Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why the Spanish government won't recognize the Gernika bombing

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the bombardment of Gernika–or “Guernica,” as it is more widely known, thanks to Picasso’s famous painting. The anniversary has, predictably, provoked conflict between Basque nationalists and the Spanish right. At the heart of the controversy, is the Spanish Government’s refusal to recognize Spanish fascist complicity in the atrocity.

Gara reports today on the conflict over non-recognition. An op-ed penned by the conservative government’s Minister of Education and Culture, disseminated to Spanish newspapers, sidesteps the issue of the late dictator Francisco Franco’s authorization of the bombing. Rather, the government minister simply refers to the bombing as "a proving ground of German weapons." "We cannot forget," Minster José Ignacio Wert writes, "that even today attacks against civilians are common in civil war." This "but everybody does it" defense will not assuage Basque nationalists, or anyone who cares about historical truth.

In the Basque Parliament, an attempt to formally recognize the complicity of fascists forces in the attack was complicated as constitutionalist (Spanish nationalist) parties–not only the rightwing Popular Party, but the Socialists as well–pathetically demanded that the resolution include recognition of the victims of ETA. Ultimately, a compromise resolution was approved, albeit without an acknowledgement of Franco’s authorization of the massacre.

“The Spanish state wants the Basque patriotic left (ezker abertzale) to beg forgiveness for ETA’s violence,” an activist told me last month, “but they can't even acknowledge what Franco did.” Today’s anniversary appears to bear out this reality.

Why does the current conservative Spanish government refuse to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the Fascist regime? In large part, the refusal to recognize fascism’s crimes is a product of Spanish democratization. After Franco’s death, the remnants of his regime and the mainstream opposition forces–socialists, communists, and liberals, as well as moderate Basque and Catalan nationalists–brokered a deal that effectively modified the existing fascist state. A democratic Parliament was added atop the apparatuses of the dictatorship, with the army, police, and the judiciary remaining essentially unreformed. A key feature of this arrangement was the so-called “pact of silence”: the crimes of the past would be forgotten in order to affect a smooth transition to democracy.

While this transition was successful–so much so that Spain exported the model internationally, especially to Latin America–many of the state’s past crimes remain unacknowledged and the perpetrators of human rights violations have never been held to account for their crimes.

With the passing of years, one might imagine that a reckoning of the fascist past could now be possible. The problem, however, is that one of the state’s two main parties, the rightwing Partido Popular, has direct roots in the fascist past. The party emerged in the nineties as a reformulation of the Spanish right, which had until then only never fully accepted democracy. The rehabilitation of the rightwing from unreformed fascists to begrudging democrats was largely a product of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s efforts.

He was, of course, aided by ETA's violence in this rehabilitation. By framing the struggle against “terrorism” as one of democrats (the right and their securocrat allies) against fascists (ETA and, subsequently, the entire Basque nationalist field), Aznar affected this transformation while overstepping any recognition of the party’s origins in the recent fascist past. In fact, acknowledgement of these roots would have undermined the Spanish right's "war on (Basque) terror," especially in its more undemocratic manifestations (e.g. the banning of political parties, limiting free speech, prohibiting public demonstrations, etc.).

In addition, many Spaniards do not feel that there’s anything to apologize for: Franco remains, in the eyes of many, as a heroic figure who "saved" Spain from godless “red separatism.” The legacy of Franco continues into the 21st Century, as illustrated by the conflicts surrounding the Law of for the Recovery of Historical Memory, Judge Baltasar Garcon's investigation into Civil War era disappearances, and even the dictator’s gravesite. That Gernika would be a matter of controversy is hardly surprising.


While the Spanish Government will not–or cannot–recognize the bombing of Gernika, they are damn persistent in claiming ownership of Picasso's memorial of the atrocity.

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