Democratic Development and Reckoning with the Past: The Case of Spain in Comparative Context

Jun 25, 2003

Report of a 5/02/03 history education workshop held in College Park, Maryland, cosponsored by the Carnegie Council's History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program and the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland. The Council gratefully acknowledges the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Spencer Foundation for their generous support of the project.

Analytical Summary

At a recent seminar co-sponsored by the History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program and the Development Circle at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, Carolyn Boyd, a historian of modern Spain, and David Crocker, a political philosopher specializing in reconciliation, democratization, and developmental ethics, discussed Spain as a case study of the problems raised by the process of development and democratization in a country that must also contend with a difficult past. Their presentations focused on the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between how a society reckons with an extremely difficult past, involving violence that affected large parts of the population, and how it develops democracy?
  • Are there any cases that can tell us whether stable democracy is more likely to emerge when countries reckon immediately and aggressively with injustices, through trials for human rights violators and truth-telling mechanisms such as truth commissions, or through truth-telling mechanisms alone combined with widespread amnesties? Conversely, are there any cases where democracy develops after a choice is made to focus on present problems for the sake of the future, without acknowledging and accounting for past violence?
  • How can the range of mechanisms available today (trials, public fora for truth-telling, lustration to bar members from older regimes from serving in new ones1, reparations, development programs for those left impoverished by old injustices, and educational, cultural and public commemorative programs) be used to promote democracy -- if they can in fact do so? And when is the right time to activate these mechanisms -- while the generation which experienced the violence is still alive, during the lifetime of the second generation, or even later?
  • Finally, what is the role of classroom history education in these processes?

Spain: Breaking the Silence

Those who question the value of truth-telling and retributive justice processes in the aftermath of atrocities, particularly civil wars, often cite the case of Spain. Spain has long been thought of as a country whose citizens seemed nearly universally to accept silence about an extremely destructive civil war in the service of peace. When Spain emerged from dictatorship after the death of Franco and built what has proven to be a durable and successful democracy, the lesson of Spain appeared to be even clearer: willed forgetting about the past for the sake of the society's present and future is preferable to the risks of reckoning with the past, especially when to do so would be to risk splitting the country once again into the descendants of one side versus those of the other.

Yet evidence has recently been mounting to suggest that the Spanish case is not as clear-cut as once believed. Indeed, the Spanish public is increasingly choosing active engagement with the past in a variety of sectors, and some scholars are arguing that there was never total silence in Spain about history.

There is also a recent tendency -- among younger Spaniards in particular -- to politicize the past and to criticize the decision taken by the elites to "silence the truth" for the sake of negotiating the transition to and consolidation of democracy. (In fact, transition governments and the Socialists chose not silence, but a refusal to adopt an "official" memory of the war and dictatorship.) In reply, scholars and some of the protagonists in that period say that since the death of Franco, democracy has provided the freedom to publish historical accounts, memoirs, novels, and other works on the civil war and its aftermath. Which forms does collective memory about the civil war take in Spain today, and how can we assess Spain's reckoning with its past in light of its successful transition to a modern European democracy?

In her presentation, historian Carolyn Boyd set Spain's road to modern democracy against the changing backdrop of history, especially the enormously destructive Spanish civil war (1936-1939). She spoke about how this has been treated since 1977, when post-Franco Spain began in earnest the changes that would make it into a full democracy strongly oriented towards Europe. Fear of a return to civil war conditioned the transition, which had adopted the slogan "Nunca más!" ["Never again!"].

The danger of violence was not at all imaginary: between 1975 and 1980 there were 460 political deaths. The overriding concern with the need to maintain peace and stability -- coupled with Spain's steady economic gains from 1960 onwards -- strengthened right-wing political and military forces, thereby curbing the mobilization of left-wing forces that had begun after the death of Franco in 1975. There was a widely-held belief that democracy needed to be built on "reconciliation" and "peace among Spaniards." The civil war was represented as violence among brothers, reflected in the popular saying "todos fuímos culpables" ["we all were guilty"]. Full amnesty was granted for acts of political violence including by those who were restoring order. This amnesty policy was portrayed as a wiping clean of the slate.

Thus in Spain the development of democracy was intimately bound up with a decision to treat the past in a certain way, and that treatment had little to do with public accounting, as in the case of post-apartheid South Africa. The Spanish political elite made a conscious decision to forge a new Spanish identity that was European, peaceful, and pluralistic. This would replace the old Spain that "could not live with itself" -- that part of the Spanish character constantly invoked by Franco in defense of his strong-handed rule.

