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The Shame of Spain and the Ghost of Fascism

Scott Boehm

When Spain is mentioned in the English-speaking world, romanticized images of Mediterranean landscapes quickly come to mind.  They are usually set to a passionate flamenco-inspired soundtrack and mingle with the fantasy of tantalizingly fresh paella, golden olive oil and ruby red wine.  This is

the Spain most outsiders imagine and experience, and it is largely what the Spanish economy has depended upon since the 1960s when the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco launched a massive tourist campaign to stimulate a struggling economy.  The campaign was the stuff of economic miracles.  Spain rapidly became one of the world’s premier vacation destinations.

But all the sun in the world couldn’t hide the horror lying in the shadows

of a country haunted by a recent war that touched every aspect of Spanish life.  At least not forever.

In 2000, twenty-five years after Franco’s death, Emilio Silva, a journalist searching for answers to questions about that war and his family’s relation to it accidentally discovered and exhumed the mass grave where his grandfather’s remains were located.  Silva’s grandfather, a humble shop owner and supporter of the democratic state established in 1931, was summarily executed by members of the Falange—the Spanish fascist party—along with twelve other people from his village in the north of Spain shortly after Franco and a handful of generals launched a coup against the Spanish Republic in July 1936.  Hitler, Mussolini, and the Catholic Church backed the conspirators while the United States, England and France turned a blind eye to the massacre that ensued.

While the events of 1936-1939 are popularly referred to as ‘the Spanish Civil War,” the term misrepresents what actually occurred.  More than a

war between two more or less equally prepared and similarly matched sides, it was the mass extermination of “los rojos”—anyone considered part of “the anti-Spain” by the self-proclaimed, and well-armed, guardians of national identity and patriotic spirit.  The “reds” put up a long fight, but ultimately they were killed, tortured, raped, imprisoned, kidnapped, used as slave labor and/or driven into exile for four decades.

Like Emilio Silva’s grandfather, hundreds of thousands of the victims of such repression—continued by the Francoist state at the conclusion of the

war—continue to lie prostrate in mass graves.  Since the exhumation in 2000, their descendents and sympathizers have formed a growing historical memory movement.  Like Antigone, they have repeatedly asked for one thing from the Spanish state: nothing more than the possibility of exercising their desire to properly bury their dead.  Like Creon, the Spanish state has consistently responded with statements, actions and laws that laugh in the face of their ethical claim.

In 2008, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, internationally famous for having put Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on trial for genocide in 1998, admitted a series of lawsuits filed by several historical memory organizations and individuals seeking assistance with the location and exhumation of the remains of family members.  Garzón subsequently opened the first criminal case into the 1936 coup and the Francoist dictatorship.  He concluded that the generals who launched the war were guilty of crimes against humanity, and ordered the exhumation of nineteen mass graves.  A

few weeks later, Garzón was forced to close his case under pressure from fellow judges of the National Court and the Attorney General’s office. Once again, the hopes of family members were crushed by the weight of law and the callousness of the Spanish state.


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(For a brief description of Garzón’s case, see my article “On Human Rights, Spain is Different” published on Common Dreams December 10, 2008:

If the story ended here, it would be yet another sad lament in a long litany of historical wrongs for the victims of Francoist repression.  But this story, unfortunately, is not over.

Shortly after Garzón withdrew his case, a far-right lobby and the Falange—the same Spanish fascist party that killed Emilio Silva’s grandfather and dumped his body in a ditch like hundreds of thousands of others—filed lawsuits against Garzón for opening the historic case.  To

the surprise of many international law and human rights organizations, the Supreme Court admitted the suits last May.  Yesterday Judge Luciano Varela ruled that Garzón must stand trial.  He faces removal from the National Court and banishment from the bench for twelve to twenty years, which would mean the sudden end of Garzón’s illustrious, if controversial, legal career.

While Garzón has been roundly criticized for self-promotion and basking in

the spotlight of high-profile cases, such personal faults are irrelevant to the case at hand.  If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Fascist party and its associates—which appears quite possible—it will be a far-reaching victory for the state of impunity that characterizes contemporary Spain and a devastating loss for those seeking the most minimal act of justice for the dead.  It will also be a significant blow to international criminal law, convert Spain into a legal embarrassment in the eyes of the world and discredit the integrity of Spanish jurists.

This would seem bad enough, but if Garzón is debarred it also means that fascism will be validated as a legitimate and effective political force in democratic Spain.  Not only will the family members of the victims of fascist violence lose the only judge daring enough to challenge the 1977 amnesty law protecting those responsible for mass extermination and state repression—a law considered illegal under international law—they will also be forced to swallow the fact that, in Spain at least, democracy means that fascist complaints carry more weight than the burden of those

traumatized by the Spanish state during much of the twentieth century.

Ten years into the twenty-first, the political panorama looks chillingly familiar to those who have survived or studied Francoist “justice.”  Once again, the force of law is being used to discipline those who challenge a deeply unjust social order.  But it is more than simply punishment; it is a threat to those who might follow in the footsteps of Garzón, and an insult to all the Antigones of the world.  It is also the apparition of

fascism, alive and well in sunny Spain, rearing its ugly head from behind long, haunting shadows.

In Madrid, you can almost hear its voice echoing throughout the hallowed halls of justice:  “Olé!  Somebody pass the sangría…”

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Scott Boehm is a Researcher for the Spanish Civil War Memory Project ( at UC San Diego where he is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature.  His dissertation, "Trauma and Transitionism" examines the intersections of culture, memory and justice related to mass extermination and state repression in Spain.  He can be contacted at

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