The conflict between Catalonia and Spain is portrayed in the mainstream media as an attempt by the wealthy Catalonian region not to share its wealth with the poorer regions of Spain. This conflict however has many facets, political, historical, and cultural.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. He is co-author with George Kerevan of Catalonia Reborn, which will be published by Luath Press in March 2017
Eight Catalan government ministers remain in Spanish jails, as do the heads of Catalonia’s two main civic pro-independence groups, the Catalan National Assembly’s Jordi Sànchez and Omnium’s Jordi Cuixart.
All were jailed by Spain’s National Court. This has a rather murky history. It was created on 5 January 1977, little over a year after the death of the Spanish dictator, General Francesco Franco. Just 24 hours earlier his Court of Public Order had been dissolved. Its president and judges were all then re-appointed to head the new National Court.
Unlike his allies, Hitler and Mussolini, Franco died in bed, after doctors finally switched off his life support machine. In Germany and Italy there was an attempt at cleansing the state of their Nazi and Fascist past, however flawed. In Spain there was no such attempt in the transition to parliamentary democracy following the death of Franco.
Catalans watching their leaders being arrayed before this court are asking just how much really changed during the post-Franco transition, which established the current monarchy, parliamentary system, rule of law and much more?
Anyone watching current events in Catalonia must be all too aware that the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the dictatorship that followed still casts a dark shadow over Spain, and not least in Catalonia, the centre of resistance to Franco.
How, might you ask, can events eight decades ago, still have a bearing on modern Spain, which has surely moved on from those totalitarian days. Well one answer is to recall that the American Civil War and slavery is still the cause of protests across the Southern States of the USA, as protesters demand the removal of monuments to the Confederacy.
Franco still lies in a tomb in the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid. A memorial to the victors of the Civil War built by Republican prisoners of war used as slave labour. Despite calls to shut it down it retains a publicly funded national monument. Each November supporters of Franco still gather there to raise their arms in his honour in the fascist salute.
In October -Franco supporters blocked the attempt by Madrid’s left-wing mayor to rename 52 streets commemorating figures and events in the Civil War and dictatorship.
Spain is second only to Cambodia in having the most mass graves, in the majority where Republican supporters and opponents of Franco were dumped in unmarked graves during the Civil War and the repression which followed the Nationalist victory.
In 2013, the United Nations urged Spain to investigate the disappearances of civilians during the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship. A report by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances told the Spanish government to act immediately “given the lapse of time since most of the enforced disappearances began and the advanced age of many of the witnesses and family members.”
A follow-up of the 2013 report is to be published in September. The head of the group, Ariel Dulitzky, said that “regrettably, there have been no changes.”
Nine years ago, a Socialist Government in Madrid passed the Historical Memory Law obliging the Spanish government to aid in the exhumation of wartime burial sites containing unidentified bodies. It had to be watered down to get the approval of the opposition Popular Party. The pro-independence Catalan Republican Left refused to back the law saying it was too soft and lets old Francoists off the hook.
Since the right wing Popular Party government Mariano Rajoy took office in 2011 It has refused to open the archives which might help in the search for the graves. Two years ago, it cited a 1977 amnesty declared for all those involved in acts of violence before 1977, when refusing a request from the Argentinian government for two police officers accused of torture during the Franco dictatorship.
During the transition all the major parties – including the Communist and Socialist Parties – agreed to this amnesty which shielded those involved in torture and human rights abuses during the dictatorship. In Barcelona the secret police had already destroyed the documentation which might have brought them into the dock for murder and torture (the same building where the torture was carried out is now the offices of the Spanish National Police).
As well as the amnesty they also agreed the Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting), which aimed to draw a line under the Spanish Civil War, in effect burying discussion of it so as not to embarrass those who’d loyally served Franco but had now rebranded themselves as democrats.
But some people don’t want to forget. Last month Pablo Casado, a spokesman for Spain’s ruling party, issued a warning to the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont if he declared independence, stating:
The reference is to President Lluis Companys who in 1934 faced with semi-fascists joining a right-wing government in Madrid declared Catalonia independent (the Socialist Party promised an uprising but that only took place in Asturias and was crushed by… Franco). Spanish troops stormed the Catalan parliament seizing Companys and his cabinet. Tried by a military tribunal they were jailed for 30 years, only to be released at the beginning of 1936 when the left wing Popular Front won parliamentary elections.
Yet his warning carries another sting in the tail. After Barcelona fell to Franco Companys fled to Paris but when that city fell to the Nazis in 1940 the Gestapo arrested him and handed him over to Franco who had him shot – the only democratically elected head of state to be elected during World War Two.
This month Spain’s top military commander wrote that “probably the biggest challenge of our democracy” was the situation in Catalonia. Writing to mark a Spanish military holiday General Fernando Alejandre added:
In July 1936 the Spanish army rose to overthrow a democratically elected government, ushering in four years of the Civil War. In early 1939 Catalonia fell to Franco. Use of the Catalan language in public or in education was banned, Catalan newspapers and books prohibited and even Catalan Christian names were not allowed. The arrival of Franco’s troops was followed by the usual executions.
In response to Rajoy’s takeover of Catalonia last month and the jailings, Pelai Pagès, a historian of the Spanish Civil War at the University of Barcelona, said that it “represented a return to Francoism,” pointing out that “history is not so far away.”
Its over egging it to say the Popular Party is Francoist. But it is made up of the grandchildren of Franco’s supporters.
Little wonder. This week it was revealed that following the abolition of Catalonia’s autonomy by Rajoy, and the imposition of direct rule by Madrid, the programme to exhume Civil War mass graves had been terminated:
“Two weeks before the enforcement of Article 155, works in an old cemetery in western Catalonia started. After one month, on Monday it was announced that the remains of more than 30 soldiers of both sides of the Spanish Civil War had been found. Yet, Catalan government sources said that this discovery would be the last one of its kind, due to the Spanish takeover. The 2017-2018 mass graves plan promoted by the Catalan government has so far identified 129 new mass graves throughout the country and 101 corpses have been found.”
The archaeologists were excavating two Republican military hospitals set up during the 1938 Battle of the Ebro, the last Republican offensive.
For the relatives of those whose grand parents and relatives still lie in unmarked and unknown graves justice still awaits. The shadow of the Franco years still hangs over Spain.