Garzón and the long shadow of Francoism in Spain

Post date: 02/09/2021

Baltasar Garzón is a former Spanish high court judge who came to fame in Britain when he issued the warrant that led to the arrest in London of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet on murder and torture charges.

In Spain he has been the target of multiple lawsuits brought against him by right-wing lawyers, including one for exceeding his powers in launching an investigation into the crimes of Franco. He was suspended as a judge in 2010 and stepped down from office two years later. A ruling last month from the UN Human Rights Committee has condemned the suspension of Garzón, describing the proceedings as arbitrary and a violation of his rights.

This piece by Garzon about the legacy of Francoism originally appeared in ¡No Pasaran! 2-2021. Translation by Jim Jump.

Illustration: Sarah Finke

On 1 December last year, the Spanish online newspaper InfoLibre published an exclusive and alarming report revealing the existence of a WhatsApp group where high-ranking retired army officers were exchanging messages yearning for the Franco dictatorship. There were calls for a pronunciamento – the declaration of a military coup – like the one issued by General Franco on 18 July 1936 that unleashed the Spanish Civil War. Among the messages were gems such as proposals to shoot 26 million hijos de puta (bastards) – of whom I’m probably one. Others wanted to ‘remove the cancer’ or ‘repeat history’, all of them obvious references to Franco’s uprising.

What’s worrying is that, 45 years after the death of the dictator, the embers of Francoism are still alight in Spanish society. If anything, the situation is getting worse. The sort of people I’m referring to have long been represented in parliament, but now they flaunt their ideas with no inhibitions. Macarena Olona, for example, a member of the Congress of Deputies from the political wing of Francoism, had no qualms in acknowledging in parliament that the members of the WhatsApp group were all ‘one of us’. What she meant is her political party, Vox, the far-right grouping that has split from the Popular Party.

Frankly, I’m deeply worried by the emergence and rise of the extreme right and neo-fascism. This is a key theme in my latest book, ‘La Encrucijada: Ideas y valores frente a la indiferencia’ [Crossroads: Ideas and values in the face of indifference] (Carena, 2020). It’s beyond belief that the Franco regime still impacts current politics in Spain, to the extent that there is no consensus on enacting a law of historical memory. Nor can hundreds of families recover the bodies of their loved ones buried in ditches or mass graves. All this should be unacceptable in a democracy.

Francoism in Spain is not dying; it is very much alive. This is because the transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975 did not extinguish the embers of the regime. They are now being stoked by the crisis we’re living through and by the global rise of neo-fascism. More than 40 years ago no democrat could have imagined that fascism would re-emerge in Spain. But we must now face reality. Francoism has returned – or rather it never went away, but remained dormant like the plague.

A part of the political right in Spain has always been Francoist. Until recently these right-wingers were camouflaged within the Popular Party. But since 2013 they have had their own party, Vox. In Germany and Italy the fascists came to power in the same way that the neo-fascists of the twenty-first century are now attempting – via democracy. That’s why democracy is not the antidote to fascism. Instead we must strengthen human rights as a defence against these totalitarian forces that threaten to take over and impose their ideas and aims on our institutions.

A comment such as ‘Shoot 26 million bastards’, spoken by someone from the military, even if retired, cannot be brushed aside, as many are doing. Especially in these times when neo-fascism has resurfaced newly fortified, words like these should end up in the courts and deserve a strong official rebuke. As someone who considers himself among the 26 million, I have asked King Felipe VI to speak out and dissociate himself from these wretched soldiers, who I hope do not represent the army. But at the time of writing these lines, I’m still awaiting a response from the king. 

It’s not just me who is deeply troubled by the rebirth of Francoism. Recently the Royal Spanish Academy published the latest ‘Diccionario de la Lengua’ [Dictionary of the Spanish language], in which around 2,500 new words have been added. They include fascistoide – a person who tends to fascism or authoritarianism – and parafascista – something that has a similarity to fascism. In these words we hear an echo of the political and social reality currently being experienced in Spain. Words that should be in disuse, words from the twentieth century such as fascista, serve as a building block to create new words that should not even exist in 2021. All this reflects the political and social regression of a democratic society to its Francoist origins. 

Incredibly, more than 80 years after the end of the civil war there has been no proper reconciliation in Spanish society. And over 40 years since the return to democracy, the country as a whole has not shaken off its dictatorial past. The Spanish right is still split between a democratic right and a hard right that openly forges links with extreme right-wing movements that have emerged in other European countries. A dark past is entrenched in Spain. More than ever, it’s essential that the Spanish government passes its proposed new Democratic Memory Law. The main purpose of the law is the recognition of all those people who for political or ideological reasons suffered violence or persecution in the period from the start of the civil war in 1936 until the adoption of the Spanish Constitution in 1978.

This new law – which is still at draft stage – is necessary to restore the dignity and honour of hundreds of victims who have not seen a robust and definitive acknowledgment from the Spanish state that leaves no doubt about who were the victims and who were the executioners. Special mention therefore must be made of the provision in the future legislation that would nullify all the sentences and fines issued during the civil war and dictatorship by Franco’s repressive state organs, and these, in turn, would be declared illegitimate.

The people who are the face of Francoism in Spain today do not hide their longing for the old style of politics. They refuse to try to understand the plurality of our country or, from a human perspective, the difficult challenges of a phenomenon such as immigration. Vox has 52 seats in the Congress of Deputies, and every day these representatives make things more difficult not only in parliament but also for coexistence in Spain as a whole.

The Franco regime, far from disappearing, casts a very long shadow across Spain. The current socialist government succeeded in exhuming Franco from the Valle de los Caídos on 24 October 2019. This was done, in accordance with the 2007 Historical Memory Law, in the presence of the country’s senior law officer, Minister of Justice Dolores Delgado. Attention has now turned to the properties accumulated by the dictator’s family, which in some cases should belong to the Spanish state, such as the Pazo de Meirás palace near La Coruña.

The government’s actions might lead us to think that clear progress is being made in recovering the memory of the defeated and of the victims of Francoism. However, these moves are being opposed by a shameless and dangerously obstructive Francoist ultra-right. The existence of this ultra-right makes it impossible to conclude that truth, justice and reparation for the victims will be an on-going and lasting project – and one, moreover, that will ensure these things never happen again. As such, the fundamental principles of democracy in Spain are under threat. 


Posted on 2 September 2021.

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