Spanish Civil War

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Public Memory - La Ley de Memoria Histórica

A discussion of the controversial law which was intended to recover the memory of those who were killed during the Spanish Civil War and Franco dictatorship and granted amnesty to those who committed war crimes. This email interview with Fernando Magán, an attorney in Toledo, 60 miles from Madrid, who has been at the forefront in helping family members of those who were killed in the civil war and during the Franco years, gives one part of the story.

 

By: Kristi Rehmann

Fernando Magan
Fernando Magán

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain was ready to move on into a new era, an era of democracy. To do so peacefully, Spanish citizens have been negotiating their past. One tension is the desire on the part of those who were persecuted during the Franco years to seek redress, versus those who argue that the Republicans, who lost the Spanish Civil War, had as much blood on their hands as the victorious Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco. Many on both sides believe that the past should be a closed chapter; old wounds would then, presumably heal and Spaniards could move into the future with little or no conflict.

There have been laws passed to address those tensions, although, some say those laws have also contributed to the tensions:

In 1976, the Pactos de la Moncloa was passed, which would give impunity to the former Franco leaders who might otherwise have faced criminal charges.

Through it all there has been an unspoken, unwritten agreement commonly known as El Pacto de Olvido (The Pact of Forgetting), and it was essentially a pact of silence.

In contrast, La Ley de la Memoria Histórica, the Law of Public Memory, seeks to bring some of the difficulties to light. The Law establishes means by which seeks redress for those who suffered persecution, or violence during the civil war and the years of the Franco government.

In news stories, conversations with other Spaniards, and historical treatments, there is an apparent unease caused by the exhumation of these bodies: as many began to feel as though their personal sacrifices during the war and dictatorship had not been property recognized or, in some cases, compensated.

Many people also believed the pact of silence obstructed Spaniards’ right to know the truth about their history. For many years, historians and civilians alike were not granted access to historical records, and accurate accounts of what happened during the war were not taught in schools.

Fernando Magán is among a small group of lawyers who represent family members of victims of the war and its aftermath.

“In the matter of the civil war, many citizens demanded their rights, specifically their right to know the truth of the past,” he said in an email, in response to questions.

This need to know the truth, said Magán, also stemmed from people’s belief that the transition from the dictatorship to democracy did not address the recognition of people who had made great sacrifices for the country.

Then, in 2007, the Party of the Spanish Socialist Workers, PSOE, decided to unearth these deeply divisive issues by passing the law entitled La Ley de Memoria Historica. Magán said the law was intended to grant amnesty to those who committed crimes during the war and give economic compensation to the relatives of those who died during the war or who suffered a great loss of liberty. In addition, the law would remove any landmarks or remnants that honored General Franco or the Nationalist government.

Even with the law’s best intentions though, many viewed it as a paltry attempt to reconcile the past.

La Ley de la Memoria Histórica was created in order to remedy the wrongs of the past. In reality, however, most citizens believe the law has accomplished little if anything.

A book cover of a memoir written by a Nationalist veteran. On top are medals earned by Julian Laplaza.
A memoir from a former Republican soldier

“In my opinion, the law has helped very little, and has created more confusion. What was not resolved before remains to be resolved,” Magán said, adding that the law has resulted in his filing several lawsuits involving human rights issues.

Magán says the two biggest criticisms of the law are that “the rights being recognized are small and that they were already established before the law went into effect.”

“And two: that the means that were adopted are not efficient at all,” he said. “The judgments of the dictatorship remain intact. Also, the mass graves of were disappeared may only be excavated by the initiative of the families; the State assumes no responsibility.

Fernando Magán and a mass grave
Fernando Magán and a mass grave

At the base of these issues, remains the question: is a futile law worthwhile if it means that history can now be accurately recounted? Is a futile law worthwhile if the government takes responsibility for the actions during the civil war and inactions after?

These are questions that remain to be answered, and only time will tell if the law of historical memory actually makes a significant difference in Spanish history.

(Fernando Magán was interviewed via email by Kristi Rehmann on June 28th, 2008. Mr. Magán sent clarifications on July 8th, via email.)