The Politics of Memory

by Stanley G. Payne, First Things, May 2021

In January 2020, the Socialist government of Spain, led by Pedro Sánchez, proposed a bill of profound cultural and political significance: a “Law of Historical and Democratic Memory.” If adopted, this law will bring to completion a twenty-year effort on the part of the Spanish left to limit speech and reshape civic life. It would establish a national “Council of Memory,” an organ of state comprising public officials as well as professional “experts” and representatives of nongovernmental but politically reliable organizations. It would elaborate a comprehensive state policy to promote a left view of Spain’s early and mid-twentieth century. The bill mandates a search for the remains of a number of the “disappeared” on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the creation of a “National DNA Bank” to help identify them. It prescribes the placement of “memory plaques” throughout the country to identify sites and personalities associated with “democratic memory”—the memory of radical opponents of the Franco regime, comparatively few of whom favored democracy. The “Law of Historical and Democratic Memory” calls on the Spanish government to identify and honor alleged “victims,” without regard to the fact that many were likely involved in mass killings and extra-­judicial executions.

Pedro Sanchez (Spain)

The proposed law is highly punitive. Symbols, meetings, or statements judged to approve of the Franco regime and the victors in the civil war are deemed infractions against “historical and democratic memory.” Proposed penalties include an elaborate schedule of fines ranging from two hundred to a hundred thousand euros, the closing for a period of six months to two years of any entity found in violation, and the confiscation of the means or goods involved in any such activities. That this law will dramatically restrict freedom of expression and thus violate the Spanish Constitution is apparently irrelevant to the Sánchez government.

The Law of Historical and Democratic Memory is the most dramatic, arbitrary, and punitive proposal concerning discussions of history anywhere in the Western world. Yet the attitude it reflects is fairly common on the left, which increasingly uses governmental or nongovernmental means to restrict and punish speech that defends rightwing views, movements, and figures past or present. Politicized interpretations of history are, of course, not new. But Spain’s proposed law is a stark sign of the way the contemporary left seeks to weaponize history to achieve its goals and silence all dissent.

The major trauma of Spain’s recent past is the Civil War of 1936–39: the only major modern revolutionary civil war to have been fought in a Western country, and the most important European struggle in the years prior to World War II. Its most lurid violence took place not on the battlefield but in both sides’ savage repression of their opponents. Republican death squads executed about fifty-five thousand adversaries, and the opposing Nationalists at least as many, if not more, followed by an additional fifteen thousand who were condemned by military tribunals after the fighting was over. These grim statistics include the slaughter of nearly seven thousand members of the clergy, in the bloodiest anticlerical outburst anywhere outside the communist world. The death toll bears comparison with what had happened in Russia and Finland in 1918–20, and it exceeds the cases of Latvia and Hungary. Moreover, unlike the bloody aftermath of World War I in Eastern Europe, all this took place in a Western European country extensively (if not always accurately) covered by the international press. The civil war was then followed by the longest right-wing dictatorship ever to govern a large Western European country.

The Franco regime was implacable and had much to answer for, but between 1950 and 1975, it presided over the modernization and transformation of Spain, an accomplishment that had eluded the country’s leaders for three centuries. This process might be compared with the more recent “Chinese model” of modernizing dictatorship, though in Spain’s case it was followed by a swift transition to democracy under Franco’s successor, King Juan Carlos.

During Spain’s convulsive modern history, the tendency in most transition regimes had been for winners to enact vengeance upon losers. In Spain, they refer to the end of the Franco regime and the founding of the present democracy as the “­Democratic Transition.” In this transition, the new leaders were determined not to repeat the past and reignite old conflicts. They aimed to wipe the historical slate clean, opening the transition to full participation by all. The upshot was Spain’s first democratically consensual constitution, ratified by the electorate in 1978. For more than a quarter-century the constitution’s system of ­parliamentary monarchy seemed to work well, drawing international praise despite increasingly widespread corruption.

In light of the negative record of earlier transitional regimes, there was agreement among all political forces, from the conservatives to the communists, that arguments from history were not to be used as political weapons. In 1977, leftist parties insisted unanimously on a vote of universal amnesty for all politically motivated or imputed crimes in the past, without exception. History, they hoped, would cease to be an issue regularly invoked in politics. Moderates and rightists were not to be called “Francoists” or “fascists,” and leftists were not to be called “revolutionaries” or “reds.”

This consensus was generally maintained for nearly two decades. In 1993, however, Felipe González’s Socialist party, which had governed uninterruptedly for eleven years, was in danger of losing elections. González’s campaign began to insist that a vote for the moderate Partido Popular would be a vote for a return to Francoism. This rhetoric may have encouraged another socialist victory in 1993, but it did no good three years later, when the socialists lost—nor again in 2000, when the Partido Popular won an absolute majority in parliament. The victorious party’s prime minister, José María Aznar, declared in 2002 that in Spain the weaponization of the recent past for partisan purposes had at last been buried. He was wrong.

