Menu Close

The Dictatorial Past of Spain: Forgetting not Forgiving

March 11, 2015

From 1939 until the end of Franco in 1975, between 200,000 and 400,000 people were killed by the regime. Such a revelation stands in contrast to the image of Spain held by most European visitors- holidaymakers- and this is down to the peculiar way in which the regime came to an end and the transition to democracy occurred.

Unlike in other countries that underwent periods of dictatorial rule, Spain has never had official reconciliations, discussions, or events to clear the air. Spain has chosen to forget not to forgive. But as the ever-disruptive internet reaches further into Spain, as those who have no memory of Franco, La Transición, or the Civil War become adults, the pact of silence holds less sway. The effects of a totalitarian state are still visible in Spanish society in totalising ways. Language, gender, the institutions, the economic superstructure have all been shaped by the last 75 years of silence and amnesia.

El Pacto del Olvido

Spain’s mutation from dictatorship to democracy is known as La Transición, it was one of the first attempts in Cold War Europe to move to a democratic system. There were no trials, no reconciliation or truth committees. They were, like all, a unique case with unique history. Much of La Transición was stewarded by Francoists, had they learned their lesson? As the attempted coup in 1982 demonstrates, such a change of heart was and is unlikely. But what else was a fledging democracy to do but remain quiet? El pacto del olvido was a bargain the country made with itself in an attempt to move on. Separatists, Republicans and left-wing groups had been shattered, exiled and exhausted by decades of Franco’s rule, there was little appetite for another Civil War, so forward they went. Are we now, 40 years later, beginning to hear the rising of dissenting voices grow stronger once more?


Francisco Franco Bahamonde ruled Spain from 1939, or 1936 in some parts, until his death in 1975. He, alongside several other generals, sought to overthrow the second Republic in its infancy. The ensuing Civil War turned families against each other and with half a million killed it was a bloody preview of the ideological battle that would engulf Europe shortly afterwards; the Republicans received materiel from the USSR and the International Brigades while Franco received support from Hitler’s Germany.

After his victory in 1939 Franco assumed the title of Caudillo de España equivalent to that of Fuhrer or duce and set about creating a totalitarian state. Although Franco is not a completely obscure figure just one who is to an extent ‘forgotten’, he is not often mentioned alongside Hitler and Mussolini. This is likely as he escaped the label of an Axis power having excused Spain from the World War II claiming national fatigue. Moderate neutrality ensured that after 1945 Franco was snubbed but not snubbed out.

International Relations

Avoiding being considered an Axis power (Franco did send a ‘volunteer’ brigade known as the Division Azul to fight on the Eastern Front) meant that as World War II ended and the Cold War began Franco’s Spain was open to co-optation from the Americans without them appearing to condone fascism too much. It was not until the Pact of Madrid in 1953 that Spain entered into trade and military ties with the USA having initially been denied entry to NATO, the United Nations and the Marshall Plan.

Franco ruled through much of the Cold War, his belief in conservative values and intense hatred of leftist politics was consequently quite a boon for Spain. Although snubbed for almost a decade after World War II the strategic value of a rightist regime in Europe overrode the previous connotations of totalitarianism and fascism for successive American governments, after all Spain was never strictly against the Allied forces, Richard Nixon would later refer to Franco as “a loyal friend and ally”.

Totalitarian Spain

Spain’s ruling ideology enabled the country to therefore slide into easily into a backdrop of anti-communism. Yet despite this Francoist Spain was no bastion of liberty with totalitarian edicts on language, religion, politics, and gender roles defining the regimes years alongside concentration camps and mass executions. Catholicism was made the state religion and arguably had the greatest effect on Spain, as it was a prism for viewing almost all aspects of life through. Education was taken over by the Church, crucifixes were installed in classrooms and swathes of the teaching profession were fired for being of the left.


Franco was expressly concerned with the race, or raza, he even wrote a film by the same name. Rojos, anarchists, gitanos, liberals, atheists, gay and lesbians were deemed inferior to those subscribed to Francoism- a broad mix of authoritarianism, Catholicism and conservative thought. Franco’s narrative of the Civil War was that he saved Spain from these people and their decadence.

A peculiar aspect of Franco’s racism was that he did not believe it to be immutable; specifically he thought that children could be redeemed in their early years. The Civil War led to thousands of Spanish children being evacuated around Europe, alongside the thousands left orphaned from the Civil War and the Falange’s death squads. These children were taken into care by the Catholic Church and indoctrinated with Francoist ideals, later a black market emerged for their sale and adoption.


Franco’s regime was patriarchal. The moves towards gender equality brought about by the Second Republic were repealed and replaced with ‘traditional’ values. Women were mothers, wives and daughters. Little else mattered. Many professions were out of bounds and economic independence was made impossible by legislation that prevented women from having their own bank account.

Catholic values took primacy over women’s rights, the result being a loss of control over their own bodies. Contraception and abortion were made illegal. Areas of contention that still exist today in Spain and in other countries where the Catholic Church has a strong presence.


Castilian became the only language to be used in official proceedings; Spain’s many regional dialects were pushed out in this de jure move that was an attempt to solidify national unity and quell dissenting movements by removing a marker of their identity. After 1938 non-Castilian names were forbidden as part of this process.

The Basque Country and Catalonia in the north-east were heavily affected by this, each region is still pushing for greater autonomy or independence from the rest of Spain. In the Basque Country ETA waged a low-intensity for decades against Franco, with language politics- and the incredibly harsh condemnation of their language as a rural dialect- playing no small part in their actions however horrific they might have been.


All this to say, the totalitarian regime of Franco has left deep scars in Spanish society, from the missing children of Franco to the gender roles that were ingrained into an exhausted populous, there remains a shadow that is unmentioned over much of Spanish life. The wrongs of the regime have been removed from the country’s national memory in a bid to move on with life, the resurgence of a party with republican leanings- Podemos- may be the catalyst for re-examining the policies of La Transición and el pacto del olvido.


  1. Jose

    In Spain we mostly prefer to forget the things that caused us the greatest harms! This is why the country could not really become powerful and present in our century, we are left in the abyss of past that we can’t even remember. A mist of forgetfulness, indeed, like Ishiguro’s novel, Buried Giant, took over Spain, and left behind nothing but devastation. A well-studied, a witty essay. I would like to read more from the author.

  2. Olivia

    In Spain forgetfulness is like a virtue. But now we dare to remember what happened to us. This is why, country is about to shatter into pieces. A lot of regions demand to separate from the rest. An environment of hate could only be sown between historically friended and united nation through the excess remembrance of history. This is why, sometimes, even when we have the possibility to remember, daring to forget is much better for a nation. Same thing goes for marriages. If the past, some unfortunate moments, is always brought up, a relationship cannot last for long. Forgetfulness is the only virtue Spain can protect itself from itself.

Leave a Reply