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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 July 2006, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Civil War legacy divides Spain
By Danny Wood
BBC News, Madrid

Soldiers from the civilian army fighting for the Republican government in Barcelona
Volunteers from many countries defended the government
Spain is marking 70 years since the start of the Civil War.

The military uprising against the democratically elected government on 18 July 1936 led to three years of war and then four decades of fascist dictatorship under Gen Francisco Franco.

The anniversary of the beginning of the conflict comes as Spain's government prepares to approve a law designed to rehabilitate the victims of the Franco regime.

Some historians say there is a strange amnesia in Spain when it comes to seriously coming to terms with the Civil War. Seven decades later, Spaniards are still very divided about the causes of this conflict and how to deal with its consequences.

This three-year struggle is often regarded as a rehearsal for World War II.

Nazi Germany helped the Spanish generals attack their government, while Soviet Russia came to the aid of Spain's democratically elected administration. Thousands of foreign volunteers fought on both sides. About 250,000 people died during the conflict.

For Spain's military, backed by conservative political forces and the Roman Catholic Church, the Civil War was a battle against communism. For the Republican government the conflict was a struggle against fascism.

Historical amnesia

But despite the importance of this Civil War, one survey shows that 50% of Spaniards have not talked about it at home. And 35% say they were never taught what happened in 1936, at school.

Fascist volunteers march through Burgos, Northern Spain
Fascist rebels rally against the government forces

This amnesia has been actively encouraged at a political level.

Thirty years ago, Spain's emerging new democracy felt so threatened by the ghosts of the Civil War and the recently defunct Franco regime that there was a 'Pact of Silence' between the left and the right of politics not to raise the issue or seek reparations for crimes committed by the dictatorship.

But now attitudes are changing. On the streets of Madrid, many people think its time to seriously debate this important part of their history, but with concern for the sensitivities on both sides of the political fence.

Meanwhile, Spain's government is about to approve legislation that will recognise the victims of the Franco regime.

Our transition from dictatorship to democracy is an example in Europe and we've got to cherish this and not re-open wounds that have healed
Gustavo de Aristegui
Popular Party spokesman

But even just before it gets a tick of approval, it is still not clear what exactly is in this law. According to critics, the government is running scared about the possible right-wing backlash this initiative might cause.

The way this legislation - called The Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory - has been drafted, has also angered those on both the left and the right of politics. The content has been decided by members of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government in consultation with academics.

There is a feeling from other left-wing political parties that an important law like this should have been drafted more collaboratively.

The conservative Popular Party refused to participate at all and is against the legislation. For supporters of the conservatives, introducing this sort of law is unnecessary meddling with the past.

We have to talk about our past to be a healthy society
Emilio Silva

"Our transition from dictatorship to democracy is an example in Europe and I think that we've got to cherish this and not re-open wounds that have already been able to be cured, wounds that are healed," said Gustavo de Aristegui, a spokesman for the Popular Party.

"You know, leave things be, it's not an issue any more, I mean people on the street are not worried about these things any more."

But the families of many thousands of people, victims of Franco's authoritarian government who still lie in unmarked mass graves across Spain, would disagree with the Popular Party.

"If we look at the past and we know the past we can be more free," says Emilio Silva, the head of a group that six years ago started locating and exhuming these bodies for reburial.

"I think it's like a psychoanalysis because we have to talk about our past to be a healthy society and I think it's very important."

Franco's mausoleum, The Valley of the Fallen
Franco's bid for immortality: The Valley of the Fallen
The legislation will provide compensation for those who suffered under the dictatorship and is also expected to makes changes to General Franco's most imposing legacy: The Valley of the Fallen, the former leader's colossal burial chamber on the outskirts of the capital.

One suggestion is to convert part of the monument into an education centre about fascism. And, for the first time, the local authorities are expected to have guidelines to help people locate the bodies of family members, still missing, who were murdered during the Franco regime.

The government says its Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory is not about rewriting history, or making people responsible for crimes of the past. But for many Spaniards it represents a new willingness to examine the truth about their history.

Country profile: Spain
03 Jul 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Spain
03 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

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