The old habits of denunciation returned, and the politicization of history became an increasingly common tactic of the left, as well as of the regional separatists, who had adopted it even earlier. The separatists often rely on ultra-nationalist tropes that either mythicize the past in a sometimes-fantastic manner or fabricate a past out of whole cloth. In this they are only encouraged by trends in Western progressivism, which has long abused history to serve its ends. In this, as in many other things, Spain is hardly “different,” as the old tourism trope goes. It is just like everywhere else, only more so.

The separatists often rely on ultra-nationalist tropes that either mythicize the past in a sometimes-fantastic manner or fabricate a past out of whole cloth. In this they are only encouraged by trends in Western progressivism, which has long abused history to serve its ends. In this, as in many other things, Spain is hardly “different,” as the old tourism trope goes. It is just like everywhere else, only more so.

As the politics of memory heated up in the first years of the twenty-first century, historians joined in by invoking the twentieth-century study of “historical” or “collective memory,” by French scholars such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora. They often failed to recognize that these scholars had stressed that “collective memory” reflects or expresses current attitudes and cannot reveal the truth of history in any reliable manner. As Wulf Kansteiner observes, so-called “collective memory is not history”; it is “as much a result of conscious manipulation” as of accurate recollection. Enrique Gavilán stresses that “the work of historians does not presume the accuracy of memory. On the contrary, it is fully cognizant of the inevitable deficiencies of memory. Historians know that memory not merely deforms the understanding of what has occurred, but in fact does so inevitably.”

Several leading scholars emphasized that “historical memory” as used by the Spanish left is an oxymoron. Human memory is individual, subjective, and frequently fallacious. Even people of good faith often remember details at variance with what in fact happened. History as investigated by scholars, by contrast, is neither individual nor subjective. It requires the objective and empirical study of documents, other data, and artifacts. It is a supra-individual process undertaken by a community of scholars who debate and contrast results and strive to be as objective as possible.

But these cautions against the political use of “historical memory” were of no moment. By 2000, the left had temporarily lost much of its power. With neoliberalism ascendant, the socialists failed in two successive elections and the original Communist party disintegrated. Social democratic doctrines of the twentieth century had lost some of their persuasiveness. It became increasingly urgent to find new terms of argument, and “historical memory” played an important role in the left’s return to power in 2004 after a major terrorist attack in Madrid. It became common to argue that democratization had been based on a supposed “pact of silence,” which refused to recognize the crimes of Francoism and failed to honor historical victims.

But “pact of silence” is a propaganda slogan. No such thing ever existed. The very opposite characterized the Democratic Transition of the late 1970s, which had been grounded in a keen awareness of the failures and crimes of the past and a determination that they not be repeated. As Paloma Aguilar, the leading researcher on the role of collective memory in these years, has written, “Few processes of political change have drawn such inspiration from the memory of the past, and from the lessons associated with it, as the Spanish case.” It would be difficult to find another instance in which awareness was greater. What was agreed upon was not “silence,” but an understanding that historical conflicts should be left to historians, and that politicians should not revive old grievances in their jostling for power.

Far from being “silent,” during the Democratic Transition historians and journalists were active in the extreme in all media, flooding the country with studies and accounts of the civil war and the Franco years that did not disguise the most atrocious aspects. The formerly defeated Republican army veterans were granted full recognition and pensions, with attendant honors. The Spanish state-sponsored official ceremonies of homage to fallen Republicans and former revolutionary leaders who were responsible for many atrocities returned to Spain amid public applause. Later, detailed and objective scholarly studies appeared which, though incomplete, for the first time placed accounts of the repressions by both sides on a more precise footing. All this was the opposite of “forgetting,” and it was much more careful and exact than the current agitation about historical memory, which is allergic to fact or serious research.

The twenty-first-century ideology of the Spanish left rejects nearly all aspects of the past. It is hostile to most traditional values, unlike classic social democracy or even, in some respects, revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. The new ideology emphasizes cultural and sexual revolution. History is a political show ­trial, little more than a record of heroes and villains. Its major function is to unmask oppressors, separating past generations into victims to be affirmed and sanctified and victimizers to be silenced and demonized. It projects guilt onto scapegoats of the past, especially if they can somehow be identified with political opponents in the present. The dead are not allowed to rest in peace but are enlisted in the undying struggle between good and evil. Francisco Franco, gone for nearly half a century, must be liturgically disinterred and reburied. The classification of victims and victimizers assumes cultic significance. The former are honored and play salvific roles, much as heroes do in traditional culture. The latter are ritually condemned and cast out. This charade of “memory” is a grotesque, secularized pastiche of Christianity, slapped together by radical anticlericals. It is, in its way, even more “religious” than was the Cult of Reason in the French Revolution.

