Book Review : Franco’s toxic legacy

March 21, 2014

Shoot_the_MessengerShoot the Messenger? Spanish Democracy and the Crimes of Francoism: From the Pact of Silence to the Trial of Baltasar Garzón. By Francisco Espinosa Maestre. Translated by Richard Barker. (East Sussex: Sussex Academic Press, 2013).

As Francisco Espinosa-Maestre illuminates in this newly translated and updated version of the Spanish original, the toxic mythologies of Francoism continue to reverberate in Spain long after the end of the dictatorship. In 13 case studies from 1981 to 2012, Espinosa-Maestre examines the record of the Spanish judiciary in dealing with investigations into the mass killing of civilians by the supporters of the military coup of 1936. His objective is “to reveal a series of conflicts, isolated and generally unknown, created precisely by the refusal to admit and recognize what took place in Spain as a consequence of the military coup.”

That objective focuses on the increasing blurring of the boundaries between judge and historian. It is an issue given emphasis by the role that the Spanish judiciary played in the consolidation of the Franco dictatorship. Constructed through a vast judicial system utilized as an instrument of terror, the central message of the dictatorship and its version of the civil war was that atrocities had been suffered only by supporters of the Franco regime, and that such atrocities had been committed only by the Republic and its supporters. As Espinosa-Maestre makes clear, those narratives were allowed to survive across the transition to democracy in the late 1970s, an afterlife of violence that was the product of a political brokerage driven by reformist Francoism in return for an amnesty law and a “pact of forgetting.” The 13 cases show the results of those decisions. Francoism’s victims remain the silenced and “defeated,” while victims of violence perpetrated in the wartime Republic had already been named, celebrated, and commemorated by the Franco regime itself. It is a state of affairs that emphatically challenges the long-accepted narrative of Spain’s transition to democracy as an exemplary success.

Emblematic of the silence imposed upon Franco’s victims across the transition stands the catastrophic reaction to Fernando Ruiz Vergara’s 1981 film Rocío from sectors of Spain’s political and social elite. Rocío was the first documentary on the Francoist repression that named those responsible for extrajudicial killing–specifically what had occurred in the small town of Almonte in the immediate aftermath of the military coup in July 1936. Despite ministerial and critical acclaim, a case was filed against Ruiz Vergara by the family of those his film had named as leading Francoist vigilantes. The court found in favor of the plaintiffs, leaving the filmmaker heavily fined and professionally ruined. At no point in any of the repeated court cases and appeals did anyone dispute that nearly 100 people in the village had been murdered by vigilantes. As Espinosa-Maestre shows, this was a warning to all those investigating the repression, an exemplary case that revealed the enduring influence of the Francoist establishment across the transition to demand that its version of the past was the only one that could be heard in public in the new democracy.

In the Ruiz Vergara case, the “right to honor” focused intensively on the denial of oral history as a legitimate historical source. And so in the series of court cases examined here against Ruiz Vergara, Isidoro Sánchez Baena, Marta Capín, Santiago Macías, Dionisio Pereira, José Casado Montado, and Ramón Garrido Vidal, the central issue involved the rejection of the personal testimony of those who lived through or otherwise experienced the repression that occurred in military-rebel-controlled territory. In various ways, attempts to name those responsible were silenced by these court cases, or more accurately, by the fact that Spanish judges trained and shaped by the Franco dictatorship supported the plaintiffs’ claims over the rights of those seeking to open the past. But as each of these examples of enforced silence illustrates, this was not about removing the civil war and dictatorship from public discourse altogether, but something more subversive: it constituted the active (re)filling of that vacuum of historical knowledge produced by Francoism with a highly selective version of the past.

