What happens when a military coup fails? A possible answer, a nation can be thrown into civil war. In July 1936 a coalition of the Spanish Military attempted to swiftly overthrow the democratically elected Spanish Government with no success. As a result, what was meant to be a quick and easy overthrow of the government devolved into a full-scale civil war. For nearly two years the Republicans (leftist Spanish government) fought the Nationalists usurpers (military, clergy, conservatives, monarchists, and business elite) to no avail. Spain emerged from the conflict a new fascist dictatorship under the rule of Francisco Franco. Franco and his nationalist forces committed grave human rights abuses – killing, persecuting, and arbitrarily jailing opposition – throughout the civil war and his reign until his death and the formation of democratic Spain we are familiar with today in 1975.
How do Democracies move forward from events that divide the citizenry and pose a threat to Democracy? Two methods persist: forgetting or acknowledging. Both have been demonstrated in Spain since the fall of the Franco regime. Despite these two methods, acknowledging and redressing the past is the only way to bring together the nation and secure the future of the democracy, which is “an important prerequisite for successful democratization” (Rustow).
Democratic Spain’s initial policy for moving past the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and Francoist Spain in the late 1970s was through a “pact of forgetting.” The primary political parties of the time negotiated this “pact of forgetting,” “an informal agreement that made any treatment of the most difficult episodes of Spanish history” irrelevant. Instead of seeking justice and truth, the new government favored forgetting to move on. This belief was exemplified in the 1977 Amnesty Law, which has been condemned by the United Nations, that “pardoned crimes committed during the 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco,” and La Desmemoria (disremembering), a policy that required Spain to avoid anything that might bring up the memory of the nation’s tumultuous past, “such as the observation of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, in 1986.” Forgetting the past is an easy way of moving forward. It does not remedy the divides within society from tragic events. This pact of forgetting prevented Spaniards from seeking justice for the crimes their relatives endured during the Francoist years, resolving the underlying tension within the nation between the descendants/supporters of Franco vs. the descendants/supporters of democratic Spain. Most importantly, the pact of forgetting perpetuated the fallacy that both parties of the Spanish Civil War were to blame for the conflict.
Since the late 1990s, there has been a push in Spain to overturn this pact of forgetting and enact the second method of moving past events that pose a threat to Democracy and national cohesion: acknowledging the past. This began with challenging the narrative that the Nationalists and Republicans were both to blame for the Spanish Civil War by scholars, and therefore the subsequent dictatorship. The narrative of the conflict began to change and assign blame for the Civil War to the Nationalists blame because they rebelled against a democratically elected government.
The second step towards acknowledging and redressing the past was in the form of Act 52/2007, the Historical Memory Law. Spain Passed the Historical Memory Law in 2011. The law “condemned the atrocities under Franco, called for symbols of his rule to be removed from public spaces and claimed that the state would help in locating and identifying those still missing as a result of the civil war and Francoist oppression.” The law also declared the rulings of military tribunals that sentenced political opposition during the dictatorship “unjust and illegitimate.” This semi-minute detail paved the way for families of the arbitrary sentenced to seek redress through the courts in efforts to resolve the issue. In addition, the Historical Memory Law was the first time that the idea of justice and redressing the past was done on such a major level. However, the law did not go far enough to redress Spain’s past and did not allocate funds to aid families in the unearthing of the 2,5000 mass graves across Spain with victims of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship. It is impossible to truly coalesce as a nation while the remains of family are yet to be found and the perpetrators are able to get off scot-free?
In September of this year, the Spanish Council of Ministers approved the draft of the “Democratic Memory Act.” The Democratic Memory Act is the most significant step in remedying forgetting in favor of acknowledging the past in pursuit of national cohesion. The draft of the Act consists of a lengthy sixty-six articles aimed to “uncover the truth, justice, dignify the victims, ensure forgiveness and the co-existence of the Spanish people.” The Democratic History Act finally condemns the actions of Franco and his supporters in law, provides government funds in the location of mass graves, the exhumation of victims, and identification of remains. Spain must continue to pass laws to address its past and condemn the atrocities of the Franco regime.
Spanish democracy is more than just a government for the people by the people, with term limits, a free press, and checks and balances. There must be some sort of democratic culture and national cohesion. Tragic events such as Civil Wars and the arbitrary sentencing of individuals are serious events with a nation’s history and live on in the minds of the people regardless if they are “forgotten”. Spain cannot leave the past in the past until the past is acknowledged, Franco is delegitimized, and justice is brought, full cohesion cannot be met, and the Spanish government is exposed. In its current state, the nation’s history is being contested. The Democratic History Act and is a major step in resolving the past to secure the nation’s future.