The new ideology emphasizes cultural and sexual revolution. History is a political show ­trial, little more than a record of heroes and villains. Its major function is to unmask oppressors, separating past generations into victims to be affirmed and sanctified and victimizers to be silenced and demonized.

When Spain’s socialists first sought to enact restrictions on historical memory in the early 2000s, their proposals met stiff criticism from several leading professional ­historians associated with the party itself. But their proposal, somewhat modified, was enacted by the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2007. This measure replaced the term “historical memory” with “democratic memory,” though, strictly speaking, democratic memory can only apply to the recent Transition itself. Genuine democracy never existed in Spain before 1977, with the partial exceptions of the last years of the preceding constitutional monarchy and the center-right governments of 1933–35, against which Spain’s socialists rose in revolutionary insurrection.

The 2007 effort had two especially brazen features. The first was simply the arrogance of a government that presumed to prescribe what judgment should be made of recent history. The second was the promotion of “democratic memory” and a cult of victimhood by the socialists and the political heirs of the former communists, when these were the very forces that had subverted the attempt at Spanish democracy in the 1930s and had themselves slaughtered their adversaries in great numbers. The forerunners of today’s left in Spain played leading roles in mass executions. No other ruling party in a Western democracy has such a record of bloodshed, yet this very political organization, rather than engaging in historical self-criticism and repentance, draws a veil over its own past while indicting its enemies, nearly all of them long-since dead. Hypocrisy is common currency in politics, but this sets some kind of record.

The resurrection of “historical memory” in Spain advances a number of contentions that are not the product of disinterested research but are instead drawn from the leading Popular Front propaganda themes of the civil war itself. It deliberately ignores the lengthy record of leftist violence before and during the war, together with the highly destructive ­revolution in the Popular Front zone. Proponents of ending the “pact of silence” insist that the left fought only for “democracy” in opposition to “fascism,” which in turn is held responsible for all political violence. As in other Western countries, the media and educational system in Spain are dominated by the left, which imposes what the Spanish call el ­pensamiento único (unipolar or exclusive thought). Moderates and conservatives rarely speak out, fearing the label “Francoist” or “fascist,” and in their timidity they cede the public square. Such situations are common throughout the West, but the closest parallel to Spain may be that of Greece in recent decades. In Italy, by contrast, there has tended to be somewhat greater tolerance and openness.

Debates before its enactment meant that the 2007 law had to be modified to declare that “it is not the task of the legislator to implant a specific collective memory.” But the law contradicts this qualification by directing future governments to implement “­public policies directed toward . . . the development of democratic memory.” During the four years following the law’s passage, public funding supported a lengthy series of projects of historical discussion, political agitation, and searches for the remains of victims of civil war repression. This last was the nearest to an appropriate civic activity, though it was compromised by its lack of interest in victims on the right. The remains of several hundred executed leftists were recovered—far from the “thousands” who were said to lie in “mass graves.” Funding came to an end with the fall of the Zapatero government in 2011.

The left passed in opposition to the center-­right government of Mariano Rajoy (2011–18). During this time, their emphasis on historical memory only intensified. Shortly before the end of 2017, the socialist minority put forward new legislation, much more ambitious than the 2007 law. It decreed Soviet-style criminalization of certain kinds of statements and activities concerning the recent past. It called for the formation of a Truth Commission to recommend prosecution of those violating its norms and to prescribe fines and even imprisonment.

At the time, the draconian measure languished for lack of support. But a series of four parliamentary elections in four years provided the opportunity to advance the weaponization of history after the formation of a minority socialist government under Pedro Sánchez in 2018. Unable for two years to pass a regular budget, and with its margin of maneuver on most issues limited, the socialist administration decided to forge ahead with its battle for complete control of historical memory. In 2019, it gained parliamentary approval for the removal of the remains of Franco from their resting place in the monument to the dead of the civil war, the great Pontifical Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid, considered by some the greatest memorial constructed in the twentieth century. The government argued that the Valley, the second most visited site in Spain, had become a monument to the late dictator.

