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  • Alex Horn

El Pacto del Olvido: The Spanish Repression of Memory

Adolfo Suárez swears in as el Presidente del Gobierno in 1976. King Juan Carlos (center) watches on, while Francoist officials surround him (EPA

On November 20th, 1975, Francisco Franco died. Forty years earlier a coalition of fascists, nationalists, monarchists, and conservatives launched a coup against the democratically elected leftist government of the Second Spanish Republic. The coupists expected a swift victory with support from the Spanish Army, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Catholic Church. However, the Republican faction—comprising progressives, socialists, communists, and anarchists—resisted, and this coup turned into a three-year-long civil war, in which 500,000 people died. The nationalists won, and in 1939, Franco was installed as the caudillo of Spain, leading a theocratic, military junta based on his ideology of nacionalcatolicismo. But on November 20th, 1975, Franco died, and the dictatorship ended. Franco previously declared the restoration of the monarchy that existed before the republic, and two days later, Juan Carlos I de Borbón was crowned King.

Franco believed that Spain needed autocratic rule, and in his first speech as the head of state, Juan Carlos vowed to uphold Francoism. However—within a week of his ascension—there were already indications he did not share the same intentions. On November 26th, Juan Carlos freed thousands of political prisoners, raising suspicion in the still largely Francoist-staffed government. In June, Juan Carlos traveled to the United States, recruited Henry Kissinger as an advisor, and gave a speech to Congress declaring he would make Spain a democracy. Carlos Arias Navarro—Franco’s former right-hand whom Juan Carlos had appointed as Prime Minister—resigned in protest. Juan Carlos appointed Adolfo Suárez in his place—formerly a relatively low-level official in the Francoist government, but more importantly, an open democrat. Together, they would begin preparations for elections and a new Spanish constitution. Excluding recent scandals, Juan Carlos is seen as the shepherd of Spanish democracy. More recently, however, historians have noted that Juan Carlos would’ve seen democracy as inevitable, with similar European dictatorships violently dissolving in the years prior. Thus, Juan Carlos’ embracing of democracy was likely more pragmatic, as rejection would have ensured a revolution calling for the abolition of not just the dictatorship, but also the monarchy. Nevertheless, la Transición española began.

Juan Carlos (center right) speaks to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (center) in the White House, while then-President Gerald Ford (far left) looks on (Galaxia Gutenberg/Círculo de Lectores)

On November 18th, 1976—just two days before the anniversary of Franco’s death—Juan Carlos and Suárez enacted the Political Reform Law. It legalized almost all political parties, and it paved the way for the reintroduction of most civil liberties. Most critically, it dissolved the Cortes Españoles and set a date for elections—the first in over 40 years. Despite Spain’s new head of state and government, the government’s ministers and military were all still Francoists, and the legislature that passed the reform still solely consisted of Franco’s handpicked deputies. The Francoists knew this would mark the end of their rule over Spain. Why would they willingly relinquish all their power? They knew democratization was inevitable, and so they asked for just one concession on the way out—el Pacto del Olvido.

El Pacto del Olvido declared a clean slate under the new state. None of the crimes committed by the Francoist regime would be investigated, and there would be no prosecutions. No attempt at accountability for the 150,000 killed in the White Terror, the 500,000 people interned in concentration camps, or the unknown number of executions, kidnappings, rapes, and child abductions. Not only that, but in la desmemoria, the government prohibited itself from acknowledging its totalitarian history. Bodies could not be exhumed from mass graves to give families closure. It became taboo to discuss the dictatorship. The last forty years of Spanish history would be intentionally and forcefully forgotten. Its proponents argued that discussion of Spain’s history was akin to reopening old wounds in the highly polarized state, jeopardizing the process of democratization. Instead, Spain must only look forward to implementing much-needed liberal reforms. However, in their effort to prohibit hard questions about the past, one critical question about the future would go unanswered—can democracy be built on a lie?

It was George Santayana—a Spanish philosopher—who originally wrote “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While Santayana died before the end of the Francoist regime, el Pacto del Olvido would put this up to the test. The pact continues today, despite international condemnation, including from the UN. There have been some attempts to undo portions of the pact, however, these attempts have always been opposed by the Spanish right. In 2007, over 30 years after the end of the dictatorship, the social-democratic PSOE enacted the Historical Memory Law, which would finally condemn the dictatorship and allow for the exhumation of mass graves. The center-right PP lambasted this law using similar talking points as its original proponents—that it was divisive and that it was more important for Spain to look to the future than for families to identify dead loved ones. When the PP took power in 2011, the new government halted the exhumations, declaring “Not a single euro to recover the past”. In 2022, the PSOE was back in power and enacted the Democratic Memory Law. This law restarted exhumations and streamlined the process for families to find lost loved ones, but also—for the first time—ensured that Spanish students learned about the dictatorship. The right had an even stronger reaction to this, calling this ‘sectarian indoctrination’.

Has Spain been condemned to repeat their past? In February 1981—barely five years after the end of the dictatorship–-there was another coup on the Spanish government attempting to restore it. This coup failed, however, the coupists only laid down their arms after Juan Carlos publicly condemned them. More recently, however, the far-right has been on the rise again. VOX, with a platform of national conservatism, xenophobia, and populism, has become the third-largest party in Spain and—unlike many other far-right parties in Europe—has been legitimized by entering into local and regional governments. Just in November, the Guardia Civil—the still extant Francoist police force that participated in the 1981 coup—threatened “to spill even the last drop of blood” to prevent the PSOE from reforming government. The United States has its own very dark past, one that conservatives don’t want students to learn about or people to talk about. What do we risk if we fail to remember our history?


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