La Ley de Memoria Democrática

by Serena Thandi

In September 2020 the Spanish Government published the Ley de Memoria Democrática (Democratic Memory Law).  According to Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, its 66 articles honour the victims of the dictatorship, while reaffirming democracy and ensuring forgiveness amongst Spaniards. 

But this is not Spain’s first attempt at historical redress.  The 1977 Ley de Amnistía put in place the notorious Pacto del olvido– an agreement to avoid dealing with the legacy of Francoism through a form of bipartisan amnesty.  However, the start of the millennium saw an increase of ‘historical memory’ pressure groups emerge. This both reflected and encouraged a desire for the country to deal with its catastrophic recent history, quietly shunted into oblivion by the Transition. 

Accordingly, in 2007, under the Socialist government of Rodríguez Zapatero, the Ley de Memoria Histórica was enacted. This law officially condemned the Franco regime, whilst formally acknowledging victims on both sides of the Civil War. The law faced widespread criticism.  The UN Special Rapporteur commented that it did not go far enough in acknowledging victims’ rights, whilst the Spanish left denounced its lack of ‘bite.’

The new Democratic Memory Law goes further.  Its promulgation is proof of a shift in public opinion regarding Spain’s history.  The post-dictatorship transition is deemed to be an incomplete process: there is work still to be done to shape a new consciousness of historical and national memory.

The new law provides that: 

  • The state will take legal responsibility for identifying the regime’s estimated 112,000 victims, many in unmarked graves.  A census of victims will be drawn up and a national DNA bank constructed. 
  • La memoria democrática will become part of the syllabus in senior schools and teacher training courses, so that new generations will know, as Calvo put it, ‘de dónde venimos’.
  • Politically motivated judgements handed down by franquista courts will be anulled.
  • The remains of José Antonio Primo de Rivera (founder of the Falangist party) will be relocated away from El Valle de los Caídos, which will become un cementerio civil protegido por Patrimonio Nacional.
  • The experiences of victims who suffered under Franco and were ‘written out’ of history, often on the basis of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, will be recorded for posterity.
  • An enforcement system will be set up: non-compliance with the new law will be punishable through fines ranging up to 150,000 euros for the most serious infraction. 
  • Symbols and statues commemorating Franco and his generals will be removed.  A similar provision written into the 2007 law was never implemented: decisions were left to local authorities, resulting in street names and statues dedicated to the Franco regime surviving in some areas. 
  • Honours awarded by the Franco regime will be immediately withdrawn. 
  • Two key dates will become days of remembrance: 31 October (when the Constitution was approved by Parliament in 1978) will honour victims of the regime; 8 May will commemorate those forced into exile and those who fought against fascism. 
  • An inventory of looted property will be taken and victims identified, including political organisations asset-stripped by the dictatorship. 

At this stage, the new law remains vague over, for example, the way in which Franco and the Civil War will feature in the school curriculum, or how to train teachers in delivering such a delicate and controversial topic. Recovering remains is another complex issue, with doubts over the number of disappeared and whether it is viable to recover their remains and process them through the newly established DNA bank not only accurately but also with the requisite dignity.  It is likely that highways and entire towns have been constructed on sites of possible remains. 

Political opposition to the new law is rife.  It remains unclear how autonomous regions with right-wing local governments will respond.  The far-right party Vox has questioned why fascism is so heavily criticised whilst communism remains legal. The right have also accused the government of using this law as a distraction from other national issues. Partido Popular senator Javier Maroto has attacked Prime Minister Sánchez for ‘pulling Franco out of the bag’ whenever he has other pressing problems.  

What the left feel they have achieved, though, is a long-sought resolution. The collective view is that the wounds inflicted by the dictatorship have yet to heal.  What the Socialists and Podemos aim to achieve is a dignified look at the past.  Sánchez has asserted that the law was part of building a Spain worthy of those who fought ‘so that we could be what we are now: free.’ 

With support and criticism prevalent from both sides of the political spectrum, the law ironically highlights the very thing it is trying to resolve – a deep national divide. With the modern Spanish state taking on Franco for the second time, many will be left wondering just how successful the new law will be. Can its provisions be effectively implemented?  Will the current pandemic complicate its task? 

Only time will tell whether Spain can finally lay Franco’s lingering ghost.