Monuments and Overdue Memory

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Check out this statue:

If you were to ask me, especially with the hat this looks rather like Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts movement. But you’ll actually find this sculpture in Spain, and – as you might have been able to make out from the tweet’s text – it depicts General Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator from April of 1939 to his death in November of 1975.

In fact, there are still a number of public works of art of this sort and other monuments to be found in Spain which refer directly to Franco and/or his “accomplishment” of taking over the country in a bitter civil war and then violently disposing of hundreds of thousands of political opponents. That sits rather uncomfortably with Eduardo Ranz, a Spanish lawyer and, at 30 years of age, much too young to have had any contact with Franco or his regime directly. Nonetheless, he filed suit last month against the mayors of 38 Spanish cities and towns to have them get rid a total of 86 specific such monuments to Franco.

As we know, it’s always an almost irresistible temptation to drag Hitler and his Nazis into almost any argument one undertakes, but here I think one can properly forgive Ranz when he points out that “It’s as if, in Germany, a victim of Naziism were to see a swastika in the street. It’s unthinkable.” So one might think, yet those many monuments to Franco remain there, in public, almost forty years after his death.

Topping the list is Franco’s tomb at La Valle de los Caidos, what is characterized here as a “pharonic” sepulcher, maintained at public expense and located not far from Madrid at the “Valley of the Fallen,” where the “Fallen” referred to are Franco’s “Nationalist” troops. It is joined by a Victory Arch, within Madrid and located near the prime minister’s official residence, and towering some 50 meters high. Once again, the “victory” commemorated there is that of Franco in 1939.

The very existence of such shrines must be a shock to the foreign tourists who go see them – those who are able to grasp their full meaning, anyway. Further, for anyone familiar with the extensive persecution and killing of regime opponents that went on during the Civil War and afterwards, Ranz’s Nazi analogy must ring true and lead to a certain incredulity that these are still there in Spain, available to be seen by one and all. Yet this phenomenon reflects the peculiar nature of Spain’s transition away from that dictatorship to democracy. It was swift: Once the caudillo was dead and his designated heir King Juan Carlos was in charge, everyone knew that the King was ready to move the country to democracy and that happened directly. It was also quite bloodless: as this piece briefly mentions, a key development in that movement to democracy was an amnesty law covering everyone associated with Franco and his crimes.

Spain basically gained instant relief from dictatorship in exchange for not making any fuss about those who had misruled the country for so long (indeed, many of whom who had committed what today would be termed “crimes against humanity”). Since 38 years had passed, so that most of those holding irreconcilable grudges against the Franco regime had died out, the country was glad to accept that deal. For about the next ten to fifteen years it was characterized both by the political predominance of the Left (understandable) and by free-wheeling, even dizzy cultural change as all the old legal barriers to behavior disappeared and society had to find new bearings in that Brave New World (including a new attitude towards the Catholic Church, a pillar of Franco’s regime).

Political Amnesia

Again, that Left (mainly Felipe Gonzalez’s Spanish Socialist Workers Party) was careful to continue in the spirit of that amnesty law and not stir up recriminations against villains of the country’s tragic past. Whether of the Right or the Left, subsequent Spanish governments have continued that policy to this day. But that has meant maintaining a deliberate black spot in the collective memory about the most terrible episodes of internecine savagery and cruelty in Spanish history, going back at least to the forcible expulsion of the Muslims that ended in 1492. And it has meant that you still see all those monuments to Franco.

Yes, people die out, but human memory is nonetheless a pretty long-term and durable thing (if not especially accurate, at least in its details). Such terrible episodes cannot be suppressed forever. Slowly, gradually, as (for example) new and revealing histories are written, published, and discussed publicly, a new willingness to reopen this history and come to terms with it is emerging.

No one without a more specific knowledge of how the Spanish courts work can know whether Ranz’s lawsuit is something serious, or merely symbolic. Furthermore, if he does win, then what precisely is supposed to happen with artifacts such as that victory arch and (especially) Franco’s tomb? But if things do come to that, surely the Spanish authorities will be able to figure something out. For now, Ranz’s audacious legal maneuver must surely be greeted as a token of how far things have come, and how far he wants to push them further.

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