Ian Buruma: Legislating history (Re: Spain's new anti-Franco law)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ian Buruma is Professor of human rights at Bard College. His most recent book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Killing of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.]

In October, the Spanish parliament passed a Law on Historical Memory, which bans rallies and memorials celebrating the late dictator Francisco Franco. His Falangist regime will be officially denounced and its victims honored.

There are plausible reasons for enacting such a law. Many people killed by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War lie unremembered in mass graves. There is still a certain degree of nostalgia on the far right for Fanco’s dictatorship. People gathered at his tomb earlier this year chanted “We won the Civil War!”, while denouncing socialists and foreigners, especially Muslims. Reason enough, one might think, for Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to use the law to exorcize the demons of dictatorship for the sake of democracy’s good health.

But legislation is a blunt instrument for dealing with history. While historical discussion won’t be out of bounds in Spain, even banning ceremonies celebrating bygone days may go a step too far. The desire to control both past and present is, of course, a common feature of dictatorships. This can be done through false propaganda, distorting the truth, or suppressing the facts. Anyone in China who mentions what happened on Tiananmen Square (and many other places) in June 1989 will soon find himself in the less-than-tender embrace of the State Security Police. Indeed, much of what happened under Chairman Mao remains taboo.

Spain, however, is a democracy. Sometimes the wounds of the past are so fresh that even democratic governments deliberately impose silence in order to foster unity. When Charles de Gaulle revived the French Republic after World War II, he ignored the history of Vichy France and Nazi collaboration by pretending that all French citizens had been good republican patriots.

More truthful accounts, such as Marcel Ophuls’s magisterial documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1968) were, to say the least, unwelcome. Ophuls’s film was not shown on French state television until 1981. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain, too, treated its recent history with remarkable discretion.

But memory won’t be denied. A new generation in France, born after the war, broke the public silence with a torrent of books and films on French collaboration in the Holocaust, as well as the collaborationist Vichy regime, sometimes in an almost inquisitorial spirit. The French historian Henri Russo dubbed this new attitude “the Vichy Syndrome.”

Spain seems to be going through a similar process. Children of Franco’s victims are making up for their parents’ silence. Suddenly, the Civil War is everywhere, in books, television shows, movies, academic seminars, and now in the legislature, too.

This is not only a European phenomenon. Nor is it a sign of creeping authoritarianism. On the contrary, it often comes with more democracy. When South Korea was ruled by military strongmen, Korean collaboration with Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century was not discussed – partly because some of those strongmen, notably the late Park Chung Hee, had been collaborators themselves. Now, under President Roh Moo-hyun, a new Truth and Reconciliation Law has not only stimulated a thorough airing of historical grievances, but has also led to a hunt for past collaborators....

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