Mike Wills: The Spaniards are finally confronting their dark history – are there lessons for us?
Spain is moving to dig up its political past, literally. Franco's bones could be on the move.
The new socialist government in Madrid wants to remove the remains of former leader Generalissimo Francisco Franco from Valle de Los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen) where he’s been interred since his death in 1975. That vast mausoleum, 50km north of the capital in the Guadarrama mountains, was built in part by the forced labour of political prisoners after the bitter three-year Spanish Civil War ended in 1939. Officially it was intended as a memorial to all the dead on both sides – reportedly as many as half a million – but it has long been considered a symbol of the Nationalists’ victory given that their leader had ordered its construction and was entombed there. For me, the son of a committed supporter of the losing Republican cause, Valle de Los Caidos was a chilling place to visit especially when, as I experienced, ominously dark thunder clouds loomed theatrically above the towering stone cross which, at 150m, is the tallest of its kind in the world. It’s also an essential place to visit to gain a sense of that horrendous conflict which wracked the Western world throughout the 1930s. This new move to disturb Franco’s rest represents a serious change in the way that Spain officially wrestles with this divisive past. The scars from the Civil War (1936-1939) ran very deep yet, when Franco died and Spain opened itself to democracy, the new Socialist government and the old order tacitly agreed on what became known as El Pacto del Olvido, the pact of silence or forgetting. It was given its only formal legal basis in a 1977 law which deliberately buried troublesome history with an instant blanket amnesty and no investigations. There was to be no Truth and Reconciliation Commission nor anything like it. There were only a few, minor exceptions to this very conscious unconsciousness. The amoral pact was reached within the establishment and was angrily opposed by many in the Republican rank and file who felt their former enemies were getting away with murder and torture. But, until now, it has been scrupulously honoured even in the face of UN criticism that it contravenes international law on war crimes. There are many commentators who believe the pact was the essential foundation of the explosive economic and social growth of the 1980s and 1990s which catapulted Spain into the stylish, modern and prosperous society which it has become – even if, as its ongoing fiscal crisis shows, they were always spending way beyond their means. By not looking back, the argument goes, Spain was able to move forward. There are plenty in South Africa who have stated the same view and believe we would have been better served by following that ostrich (or “bygones be bygones”) model. But direct comparisons with Spain are flawed. Apartheid represented a minority forcibly exerting centuries of racial and economic superiority over a vast majority while Spain’s Civil War was a nation divided down the middle in open conflict for three years. Our past challenges us in different and deeper ways and demands far more introspection and correction. And a Department of Basic Education task team now plans to compel every South African child to examine that devilish past right up to matric from 2023. That’s a daft and distracting move in practical terms whatever its limited theoretical merits. And that sentiment comes from someone with a university degree in history – I loved studying the stuff but cannot see how it will benefit most to be forced to wade through it grudgingly. And will it be history they wade through or propaganda? That’s a fine line the Spaniards are also having issues with. A powerful lobby group believes that a leyenda negra – a black legend – was created by dastardly Protestant Brits and Dutch over centuries to paint the Catholic Spanish Empire as repressive, dark, rapacious and evil - the Spanish Inquisition and all of that – when it was, in their view, fundamentally enlightened and glorious. They want the history books rewritten. Among the group’s goals, according to a report in The Guardian, is to portray the legendary conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro as liberators of the Aztecs and the Incas rather than as rapacious pillaging invaders. Hmm. Trying to reframe colonialism in a positive light. What could possibly go wrong with that project? DM