Today, the Regional Catalan Government will hold a de facto independence referendum, whose results could see an immediate split from Spain, despite a lack of national Government sanctioning. The question on the draft legislation is simple: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state that is independent from Spain?
Many Catalonian’s do not just want Independence to explore their recent history without the censoring of Spain, but to distance themselves from the way that this past still lingers within Spain’s current Government, the Partido Populare.
Spain’s Pact to Forget
The PP is the handmaiden to Spain’s historic stitching up of the past. This official approach to the past began in 1977, with the passing of the Pact of Forgetting, to facilitate the move into a fledging democracy.
The Pact made it illegal to persecute any of Franco’s officials. Investigation or official condemnation of their crimes were also prohibited, unlike the rest of Europe who’s fallen dictatorships saw extensive trials.
Resulting from this law, still in place today, the official memorialisation of the regime and civil war is highly controlled, such as in state syllabuses.
The current Spanish Government’s website echoes the centralized version of the nation’s historical memory, when claiming that the transition to Democracy in 1970s demonstrated that ‘all the wounds from the civil war had been healed’. History textbooks today still refuse to account Franco’s Nationalists as conducting more blood-shed than the Republicans – their mutual accountability is stated.
The Pact has more tangible effects than how history is recalled. The law limits the allowance of families to exhume the mass graves within Spain where their relatives are buried.
Since 2008, Baltasar Garzon, one of Spain’s most renowned jurists, has unsuccessfully called for a repeal of The Pact three times. Garzon had tried to call for the exhumation of 19 graves, one which may have hidden the poet.
Fiscal Controls over Historical Memory
The PP’s support of this law, which they claim prevents groups with historical Nationalist and Republican roots from re-divided, embodies their desire to protect the memory of Francoist Spain. This manifests through the wider measures the party take to limit the self-scrutinizing excavation of history.
The conservative values of Spain, consolidated under Franco’s regime and not torn asunder through any international post-regime trial, are the Conservative pillars of Spanish national identity. From a unified national identity, to the emphasis on Castilian language and culture, to the Catholic church’s championing of traditional values and the symbolic power of the monarchy.
With a large conservative voter-ship, the party protects preserves rather than diversifies these values.
In 2009, the European Parliament wanted to include Francoism as part of their day recalling European totalitarianism. The PP refused to join the discussions, while the Conservative Spanish MEP, Jaime Mayor Oreja claimed that ‘it would be historically foolish’ to disrupt the (fabled) peace of Spain’s transition to democracy.
The past’s physical remnants are also guarded. Public funds still pay for the maintenance of The Valley of the Fallen, a vast mausoleum in Madrid that houses Franco’s body with a public mass each year held to commemorate his death.
In 2004, José Zapatero’s Left wing government stood to challenge Spain’s conservative values. The party had less at stake than the PP when they took the first legal steps to begin dredging up the crimes of the country’s past. Zapatero introduced The Historical Memory law in 2006.
For the first time, the law funded the exhumation of mass graves of Republicans, awarded rights to Franco’s victims and removing hundreds of Francoist monuments. The law also allowed for Spain’s different regions to advance their own understanding of history in school textbooks, shattering the centralized version of before.
However, with the PP elected to power in 2011, the need for such a law was openly denied by its leader, Mariano Rajoy. The past was back in the hands of the Right.
“I would eliminate all the articles in the historical memory law that mention using public funds to recover the past. I wouldn’t give even a single euro of public funds for that”, he told Spanish media following his election as president.
Withdrawing all government funding to the program was one of the first things he did in his ascent to power in 2011: the offices involved were closed.
Spain’s Unstable Foundations
The Alhambra is a palatial fortress sitting on the hills of Granada in Southern Spain. Before Spain claimed this region, it sat within the lands of the Iberian Peninsula, and was part of the regional Moorish kingdom of the 13th century.
The building’s geometrical patterns and Arabesque aesthetics were constructed by Muslim, Jewish and Christian craftsmen. These religions lived in the Iberian Peninsula in a complex, pluralistic society: three cultures under Muslim and Christian rule. Conflict existed between the groups, but there were no forced conversions.
When the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile united in 1492, the compound identity of the Iberian Peninsula became Catholic.
The monarchs had been slowly claiming the lands of the Peninsula from its Muslim rulers, until the Inquisition of the 15th century when the remaining Moors fled. The Catholics had demanded conversion, or expulsion.
With the clearing of the Peninsula, the process of the formation of Spain’s nation-state identity began.
Isabelle and Ferdinand eventually made the Alhambra their royal court, and its symbolic power as a testament to a multi-cultural society was co-opted.
Modern Spain’s identity was born through the union of the Catholic Crowns of Aragon and Castile in 1492.
The Castilian’s gradual imposition of a national identity expanded to its neighbors. The laws of Castile were eventually imposed on Catalonia in 1716. The fact that ‘Castilian’, one of the many languages spoken within Spain, came to mean ‘Spanish’ shows the domination of this identity.
