Can new Spanish law lay the ghosts of the Civil War to rest?

The so-called ‘Democratic Memory Laws’ bring some relief to the families of General Franco’s victims, but much needs to be done to tackle the dictator’s legacy, they say.

View of the commemorative plaque at the chapel inside of La Macarena Basilica in Seville, where the remains of General Gonzalo Queipo, his wife and General Francisco Bohorquez Vecina were buried
View of the commemorative plaque at the chapel inside of La Macarena Basilica in Seville, where the remains of General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, his wife and General Francisco Bohorquez Vecina were buried [Raul Caro/EPA-EFE]

Madrid, Spain – The remains of one of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco‘s most brutal Civil War henchmen, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, were discreetly exhumed in the small hours of the morning in a central Seville church in early November.

Only one member of the families of the 45,000 Republicans killed on his orders was present to witness the scene, and even that was from a distance.

Paqui Maqueda had already gone to bed when she received a long-awaited phone call from a friend telling her that the exhumation, carried out on government orders by Queipo de Llano’s family at a time of day when public attention would be minimal, was finally going ahead.

But Maqueda, nonetheless, felt an obligation to get up and drive across Seville to keep watch outside La Macarena Basilica.

By doing so, “a long overdue debt that person [Queipo de Llano] had with my family was finally settled”, she told Al Jazeera.

‘Democratic Memory Law’

The exhumation of Queipo de Llano and the subsequent incineration in a private family ceremony is the first significant consequence of sweeping new overhauls of Spain’s laws, dubbed the “Democratic Memory Laws”, aimed at ending decades of conflict over Franco’s legacy.

Previous Spanish legislation with the same purpose has only been patchily effective.

One of the new laws’ goals is to stop burial sites of figures like Queipo de Llano become rallying points for Spain’s far right, who traditionally pay homage to Franco’s regime on November 20, the anniversary of the dictator’s death in 1975.

But as Maqueda told Al Jazeera, the removal of Queipo de Llano’s remains also settles some unfinished business with the dictatorship’s repression of her family.

“I had to do it,” said Maqueda, who cried “honour and glory to Franco’s victims” on one side of the church square during the exhumation.

“Firstly, for political reasons, because I am the representative of a ‘memorialist’ association  – one of the multiple organisations in Spain fighting for the recognition of the rights of dictatorship victims – and it felt important for one of us to be there. Secondly, I had a personal debt with that man and his relatives that needed to be dealt with,” she said.

“I didn’t know when or how but I knew a moment would come when that debt would be settled. And his exhumation was that moment.”

Family suffering

Maqueda’s family suffered greatly because of Queipo de Llano and the Franco dictatorship.

Her great-grandfather and one of her great-uncles were murdered by Queipo de Llano’s troops in the 1930s. In the decades that followed the Spanish Civil War, another great-uncle spent most of his life in a concentration camp for alleged political offences, finally dying in poverty.

A family property was seized on the direct orders of Queipo de Llano after her great-grandfather’s summary execution. It has never been returned.

The repression of her family did not stop there. Similar to hundreds of Spanish “Red” (Communist) families, when Maqueda’s mother had a baby in 1936, her newborn child was taken away from the hospital and never seen again.

Yet more of Maqueda’s relatives, socially branded as “grandchildren of Reds” and suffering economic repression as a result, were forced to migrate hundreds of miles from Seville to find work.

Queipo de Llano’s exhumation is just one consequence of the sweeping new legislation.

Among 65 new measures, organisations that attempt to defend Franco’s regime are banned, while victims of the dictatorship condemned as criminals for their political and religious beliefs or sexual orientation have now been cleared of any legal offence.

One of the highest profile beneficiaries of this measure will be the renowned Spanish poet Miguel Hernández, whose death sentence for supporting the Republic was commuted to life imprisonment, and who died in Alicante prison in 1942 of typhus and tuberculosis.

But perhaps most importantly, the state will now be responsible for the search, exhumation and identification of the officially estimated 110,000 victims of the dictatorship who have remained in unmarked mass graves the length and breadth of Spain.

“This law marks a very big advance compared with when I started out,” Juan Luis Castro, a Seville-based archaeologist and researcher into unmarked Civil War graves for the last 20 years, told Al Jazeera.

“Back then, it was all about getting a phone call from a victim’s relatives and doing the work unpaid. Also, you had to have a cast-iron legal case to start digging because you’d always run into the same problem: If you were excavating an unmarked grave from the dictatorship years, you were investigating a crime scene.”

“But thanks to the new laws and state financial backing, much bigger mass graves can be opened up. It’s a major step forward.”

