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Making Amends: Can Spain's historical memory law truly provide reparation for the Francoist regime?

Ever since the end of the fascist dictatorship under Francisco Franco after his death in 1975, the Spanish government have been working continuously towards righting the wrongs of the dictator and giving reparations to the victims of his harsh regime. A large part of this from a legal perspective, among other areas, was the introduction of a historical memory law, allowing those unfairly exiled under the oppression to regain or acquire their Spanish nationality. This legislation change has been welcomed by many descendants of Spaniards, particularly after the amendments under the Democratic Memory Law introduced in October 2022. But many of those who are affected, as well as politicians championing this legislation, believe that this does not go far enough to repair the damage caused by the dictatorship.

Why is this important?

During the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship, many Spaniards were exiled or felt that they were forced to leave Spain, as a result of the fascist dictator and his beliefs. As Francoist Spain was nationalist and heavily Roman Catholic, anyone who didn’t comply with - or worse, spoke out against – these ideals were subject to repression and other worse fates. As a consequence of the Civil War, over a million Spaniards died, another million were forced into exile and a further unknown number disappeared entirely, with many more victims in the following years of the regime. Franco and his chief generals were responsible for mass killing, torture, and the systematic, general and illegal detentions of political opponents on a large scale.

After the death of the dictator in 1975, the Amnesty Law (1977) was passed to not address the atrocities of the dictatorship as a “pact of forgetting”. However, this has been largely criticised by both scholars and families affected as it ignores the blatant human rights violations of the war and provides no sort of reparations for those who suffered.

Historical Memory Law 2007

There have been attempts to repeal or override this law on the basis that it violates international human rights law. The original historical memory law, passed in 2007, set out to recognise the suffering of those who faced persecution and violence during both the civil war and the dictatorship of Franco. This provided for overall condemnation of the Francoist state, the granting of Spanish nationality to those who left Spain under Franco for political or economic reasons, and provisions of aid to the victims and descendants of the victims of the Civil War and the Francoist regime. The original law received much criticism to begin with from those who believed it to not be effective enough – many expressed doubts over how effective the law was in terms of gaining retroactive justice.

Others, for example the Partido Popular, argued that the Socialist party were weakening the political transition to democracy with it and “using the Civil War as an argument for political propaganda”, instead favouring the ideas upheld in the 1977 Amnesty Law that these would “needlessly open old wounds”.

In general, this law was largely ignored by the PP (who were in power from 2011-12) and therefore there was not much advancement in aiding victims until around 2020 when drafts of new historical memory laws began to surface.

New Legislation and its differences – Democratic Memory Law 2022

After criticism of the 2007 law, and following the exhumation of Franco’s remains from the Valle de los Caídos (‘Valley of the Fallen’) in 2019, a new law was proposed under the name ‘Democratic Memory Law’ to address the legacy of Francoist Spain and go further than the original memory laws had.

A birds-eye view of the Valle de los Cuelgamuros
The Valle de los Cuelgamuros. Its construction was ordered by Francisco Franco in 1940. (Image credit:

This new law seeks to absolve victims of the dictatorship and tackle its legacy impact and repair the damages it caused. Consisting of rights for the gaining of Spanish nationality to certain groups of citizens and descendants who were affected – such as those born outside of Spain to a family who was originally Spanish, and had been forced to renounce their nationality in exile or lost their nationality as a consequence of marriage, or under the temporary rules in the original 2007 law. It also aims to absolve victims sentenced on grounds of political, religious beliefs, ideology or sexual orientation.

Furthermore, under the new law, the state is responsible for recovering the remains of est. 100,000 victims of Franco’s regime whose graves were unmarked and create a national DNA database to help identify these excavated bodies. The new law also mandates the teaching of the civil war and dictatorship in Spanish schools, as well as formally outlawing the Francoist regime, rather than just condemning and not speaking about it. Finally, it sets to change the name of The Valley of the Fallen to ‘Valle de los Cuelgamuros’, as well as attempting to remove its effect as a symbol for the far right.

Why is this needed today?

It is clear from the already thousands of eligible cases of citizenship applications that this new law has opened valuable pathways for those descendants of Spanish exiles who aim to return home. The new law enables many of those who fall under the given categories to obtain Spanish citizenship, particularly many descendants of exiles in Latin America. Commonly known as the “ley de nietos” or “grandchildren law”, the legislation provides for many the opportunities that the original Historical Memory Law did not afford, as it allows for generational leaps.

Describing this opportunity as a “return ticket for the grandchildren of Spanish exiles in Latin America, El País tells the stories of several of those affected by this new law, one of whom describes Spain as “part of my roots”, and demonstrates the huge impact this will have on those who suffered and offers a form of reparations for the descendants of these victims.

Does this go far enough?

Despite this step, there have been many mixed opinions on this new legislation as to whether it is sufficient or even whether it is necessary, and its introduction has been relatively controversial. The law is a “milestone” for Spain’s current left-wing coalition government, insisting it will “strengthen the foundation for human rights”. However, politicians from conservative and right-wing ideologies have vowed to repeal the law, believing it contradicts the aims of the Amnesty Law that helped Spain's initial transition to democracy. In particular, the PP (Partido Popular) claim the law would serve to only “dig up grudges” instead of bringing retribution.

In contrast, the steps to repair have all been welcomed by many family members of victims of the regime however there are many who also believe this legislation does not go far enough to support these victims or repair the damages caused by the regime. For instance, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARHM) believe that the law does not go far enough – they call for the Amnesty Law to be repealed and financial amends to be made, as well as an investigation into the role of the Roman Catholic church’s role in bringing Franco to power. It is widely believed that the law is not enough in itself to repair the damages and that victims' relatives should be entitled to some form of compensation for their suffering. Emilio Silva (head of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory) criticised the bill, as while institutions repressed under Francoist Spain are entitled to compensation, “people who had their homes, lands, and savings taken away […] won't get a penny back”.

It is clear many of those affected feel that the bill does not compensate enough for the suffering faced, however, this is definitely a step in the right direction. This issue goes beyond a simple gesture such as this - making reparations, both physical compensation or symbolic reparation, for the atrocities faced by the Spanish people during the civil war and the dictatorship of Franco - and it is clear there is more to be done in this area.

Featured Image Credit: Infovaticana


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