Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Long Transition Continues

It looks like a compromise has been reached to unblock progress on the Ley de la Memoria Histórica, the proposed law seeking to redress some of the unresolved injustices left over from the Civil War and the transition period that followed it. The agreement has been reached between the governing PSOE and Izquierda Unida, and should allow the proposal to proceed after a prolonged period of deadlock. The concession made by the government is that the verdicts delivered by courts operating under the dictatorship will be declared as being "illegitimate"

You might think that the declaration of illegitimacy would mean that the verdicts delivered by Franco's tribunals could be overturned; but that is not going to happen. Legally the verdicts will still stand, although there is an opinion amongst some experts that the declaration to be included in the new law will assist any challenges on individual cases made in the future. This means that it is more a gesture of good intentions than anything more meaningful, although every little helps. Measures were taken to nullify the decisions of courts operating under fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, it seems that Spain is not going to get that far. This curious situation where Spanish justice has been able to intervene against human rights abuses committed in Chile, Argentina and Guatemala; whilst nobody has ever had to stand trial for anything connected with Franco's dictatorship will still continue.

Despite the limited reach of the new law, the Partido Popular (PP) has declared that it "buries" the transition. This transition to democracy in Spain following Franco's death has often been held to be a model for other countries emerging from dictatorship. However, it no longer looks like such a good example as we see countries that manage to come to terms with their history in a way that does not involve forgetting it (South Africa), or countries where the battle to seek justice for those murdered by such regimes has not been abandoned (Argentina, Chile). Instead, the Spanish transition can now be seen as only a partial process; one which left the supporters of the dictatorship in a privileged position compared to those that were on the losing side in the Civil War. It is this position which the PP still seeks to preserve by labelling any attempt to redress the imbalance as an attempt to keep the past alive. It is really the amnesia built into the transition that has contributed to this situation, had these issues been dealt with 30 years ago then there would certainly be no need for a new law now.


Matthew said...

Do you think this whole project will do any good, or is it just serving as another focal point for party political bickering?

History and education have always been key areas for regime change or making sure that your view wins over the competition's.

Just last night on the radio they were arguing about changes to Spanish education law reform and how every 4 or 8 years there's a change in the very basis of Spanish education.

They gave Finland as a counter example, where the curriculum hasn't changed in 35 years and apparently everybody does very well in exams and at school.

Graeme said...

Well whether it causes bickering or not I think it is still an important, though mostly symbolic, move to make. I don't think it is the same as the constant tinkering that takes place with issues such as education, instead it's an overdue attempt to redress a historical imbalance. It doesn't really go far enough, I find it amazing that the remains of thousands of people are still left where they were dumped after summary execution - the idea that you deal with the past by forgetting it doesn't work for me.

Charles Butler said...

Hi Graeme,

I've long had that feeling that there is a kind of collective amnesia, but not just with regards to the Franco regime. It seems to extend to everything prior to the transition. In trying, finally successfully, to resuscitate my grandfather's place in the history of Cazorla, it became evident that the problem was that no one knew what to think of events that took place before 1936 and what they implied in terms of the societal divisions of the civil war - and by extension, current political leanings.

The war, and what ensued, is certainly an unresolved issue. My doubts concerning Zapatero's initiative stem from not being sure if it should be settled from the point of view of 1935 or 2007. I see alot of politicians opting for the former, on both sides.


Graeme said...

I don't think the proposed law sees things from the point of view of 1935, more from 1975 - that's the effect of amnesia. The law deals with the after effects of the dictatorship and the defects of the transition, not with the situation that existed before those events; although there is obviously a root cause behind it all.

madrid teacher said...

If there was a "truth commission" process in Spain such as the one suggested by Amnesty International a few years ago, then political bickering could evolve into serious poltical dialogue. A truth commission would inevitably be based mainly on secondary sources, and although this may obscure some of the evidence I believe it would open up an issue which is rarely studied in Schools ( I have worked in the education sector in two Communidads and the whole civil war era is relegated to a couple of chapters taught every second or third year).

My experience is that many students have fixed views - one side good the other side bad. In dicussions about politics with students I have previously heard one say "I wouldn´t join a political party, when there is the Revoltution I would be put on a list". In my opinion this is not a normal ststement to expect from a student who has been brought up in a democracy. I am in favour of any process which opens up discussion of the past and the footprints it has stamped on the future.

Charles Butler said...

