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Spain Abolishes Freedom of Speech: Democratic Memory and the Damnatio Memoriae by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Essay

Spain Abolishes Freedom of Speech:
Democratic Memory and the Damnatio Memoriae

Two portrait heads of Emperor Caligula, both detached from the sculpted bodies after his death. Right: 33 x 21 x 23.5 cm, located in the Yale University Art Gallery and left: 43 x 21.5 x 25 cm, located in The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Caligula was the first emperor to have his images purposefully destroyed after his death. Damnatio memoriae is a practice in which a government condemns the memory of a person who was seen as a tyrant, traitor, or other sort of enemy to the state through the destruction of depictions, the removal of names from inscriptions and documents, and even large-scale rewritings of history.

Spain’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory and the present Law of Democratic Memory aim to construct an official version of history celebrating the civil war’s leftist Popular Front. Among other things, these laws function to severely limit the freedom of speech of Spaniards.

2007: “Historical Memory”

The 2007 Law of Historical Memory principally acts to identify those victims and their descendants entitled to financial compensation for the violation of their human rights during the Spanish civil war and Franco’s regime. The current Law of Democratic Memory—the draft of which was approved this last July 3rd by the Constitutional Commission of the Spanish Congress—extends the 2007 version, mainly in terms of its temporal scope. 

In order to grasp its significance, we need to hearken back to La Transición, Spain’s political transition, which saw it become a parliamentary monarchy. The period of the transition comprises the years between the death of General Franco and the ratification of the Constitution, by referendum, on the 6th of December, 1978.

To begin with, contra a certain widespread political myth, the Transición did not follow a blueprint drawn up by Franco. It was, rather, the result of compromises, negotiations, agreements, and arrangements of various sorts involving a plethora of the period’s political actors committed (even if only in the medium-term) to the twin goals of 1) avoiding political division, and 2) establishing a liberal, democratic system of government. On the Left, these actors included the Socialist Party under Felipe Gonzalez (PSOE), who would thereafter become prime minister, the Communist Party (PC) under Santiago Carrillo, and the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and Comisiones Obreras (C.O.), historic trade-unions with roots in Marxism. The resulting consensus was enshrined in the 1977 Political Reform Law, the Amnesty Law of the same year, and the Pacts of the Moncloa (the ‘Moncloa’ is the residence of the Spanish prime minister).

The Amnesty Law, what is sometimes referred to disparagingly as the “Pact of Forgetting,” was not principally meant to protect Franco’s government from responsibility over human rights abuses. Most members of the regime’s administration were technocrats who would transition into political careers under brands across the ideological spectrum, and had nothing to do with the civil war or political repression. However, historic leftist leaders, having just returned from exile to participate in the forging of a new, democratic Spain—like Santiago Carrillo—were protected by blanket amnesty. Carrillo was always suspected of facilitating the summary execution, in December of 1936, of 2,500 prisoners in Madrid thought to be ideologically unaligned with the leftist Popular Front. Thanks to amnesty, the Spanish democratic state would never investigate or take action on this score.

Before moving on, it is worth citing historian Jesús Laínz in order to gain a general description of the ideological project entailed by the laws of Historical Memory and Democratic Memory. In his essay “Memory of Destruction against the Destruction of Memory,” he writes [my translation throughout]: 

[The political] delegitimization of Franco’s regime was not accompanied by a parallel delegitimization of the socialist revolution [in Spain] in October 1934, the essential antecedents of the civil war, nor by [the condemnation] of the Bolshevik drift of the [pre-civil war] government, which drowned Spain in chaos after the fraudulent elections which saw the Popular Front come to power in February 1936.

With the coming to power of [Spanish PM] José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in March 2004, the process [of condemning Franco while engaging in apologetics on behalf of the Popular Front] accelerated. The most important measure was the Law of Historical Memory of December of 2007, with which the consensus enshrined in the constitution was broken. The Amnesty of 1977 was treated as void.

A Second Political Transition

The 2007 Law of Historical Memory concerns the civil war, Franco’s dictatorship, and Spain’s political transition. This relies on the idea that the Transición was partly polluted by Franco’s legacy. The law has been applied in such a way as to largely limit compensation to victims of the National Front (the “Right”) during the civil war, and of Franco’s regime, not of leftist Popular Front. 

Concerning the context out of which the current draft Law of Democratic Memory (2022) has emerged, furthering the project of its 2007 antecedent, Laínz writes

Today, with the socialist-communist coalition in power, government leaders believe it’s time to put the icing on the cake … they call it the Second Transition, which consists of … the delegitimization of … the 1978 constitution, monarchy included. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to write … a cartoonish [version of history] … erasing anything that might undermine the prestige of a Left that intends to sow its future ideological hegemony. 

