40 Years of Amnesia and Memory
Last autumn, two anniversaries coincided, revealing many hidden realities. It was the 75th anniversary of the execution of thousands, including the President of the Government of Catalonia Lluís Companys (the only democratically elected president in Western Europe to be executed by Fascism, after having been arrested by the Gestapo and illegally turned over to General Francisco Franco by the French authorities). It was also the 40th anniversary of the dictator's death in bed. Why do these events matter, if they are part of a dark past?
What we are today –as individuals, as a people, and even institutionally— is a result of what we projected towards the future in past ages. It's also a result of our willingness to take on the shadows of our past (or not) without rancour. Nations and the institutions that represent them make the political choice –and not always in a democratic manner— of how to deal with the recent past. According to experts in different areas, after an armed conflict or a dictatorship, three or even four generations are affected; they experience the effects of past events in the present. In the case of Spain, we experienced a war –which started 80 years ago— and a military dictatorship that lasted almost 40 years. The transition to democracy in Spain teetered between amnesia (represented by the amnesty laws) and the efforts to create new democratic institutions and a new territorial organisation inspired by federalism (according to the fathers of the 1978 Constitution) which were to guarantee that the past wouldn't repeat itself. In 1975 or 1978, this probably made plenty of sense, and what could be done at that time was done... but now, in 2016, is it still sustainable?
What importance does all of this have in the present moment? After the disaster of the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to the tragedy of World War II, the United Nations was born to guarantee the peaceful resolution of conflicts, international law and the universal rights of individuals and peoples. A few months ago, as a member of the UN Security Council, Spain solemnly commemorated the 60th anniversary of its joining the UN, back when it was a fully-fledged dictatorship.
Over the past few years, Spain has been visited by different UN organisations that have called upon international law to ask that Spain fulfil its international agreements regarding the abuses committed during the war and the dictatorship. Above all, those related to the disappearance of thousands and the unfulfilled obligation to exhume and identify the remains of those buried in mass graves in Spain. Now that so much emphasis is placed on the need to obey the law and the constitution, it's worth mentioning that, according to article 96 of the Constitution, the international treaties signed by Spain are part of Spanish law. In order for these to cease to be applicable, the authorities would have to follow the same procedure that was followed when they were signed. In March of 2015, four different UN organisations called on Spain to extradite or try those wanted by the international justice system; to fulfil its international obligations with regards to the right to truth, justice and reparation; to fulfil its obligation to recover the remains of those killed; and to fulfil its obligations under international treaties to investigate and try international crimes in the framework of the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, to which Spain is subject. The official response of the Spanish State, however, is that democracy in Spain and the peaceful coexistence among Spaniards are based on “amnesia”. In addition, it has practically eliminated the funds reserved for exhuming human remains, even though, according to international standards, the State has the obligation to exhume those remains.
The Government of Catalonia's response is “memory”. Not only through the existence of a public institution like Democratic Memorial, but also within its framework of limited competencies, with public policies aimed at memory, truth, justice and reparation. To give two recent examples, just a few months ago the National Day in Memory of Victims of the Civil War and the Dictatorship was commemorated. Then, on the occasion of the two anniversaries mentioned at the beginning of this text, the Governing Board of Democratic Memorial publicly condemned General Franco and his dictatorship, listed the many violations of human right committed by the regime, and asked to annul the sentences of courts-martial and trials of repression organised by the dictatorship. No public institution of this level had ever made this sort of condemnation.
Perhaps by keeping our democratic memory alive, we can better understand what is happening today in Catalonia and Spain. Perhaps it will also help us to better face the near future.
Director of Democratic Memorial