An equally interesting theme for high school would be a cold-blooded study of the political and economic conditions that lead up to an event like the civil war and the subsequent Franco era. The placement of the whole thing in a historical context would go a long way towards ridding us of the need to exhume it.

Well-intentioned, or otherwise, the historical memory initiative is only going to serve to locate Spaniards, seventy years and ten light years into the future, on a now irrelevant but still emotionally satisfying political continuum.

For me, the motivations behind it are political and not social and the hoped-for result is the marginalization of the PP, who are too stupid to realize that they are being had. The best policy for them would be one of support, but they've allowed themselves to be hijacked by their own hysterical fringe.

My family scorecard? Grandfather deposed by the Franco regime from his post as director of the Escuela de Ingienería, and charged, for presumably having allowed its labs to be used for the production of Republican chemical weapons. His nephew shipped out on a Republican 'tren de la muerte'. His son-in-law removed from his post as magistrate in Sevilla for having refused to purchase some compulsory Falange tract. His daughter dead of tuberculosis contracted in a Republican prison.

Remember, this is a country where you can't say you liked such and such policy of Aznar to Soista without being pigenholed as a fascist - or vice versa.

As we squabble our way to redemption....

Graeme said...

Charles, whilst it's true that the PP is isolating itself on this issue, I don't believe that is the only motivation for the introduction of the law - even if it is a happy side-effect of its introduction from the government's point of view. The PP maintains a deeply ambivalent position on the dictatorship which comes to the surface with the lightest of scratches - the removal of Franco's statue in Madrid was a recent example. It's their problem, nobody elses.

Of course it's important to see the civil war in the context of what happened before and after; but the effect of the transition was to make that harder rather than easier - there has been an awakening of interest in recent years which is starting to fill that memory gap that makes any attempt to put the whole issue into context useless.

The central proposal of the new law is more modest, it is to go some way to redressing a historical imbalance in the treatment of those who suffered persecution and summary justice. It's unreasonable to expect a law to be able to deal with much more than that, you can't legislate a "correct" treatment of the civil war and Franco.

Charles Butler said...


The PP is the party to which those, and there's more than a few, who think that democracy has been a failure in Spain, cling. This is not say that they are being rational in placing their hopes there, but they do end up with some sort of voice in the workings of the populares.

Zapatero is an odd bird, though. A socialist president from Castilla y León, a community that is the heartland of continued Franco adulation in Spain. I cannot help but think that there is some sort of regional perspective behind his initiative. One would have expected a clamouring for this to have originated in Albacete, say, or Jaén, Málaga or Almería.

Regardless, the recognition that Spain of the 1930's was a dictatorship-waiting-to-happen, irrespective of which one it actually turned out to be, would accomplish far more than a one-sided initiative to redress past wrongs at the expense of reinforcing existing political alignments. (Realizing, of course, that it's one-sided because the other refuses to participate).

Incidentally, the Junta de Andalucía is treating the issue of historical memory with a delicacy I would have thought them incapable of, given the ancient class barriers that permeate it. Their public resuscitation of the atrocity of the Franco's air attacks on civilians on the Málaga-Alemería road (these certainly lost to memory), through a photo exhibit, was placed in the context of Norman Bethune's benevolent presence there. Their Canal Sur series on the war used the device of a family with one son fighting for each side to elucidate its thesis.


The kid's comment doesn't surprise me much.

Graeme said...

The PP is not just home to those who think democracy has failed, it also contains a good number of those who never believed in it in the first place!

On Zapatero, you have to bear in mind that he is from Leon - and that this province, with its border to the mining area of Asturias, is not necessarily as politically homogeneous as other parts of the region. You don't have to talk for long with people from Leon to realise that they don't feel much affinity with Valladolid.

If you can't get unanimity on redressing the wrongs of the past then you have to decide whether to do nothing or to go ahead. Doing nothing just rewards those who refuse to participate. The whole question of how the country deals with it's history is a bigger issue than this law will ever deal with.

Charles Butler said...

I was being subtle, Graeme. Of course that lot never wanted democracy in the first place. Believe me, I know lots of them, and there ain't no talkin to them. Last time I got into it the other party to the discussion nearly ended up in the gutter outside "El Rincón", female or not. It's truly unfortunate that the PP's losing of the election allowed that hysterical fringe to come to forefront. They will get over it, though, and start acting like a viable alternative - one of these days and after they kick out the Aznar-approved clique.