Franco’s shadow hangs over Catalonian independence debate
In Depth: more than 40 years after his death, dictator’s repression lives on in Catalan memory
Just after midnight on 20 November 1975, Francisco Franco drew his final breath in a hospital bed in Madrid.
His final words, communicated to Spaniards on state television later that morning by prime minister Carlos Arian Navarro, seem incongruous for a dictator responsible for at least 100,000 deaths.
“I ask pardon of all my enemies, as I pardon with all my heart all those who declared themselves my enemy, although I did not consider them to be so,” the 82-year-old reportedly said.
It had been almost 40 years since El Generalisimo, as he was known, led a military coup against Spain’s elected socialist government, plunging the nation into three years of civil war that ended in victory for Franco’s Nationalist forces.
Franco ruled Spain as a one-party state until his death, and the effects are still felt today - nowhere more so than in the debate surrounding Catalonian independence.
What was Franco’s rule like?
A lifelong soldier, Franco believed that democracy had destabilised Spain and opened the door to socialism and communism. He set about organising the country along military lines, governed by an ideology known as National Catholicism that emphasised the central role of the Church, traditional Western Judeo-Christian values and a nationalist worldview.
In practice, however, it meant a totalitarian one-party state whose crimes against its citizens were manifold.
Franco “presided over concentration camps, ordered the murder of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen” and “installed a regime of state terror and brainwashing”, says the New Statesman.
Biographer Paul Preston estimates that more than 150,000 people were executed under Franco, Politico reports. Many simply disappeared, buried in one of the thousands of unmarked graves dotted across the country.
The regime also put Spain in a cultural stasis. While most of the Western world underwent a sexual revolution and countercultural movement, in Spain cultural expression was strictly controlled according to government censorship. Women were expected to adhere to their traditional role as wives and mothers.
The repression was not only political and cultural, but also economic. Franco wanted Spain to be self-sufficient and banned most foreign trade. The Spanish economy, already ravaged by three years of civil war, stagnated.
Spain finally decided to lift the ban on international trade in 1959, and living standards consequently began to rise. At the same time, some of the more draconian elements of the regime were relaxed, and the combination of the two factors meant that by the time of his death, Franco “enjoyed a considerable popular support”, the BBC reports.
How did Spain transition to democracy?
Toward the end of his life, El Generalisimo began grooming young prince Juan Carlos - born in exile in Rome following the abolition of the Spanish monarchy in 1931 - as his heir.
However, despite his outward loyalty to Franco, behind the scenes Juan Carlos had long been conducting secret meetings with opposition activists, believing that democracy was the only way to safeguard the monarchy’s future.
Crowned king on 22 November 1975, Juan Carlos set about dismantling Francoist power structures - freeing political prisoners, adding liberal politicians to the cabinet and scaling back state censorship, writes journalist William Chislett.
There followed a period of “accelerated political and social change... known as La Transicion”, says Politico. In a 1978 referendum, Spaniards approved a new Constitution that enshrined the principles of democracy and human rights.
International observers marvelled at Spain’s speedy and seemingly smooth embrace of democracy - although it came at a cost, with many Francoist criminals allowed to die of old age rather than face justice, in the interest of preventing more strife.
But although 21st century Spain’s constitutional monarchy may look indistinguishable from the political systems of European nations with a much older tradition of democracy, below the surface cultural fragments of Franco’s 39-year regime are everywhere.
In Madrid, “there are still more than 150 streets and squares named after his ministers and military officers”, The Independent reported in 2015.
And while openly pro-Franco parties have been non-starters at the polls, many Spaniards remain ambivalent about the dictator. A 2006 poll found that one in three Spaniards believe Franco was right to overthrow the Soviet-backed socialist government in 1939.
Where does the Catalan crisis come into it?
One of the most abiding legacies of Francoist rule is the rejuvenation of regional identities, forged by the shared experience of decades of repression.
Franco’s dictatorship was built on the principles of an ethnically, religiously, culturally and linguistically homogenous Spanish nation.
In line with that ideology, the Catalonian parliament was abolished, regional music and dance traditions were suppressed, and the Catalan language was banned from schools and public places. People with Catalan names had to use the Spanish equivalent on official documents.
Speaking Catalan became a “fundamental way of resisting, or being apart from official Spain, or the regime”, according to Irish author Colm Toibin, who lived in Barcelona in the 1970s.
The experience of Catalonia sets its people apart from the rest of Spain, which was, on the whole, far more ambivalent about Francoist rule.
Catalan separatists are lukewarm about the ruling party, the People’s Party, which was founded by high-level ministers from the Franco administration - and which some claim retains the regime’s disdain for regional cultures.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy repudiates the notion of any lingering connection to the Franco dictatorship, ascribing his tough stance on Catalan separatism to his party’s commitment to democracy, the Constitution and national unity.
Nonetheless, some Catalonian nationalists remain convinced that the People’s Party “never fully purged itself of its past”, says The Washington Post, and the dark memory of the Franco years continues to flicker into the Catalan independence debate.
In October, the party’s spokesperson Pablo Casado brought that underlying tension into the spotlight when he compared dismissed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to a Catalan leader executed by Franco.
“Whoever declares it [independence] could end up the same as the one who declared it 83 years ago," said Casado, a reference to Lluis Companys, who tried to establish an independent Catalonia in 1934 and was executed by firing squad in 1940. Casado later said that he was referring to Companys’ imprisonment rather than his death.
Puigdemont has proven an expert at tapping into this Catalan tradition of martyrdom, says Foreign Policy.
His long-term strategy for achieving an independent Catalonia is to “socialise future generations of Catalans into the separatist struggle by exposing them to greater suffering at the hands of Madrid”.
Declaring independence - which Puigdemont knew would provoke a takeover by Madrid and his own removal as president - was an example of this strategy, which derives its especial potency from Catalonia’s cultural memory of Francoist repression.