Remembering Franco’s Legacy: How Spain Broke the Pact of Forgetting

Updated on December 18, 2017

After Franco’s death, there was much anxiety in Spain regarding the country’s troubled past and uncertain future. Political parties decided that the best way of moving past the dictatorship was to “forget” about recent atrocities. This unwritten agreement is known as el Pacto del Olvido (the Pact of Forgetting), and its legal basis was the 1977 Amnesty Law, which extended amnesty to all Francoist aides and officials.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the first exhumations of mass graves really took off. Franco’s years were much more repressive and violent than Argentina’s military regime of 1976 – 1983. But we know very little about Franco’s atrocities, as Spain hadn’t addressed its past until the 21st century. In contrast, confronting national traumas in South America has been one of the conditions of creating democratic states.

Francisco Franco and Dwight D. Eisenhower in Madrid in 1959
Francisco Franco and Dwight D. Eisenhower in Madrid in 1959 | Source

Repressions During the Franco Era

Mass imprisonments, trials, and executions of political opponents were legalized with the Law of Political Responsibility after Franco took power in 1939. These official repressions were especially severe in the early days of the dictatorship, when Franco consolidated his power.

In addition, thousands of people disappeared as a result of secret state abductions. Many families don’t know to this day what happened to their relatives. Today, this search for lost memory is difficult due to the many years that have gone by and the fact that victims were not given a proper burial. It is estimated that unmarked graves contain about 30,000 corpses.

Enslaved Republicans also were forced to carry out public works and erect monuments commemorating the Nationalist victory in the Civil War.

Children were also subject to Franco’s repression. During the Civil War and in the years immediately after, children of imprisoned Republicans were placed in state-run orphanages, where conditions were deplorable. Children would die of starvation and disease on a daily basis. Some of them were adopted by Nationalist families, who promoted right-wing ideas in their homes.

These politically motivated abductions later became a state-approved adoption trade. Children were kidnapped in hospitals and sold to other families. The parents were told that the infants died of an ear infection or some other unbelievable cause. The corpses were never seen.

Tapestry of Picasso's Guernica, by Jacqueline de la Baume Durrbach, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Guernica represents the suffering of people during the Civil War.
Tapestry of Picasso's Guernica, by Jacqueline de la Baume Durrbach, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Guernica represents the suffering of people during the Civil War. | Source

Spain’s Transition to Democracy and the 1977 Amnesty Law

Spain’s transition to democracy was founded on general agreement to forget about the past and move on. A landmark piece of legislation that allowed for that was the 1977 Amnesty Law, which guaranteed the release of political prisoners and extended amnesty to all people involved in the Franco regime.

Unlike in the cases of Argentina or Chile, no formal truth commissions to investigate the past were established. There were no bureaucratic purges to get rid of Francoist officials and no condemnation of the Franco regime. No significant reckoning with the past was to take place until the 21st century.

The reasons for that are complex. Firstly, Franco’s state did not collapse but was reformed from the inside, which meant that Francoist officials were involved in the negotiations of democratic transition. They had vested interest in keeping the past quiet.

The transition period also witnessed increased political violence and instability. Between 1975 and 1980, there were 460 politically motivated deaths. About 400 people died in right-wing and left-wing terrorist attacks. The crowning event of this period was an attempted coup led by a fraction of the Guardia Civil in 1981. Although the coup failed, it heightened the fear that any recriminations at that time could result in another bloody civil war.

Adolfo Suárez, the first democratic leader after Franco’s death, was actively involved in the previous regime and, understandably, had little interest in digging up the past. The 1982 – 1996 socialist government of Felipe González didn’t want to “reopen old wounds” either, as it directed its energy towards modernizing Spain. Apart from that, Spain’s socialist party also had its share of Civil War atrocities – the Republican side was responsible for about 20,000 deaths.

The public was unwilling to confront the past either, as there was a sense of shared guilt. Many civilians responded enthusiastically to Franco’s encouragement to denounce their neighbours.

Spanish society also blamed both sides equally for the Civil War. There was little recognition that the conflict was started by a Nationalist coup that toppled a democratically elected government. And although both Nationalists and Republicans suffered as a result of the war, the latter were disproportionately affected.

Breaking the Pact of Forgetting—Pinochet’s Case

The event that catalyzed the contemporary debate on Spain’s past was the case of Chilean dictator Pinochet. The ground for the discussion had been prepared by the stability of Spain’s democracy and a new generation of politicians, who hadn’t been directly or indirectly involved in the Franco regime. The fear of another civil war had also subsided.

Pinochet was arrested in 1998 in London at the request of the Spanish judiciary. Before that, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón had heard claims against the disappearance of seven Spanish nationals in Chile under Pinochet. The case was then inflated to encompass the entirety of the Pinochet regime, and the Spanish judiciary demanded that Britain extradite Pinochet to Spain. The demand received overwhelming support from Spanish society, who organized rallies to show their approval. International newspapers were quick to point out the similarities between Pinochet and Franco. It was claimed that the Spanish wanted to try Pinochet, because they couldn’t do it with Franco.

The case proved controversial both at home and abroad. The international community accused Spain of moral hypocrisy, as it wanted to judge another state’s past despite the fact that it still hadn’t reckoned with its own dictatorship.

Pinochet’s case was also deeply divisive in Spain. The right-wing government of Aznar officially proclaimed the party’s neutrality on the case, but at the same time, it attempted to undermine Spain’s right to prosecute Pinochet. The left accused Aznar of trying to protect a dictator, just as Franco would have done. This political bickering and mutual recriminations opened up a debate on Spain’s past.

Augusto Pinochet, Chilean dictator from 1973 to 1990
Augusto Pinochet, Chilean dictator from 1973 to 1990

Exhumations of Civil War Mass Graves

In 2000, Emilio Silva led the initiative to exhume an unmarked grave in search of his grandfather who died in the Civil War. The grave also contained other bodies, and what started as a private initiative quickly morphed into a collective action. Silva founded the ARHM (the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory), whose objectives include exhuming unmarked graves, undertaking investigations about the past, and putting families in touch.

The ARHM demanded that the government open military archives, carry out investigations, and fund the exhumation of bodies. But the right-wing PP government was deaf to these calls. As a result, the ARHM appealed to the UN, and in 2002 Spain was put on the list of countries that still have to solve their cases of forced disappearance. The ARHM’s initiatives also started to receive widespread media coverage and inspired other people to join the debate.

Zapatero’s socialist government that succeeded Aznar proved to be more receptive to this social need to reckon with the past. 2006 was declared the “Year of Historical Memory” by the Congress of Deputies. In 2007, the Law of Historical Memory made the Ministry of Justice responsible for collecting and investigating claims of abuse, torture, and murder during the Civil War and Franco dictatorship. The law also compels Spain’s national, regional, and local governments to finance the exhumation and reburial of Civil War graves.

This legislation, although welcomed by many, proved controversial in some circles. The right has accused the left of reopening old wounds and presenting Spain’s history in a partisan way. Although Spain started to remember its past, exactly what is to be remembered remains subject to debate and controversy.


Davis, Madeleine ‘Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del Olvido’, Human Rights Quarterly, 27, no. 3 (2005), pp. 858 – 880.

Encarnación, Omar G. ‘Reconciliation after Democratization: Coping with the Past in Spain’, Political Science Quarterly, 123, no. 3 (2008), pp. 435 – 459.


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