Of course Spain had long had a problematic stance vis-à-vis Europe, as Boyd discussed in depth in her book Historia Patria: Politics, History and National Identity in Spain, 1975-1975. Spanish conservatives traditionally defined themselves as being against liberal Europe. They vehemently championed a nationally- and religiously-based identity as opposed to the secular, more international identity that reformers began calling for from the late nineteenth century on. The creation of a modern Spanish identity had to overcome many difficult legacies, including the image of "black Spain" -- the Spain of the Inquisition, of reactionary Catholicism -- and that of imperial Spain, a country that once ruled as a great maritime, colonial, and trading power but then had given up its colonies without a struggle.

The turn towards Europe was crucial for the development of a modern Spanish identity. It involved a break with the past, necessitating not only the will on Spain's part to modernize and internationalize, but also the ability to convince the rest of Europe that it was a true, stable democracy -- not an unstable entity divided by politics, regional rivalries, and ethnicity, in need of a strongman to hold it together. However, in the course of the transition, Spain effectively had to create a moral equation between the two sides in its civil conflict, which meant failing to acknowledge the victims of the Franquist regime, both during and after the war. Silence had been both an official and an unofficial policy: the Franquist regime had imposed silence on the society for thirty years, and, Boyd suggested, people were perhaps ashamed of this record.

The upshot was that despite positive political change -- culminating in the establishment of a popularly elected legislature in 1977 and the creation of a new constitution guaranteeing basic rights to all Spaniards in 1978 -- there was no sharp break with the past and many areas of continuity with the old regime. For example, there were no changes in post-civil war street names and other public symbols; national monuments to Franco were left intact; and towns were given the right to decide for themselves whom and what to commemorate and how. At the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the outbreak of the civil war, in 1986, the memory of all who had fought for liberty and democracy in Spain was recognized, as well as the sacrifice of those who had a "different vision" from democracy. Essentially, the past was not to be used as a political weapon in the new Spain.

In the area of historiography, there was an outpouring of scholarship with the opening of many archives. History education, too, underwent a renaissance. During Franco's rule, school history textbooks mentioned the civil war in just one paragraph focusing on church burnings, the evils of the Republicans, and the need to restore order. These textbooks were revised by the Socialists in the 1980s and 1990s. Major educational reform was undertaken in 1991, making four years of secondary school (the mandatory ESO, for students 12-16) obligatory, with history as part of the social studies curriculum to be tested on the bachillerato, the qualifying exams for university.

One year of history, covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, became mandatory, and the standards required teachers to discuss the "negative effects" of the civil war and dictatorship. Recent history -- almost universally an area of greater potential controversy than the distant past -- was stressed, along with civics, democracy, and tolerance, as overtly political values. In the spirit of internationalism, Spanish history was placed within the context of European history. The autonomous regions -- Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque country -- were allowed to determine 35 to 40 percent of the curriculum themselves (and some chose barely to mention Spain, as opposed to their own region), with the rest of the curriculum being set by the central government.

However, the left's history education program came under attack after the 1996 victory by the right. The Partído Popular (PP) wanted to present an alternative narrative of the past, one in which democratic development was interrupted by left-wing parties in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1997, an ambitious (re)reform of the history curriculum was launched: generally, there was a renewed emphasis on the history of Spain as opposed to Europe, and on the more distant (and less contentious) past. The autonomous regions were granted less freedom than before. The new standards for finishing high school and qualifying for university are very demanding, and according to Boyd, the government clearly hopes that the recent past will be neglected. Indeed, even though the PP came under fierce criticism for this policy, they finally prevailed, and the new reforms were instituted in academic year 2002-2003.

Yet in spite (or perhaps because of?) the subtle but continuing political battle over history and the changing fortunes of the secondary school history curriculum, interest in Spain's difficult recent history is growing among young people. Forty-five percent of the population is too young to remember Franco, and the civil war is even more distant. But young people are increasingly interested in learning about their grandparents' lives.

With the passage of time, the civil war and the danger of its renewal become ever more remote. This may explain the new-found resistance to the old moral equivalence in the long-accepted national narrative, Boyd explained. There is a public desire for moral and symbolic recognition of the suffering of the victims of Franquist violence (which is in fact not the greatest number), often in the form of a decent burial rather than in the form of reparations or trials. Graves are being exhumed and victims reburied; meanwhile, the state has demonstrated its commitment to the moral recognition of victims in various ways. In 2002, the Spanish parliament declared the 1936 rebellion illegal while also reaffirming the 1977 amnesty. The past is no longer consigned to public silence nor to a single narrative; but Spaniards continue to avoid using the past as a political weapon.

The Impact of Democratic Development on Contested History

Political philosopher David Crocker has long been interested in the case of Spain and has followed it closely, together with the aftermath of conflict in Central America, the Southern Cone of Latin America, and the former Yugoslavia. Crocker said that at first he had accepted the common story of Spain as testament to the viability of amnesty and amnesia, but that was before he became aware of the growth in Spanish literature on the civil war. This began as soon as Franco died and has never decreased. (In the 1950s and 1960s, publication about the civil war was restricted to apologists for the Franco regime, and to foreigners.)

