By Daniel Williams
When growing up, one of the most common things I heard from my parents is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The goal is to prevent stupid arguments by understanding both sides. That’s a lot harder to do when you’re facing particularly complex issues.
Spain faces a very complex issue ahead of it, in trying to reckon with its fascist history. This past Thursday the government finally achieved one of its longtime goals, exhuming the remains of dictator Francisco Franco, removing them from a national monument at the Valley of the Fallen. While the remains have been reburied in a small mausoleum, there is no denial that this political move by the government will not be forgotten by its opposition. This sort of maneuvering is not new for formerly fascist countries to deal with. Tensions between resurgent far-right political parties and installed liberal democratic governments have a tendency of sparking whenever old fascist elements get criticized or changed. In turn, far-right governments tend to try and protect the same things that liberal democratic governments try to pull down.
But Spain is a particularly unique case. Spain’s Francoism was not the same as various other forms of European fascism. Franco’s regime reformed several times, liberalized near its end, and relied extensively on Spain’s heavy Catholic tradition. These, along with the bloody civil war, ensure that Spain’s Francoism stands alone compared to other regimes.
Here’s the thing: Franco isn’t a taboo for many in Spain. Indeed, at the exhumation and reburial ceremony, protesters showed up to praise Franco’s legacy. And this isn’t a fringe movement the same way that many neo-nazi groups are across Europe. Spain’s far-right is modelled in large part on Franco’s politics, and includes political support. And as an election approaches, the far-right party Vox seems poised to gain politically from the exhumation.
The issue here is not that there are a high number of Spanish fascists that are out to overthrow the government. Francoism is not exactly the most popular ideology, even though it still exists and has weight in Spain. The issue is that Francoism is so complex. There are elements of Franco’s rule that appeals to many centrists and conservatives. Further, fascism intentionally obfuscates itself, contradicts itself, and attempts to create confusion surrounding the ideology. In historic and political terms, this makes understanding fascism very difficult.
Franco’s legacy can, as a result, be perceived a million and one ways. He can be seen as someone who saved the nation from communist interference. He could alternatively be seen as a leader who promoted a sense of national identity, or as someone who defended the catholic faith in Spain, or even as a controversial leader with any number of mixed traits. The key is ensuring that Franco’s policies are hard to separate from him as a person, and as a result many social conservatives see attacks on Franco’s legacy as attacks on their beliefs. This drives moderates directly into the hands of far-right beliefs.
Franco’s political base was founded on this sort of activity, as the fascists incorporated and integrated various other conservative ideologies into their Nationalist banner. From Carlists to staunch Catholics, fascists and military supporters, Franco’s support base was a melting pot for right-wing belief. In the modern context, this ensures that conservatives from all walks of life can look to Franco as a single unifying leader. Especially in light of what some describe as disturbing a tomb, this latest activity specifically draws the attention of Spain’s large catholic population and drives them away from the Socialist government. This attempt at a political power play from the Socialist government has effectively backfired.
So how do governments break free from legacies as powerful as Franco’s? How do we seek first to understand, when dealing with something as contentious as fascist ideology? This issue has wracked Europe for decades, as various nations deal with fascism in their own ways. And unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. The only thing we can be certain of is that failure to understand will lead to more of this, attempts to change the narrative that simply lead moderates into the arms of those who would very gladly have their pragmatic support.