Thousands of crimes, attacks, assaults, arsons, destruction of property and violence of all kinds committed by the leftists over the years are to be forgotten.

Concerning this “Second Transition,” European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) spokesman and VOX MEP Hermann Tertsch has written the following as part of the preface to the ECR’s compendium of essays on the issue, Memoria Histórica:” Amenaza para la Paz en Europa (“Historical Memory:” A Threat to Peace in Europe, from which the writings which I cite throughout this piece are taken) [my translation]:

Since 2004, the State itself has adopted mechanisms of permanent agitation … to unilaterally criminalise certain ideologies that are not on the Left by accusing those who hold them of being heirs to “fascism”—this is how they describe those who stood up to the Stalin-controlled Popular Front during the civil-war … Through the Laws of “Historical Memory” and “Democratic Memory,” the Spanish Left does not only want to impose a compulsory interpretation of history—with criminal and economic sanctions for dissidents—, but also seeks to eradicate academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of education. 

2022: “Democratic Memory”

The Law of Democratic Memory seeks to intensify the 2007 version’s sectarian alignment with the Popular Front, but this is not all. Because Spain’s current leftist coalition needs to cobble support from various minority factions, it has had to cater to Bildu, the political wing of the terrorist group ETA. On this latter’s behest then, the new law will extend its timeframe beyond the Transicion proper (Franco’s death to 1978), until the 31st of December of 1983. 

Extending the law’s scope to 1983 assumes that Franco’s shadow and his ideological imprint in governing institutions survived the ratification of the constitution to a degree that warrants their retroactive purgation. This intensifies the 2007 law’s underlying logic of considering the basis for Spain’s constitutional monarchy illegitimate; it effectively denies that a genuine political transition took place in 1978. 

1983 is significant because it is the year after the first socialist prime minister of Spain following Franco’s death, Felipe Gonzalez, was elected into office. During his administration, elements of the socialist party in government organised a paramilitary group called the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL) to pursue ETA members extra-judicially. The GAL, which was always extremely small and barely competent, operated between 1983 and 1987, during which time it engaged in gross violations of human rights, on some occasions mistakenly kidnapping persons wrongly suspected of ETA membership. The GAL’s ‘dirty war’ was universally condemned across the political spectrum, with its members beginning to face criminal prosecution in the late 1980s. In terms of persons holding institutional power at the time, Gonzalez’s Minister of Interior, José Barrionuevo, for example, was prosecuted.

Even though the Law of Democratic Memory does not include most of the GAL’s operations, the group had already killed at least three persons before 1984. Furthermore, the Law’s time frame includes the initial planning phase to set up the GAL, as undergone by elements of the Socialist Party. Whereas it has been reported that the Socialists and Bildu unofficially agreed not to use the Law of Democratic Memory to address the GAL—and stopping short of 1984 would seem like a compromise—the law’s temporal scope speaks for itself, including as it does the GAL’s initial formation and first activities. It is a sign of the Socialist’s weakness, or its commitment to dynamiting Spanish politics, that it should be willing to go along with such an attack on one of (if not its most), prominent, historical periods: namely, its first democratic administration. 

For its part, Bildu has said that applying the Law of Democratic Memory to a period ending with 1983 is meant to address supposed police excesses during separatist protests and the like, especially under the pre-socialist administration of PM Adolfo Suarez. However, if the police (or the GAL) is to be implicated by this law, along with the early political class of Spain’s democratic period, the question becomes why the ETA isn’t. After all, the ETA injured many thousands, and murdered close to 1,000 people—most of them after Franco’s death—including 22 children, and the ETA engaged in bombing campaigns that included supermarkets where the objective was, quite straightforwardly, to kill ordinary people, including families. 

Another key aspect of the law involves an amendment that establishes the illegitimacy of the courts created after the 1936 coup that set-off the civil war. In addition, mechanisms and resources will be granted to evaluate the cultural and linguistic repression perpetrated by the Franco regime, declaring “Basque, Catalan and Galician” cultures to have been victimised. This latter is absurd, as Franco’s regime actually facilitated the use of regional languages, including in literature and music. The law also ignores the substantial economic advantages granted to the Basque and Catalan regions by Franco (as well as by the Spanish state before and after his regime).

Attacking Freedom of Speech 

Apart from deciding who is eligible for financial compensation, the Law of Historical Memory has been used to define how history is taught, a trajectory the Law of Democratic Memory will push forward.