An important study for public understanding of the past was Santos Julia's 1999 Victimas de la guerra civil (Madrid, Temas de Hoy), which synthesizes all the recent research for the general public; but regional case studies were underway earlier, and one scholarly research group on the civil war dates from 1962, when it first met outside Spain, in Munich. According to Crocker, this breakaway group of scholars felt that there was a need to understand, rather than to forget or assign culpability for, the events of the civil war to ensure that these events would not be repeated. Thus historical research was taking place, particularly after 1977, despite the potential dangers of demonization of each side by the other, which had assumed eliminationist proportions during the civil war, when it was felt that Spain could not contain the two opposing sides and continue to exist. As new archives become accessible, a more precise understanding of the Franquist regime's terrorist tactics and its record of imprisonment emerged; reflecting this, greater numbers of sophisticated studies are now being published, often placing Spain's experience in comparative perspective.

As Plato observed, the work of the philosopher is to show when things that look similar are really different, and when things that look different are really similar. The broad problem of reckoning with major human rights violations exists in many or most countries. The process of reckoning in each country, however, is conditioned by the type of transitions that that country has undergone (or is undergoing): how is it transitioning, from what to what, and which kind of economic situation exists at the end. Common goals exist among countries, although, significantly, they cannot all be achieved at the same time or be given the same priority.

One of the most important common goals is that of truth. In Spain, as in the former Yugoslavia, historians have been in the forefront of this struggle. Interestingly, in contemporary Yugoslavia historians feel that the task of uncovering historical truth about the recent, violent past should belong to them, not to a truth commission.

Another goal common to most societies is accountability through some form of retributive justice. Crocker made a comparison among three countries -- Argentina, Spain, and Chile -- to illustrate the range of difficulties encountered when attempting to achieve this goal. In Argentina, about one hundred of the worst offenders were tried just after the end of the Dirty War, but almost all were later amnestied. In Spain, legal punishment is probably not an option, since most perpetrators were dead or dying by the time the political conditions which might have allowed trials were achieved. In Chile, punishment was out of the question at the time of the transition because of the nature and demands of the transition itself; now, twelve years later, some of the top perpetrators may be tried, although Pinochet may escape because of age and senility.

Reckoning with the past is thought to be a necessary step toward achieving both reconciliation and democratization. The best possible outcome is to find a way of looking at the past that also allows a society to be forward-looking. That way, an attempt can be made to balance accountability for the past with potential damage to an embryonic democracy.

In South Africa, for example, the negotiations that led to the transition permitted elections in exchange for amnesties, and the African National Congress in effect traded amnesties for truth. Bishop Desmond Tutu, a major moral figure in the new leadership, opposed all retributive punishment, seeing it as part of an unending cycle of vengeance. Yet Tutu himself recently admitted that in some cases punishment would be appropriate. The South African case raises the question of whether political and societal reconciliation can be endangered by trial and punishment -- and if so, by too much trial and punishment or by the wrong kind? The case of Argentina, by contrast, suggests the potential danger of too much trial and punishment, since the trials in the early part of the transition led to a backlash and a blanket amnesty.

According to Crocker, there are three main kinds of political reconciliation: the thinnest is the cessation of conflict and non-lethal coexistence. The thickest, or most robust, is that envisioned by Tutu, based on ideals of social harmony and the African concept of ubuntu (frequently summarized as a combination of compassion and appreciation of the humanity of others). Unlike in South Africa, reconciliation in the Spanish context does not imply perdón, the concept of forgiveness. The Spanish tend to believe that forgiveness is difficult to translate into public policy: it is too easy to ask for forgiveness without solid evidence of change. However, the work of historians in uncovering the past so that it could gradually be made accessible to a wider audience has been ongoing in Spain for longer than had previously been assumed.

Crocker suggests that a middle ground of reconciliation -- one that arguably had been reached in Spain today -- may be defined as "democratic reciprocity," the ability to debate the most difficult issues in order to have policies most citizens can accept. Eventually, democratic reciprocity is necessary for far more issues than those related to contested history; but the ability to negotiate this contested history, which destabilizes a country in the short term and can continue to undermine social trust for generations, is an important test of citizens' ability to debate and express disagreement without political paralysis or a return to violence.

