Spanish law could provide framework for removal of Confederate statues

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist Photo credit: Rewon Shimray

As contemporary culture encourages us to view history as inherently interpretive, we can often find ourselves questioning the dominant narratives that drive historical memory. In attempts to revisit the past in a way that values more oppressed groups, a balance must be struck between preserving the past and glorifying it.

In the United States, conversations surrounding the removal of Confederate statues have become heated debates. In August, protesters at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tore down the Confederate statue “Silent Sam.” The destruction of this statue could have been avoided if the public university, and the nation at large, would confront and challenge traditional historical narratives rather than reinforce and glorify them.

Some proponents of removing Confederate statues cite Spain’s Historical Memory Law (Ley de Memoria Histórica), which seeks to eliminate glorification of the fascist dictatorship that ruled for 40 years, as an example of how to deal with our own history of slavery and institutional racism.

In mid-August, the Spanish government announced plans to amend this law to include the exhumation of former dictator Francisco Franco’s body from its current location: An anything-but-modest neoclassical mausoleum and basilica adorned with a 500-foot-tall cross, located outside Madrid. Franco’s dictatorship lasted 40 years, beginning in 1939 after a devastating civil war until his death in 1979. His regime brought regressive laws and fascist ideologies that led to the imprisonment, enslavement and death of hundreds of thousands of people.

Franco commissioned the memorial where his body is now buried, Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), four years before his death and had pitched it as a war monument. The site not only includes the gravesite of the deceased dictator, but also about 34,000 victims from both sides of the civil war. The mausoleum was constructed with government funds and built by forced labor from political or war prisoners. It is operated and maintained by a public cultural organization.

“When is this country going to stop having the remains of a dictator in a public burial site next to his victims?” said deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo at a press conference following the announcement to exhume Franco’s body.

Essentially, Calvo suggests that having a memorial lionizing Franco and his rule on government land implicates that the government endorses the glorification of fascism. Likewise, having monuments that revere the Confederacy insinuates that the U.S. government endorses the glorification of slavery.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Spanish Parliament is expected to approve the decision by the end of September, and Franco’s family members, who have opposed the exhumation, will be able to decide where they want the dictator reburied.

Tension surrounding the presence of the former fascist dictator’s body on public land next to his victims has long been a controversial topic in the country. Usually proposed by leftist groups like the radical political party Podemos, some efforts to restructure the historical memory surrounding Franco have been in the works for the past decade. When Spain’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) or PSOE was last in power in 2007, it enacted the Historical Memory Law, which prohibits political events in the Valley of the Fallen, initiated the removal of Francoist iconography and granted repatriation to any former citizens who emigrated during the dictatorship. Now that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party is back in power, the decision to exhume Franco’s body from the memorial site is proposed as an amendment to the Historical Memory Law.

The Valley of the Fallen, intended to be a site to remember the horrors and human cost of the civil war, has instead become a pilgrimage site for supporters of the former regime. Similarly, a poll by Antena 3, a Spanish television channel, reported 71.7 percent did not consider the exhumation of Franco’s body to be a priority. Clearly, not everyone agrees with the government’s decision.

Regardless of the immediacy of the new amendment, a move away from honoring the country’s dark past shows a dramatic shift in the way governments view history. Similarly, in the United States, most people would agree that the removal of Confederate statues from public land is not a priority over other political issues. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

This editorial is not meant to conflate the debates of Spain and the United States’ evil histories. Of course, no one is arguing that the bodies of slave owners and Confederate soldiers be exhumed. Clearly, fascism and institutional slavery operated on distinctly different principles, occurred in distinctly different countries and produced unique aftereffects. But discourse around statues of Confederate soldiers, public monuments that glorify an oppressive past of slavery, much like Valley of the Fallen, bring up very similar questions.

How do we preserve the past while ensuring that historical memory doesn’t glorify it? The Spanish government’s decision to exhume Franco’s body is largely based on the facts that the monument glorifies him instead of offering a site for reflection on the horrors of the war and that it is publicly owned and maintained. Similarly, these issues are also cited in arguments for removal of Confederate statues. Removal of these statues from public land doesn’t erase history; it allows historical memory to move away from glorifying a past of racism and slavery. Moving them instead to a history museum, as was the case with 10 Confederate statues at public university UT-Austin, ensures they will be viewed in context, as a part of history rather than the glorified dominant narrative.

History must be interpreted to represent the most diverse narrative possible. By honoring individuals and institutions that silence all voices but their own, we commit another injustice against them through our historical memory.