The ways in which the Law of Democratic Memory seeks to limit basic freedom of speech are detailed in historian Stanley Payne’s “Historical Memory” and the Rupturing of Spanish Democracy [my translation]: 

The Law of Democratic Memory specifies a whole catalogue of actions defined as offences that will be subject to sanctions, including any matter that may interfere with the development of its policies and, particularly, symbols, meetings, proclamations or statements considered favourable to the Franco-regime or to the winning side in the Civil War of 1936-1939. 

Pursuant to this, the law provides an impressive array of measures, including: 

  • Fines ranging from €200 to €100,000 
  • Closure for a period of six months to two years of any entity implicated in said violations, and
  • The confiscation of the means/goods utilised in these prohibited activities. 

All of this violates Spain’s Constitution, insofar as the latter guarantees citizens their freedom of expression. 

The new law also recommends the creation of a state commission whose purview will be to collect testimonies, information, and documents to clarify the nature of violations of human rights during the civil war and the Franco era. This policy follows from its predecessor. Writes Luis E. Togores [my translation]:

Currently, Law 52/2007 of Historical Memory includes the so-called Action Procedure against Disinformation, which liquidates freedom of the press … The Democratic Memory Bill goes directly against the freedom of research, teaching, and dissemination of knowledge in the field of Spanish history. 

As Laínz puts it:

Now the PSOE-Podemos government, with the support of [the Catalan separatist] Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), wants to impose fines and jail time on those who dare to remember what should remain hidden: the massacres that were carried out by the false defenders of democracy, as if Spain had fallen behind the Iron Curtain and were, today, a communist dictatorship.

In order to grasp the scope of these laws and their applicability, we may refer to Laínz again, this time on the issue of commemorative plaques:

Twenty thousand churches and monasteries were destroyed [by the Popular Front during the civil-war], with all their artistic and historical content: altarpieces, paintings, images, libraries, archives, etc. The ones that weren’t destroyed ended up as markets, garages, barracks, shelters, stables, pigsties … And private ownership of religious objects was prohibited.

Most churches destroyed by the republicans [the Popular Front] were restored by the new regime [Franco’s dictatorship], being fitted with commemorative plaques reading “Destroyed by the red hordes. Rebuilt by National Spain.” Over the last forty years, all those plaques have been removed; and with them, one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of Spain has been suppressed. 

The same fate has befallen the crosses, plaques, and monuments commemorating the tens of thousands of murdered people under [the Popular Front’s] repression: repression that was sometimes as sadistic as it was unjustified, as it did not spare defenseless nuns, children, women, and the elderly. 

Conclusion

Spain’s establishment Left, identified mainly with the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Podemos, is not interested in governing or in persuasion. However odious the ideological project behind it, there was a time when the centre-right sought to redirect the 2007 Law of Historical Memory by trying to apply it equitably, and not in ways that sought to whitewash one side of the civil war over the other. Under PM Rajoy, the centre-right People’s Party defunded the Law of Historical Memory’s initiatives, but, as is typical, it did not repeal it.

The current 2022 draft Law of Democratic Memory, together with various other initiatives and the rhetoric adopted by the establishment Left, make it clear that the objective is to: 1) promote the idea that the Spanish constitutional monarchy is illegitimate; 2) generate artificial grievance by incentivizing (through financial compensation) the investigation of human rights abuses attributable to “the Right” (which might now also include transition-era elements of the Left, if Bildu gets its way); 3) polarise society as a result of this asymmetric treatment and; 4) mobilise a loyal contingent of supporters who are fixated on the political aesthetics of civil war revanchism and/or benefit from the government’s financial compensation schemes. 

There is no real chance of “converting” society to retroactively supporting the civil war era’s Popular Front, or to accepting the absurdist version of Spanish history promoted by ETA terrorist-whitewashing politicians. Nor is there any possibility that a “Second Transition”—away from the constitutional, monarchic model, and in line with the postmodern Leftism of Podemos and the Socialist Party—would lead to a stable outcome. 

Of course, the project in question has less to do with the civil war and its Popular Front, then with modern American-multinational-funded woke capitalism. In the minds of some of its ideologues, however (at least in Podemos), the latter deconstruction of European cultural forms and promotion of a strong international systems of control presiding over a miasmic amalgam of sectional struggles (feminist; transgender; ‘racialized;’ etc.), is likely understood as a dialectical development of 1930s communist internationalism. 

The indoctrination-potential of the 2022 Law of Democratic Memory is probably seen as only one half of its usefulness. Beyond this, the aim seems to be to endure along the path of trying to sow division while impoverishing the country, engaging in disastrous migration policy, selling-out Spain’s geopolitical interests, and so on, all in hopes, it seems, that real civil strife might take hold—to criminalise the Right (and dissident Left) and degrade the country’s social fabric. 

We seem to be witnessing an attempted demolition of civil society, in tandem, predictably, with the emergence of an increasingly draconian state. 

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

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