The man who changed history

LAST UPDATED: 22 Nov, 2007 @ 11:40
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Emilio Silva laid the foundations for the recent law which denounces Franco – his uprising and his dictatorship – and recognises the Republicans who were killed defending democracy. Lisa Tilley asks him if his work is finished

I MANAGE to seize the ear of Emilio Silva days after the historic law he fought so long and hard for had been passed. The man is a hurricane down the phone-line – he reels off well-practiced arguments with steely conviction, testament to years of swimming against the tides of consensus in Spain.

Emilio first explains how the story of his own grandfather (“My grandfather was buried in a roadside ditch”) and his work as a journalist led him to challenge the status quo in Spain by establishing the ARMH (Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory).

In 2002, Emilio, along with 36 other associations representing the victims of franquismo (the umbrella term for repression under the Civil War and dictatorship) presented a draft law to all the political parties with parliamentary representation. The Law of Historic Memory was finally passed on October 31, officially recognising victims of the dictator and obliging councils (but not churches) to remove tributes to Franco across the country, as well as help with exhuming mass graves.

Although the law will undoubtedly change things in Spain, it still does not mark the end of the transition to democracy and the beginning of normality – for Emilio at least.

He believes that consolidating democracy is impossible until Spain consolidates its own history.

And, as the transition started with “something symbolic, in this case the death of a dictator,” Emilio believes it should end with something equally symbolic.

He believes Spain needs a great gesture to place a wax stamp on the victim status of those who suffered under franquismo.

He argues: “This is something the law doesn’t plan for. No president of Spain has publicly met with political prisoners or with families of the disappeared – there has never been a gesture this important.”

I ask him why Spain has remained silent until now, but the famous silence and ‘pact of forgetting’ over Civil War atrocities is a partial myth according to Silva.

People did not forget their murdered relatives, nor did they cease to talk about them, but politically this has been confined to the private sphere.

Initial steps

The first attempts for truth and justice began in the early years of the transition to democracy.

“People began to carry out exhumations of Civil War graves – in La Rioja and Navarra for example – as soon as the dictatorship ended, and they started holding demonstrations in front of the houses of the known assassins, asking for justice,” he says.

This first movement for the truth about history grew rapidly, but just because political parties were legal once more did not mean that real change had occurred, argues Silva. On February 23, 1981, an attempted coup was made upon the Congress of Deputies. “And with the pistol, everyone was silenced,” he explains.

“It woke up all the fear of dictatorship that had accumulated in the collective memories from the losses of the Civil War. People worried that the burning embers could re-light the fire.”

In 1977, political parties – the Left included – had voted ‘yes’ to the amnesty laws to guarantee impunity for franquistas who had violated human rights.

“In this way the silence was enforced by the political classes, and I’m talking about the Right and the Left, because the Left was weak after the dictatorship and more worried about getting back into power than representing the victims of franquismo.”

And what worries Emilio about those victims is that they died defending a legitimate democracy and are only just beginning to receive the recognition they deserve.

“These men and women struggled for freedom and defended the democracy that we had in Spain before the Civil War. Then later, others struggled to end the dictatorship – but these people have had no recognition,” he believes.

“Placid” dictator

Silva finds it incomprehensible the Partido Popular (PP), the main right-wing party in Spain, continues to refuse to publicly denounce Franco.

The party is frozen by the “psychological prison of franquismo that exists today,” argues Emilio.

“In 2003, the PP took us to war with Iraq with the excuse of disposing of a dictator, yet they still haven’t condemned the Spanish dictatorship.”

In fact, just three weeks ago, in a polemic interview with regional newspaper La Voz de Galicia, prominent PP member Jaime Mayor Oreja, said Franco’s dictatorship was quite “placid.”

“Quite placid?” Emilio’s voice tightens. “There were thousands of political prisoners and executions, tens of thousands of citizens in mass graves to whom their families could not even get close with flowers.

“The Right needs to condemn this in order for it to govern adequately.”

It is the job of those in the political sphere to denounce violence and support the victims of violence, but the PP continues to refrain from expressing solidarity with the victims of franquismo, argues Silva.

