• Jennifer Barnick

History is Complicated—Spain’s Controversial ‘Historical Memory Law’

Valley of the Fallen

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pictured Above: The Valley of the Fallen, Francisco Franco's former resting place

I think for a lot of people, history is a solid thing locked up in enormous books and explained to us in school. History is most often presented as a collection of solid facts firmly established and set in stone, much like the tombstones of the vast majority of people presented in history class. Today in Spain, history is acting rather alive and contentious and is being tried in the courts, newspapers, population polls, and political debates. It seems that history is a lot more complicated and unsettled than previously imagined—even toppling over a pretty significant tombstone. This week (October 24, 2019) Gen. Francisco Franco’s body will be exhumed and relocated. He was buried originally in the Valley of the Fallen which is also a mass grave of unidentifiable people who lost their lives in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). However, because of a law called ‘Historical Memory Law’ (passed in 2007), the remains of Franco no longer would be allowed to rest and would be a subject of a lengthy court fight—bringing up many of the wounds from the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War was a war that still keeps Spain in a dubious statistic: “Spain ranks second as the country with the highest number of ‘disappeared’ people: 114,000 according to historians and relatives’ estimates.” (The Enduring Myths Around Spain’s Historical Memory Law by Natalia Junquera, July 1, 2019, elpais.com) It was a brutal civil war where many mass graves and remains are still being found in places like roadside ditches. The civil war ended with a fascist dictator, Franco, ruling over Spain for 40 years. After the death of Franco (1975) the country worked swiftly to come together, form a democratic government, and bring Spain into the modern world.

Flash backward to 2007—a law was proposed that would formally condemn Franco’s actions during the civil war and his ensuing dictatorship. “The bill will declare arbitrary sentences handed down by military courts set up by Franco ‘unjust’ and ‘illegitimate.’ […] This will enable victims or their families to seek redress through the courts for executions, exile, and persecution never before challenged. It will offer token compensation for those killed, wounded, or expropriated.” (Spanish Memory Law Reopens Deep Wounds of Franco Era by Elizabeth Nash, October 2007, independent.co.uk) When the Memory Law was first introduced it was met by a huge partisan debate. The key issues of the law’s opponents were that it would discount the significance and accomplishments in the transitional period between Franco’s death and the newly formed democratic Spain. The second worry by the opposition was that history was going to be rewritten from a partisan point of view. The last issue was that it would reopen old wounds and ‘rip the country apart.’ Finally, there was also an argument that the law did not go far enough in condemning Franco. The law did pass in 2007 with its main goal to deal with the many mass graves by testing and helping family members claim their loved ones, to give modest restitution to people, and to make clear that the Franco regime was evil. As the graves were opened and the remains were tested, there was very little controversy. However, there did remain and continue to remain disagreements over the history of the Spanish Civil War, with the disagreements more or less falling on political lines. “The law [Historical Memory Law] will probably never lay completely to rest the profound disagreements over national history and identity and the claims of memory, both individual and ‘collective’—that have preoccupied Spaniards since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.” (The Politics of History and Memory in Democratic Spain by Carolyn P. Boyd, May 2008, jstor.org)

Why talk about this now? In legally condemning Franco’s regime and the legal obligation to address his many victims, a glaring problem arose: Franco’s burial. The Spanish Supreme Court ruled in September that Franco’s remains be moved from their resting place at The Valley of the Fallen. After incredible opposition from Franco’s descendants who argued that if he were to be moved, he should be moved to the family’s crypt in a major cathedral in Madrid and given a full military honorary burial including a gun salute when he was reburied. Franco’s family finally lost this week, and Franco will be buried in El Pardo by his wife instead. The reason Franco is being moved is because of the Historical Memory Law. “The monument [The Valley of the Fallen], which was partially built by political prisoners of his regime and is the site of mass grave of Spanish Civil War victims, has since become a draw for tourists and far-right sympathizers who rally at it on the anniversary of Franco’s death on November 20.” (Spain Will Exhume and Move Former Dictator’s Remains this Week by Aimee Lewis and Laura Perez Maestro, CNN, October 21, 2019)

On Thursday, October 24, 2019, Franco will be moved to a lesser burial site next to his wife. To be sure, there will be some controversy—especially at the hands of Franco’s descendants who still hold that he was a great Spanish leader. Additionally, his new burial will no doubt become a mecca for fascist and Franco supporters and a site of historical angst, as Spain is still struggling to return remains to loved ones and continue the upholding of the Historical Memory Law which is both about formal condemnation but also, even in token sums and deeds, providing restitution. History is more alive than people think—even when it comes to where to bury or rebury the dead.

Jennifer Barnick

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.

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