Spain drafts more ambitious historical memory bill amid wave of revisionism

Right-wing parties are expected to fiercely oppose a blueprint that expands on a 2007 law, provides greater support for exhumation efforts and seeks to eliminate the Francisco Franco Foundation

Natalia Junquera
Ley de memoria historica
An exhumation of a mass grave next to the cemetery of Almagro, in the Spanish province of Ciudad Real, in May.Jaime Villanueva

The Spanish Cabinet on Tuesday approved the final wording of a bill that tackles the legacy of the Civil War (1936-39) and the decades-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The initiative, called the Democratic Memory Law, will now go to parliament, where it is expected to face fierce opposition from the conservative Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox.

The bill builds on earlier legislation passed in 2007 and it has a long way to go before obtaining final approval, but the PP and Vox have already promised voters that if they reach power – Spain is due to hold a national election in late 2023 or early 2024 – they will repeal the law. In recent weeks, both parties have also encouraged a wave of historical revisionism that has been criticized by historical memory scholars and by a majority of party spokespeople inside parliament.

At a PP event in Ávila on Monday, a guest speaker named Ignacio Camuñas – a former minister with the now-defunct Union of the Democratic Center (UCD) party in the late 1970s and a Vox sponsor in its early days – denied that Spain’s Civil War was started by a military coup against the Spanish Second Republic. “If anyone is responsible for the war, it was the government of the Republic,” he said. The president of the PP, Pablo Casado, did not correct him.

On June 30 Casado himself had made similar statements inside the Congress of Deputies: “The Civil War was a confrontation between those who wanted democracy without law and those who wanted law without democracy. Our Constitution is the pact whereby there can be no democracy without law and no law without democracy.” Several university professors of contemporary history immediately spoke out against this assertion.

Félix Bolaños, the brand new minister for prime ministerial affairs following a recent Cabinet reshuffle, said that the bill is “the first law to repudiate the coup of 1936” and that its goal is to correct the shortcomings of the 2007 legislation. “No democratic force should have any problems paying tribute to the victims of a dictatorship. It is the government’s desire to see them support a law that is comparable to those of other neighboring countries.”

These are some of the main points contained in the bill:

Teaching about Franco’s repression. The bill seeks to teach students in secondary school, in Bachillerato (a two-year, post-16 program) and in vocational training about Franco’s repression and the importance of democratic values. In his 2014 report about Spain, the UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice and Reparation at the time, Pablo de Greiff, lamented that some textbooks still talked about the Civil War “in generic terms, perpetuating the idea of a symmetric responsibility.”

Convictions void, no compensation. Under the state of war declared on July 28, 1936 and maintained until March 1948, anyone considered to have harmed “the redeeming Movement” either through action or omission was liable to be punished for military rebellion. Between 1936 and late 1938, 30,224 people were tried and 3,189 sentenced to death, as reported by the historian Paul Preston in his book The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in 20th-century Spain. The 2007 law declared Francoist courts illegitimate, but it did not strike down the convictions because the government of then-prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was afraid that victims might seek compensation. The new bill declares null and void all convictions and sanctions by Francoist courts, but it also rules out the possibility of claiming compensation.

Exhumations, register and DNA database. It would be materially possible for 20,000 to 25,000 bodies to be recovered over the next four to five years, according to Francisco Etxeberria, an anthropologist and forensic expert who has helped with exhumations since the year 2000 and who now advises the government on historical memory issues. The 2007 law created a grant system that placed responsibility for locating bodies on private associations. The UN report criticized this “privatization” of the exhumation effort. Now, the new bill wants government agencies at all levels to help find and open mass graves. There will also be an official register of victims bringing together information that is now scattered. The bill also contemplates the creation of a database where labs can upload genetic profiles of located remains to match them with the DNA of relatives.

A prosecutor in charge of investigations. One of the biggest changes compared with the 2007 law is that this bill says “the state will guarantee the right to an investigation” by victims. To do so, there will be a prosecutor in charge of human rights and democratic memory with the power to investigate cases of people who went missing during the Franco regime as well as violations of international humanitarian law during the Civil War and the dictatorship, up to the year 1978, when the Constitution was approved. But Bolaños on Tuesday admitted the “difficulties and limitations” inherent in such investigations, including statutes of limitations and the lack of retroactivity in new legislation. He also noted that “in a majority of cases,” individuals who might be found responsible for these crimes are already dead.

Eliminating the Francisco Franco Foundation. The bill now going to parliament will try to ensure this foundation’s elimination, arguing among other things that it glorifies the 1936 coup against the legitimate government. The president of the foundation, Juan Chicharro, has termed this effort an attack against “freedom” and threatened to wage a battle in the courts.

Removing Francoist symbols. The 2007 law contained a section about Francoist symbols but did not set out any sanctions for violating its instructions. The new bill contains seven items on this subject, and establishes fines of €200 to €150,000 for violators. “Very serious” offenses include moving victims’ remains without authorization or organizing events to humiliate the victims of Franco and their families. Failure to remove Francoist symbols will be considered a “serious” offense.

Accessing Spanish citizenship. After reviewing requests by associations representing people who went into exile, the government has extended eligibility for Spanish citizenship to the children of Spanish women who married foreign nationals during the dictatorship, and to adults who were born to exiled Spaniards – the 2007 law only allowed this for underage children of exiles.

Valley of the Fallen. Bolaños, who directed the exhumation of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen in October 2019, said that the mausoleum containing the remains of nearly 34,000 victims of the Spanish Civil War will no longer be allowed to showcase any particular grave. With Franco’s body now transferred to a Madrid cemetery, this means that a similar procedure will apply to the remains of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Falange Española in 1933.

Nobility titles. The bill plans to cancel all nobility titles granted between 1948 and 1978 and representing the glorification of the Civil War and the dictatorship.

English version by Susana Urra.

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