“What is not possible is to be talking about the victims of violence and the terrorism of Eta without recognising and defending the rights of the victims of the dictatorship.”

Emilio continues: “That’s why I think the majority right should be an anti-franquista right – this would be very healthy for the Spanish polity.”

Symbolic changes

It seems that one of Silva’s main aims is to transfer the Civil War and repression during the dictatorship from personal memory into the national psyche.

“The law mentions in the preamble that the memory of the victims of the war and of franquismo is a personal, family memory…these victims have, for 70 years, been telling their stories in their houses in secret. One of the things we find most unjust is this discourse saying Civil War memories must remain on the margins of public space.”

The introduction of the historic memory law by no means signals the end for Silva and his movement.

Emilio is concerned symbols of the nation as well as the school syllabus are failing to recognise the historic changes that have taken place since democratisation.

Of Spanish people recently questioned in a survey, 35 per cent said they had never studied the Civil War at school. Emilio finds this “incredible” considering the international curiosity towards the war, which has inspired more than 20,000 books.

“Now in Spanish schools, the Civil War takes up four pages at the end of a textbook – but this epoch of our past, the Second Republic and the Civil War should be central to our teaching of Spanish history. This has direct consequences on the political culture of our country, such as a right-wing which is not prepared to condemn franquismo, and a Church which only recognises the victims on its own side in the war.”

But Emilio is not stopping there. He goes on to explain how the Spanish flag represents only the political right and the national anthem has not changed since the dictatorship, “something inexplicable” he says.

So the battle continues: in fact it seems Emilio Silva’s own personal ‘civil war’ is only just beginning.

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  1. Emilio Silva deserves much credit for the work of the Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory. But as he says, this must be a beginning.
    It is crucial to understand, as I am certain Sr. Silva does, that franquismo did not come about only because of Franco, but because a coercive, totalist and corporatist culture has been Spain’s political hallmark since about 1500. As the eminent scholar of Iberian politics, Howard Wiarda points out, “…at its core [Iberian social-political structure is] essentially two-class, authoritarian, traditional, elitist, patrimonial, Catholic, stratified, hierarchical, and corporate.” And the enduring nature of that structure remains at the center of Spanish and South American societies.
    Spanish elite corporatism endures precisely because there has never been a role for individual political action nor institutions in which an individual’s voice must be taken seriously. It is the interest group, the fuero, which counts; the individual voice is subordinated to ‘general will’, that is, to whatever the elites say that should be.
    The Pact of Forgetting was an agreement by all political parties. It is no wonder that people under forty refuse to vote: they have witnessed the lies and omissions of schools, parents and politicians all their lives. They ask “If we are forbidden to hear the truth of franquismo, denied free speech in our official institutions, even our homes, why would we believe that our current politicians will listen to us?”
    And there is more. In a ‘closed system’ (such as corporatism) parties negotiate only with historic economic and social sectors, such as church, federations, and unions. With no place for individual dissent, there is no way for new ideas to enter into political discourse. That is why it is a closed, enduring system.
    Since all political parties, themselves, suffer the same orthodox organization, there is scant difference between them regardless of rhetoric. Political structure doesn’t need to adapt to current realities such as environment, ecology, energy efficiency, individual human rights because these voices can easily be excluded from real political discourse with power. It is just enough to placate the public with lip-service and largely inconsequential changes, which don’t threaten the power bases of PP, IU or PSOE. So you get porno and more consumer goods, but still no reform against the tyranny of urbanization and the thuggery of local politics.
    Without the right to speak openly and clearly about the past – with remorse, anger, passion, disgust or what ever emotion is warranted – the concept of individual rights, itself, cannot enter into public discourse and become daily habit.
    And if individual rights do not become daily habit in public discourse, people will continue to speak in hushed, even fearful tones, about corrupt local politicians, federation heads and civil servants, who, very like those during the Franco years, used their offices to extort money and status from the population. And, the undemocratic culture of corporatismo will reproduce for another 500 years.
    Speaking openly of franquismo will recover some of historical memory. But the very act of speaking openly will develop the habit of individual political agency that is so seriously lacking in Spanish culture, and which is essential to develop democratic, equitable institutions.

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