Spain became synonymous with being white, Castilian and Catholic.
The costs of not being considered ‘Spanish’ were steep, when these characteristics became pre-requisites to being incorporated into the nation’s corpus.
I spoke to Victor Sorrenson, in his office in the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Barcelona, about post-Inquisition Spain:
‘It is not surprising that in the period after the expulsion the notion of “blood cleansing” appeared, where forced conversoes with a Jewish past were “stained”’
This act, lead by the Catholic church, entailed systematic torture and interrogation of suspected Jews up to the 18th century.
‘In the twentieth century, the discourse of pure blood especially nourishes the undemocratic right, like the Falange española’
Franco brought the propagandistic discourse of Castille’s pure blood and a rigid cultural proto-type into the 20th century. During and after the Civil War, large-scale concentration camps housed ex-Republican servicemen and political dissidents. Those seen as ‘un-recoverable’ were shot.
Insidiously, cultural difference was erased in the many distinct areas of Spain, namely the Catalonian and the Basque regions.
Catalan was banned and spoken in closed quatres and ancient Catalan traditions, from Correfoc to Els Castells, were made illegal. Camp Nou, Barcelona’s football stadium, was one of the only places were Catalonians could speak their language. Even now, the crowds at the games are peppered with Independence flags.
Under today’s government, a series of discreet and overt measures aim to curb the momentum of those who do not define themselves as Spanish.
‘Operation Catalonia’, began in 2012, was a campaign focused on ‘smearing pro-independence politicians during the Spanish Government’s last term of office, held by the Conservative PP’, the Catalan News reported.
Similarly, many of the major banks and industries of Spain have close ties to the Conservative government, and are run by ancestor’s of those who were close to Franco’s regime, explaining the pervasive corruption scandals that racked Spain during its last recession.
Last year, the Andorran justice system began a trial of directors of Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), after they were allegedly coerced ‘by Spain to leak information that could undermine the independence process in Catalonia’, such as through leaking information on Catalonia’s ex-president Arthur Mas.
The measures from the PP to limit Catalonia’s fight for or expression of their independence extends to the cultural, evoking the methods used by Franco and striking a more emotive core in Catalonia’s memory than financial campaigns and smear-scandals.
In Place de Jaume of Barcelona, there is a man ensangrado (bloodied) most days of the week (or to use the Catalan for bloodied, ple de sang). He stands with posters of mauled bulls, slaughtered by a matadores. Catalonia’s regional government passed a law in 2010 which banned bull-fighting in the region.
Spain’s government annulled the ban in October of last year, deeming bull fighting a ‘national heritage’.
This paranoid maintenance of a unified identity fueled the notorious Basque separatist terrorist group, ETA. Their name meant ‘Basque Homeland and Liberty’, and between 1986 and 2010 they killed 829, from politicians to civilians.
Just as laws prevent history textbooks from teaching diverse understandings of the 20th century, so is there a political will to limit such diversification of understanding of Spain’s national identity, as seen in the academic field.
Plastic National Identities
Although not directly relevant to the question of Independence, the mutability of Spanish identity through the PP suggests the plasticity of national identity according to the current political or economic motive, a pattern further complicated through a matrix of anti-Semitism and Islamophobic sentiment.
Last year, Spain offered a Law of Return to the many expelled Sephardic Jews, officially claiming that they were a crucial component of Spanish identity. The law is designed to make the naturalizing process expensive and complicated, despite it being a Law of Return, which many see as a way to filter out less affluent Sephardim.
It is curious that this same definition of ‘Spanishness’ was not offered to the many Muslims expelled from the land in the 15th and 16th century.
Bayi Loubaris, the president of The Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus, took offence at this double standard: “The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist”.
Spanish Tanks Promised in Barcelona
Catalonian’s are far from unified in their opinion on Independence. The recent drama which unfolded after the renowned Catalan film director, Isabel Coixet, stated that she did not support the referendum due to its ‘un-democratic’ basis evidences that Catalonia’s leader, Carles Puigdemont, does not have the unanimous support for the illegal vote that he claims.
Not only are the reasons for wanting national autonomy wide ranging, from the primarily economic, to those of a more cultural or historical nature as discussed above, but many Catalonia’s are uncomfortable with voting for an Independence that has no clear Independence plan – sound like Brexit ?
However, what is less confusing, is Catalonians’ belief that they are entitled a vote.
An unsuccessful independence vote, which polls suggest is likely, could be further ensured by Madrid’s addressing of the core problems claimed by Independentists. They could ‘win’ the Northern lying nation back, through a democratic dialogue which explored the potential for Catalonia’s wider autonomy while remaining in Spain.
Right now a silent fist fight ensues, with un-countable rounds extended into a future of illegal referendums.
What is even clearer, is that the denial of a vote is a political model inherited from the past, defunct in an age where Separatist nations are listened to, and championed.
In its current state, separation for Catalonians would cut ties with a government that benefits from a centralized power of controlling the past, and the present, divisive echoes from the un-democratic past.
By Flora Hastings