For example, did Chile's Truth Commission contribute to a level of reconciliation beyond that of simple co-existence? The members of the Commission reflected a diverse and broad political spectrum and were respected for their commitment to human rights. Their report named units, institutions, and battalions responsible for atrocities, but not individuals (based on the philosophy that only courts, not a Commission, could establish individual guilt). Significantly, however, an important part of the Commission's mandate lay in personalizing the victims whose cases they documented. The findings of the Commission were widely accepted. However, Chile still lacks a historians' program as vital and active as Spain's -- of the kind that could strengthen the culture of democratic reciprocity, hence democracy.

Crucially, for all of us who are interested in the role that secondary school history programs and textbooks play in long-term reconciliation, the greatest challenge may be one of finding an account of a difficult history that most citizens can accept, thereby leading to the middle stage of reconciliation, which goes beyond non-lethal co-existence but is not utopian in its aims. This is what the Carnegie Council's comparative history education project hopes to illuminate.


The following highlights a couple of the questions raised during the discussion period following Boyd and Crocker's presentations.

QUESTION: Is there a way to approach history education, especially to stimulate debate about difficult narratives, other than through textbooks, given that the degree to which textbooks influence students and their view of history is questionable?

CAROLYN BOYD: The Socialist program in Spain, which shaped the first major educational reform in the 1990s, included the introduction of more progressive pedagogy. History teaching in Spain had been very conservative and wedded to textbooks. The reforms gave more choices to teachers and allowed the use of many different texts. Students were expected to do more analysis and less memorization. However, the new Rightist program eliminated choices and the focus on analysis, by requiring that all of Spanish history be covered in one year followed by a test for admission to university. The pressure of teaching for the test greatly limits what teachers can do in the classroom, including how much time they give to discussions about the most contested past from the 1930s until Franco's death.

DAVID CROCKER: Democracy would seem to demand that pedagogy about the past include the study of literary texts, classroom debates, and other projects where students are somehow encouraged to deliberate together.

QUESTION: How about the use of alternative media in classrooms where reckoning with the past is an issue -- films, for example? And are works by Frederico García Lorca [the great Spanish poet and dramatist, reviled by the Franquistas both for his political stance and his homosexuality and executed by the Falangists during the civil war] allowed in Spanish classrooms today?

DAVID CROCKER: I always use alternative media in all my classes where reckoning with the past is being discussed. I find [Chilean writer] Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden -- and the film that was made from his play -- among the best statements about victims' memories and the struggle to account for the past. As for García Lorca, when I was in Madrid, I was taken to see García Lorca’s statue in the Plaza de Victoria, and the statue, at least, is still an emblem of the contested past: each day, the Left puts a red kerchief on the neck of the statue, and someone from the Right comes later to take it off.

CAROLYN BOYD: García Lorca has been fully incorporated into the Spanish canon for a long time, at least since the death of Franco, if not before, when he was more ignored in favor of writers of the Golden Age than reviled. The manner of his death was certainly covered up during Franco's lifetime.He's also covered extensively, if not over-covered, in popular culture, for example in the huge number of documentaries that have been made about his life. García Lorca is no longer the slightest bit controversial in Spain!

For Further Reading

Carolyn Boyd's study of the formation of modern Spain through general education, history education, and attitudes towards history is Historia Patria: Politics, History, and National Identity in Spain, 1875-1975 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

Boyd also has an article in History and Memory 14, no. 1/2 (2002), an issue entirely devoted to "Spanish Memories: Images of a Contested Past." All ten articles are extremely useful and include regional studies of collective memory and the war in Aragon and Galicia. Boyd's article, "The Second Battle of Covadonga: The Politics of Commemoration in Modern Spain," covers public commemorative practices; other well-known scholars of Spanish history in the collection include Paloma Aguilar, whose article, co-written with Carsten Humlebäk, is entitled "Collective Memory and National Identity in the Spanish Democracy: The Legacy of Francoism and the Civil War."

Paloma Aguilar's important study of democracy and the Spanish Civil War, Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Civil War in Spain's Transition to Democracy, has been translated and is published in the United States by Berghahn Books (2002).

David Crocker has written a number of seminal articles on problems of history, political reconciliation, and democratic development. The choices faced by societies reckoning with mass violence are discussed in "Reckoning with Past Wrongs: A Normative Framework," Ethics and International Affairs 13 (1999), pp. 43-64.

He also has an article in his home institution's newsletter, the full text of which can be read online: "Retribution and Reconciliation," in Report from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy 20, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2000) . A more recent study, which includes an analysis of democratization, is his "Punishment, Reconciliation, and Democratic Deliberation" in Buffalo Criminal Law Review 5 (2002), pp. 509-549.

--Prepared by Lili Cole, Senior Program Officer, History and the Politics of Reconciliation.

1Elazar Barkan defines "lustration" as follows: "Lustration aims at circumventing the need to resort to criminal process by disqualifying or removing officeholders of the previous regime and by keeping them from holding office in the new state." See his book The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 115.

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