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As Spaniards head to the polls this weekend, the shadow of the civil war looms largely over proceedings.  With the recent exhumation of Francisco Franco’s remains, old wounds have been opened, which begs the question, are some things better left unsaid?

The memory of a brutal civil war that recently reached its eightieth anniversary has yet to be dealt with.  Spain’s two elections in the space of eight months shows us an uneasy political deadlock, mirroring similar stalemates across the globe but with one crucial difference.  The self-imposed silence of eighty years is beginning to find a voice.

On the 1st April 1939, three years of civil war which split families, friends and communities came to an end, ushering in almost forty years of dictatorship.

Fast-forward eighty years and the events of that time still remain raw, unresolved and worryingly undiscussed.  As Spain’s politicians vie for attention, sound bites and most importantly votes, the issue of the civil war still remains a difficult and fragile topic of discussion.

So much so, that on the 24th October 2019, when the Spanish government led by Pedro Sanchez, proceeded to exhume the remains of the dictator from his resting place at the Valley of the Fallen, it was met with a chorus of criticism on both sides of the political divide.

Whilst this controversial and highly symbolic act had been contested in September by Franco’s family in the Supreme Court, Sanchez claimed that “Spain is fulfilling its duty to itself”.

Meanwhile, cries of outrage from Sanchez’s political rivals echoed across the airwaves, ranging from the left-wing Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, the more centrist Albert Rivera, as well as the relative newcomer on the scene, Santiago Abascal, representing the far-right Vox party.  All those preparing for the election expressed criticism of the timing and its use for political gain.

Unfortunately, whilst the general election seeks to resolve the political impasse and months of failure to agree on a coalition, the wounds of the civil war will continue to feature in the rhetoric of all Spanish politicians now and in the future.

Under Sanchez’s recent leadership, plans for a “Truth Commission” to investigate the war and prioritise its “historical memory”, have included identifying mass graves, opening up the archives and outlawing groups which continue to honour Franco.

At the forefront of discussions is the issue of loved ones seeking to locate the remains of those murdered during the violence.  The extent of these mass graves is thought to reach horrendous proportions with only Cambodia having more mass graves than Spain.

With that in mind, the political classes across the spectrum will have to tread carefully when dealing with such a delicate and unsettled matter.  No longer able to obliterate it for the sake of moving on and embracing a new era of democracy, Spain faces a new chapter in deciding how to define its future and discuss its past.

Atrocities committed on both sides in the 1930’s and the era of Franco which followed meant that once the dictator had died, for the sake of maintaining a calm social equilibrium, a “pact of oblivion” became the political tactic of choice.

A veil of silence with the aim of focusing firmly on the future arose from a collective decision to restrain grievances and give up on revenge.

Whilst this in itself could be seen as an admirable way forward in light of such division and potential crises, in the years that followed, very few attempts were made at dealing with the topic.  In fact, in 1986, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war had no official commemoration at all.

With a strong desire not to evoke or stir social and political feelings, moving on was the only policy.  Today, this path has reached its natural conclusion.

The Spanish Civil War emerged out of a complex situation which crossed demographics, geography, and tussled with reform, reaction and tradition.  Local nationalisms were also at the forefront of these divisions and with Catalan protests in full swing today, the fallout of a divided society rears its head.

The incarceration of pro-independence Catalan leaders has caused an upsurge in demonstrations in recent weeks.  Outrage, disbelief and strongly held convictions amongst many have created a febrile atmosphere in which thousands have taken to the streets.

Pedro Sanchez’s recent visit to Catalonia was met with boo’s, whilst King Felipe’s picture was seen being torched in an act of defiance for those supporting the separatist movement.

With the resolution of these issues at stake, the results of the upcoming elections will be more important than ever in determining the outcome.  Years of not speaking has led to simmering resentments, a mismanagement of the narrative and a difficult choice for Spain and its political classes.

As a country recovering from a dictatorship its progress is remarkable. Today, Spain has the capacity to make a variety of choices about how to deal with its violent past and the way it wants to proceed into the future.

Jessica Brain


4 Comments on "Spain: Are some things better left unsaid?"

  1. Great article. One appointment though: Vox is not far-right, it is simply right, whilst the Partido Popular (historically right), is now center-right.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. You raise a very interesting point about how one chooses to define political parties based on the fact that groups evolve and shift along the political spectrum. The inclination to define one thing against another rather than in its own right can have an effect of skewing our judgement.
    If current sensibilities of western democratic values are more inclined to the left in the 21st century does that taint our definitions of what is extreme on the right? How can we then navigate these nuances for the sake of analysis, definition and clarity?
    Very interesting. Thanks Pedro.

  3. Podemos is not left-wing, is comunist, as they have said themselves. “The extent of these mass graves is thought to reach horrendous proportions with only Cambodia having more mass graves than Spain” there is no study or officail data of this…this is something made up by Podemos.

  4. VOX is sometimes difficult to define because it is mainly opportunist. Initially it was just very conservative, then it adopted sometimes a xenophobic anti-immigration speech, recently they have moderated their discourse. Ideology is not something so strong now as it was 80 years ago.

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