El País asked Spanish and Latin American historians for their reactions to recent historical controversies about Spanish colonialism; in English here and here.
- Sam Jones examines the controversy over Franco’s reburial in The Observer.
- David Gardner surveys the election campaign in the Financial Times (subscription).
- Barcelona-based journalist Meaghan Beatley explores the Pamplona rape trial that sparked action from feminists and reaction from the far-right.