Atonement: Spain’s problem with the past

In the past four years, much has changed here. Spanish nationalism is more organised and enjoys greater general support. And why wouldn’t it? The state, its main political parties, its media, its judiciary, its police, and even its fascist hooligans, have united against a common enemy. They act as one, and with impunity, to repress the Catalan pro-independence movement: insults, threats, physical assaults, fines, beatings, attacks with firearms, summonses, suspensions from office, sackings, exile and imprisonment, all against a backdrop of limitations on the basic freedoms of speech, assembly and suffrage. It is lawfare. It is persecution.

Four days in October 2013

In October 2013, a month after the pro-independence Catalan Way (Vía Catalana) demonstration had successfully linked the northern and southernmost points of the territory with a 400-kilometre human chain, Spanish unionism felt obliged to respond. Over a period of four days, there was a sequence of events that highlighted Spanish society’s deep-seated problems with its past, and therefore with its present and future. Spanish nationalism is more about forgetting than remembering. It is more about amnesty than atonement. Spanish nationalism does not apologise or make amends.

Ciudadanos and the Partido Popular

On 10 October 2013, during a debate on a motion condemning totalitarian regimes – fascism and nazism included – members of Spanish unionist parties Ciudadanos and the Partido Popular made a melodramatic exit from the Catalan parliament. It was staged by Jordi Cañas and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos in order to avoid the vote. Ironically, their excuse was the censure received from the CUP’s David Fernández for their planned attendance at a unionist demonstration two days later in the company of far-right Spanish nationalist and fascist organisations.

Spain on the March

12 October is the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, the patron saint of Spain’s Civil Guard, and the Day of the Armed Forces. It is also the Day of Spanishness, the Day of the Race and Columbus Day, depending on where you are from. On this particular 12 October, Spain on the March (España en Marcha) brought together around 250 members of far-right and fascist groups: La Falange, Nudo Patriota, Alianza Nacional, Movimiento Católico Español, Plataforma per Catalunya, España 2000, cultural association Casal Tramuntana and Democracia Nacional – one of whose leaders was later sentenced to prison for the attack on the Blanquerna Catalan cultural centre in Madrid, which had also taken place a month earlier. This sentence has recently been suspended.

At this Spanish nationalist demonstration, we saw fascist and nazi salutes; fascist, nazi and neo-nazi symbols: swastikas, pre-constitutional Spanish flags, SS, 88 (HH – Heil Hitler) and Celtic crosses. Bussed in from Spain, another group of 100 holocaust-denying, Franco-nostalgic ultras joined the demonstration late, and they marched from Plaça Espanya to Montjuïc, as is their democratic right.

We are Catalonia, we are Spain

In Plaça Catalunya, ‘We are Catalonia, We are Spain’ [sic] (Som Catalunya, Somos España) brought together 30,000 Spanish unionists, including Alícia Sánchez-Camacho, then president of the Partido Popular in Catalonia; Xavier García Albiol, then mayor of Badalona and now leader of the almost unrepresented PP in Catalonia; Albert Rivera, the president of Ciudadanos, as well as elements from the ultra demonstration: PxC, La Falange, España 2000 and Casal Tramuntana in particular. Members of the RCD Espanyol hooligan group, the White and Blue Brigades (Brigadas Blanquiazules) sang ‘Facing the Sun’ (Cara al Sol) and shouted pro-Hitler chants at one side of the square. Despite the organisers’ wishes, pre-constitutional flags were also in evidence.

Alícia Sánchez-Camacho seemed unembarrassed by her proximity to the multitude of fascist salutes that accompanied the Spanish national anthem.

The only people to be arrested and charged with serious offences occurring on this day were a group of six anti-fascist activists, accused of causing bodily harm in an altercation with a group of fascist demonstrators at a bar. The accused have always maintaned their innocence of the charges brought, with one of the alleged victims even admitting police assistance in identifying his assailants. At the beginning of this month, February 2018, their sentence was eventually announced. Three were acquitted of all charges and the other three given eighteen-month suspended prison sentences. The verdict and sentences were designed to demonstrate equanimity, but had the ideologies of those involved been reversed, the case would never have made it to court.

The beatification of the clergy

On 13 October 2013, the day after the demonstrations of Spanishness in Barcelona, Tarragona hosted the most numerous mass beatification in the history of Spain’s Catholic church. 522 clergy killed during the Spanish civil war were set on the path to sainthood. 25,000 attended the invitation-only event. The guest list included families of the beatified, eight cardinals, over a hundred bishops and many public figures: the president of the Generalitat, Artur Mas; minister of the Interior and supernumerary member of Opus Dei, Jorge Fernández Díaz; minister of Justice, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón; and president of the Congress, Jesús Posada. A recorded message from Pope Francis was played to the crowd and there was no trouble, just a few confiscated flags.

Considering that the Spanish church has never formally apologised for its support of Franco, that the victims of his regime have never received any redress, not even a proper burial for the almost 120,000 missing from the Franco era, it is not surprising that many were critical of the event. The organising Spanish Episcopal Conference’s choice of location and date for the controversial mass had also met with general stupefaction.

The Historical Memory Law

The 2007 Historical Memory Law was designed to recognise and compensate victims of the Spanish civil war and their families, and to condemn Francoism. It has never been properly funded, and the few attempts there have been to try Franco’s criminals have met with legal resistance, citing always the amnesty law of 1977. All attempts to exhume those buried in mass graves have been obstructed and little progress has been seen in the decade since the law was passed. UN requests that the amnesty be repealed, arguing that crimes against humanity should have no statute of limitations, have fallen on deaf ears.

Judge Baltasar Garzón was suspended from judicial activity for investigating Francoist crimes in 2010 after the success of a lawsuit filed by the now defunct far-right ‘union’, Manos Limpias, its fascist founder and director having been imprisoned for extorsion in 2016. Garzón was cleared of this charge in 2012, but found guilty of sanctioning illegal wire-tapping in his investigation of the Gürtel corruption case: bribery and illegal financing of the ruling Partido Popular. He was disqualified from practising law for eleven years. The Gürtel case continues and involves still-serving members of the government, including president Rajoy.

The present

Four years on, and most of the corrupt from Catalan political life have been sanctioned, sidelined or imprisoned. On the other hand, Spain’s Gürtel government is still in power, and hanging on for dear life. Albert Rivera might one day become the first Catalan president of Spain. As a Catalan, to pull it off he will have to repress Catalan nationalism more than any fellow Spanish nationalist. Supernumerary, Jorge Fernández Díaz, could be his guiding light in this respect. Many of the very worst catalanophobes of our day are of Catalan origin. They all seem to have something to prove to the fatherland. According to the latest polls, Rivera is doing well, and the media at home and abroad have generally swallowed the liberal centrist pitch.

The future

If he does make it to the Moncloa, little will change for another 40 years. Nobody on the Spanish right will ever pay for their crimes. After forty years of the Franco regime and forty years of the 1978 regime, many feel it is time for a new era. With Rajoy in trouble, Rivera is the alternative continuity candidate. The past will remain buried, the law of forgetting will be imposed and dissent will continue to be crushed. The rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and Catalans will continue to pay for things which are not their fault.

And as far as ‘memory’ is concerned, modern Spain has got worse. Catalans especially have new injuries to remember, new offences they cannot and will not forgive or forget. Nowadays, Spanish people are not only expected to forget the past, they must also turn a blind eye to the present. It is impossible.

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