CSMCH Discussion Group on Spanish history and politics

In the light of the upcoming elections in Spain on 10 November and the recent exhumation of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen, postgraduate steering committee members Marina Moya Moreno and Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz organised a CSMCH Discussion Group on historical memory in Spain. The discussion opened with a screening of the award-winning documentary The Silence of Others. Iker sends this report of the event. 

In recent times in Europe, the painful and troubled past has been at the centre of many political narratives. Nostalgia for a better past, or troubled relations with the recent post-dictatorial past in Eastern Europe, has somehow darkened European optimism since 2008. Spain has been no exception to this trend, and from 2010 there has been a growing social movement seeking historical justice for the victims of Francoism.

Given recent developments in Spanish politics, Marina and I decided to organise this discussion group to highlight and discuss what has been happening. Coincidentally, our event took place just one day after Franco’s remains were exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen, one of the biggest legacies of post-Franco dictatorship. Given this context, the initial discussion was on the rise of the far-right party Vox, which remembers proudly both the Civil War and the dictatorship as a struggle against the enemies of Spain, mainly the Communists and the “independentists”.

After that, we screened the documentary ‘The Silence of Others’, released last year. The documentary explores the struggle of the victims of Franco’s regime, who seek recognition to this day. Filmed over six years, the director follows survivors of the dictatorship as they organise the ‘Querella Argentina’ (Argentinian Complaint) and confront the ‘Pacto de Olvido’ (‘Pact of Forgetting’) in a country that remains divided after four decades of democracy.

The film explores three kind of victims: people who were looking for missing family members who were shot in the Civil War or immediately after, and who were buried in mass graves all over Spain; people who were tortured during the dictatorship and seek justice toward the people who tortured them; and finally, the case of the stolen babies, a practice which continued after the end of  the dictatorship, but which originated  during the civil war. Inspired by Nazi eugenics, it was premised on the belief that children born from communist families were sick and could only be made healthy by taking them away from their families and educating them in the values of the Spanishness (Hispanidad).

The documentary screening was followed by a discussion of some of the elements it covered. The first thing discussed was the issue of victims. The documentary explores how justice and memory have been denied to victims. The pact of forgetting approved in 1977 sought to close off any possibility of looking for justice. Since then, this denial of judicial redress for the victims has held firm, so that victims had to seek justice in Argentina.

One of the points that was raised by the participants was how the documentary emphasises the emotional significance for victims of achieving justice, and how the Spanish experience is not unique. There are other examples in other parts of Europe and the world (i.e. Argentine, Chile, Peru, Poland, Italy, etc).

Marina Moya Moreno introduces the film ‘The Silence of Others’

A second problem raised by the documentary that informed our discussion was the absence of attention to the positions of Spanish political parties on historical memory. While there is a strong focus on how the People’s Party (PP) has always opposed any historical justice, others parties like the Socialist party (PSOE), Citizens (Ciudadanos) and Podemos, were totally absent from this documentary. The documentary lacked a deeper representation of what other parts of Spanish society thought about historical justice. While some of the families’ victims didn’t want to “remove” the past, the documentary portrayed their concerns as a lonely battle against state and society.

Finally, we explored how other European countries have faced post-dictatorship memories. The main example was Germany. In the documentary, the main characters often cited Germany as an example of the kind of managing of historical memory they would wish for Spain. However, as some people in the audience pointed out, the process was not as easy in Germany as the documentary seemed to suggest, and it did not include any reference to what is happening today with the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland).

In conclusion, our discussion underlined how citizens of democratic states that have suffered from dictatorship manage memory and justice in post-dictatorship contexts. As many of us who are Europeans were reminded, our troubled past needs to be continually reflected upon and dealt with in order to construct a more democratic and inclusive continent.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a CSMCH steering committee member.