Removal of Francoist symbols heightens class tensions in Spain

By Vicky Short
14 April 2005

Some four months after being asked to do so by the Spanish parliament, the Socialist Party (PSOP) government of Prime Minister Jose Ruis Rodriguez Zapatero has begun removing symbols of the Franco dictatorship from public places.

On March 17, in the middle of the night and under the pretext of road construction, an equestrian statue of Franco standing in Madrid’s San Juan de la Cruz Square was lifted, covered with a white sheet, and carried away in a lorry.

Although the operation was kept secret, reportedly even from the Madrid Council itself, some 100 supporters of Franco attempted to prevent the removal of the statue and called the police, who forced the workers to stop while they checked whether the removal had been authorised. As a result of the vagueness of the authorisation, which referred to “architectonic elements” and not to Franco’s statue by name, it took some time to go through various bureaus until the security councillor, Pedro Calvo, gave the go-ahead.

On November 3 of last year, parliament approved a motion calling for the withdrawal from public places of the hundreds of “fascist and therefore anti-constitutional” symbols still being displayed around the country. The motion was supported by all parties except the Popular Party (PP). The decision came 30 years after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, and 27 years after Spain became a parliamentary monarchy through the so-called “peaceful transition.”

Several requests by the ruling Socialist Party and United Left (IU) to the Madrid Council, which is led by the PP, and other institutions to remove the San Juan de la Cruz statue went unheeded. The Madrid Council dismissed the demand as a debate from “another era.” Vice Mayor Manuel Cobo declared, “There are people who are determined to make disappear the last traces of 40 years of history and dictatorship, and I find this stupid.”

Following the removal of the Madrid statue, authorities in Guadalajara, Santander and Zaragonza have removed or pledged to remove similar statues, not only of Franco, but also of the leader of the fascist Falangist party, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. Other towns are considering doing the same.

Besides the statues of Franco, there exist hundreds of other references to the fascist regime, with streets, colleges, and roads named after Franco and his generals. It is believed that in Madrid alone there exist about 170 such Francoist symbols. There are streets in the capital dedicated to the “fallen” of the (fascist paramilitary) Blue Division, to General Millan Astray, famous for his phrase: “Death to intelligence, long live death!” and to the notorious Francoist generals Moscardo and Yague.

The most infamous of these is the monument near Madrid that Franco commissioned as his final resting place: El Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen). This is an underground shrine inside a mountain, topped with a 500-foot-high stone cross, which can be seen from a distance of 30 miles.

Prisoners of Franco, many of whom lost their lives in the process, were forced to quarry this huge cavern, 250 meters deep into the rocks of the mountain of the Sierra de Guadarrama. It was begun in the early 1940s and completed in 1959.

While supposedly housing the dead from the Civil War, it is a monument to Franco and his regime. It houses the graves of Franco and Primo de Rivera, the founder of his fascist political party, Falange Espanola. Although 450,000 visit it every year, most of them foreign tourists, it has recently been frequented by groups of falangists to pay tribute to the dictator.

There are increasing demands for the closure of the monument or the removal of the bodies of Franco and Primo de Rivera, and for the shrine to be turned into some sort of museum where the barbaric actions of the regime are exhibited.

Many of the Francoist symbols are in churches. Countless appeals have been made, but the Church has always refused to remove them. Deep-felt hostility to the symbols among the population remains, and demands for their removal became more vocal with the removal of the PP government of Jose Marie Aznar in March of 2004.

The PP, which lost power as a result of mass demonstrations following the terrorist bombing of Madrid’s Atocha railway station, immediately condemned the removal of the Franco statue as an action that will “open up the wounds and feuds among Spaniards.”

The leader of the PP, Mariano Rajoy, said that the action was “playing to the gallery” and an “attempt by the government to revive the past because it has not a single idea regarding the future.”

Rajoy said that in 1978, Spaniards made “an agreement which was difficult after a complicated history.” From that moment, he continued, no prime minister “has devoted himself to digging up the past.... [Zapatero] should govern and stop saying idiotic things that divide the Spanish people.”

Rajoy accused the Socialist Party prime minister of breaking the transition pact, which included, as well as a reprieve for the equestrian monuments to the Caudillo, a pardon for the collaborators of his armed forces.

For its part, the PSOE has taken pains to appease the PP, denying that the removal of the statue is a confrontational move, with some senior figures even questioning the correctness of the decision.

Jose Bono, the minister of defence, who last year allowed two veterans of the Blue Division to march in the annual military parade together with two elderly Republicans, said that in view of the ideological divisions it was causing, the removal “might not have been correct.”

Even those who are involved the removal of the statue, or support it within the left parties, are careful to deny this has anything to do with a settling of accounts. They speak of “turning the page” and “closing a period.”

Prime Minister Zapatero declared that it was “unthinkable that in a democracy, reminders of dictators should remain in public places.”

However, Zapatero cannot pretend to be a naive politician who has just stumbled upon these fascist statues and symbols. He joined the PSOE as a teenager in 1979. This was one year after that party, together with the Communist Party, concluded the agreement not to prosecute the personnel of Franco’s regime and move toward a democratic bourgeois government—a move aimed at saving Spanish capitalism and politically disorienting the working class.

Three years later, the PSOE, led then by Felipe Gonzalez, came to power. It continued to hold office for 14 years. Zapatero quickly rose through the ranks and became Spain’s youngest MP in 1986. He was provincial general secretary of Leon for 11 years. In 2000, he became the leader of the national party.

So, for 26 years he has been a collaborator in the “transition” and has gone along with all of its terms and conditions.

What has changed? The issues of the Spanish Civil war and the transition, so carefully kept under wraps, are coming to the fore once again as a result of the political polarisation taking place in Spain—a polarisation that was expressed in the election of the PSOE after eight years of a PP government. In the last few years, demands have been growing for a settling of accounts, including the opening of mass graves containing the bodies of the victims of Franco’s death squads, which are dotted all over Spain.

This is threatening to develop into a mass movement, with the direct intervention of the working class. Both the Stalinist Communist Party (PCE) and Stalinist-led Izquierda Unida (United Left-IU), together with the PSOE, are desperate to prevent such a movement developing out of their control, and are attempting to divert it into safe channels (what some are beginning to call the “second transition”).

Associations for the “recovery of memory” and other such organisations, often under the leadership of the IU or the Stalinists directly, are springing up. Their calls are limited to demanding that the right wing and the Church ask for forgiveness and make some recognition of the victims of the Franco regime.

Having come to power on the crest of a big antiwar movement and social protest against the economic policies of the PP, Zapatero needs to differentiate himself from the Aznar government without significantly changing economic or social policies. The removal of the Francoist symbols was something with which he had associated himself when in opposition.

Though no doubt aware of the danger of opening up “old wounds,” he nonetheless needs to be seen as an alternative to the policy of conciliation with the right wing that has dominated Spain since the transition. Zapatero, who came to power a year ago, has introduced several changes, such as support for the victims of Franco, gay marriages and the limiting of the influence of the Church in education.

But a genuine reckoning with the past cannot be limited to cosmetic gestures criticising the Franco years. It must include a frank examination of the transition itself. This must include an examination of the role of the PSOE and the Communist Party in advancing the slogan of “national reconciliation” that laid the basis for a parliamentary monarchy and continues to provide a rationale for the domination of big business.