Digging up a fascist past

They dug up yet another mass grave in Spain last week, this time near the village of Arandiga, 45 miles from Zaragoza. The bones of eight men, all trade unionists, lay where they had been hurriedly buried more than 70 years ago in the early days of the civil war. They had been shot at the same spot by supporters of General Francisco Franco.

The eight were never tried. It was enough for them to be known left­wingers, members of the Union of General Workers. Franco’s death squads were busy in territory conquered by his army, cleansing it of opponents. The eight men from Arandiga, and thousands of others, were left to rot in their unmarked graves during 39 years of dictatorship. Only after 30 years of democracy have they finally been deemed worthy of exhumation and proper burial. Their children, now pensioners, can weep the tears repressed over an entire lifetime.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the Spanish philosopher George Santayana warned. Spain itself, however, has done all it can to blot out its Francoist past. Franco died of old age, and still as dictator, in 1975. Tens of thousands of people were executed during the regime’s early years. Many times more were imprisoned. Repression continued until the end, underpinned by the “bankable” terror of the early years.

Only last week, however, did Spain finally pass a “historical memory” law, honouring Franco’s victims. The law makes it easier to find and dig up graves, removes Francoist plaques and statues from public buildings and opens up archives. Compared to the trials, purges or truth commissions of countries such as South Africa, this is timid stuff — and it also comes unusually late.

So, why has Spain’s right reacted with such hysteria? Right-wing radio stations, politicians and church leaders warn of a Pandora’s box of dark, terrible forces. The real reason for this fury is to do with the deal under which Spanish democracy was brokered. After Franco’s followers gave up power they received a promise that no one would be tried, pursued or even reminded of the abuses committed. A 1977 amnesty law made sure no one could be held to account.

In the early years of democracy Francoism was swept under the carpet. That silence has, however, had costs. Some say Franco’s regime was a dictablanda , a “soft dictatorship”. This unwritten pact, known as the “pact of forgetting”, stayed in place until the first mass grave was dug up in 2000. Grave-digging, initially a social movement, soon became politicised. Left-wing parties suddenly saw a stick with which to beat the government of Jose Maria Aznar’s People’s Party.

The debate soon descended into political mudslinging. The more subtle issues arising from Francoism have still not been debated. Sectarian Spain has no Vaclav Havel prepared to say that the line separating regime collaborators from opponents runs not between people, but through them.

Instead, the dead of both sides have been hurled around. That the left was also cruel is without doubt. The Vatican’s recent beatification of 498 civil war martyrs — priests, monks and nuns killed by the left — was a reminder of that. There is, however, a difference between those at Arandiga and the Vatican’s heroes. Over 40 years of dictatorship the latter were hailed as martyrs; their killers were pursued and, where possible, brought to justice.

Those whose parents lay in graves like that at Arandiga could have clamoured for exhumations, justice or, simply, the truth, when Franco died. But they chose to remain silent. It was a huge sacrifice and, perhaps, an essential contribution to the democratic transition. Only now is that sacrifice finally being recognised. — Â

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