In this way, the contemporary political Right in Spain—spurred by the rise of conservative nationalism across Europe—continued to propagate the myths of the dictatorship, ensuring that the rhetoric of Francoism never left Spanish society. While Pío Moa stands as resurgent Francoism’s best seller, the work of apologists for the regime continues across Spain. The vicious accusations that emerged from Zamora in 2004/2005 and the attempts to distort historical reality of the incarceration and extrajudicial execution of Amparo Barayón in 1936 revealed how deeply Francoism inhabits people at all levels of Spanish society. Those involved in the posthumous assault on Barayón included the town’s official chronicler, indicating that historians too could be guilty of consolidating Francoist myths. Shortly after the publication of Espinosa-Maestre’s book, the newspaper La Opinión de Zamora returned to the story of Amparo Barayón, publishing details of the fate of the man responsible for her murder in what could widely be seen as an attempt to put the story to rest, a claim to “carry out the duty of historians” by revealing once and for all what happened to Amparo’s executioner. But as Espinosa-Maestre makes clear, this focus on the individual biography of “the murderer” diverts attention from the bigger picture of a military-sanctioned process of lethal “social cleansing” that saw certain categories of people targeted, including many women, who, like the young mother Amparo Barayón were killed for being independent modern women and for “having ideas” fundamentally at odds with Zamora’s conservative society. What the newspaper revealed in 2013 as in 2004/2005 was the Right’s continued efforts to secure its own version of the past instead of pointing a finger directly at those who were responsible for thousands of murders carried out in Zamora and elsewhere.

These 13 cases also illustrate that beneath the accumulated myths of Francoism, memory at the grassroots is consolidating new dimensions of democratic action, empowered by efforts of an expansive civic network. This work is embodied by Emilio Silva and Santiago Macías who, following the location and excavation of Silva’s executed republican grandfather, created the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH). Founded in 2000, the ARMH is now recognized at the forefront of initiatives to rediscover the civil war.

Despite some legal successes, the work of deconstructing the myths of Francoism remains the domain of a politically marginalized civic memory movement facing powerful obstacles: resistance across the political spectrum within the state apparatus and from a formidable Francoism that opposes the recovery of the memory of the dictatorship’s victims. In this battle Espinosa-Maestre points to small gains: Violeta Freedman, eventually successful in her challenge to the Belgian Nazi Léon Degrelle, resident in Spain; journalist Dolores Genovés and her documentary Sumaríssim 477 (1994) that named those who served as witnesses for the prosecution in the court martial of the democratic, Catalan Catholic politician Manuel Carrasco i Formiguera in 1938. The case against Genovés was dismissed by a Constitutional Tribunal with a verdict that stands at odds with what is still happening in Spain’s courts.

In 2005, Judge Baltasar Garzón declared–in a foretelling of the case that would be brought against him–that “when someone breaks this chain of falsehoods and inter-related interests he is accused of destabilizing the ‘new democratic reality’ so beneficial for all.” Garzón’s challenge is that Spain is not different: the disappeared and killed of Francoism are no different from those in Chile and elsewhere beyond Europe. They too must be identified and named by the successor democratic state if the toxic mythology of Francoism is to be destroyed. Since Garzón’s efforts to initiate a judicial investigation into the crimes of Francoism, the judge has seen his career in the Spanish judiciary destroyed. With the formal call from the UN in 2008 to investigate human rights abuses committed by the dictatorship also met with silence, the assault on Garzón demonstrates the widespread agreement within the post-Francoism political class not to expose the violence of the past.

Espinosa-Maestre offers a readable and closely analyzed introduction to Spain’s memory wars and the problematic place of the judiciary within these conflicts. The result is an important contribution to understanding the trajectory of historical memory in Spain, opening up events that have long been occluded by the European historiographical mainstream. Illustrating the stranglehold of Francoism on Spain’s future as well as its past and present, it is clear that only in the destruction of the “pact of silence” can democracy fully take root in Spain. Only a recuperation of historical memory will overcome the toxic mythologies of Francoism that the transition allowed to survive.

Richard Ryan is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London where he also teaches courses on twentieth century Spain.