Exhumation of Spain's dictatorship victims
Archaeologist Juan Luis Castro working on an exhumation of an anti-Fascist partisan in Andalucia in 2010 [Courtesy of Jacinto Vidarte]

However, despite the government’s new legislation, the process of exhumations has still faced considerable obstacles.

The country’s single largest case of unidentified Spanish Civil War victims concerns the 30,000 unidentified combatants, mainly Republicans, who – thanks to one of the former dictator’s most macabre death wishes – were interred in the mausoleum where Franco was originally buried.

Franco’s remains were removed from the mausoleum and reburied in 2019, but three years on, families wishing to exhume those of their relatives buried there on a dictator’s whim are still unable to do so.

“The process is not moving forwards because the mausoleum is inside the municipality of San Lorenzo del Escorial”, which is run by the right-wing Partido Popular party, whose leader Alberto Nuñez Feijoo has promised to repeal the Democratic Memory Law should he take power, and “is currently refusing to grant the necessary permits”,  Eduardo Ranz, the lawyer representing multiple families in the case, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s even though, unlike the other exhumations in Spain, which will go ahead through government administrative channels, we have a legal verdict which upholds the rights of the families who want their relatives’ remains removed for burial.”

Ranz has taken the mayor of San Lorenzo del Escorial to court over the continuing block for the perversion of the course of justice.

But a date for the case has yet to be set.

No time to lose

“I don’t understand why we keep on having these setbacks,” Ranz said. “The fact of the matter is the son of one of the two Lapeña brothers [Manuel and Ramiro, whose remains are still inside the mausoleum] has now died and their grandchildren are now 65 or 70. We just don’t have time.”

“We’re pleased to see this new law has come into effect,” Rosa Gil, whose grandfather is buried in the mausoleum at Cuelgamuros, formerly known as the Valley of the Fallen, told Al Jazeera.

“But some legal loopholes mean the exhumation is not moving forward, and it’s a tiring, disappointing situation.”

Gil said her principal concern was for her father Silvino, now 95, wheelchair-bound and needing oxygen 24 hours a day, but still determined that he will be able to see his father exhumed and given burial in the plot he has waiting for him in the family hometown churchyard in Aragón.

“I thought that after Franco was exhumed, things would proceed a lot quicker, but they haven’t. When the pandemic happened, we didn’t want to make too much of a fuss then, we knew the country’s priorities lay elsewhere. But now things have come back to normal, our problems haven’t gone away,” she said.

“[The new law] is frustrating because it doesn’t cover our situation and there are people who want to stop it [the exhumation] at all costs. It’s normal for my father to want to bury his father where he wants, and why can’t those people see that or appreciate the harm they are doing after so many years,” Gil added.

“When you hear Feijoo saying that ‘as soon as I get into power, I’ll suspend the ‘Democratic Memory Law”, how can he say that, for goodness sake? Or what about [former right-wing Spanish President Mariano] Rajoy, saying he wouldn’t fund the law with a single euro?”

“What do they think we are doing this for? For fun or to wind somebody up? I can’t understand how they don’t put themselves, at least a little, in somebody else’s shoes.”

While Ranz believed that educating Spain’s current generation of university-age students about the Franco years was critical to ensure there is no repetition of the past, he was also adamant that carrying out the exhumations is a key pathway to resolve Spain’s continuing inability to come to terms with its past dictatorship.

“There is an open wound, which has been bleeding and bleeding for 80 years and it’s not drying out yet. But until the families can find their relatives and bury them as they wish, it will be impossible to heal those injuries in a dignified way,” he said.

“As a lawyer, I’m always pro-reform, but there’s one fact we cannot ignore: Franco died peacefully in his bed. In other words, he wasn’t kicked out of power, he wasn’t judged and while the step was taken in this country from dictatorship to democracy, there wasn’t a law of historic memory until 30 years later,” Ranz added.

“That means that we don’t have time, we can’t just sit back and wait, we have to move forwards with claims and inquiries.”

Properties never returned

Meanwhile, Castro argued that the lack of provision for the investigation of political crimes during the dictatorship is one area the new laws notably failed to cover.

Then, there is the continuing legal uncertainty regarding properties seized by the regime from their political rivals and never returned.

Maqueda said that another issue was the removal of the fascist symbols.

“Just in my city, Seville, we have to see about removing the many fascist symbols that remain on public view,” she said, naming a commemorative tile – next to Giralda tower –  linked to the 1936 fascist uprising as one of them.

But on a personal front, she said that the events of early November and the exhumation of Queipo de Llano have resolved some longstanding personal pain.

“When it was all over, a friend of mine who lives close by turned up and she gave me a hug and we took a selfie together,” she said.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to smile like I did in that photo: with a sense of  serenity, of triumph and that something long desired has finally been achieved.”

Source: Al Jazeera