Eight years before, the Zapatero government had appointed a national commission of experts to address the question of Franco’s final resting place. It concluded that reburial elsewhere was advisable, but only after consensus had been achieved among the state, religious authorities, and the Franco family. It also recommended that the latter be given authority to choose the new site. These recommendations were ignored by the Sánchez government, which alleged “extreme urgency” (after forty-four years!), while centrist deputies abstained, as did most conservative deputies. An appeal to Spain’s supreme court was rejected. The earlier recommendation of the national commission was ignored. The court refused permission to Franco’s grandchildren to rebury the remains in the family crypt at the Almudena, ­Madrid’s cathedral. Such a directive—denying the right to inter a major historical figure in his family’s place of burial—is likely unprecedented among Western ­constitutional governments.

The Pontifical Basilica is protected by Spanish law and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Though the abbott of the monastery charged with responsibility for the basilica vigorously opposed the desecration, as did many private spokesmen, Church authorities tacitly accepted the initiative. Franco’s remains were quickly disinterred and reburied beside those of his wife in a small memorial near his former official residence, now a national historical site.

Unsatisfied with these measures, the latest legislative proposal of 2020 seeks, in ghoulish fashion, to dig up the remains a second time and reinter them in a different site, to which all public access would be denied. The Valley of the Fallen, with its remarkable basilica and great hilltop cross, would be secularized and nationalized, under terms yet to be negotiated. Moreover, any “association” or “foundation” that “directly or indirectly incites hatred or violence” toward the violent revolutionaries of 1934–39 or the sometimes-antidemocratic opponents of the Franco regime would be declared illegal. (The definition of “hatred” remains unclear.) This last provision seems primarily to be a bill of attainder against the Franco Foundation, which is dedicated to fostering its own version of the history of the late dictator. Its rights are guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution, as is freedom of religion, and consequently the inviolability of sanctuaries. But these aspects of the rule of law seem of no moment to those in Spain who portray themselves as defenders of “democratic memory.”

The complexity of the issues involved in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 is almost universally recognized by professional scholars. To reduce the revolutionary politics of the left from 1934 to 1939 to “democracy” and to make those factions custodians of “democratic memory” is a mockery of history. The same holds for the deliberate suppression of the slightest reference to the mass violence and widespread pillaging and destruction wrought by the revolutionaries. The present Spanish democracy is in no way based on their murderous regime. It rests on historic Spanish constitutional principles and the norms of contemporary democratic Europe. The implication of the memory law is equivalent to claiming that the counterrevolutionary followers of General Anton ­Denikin in the Russian Civil War of 1917–21 were somehow opposing “democracy,” rather than combatting the founders of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

Adding to this hypocrisy, the Sánchez government has helped rehabilitate the heirs to the terrorist wing of Basque nationalism, who provide the crucial parliamentary votes on which it relies to stay in power. The Basque nationalists responsible for more than three hundred victims of terrorism have never been prosecuted. Here, it seems, the Sánchez government seeks to obliterate the memory of victims, for such memories are politically inconvenient.

In today’s Europe, most historical controversies concern World War II. A number of countries have legislated to censor historical commentary deemed injurious or outrageous, such as Holocaust denial. Some censorship goes well beyond that, extending even to interpretation of controversial texts in the Bible.

The proposed law in Spain, however, marks a new tendency to weaponize history on behalf of demonstrably distorted and falsified interpretations that are politically useful rather than intellectually credible. This tendency is the product not of ignorance but of intense partisanship. It reflects a millenarian mentality that seeks to purge society of influences and attitudes stemming from the past in order to achieve a kind of purified utopia. Fundamental to this quest is the unrecognized search for a substitute to religious faith. This new political faith seeks to build a world of perfect equality and harmonized values. It imagines that progress can be made toward this immaculate world by presenting politically correct figures as martyrs who died for the coming utopia. This requires, in turn, scapegoating and driving out their supposed victimizers, who are alleged to be authors of the evils that assail society in its present, unredeemed state.

The tendency to weaponize history has always been strong in ultranationalist movements and is prominent as well among neo-traditional forces in the non-Western world. In the past, it has been employed by revolutionary movements of diverse stripes. Only recently has it been adopted by important sectors of major Western political parties—a sign of their radicalization and their turn toward repressive measures of social control, even mind control.

The pandemic has stalled further consideration of the “Law of Historical and Democratic Memory.” Spain has suffered proportionately the greatest devastation of any Western country, due in part to the incompetence and irresponsibility of its government. For the moment, the extreme left seems more fixated on delegitimizing the parliamentary monarchy established by the 1978 constitution, hoping to replace it with a Latin-American-style radical republic. The proposal to institutionalize “democratic memory” nonetheless remains. It is the most elaborate project in the Western world for the systematic weaponization of history. It confirms the penchant of the Spanish left, first expressed two centuries ago, for adopting the most extreme versions of leftwing ideas. It is a sign of where leftwing movements across the developed world will head if they are allowed to ­advance unopposed.

Stanley G. Payne is the Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This article first appeared HERE.