At Last, Spain Faces Up to Franco's Guilt

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A Spanish judge opened a criminal investigation into atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War under the rule of General Franco.

Germany had the Nuremberg trials. Italy took justice into its own hands by executing Mussolini and hanging him upside down in Milan's Piazzale Loreto. France prosecuted its Vichy collaborators in a series of contentious trials that stretched into the 1990s. On Oct. 16, it was finally Spain's turn. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died 33 years ago, but it was only this week that Judge Baltasar Garzón of the National Court declared him and his cronies guilty of crimes against humanity and authorized a long-awaited investigation into their misdeeds.

"It's an extremely important moment," says Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory, which filed the judicial complaints on behalf of victims of the regime. "In 30 years of democracy, this is the first time the State has condemned the dictatorship."

Following Franco's death in 1975, Spaniards tacitly agreed to a 'Pact of Silence' that covered over the wounds of the 1936-39 civil war and the following dictatorship, and even granted amnesty to those who carried out the Francoist repression. With his ruling, which authorizes the National Court to investigate the disappearance and assassination of some 114,000 victims of the regime between the years 1936 and 1952, Garzón has brought that silence officially to an end.

The ruling is based on his own finding that Franco and 34 of his generals and ministers were guilty of crimes against humanity both for initiating the 1936 military uprising against Spain's legally elected democratic government, and for subsequently attempting to systematically eliminate the regime's supposed political enemies. Garzón has also ordered the exhumation of 19 mass graves from the era, including, most notably, one that is supposedly the final resting place of poet Federico García Lorca.

In recent years, Spain's Socialist government has made some efforts to redress the complaints of victims of the regime and their family members. The Law of Historical Memory, passed in 2007, provides pensions for soldiers who fought in the Republican army and includes a provision that denies the legitimacy of Franco's political trials. But for someone like Silva, whose own grandfather, an activist with a progressive party called Republican Left, was assassinated by pro-Franco Falangists in 1936, that law doesn't go far enough. "The political branch of the government is still refusing to publicly recognize the victims of the repression," he says. "And still refusing to punish the perpetrators. If the law had been better, we wouldn't have had to go to court."

Julián Casanova, a historian at the University of Zaragoza, sees Garzón ruling as a historic turning point. "It's true that recently we've seen a move toward retributive justice [for Franco's victims]," he says. "But this opens the way for the punitive justice that I've long thought we needed."

In a country where some members of Franco's regime continued to hold office long after the dictatorship ended, not everyone supports the decision — including the court's lead prosecutor, who is appealing the ruling. Senator Agustín Conde, spokesperson on judicial affairs for the opposition Popular Party, lamented that Garzón was "reopening wounds that were happily healed," and an editorial in the center-right paper El Mundo warned that "the politics of memory are nasty" and constitute a "bloodless form of vengeance."

But Casanova and other supporters of Garzón's decision aren't worried about the backlash. "This is going to be very polemical, " he admits. "But a democracy cannot permit itself to continue to hide the truth."

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