The Relics of Authoritarianism – Spain’s Turbulent Transition

Miranda Imperial

1939 was one of the most disruptive moments in history. Most countries were thrown in full force into World War II’s unprecedented atrocities. However, 1939 saw a relative peace in Spain. Despite its scale, the conflict bypassed the Spanish nation completely, rendering it relatively isolated from the belligerence abroad. Nevertheless, the Iberian Peninsula suffered. With the end of a bloody civil war and the consolidation of the Nationalist, anti-Republican forces, Spain was plunged into a radical historical break: a 44-year dictatorship under Francisco Franco’s fascism. By 1983, after four decades of totalitarian dictatorship, the Spanish people were faced with the prospect of a break from the traditionalist and paternalistic discourse of the dictatorship, and with the possibility of collaboratively building a new future. 

Many foreign journalists and theorists are quick to depict Spain as a textbook example of a nation moving on from a traumatic past. The effectiveness and rapidity of Spain’s transition into democratic order has received universal acclaim. However, it is the same world that commends Spain for moving on and rejecting Francoism after the dictator’s demise that also misses why this should not be a matter of praise. The effects of Franco’s dictatorship inevitably endure in Spanish society, much like Eastern Europe continues to experience the burden of communism. Spain’s explicit desire to move on and purposefully ‘forget’ the countless human rights violations of the Francoist regime for the sake of a common future does not mean that its transition has eradicated its authoritarian past from its existence. Forgetting does not take away from the reality of these horrors. The relics of Franco, the countless atrocities against free speech and the 150,000 to 400,000 politically motivated deaths, linger, unresolved, on Spanish democracy’s conscience and its decision to forgive, ignore and move on. 

The trade-offs that Spanish politicians of the transition period accepted are evident, dismissing justice for stability and representation for national unity. The 1977 Amnesty Law effectively pardoned all political crimes committed before the date of its implementation. This managed to reduce and appease the widespread threat of right-wing terrorism that had materialised in retaliation to the democratic transition. Fascist radicals opposed a radical break with Franco’s time, and yet grassroots leftist organisations were thrilled at this prospect, envisioning going beyond a democracy to socialist and Marxist utopias. A clear question arises from this: how can policy deal with such a polarised population? The political élites opted to follow a ‘noncommittal’ path for a negotiated transition to a democratic rule. But the defenders of the Spanish transition forget to critically assess the extent of the pardons granted in the negotiations. Whilst Franco’s generals and administration emerged unscathed from of this process, the victims of his repression did not fare this well. The continued incarceration or reincarceration of convicts and the pensions granted to Republican veterans (considerably smaller than their Nationalist counterparts’) did not represent a break with Francoist society. Transition Spain’s reforms ensured that the already powerful strata of society remained empowered, whereas the powerless remained excluded from the new national narrative. 

Understandably, Spaniards were to remain polarised after the very gentle historical break that was the dictator’s death. Unlike other countries, where dictatorships have been cut short by revolution or political upheaval, the Spanish case displays the importance of political strategy, tactics, and manoeuvring to transition into a new political system. But the lack of participation from the majority of the population, and the absence of engagement with the grassroots level in the political process shows how the political elite’s bargains were imposed on all citizens. Apathetic to the private sphere after years of resignation, Spaniards had no experience in lobbying or demonstrating, and were thrown into a new system that, despite becoming representative of the people’s voices via suffrage, had not been established on strong and solely forward-looking, unbiased principles. 

While these measures ensured stability in the short term, we are beginning to see the flaws of unrepresentative politics in the present day. The appeals to establish a ‘Historic Memory Law’ from President Zapatero’s socialist government to honour the victims of Francoist crimes, in what is currently the second country in the world in terms of mass graves – after Cambodia – have found support amongst the population; and yet, they continue to be countered by the conservative People’s Party (PP), currently the largest party in Spain. In this way, a schism does continue to exist amongst Spaniards, going well beyond defenders or opponents of Spain’s past and, instead, consisting of those who were participants or observers in the political transition. 

For the first time since initiating the road to democracy, Spain sees a prominent grassroots contingent in the likes of the new parties Podemos and Ciudadanos, coupled with a mistrust of establishment political élites amongst the ranks of PP and the socialists. And whilst trust in the establishment seems to be at an all-time low in the rest of Western Europe, in this particular case, perhaps Spaniards are just beginning to see how the country’s past and its forgotten injustices rest at the core of its divisions. Meanwhile, Franco’s ‘Valle de los Caídos” (or “Valley of the Fallen”), his own personal mausoleum displaying the largest cross in Christianity and the title of largest mass grave in the world, remains untouched and charged with symbolism. This situation presents, even today, a population that disagrees about the interpretations of its own past and its inclusion in the nation’s present. In light of these debates, as Spaniards, it is perhaps more important than ever for us to understand our society by remembering and questioning why we choose to forget. 

Miranda Imperial is a third-year HSPS student studying at Queens’ College. Her previous roles include interning at NGO Alianza por la Solidaridad and researching at UW-Madison's South Asian Activism Feminist Archive. Currently, she is writing a book chapter on feminist grassroots activism for Oxford University Press.