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Tearing down memories

Martin Delfin, MadridFebruary 9, 2016

Hundreds of monuments and plaques across the Spanish capital dedicated to the Franco era may be removed if Madrid’s government has its way. As Martin Delfin reports, the controversy is opening historic wounds.

Image: DW/M. Delfin

For the time being, Madrid officials have decided to postpone a controversial plan to remove old monuments, street signs and symbols dedicated to figures connected to the Francisco Franco dictatorship after conservative groups complained that the move was illegal.

Madrid's leftist government, which began knocking down monoliths and removing stone plaques under a cloak of secrecy earlier this month, explained that it was falling back on the 2007 Historical Memory Law (which recognizes victims on boths sides of the Civil War and formally condemns the Franco regime - the ed.) passed by the previous Socialist government of Prime Minister José Rodríguez Zapatero.

Spain: Belated Justice for Franco's Victims?

But the action has spun a lawsuit against Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena and her cultural commissioner Celia Mayer, who both reportedly gave the order to begin tearing down the memorials by allegedly ignoring cultural heritage laws. Both are in their first term in office.

"It's an atrocity being committed by Taliban who arrived in southern Europe," Jaime Alonso, executive vice president and lawyer for the Francisco Franco National Foundation in Madrid, told DW with a hint of irony. "This was real history, and they want to erase history that took place."

Erasing history?

If it had not been for a group of onlookers last Friday near Madrid's famous El Retiro Park, it may have been impossible to determine who was behind tearing down a 1960 monolith erected in memory of a group of provisional second lieutenants who fought at the onset of the Civil War (1936-1939). One protestor sat on a piece of the cut rock to prevent city workers from taking it away, according to witnesses.

Earlier, the city had also removed a headstone dedicated to right-wing unionist José García Vara, who was ambushed and killed in 1935.

bronze figure on wall copyright: Martin Delfin
The memorial to the Fallen Soldiers of Chamartín de la Rosa. It used to feature a bronze figure of a fallen soldier and symbols of the right-wing Falange movementImage: DW/M. Delfin

But after it took down a plaque in remembrance of the 1936 executions of eight Carmelite friars by leftist forces, which was located at a church in the Carabanchel district, the city was forced to put it back up hours later after Catholic Church officials and others complained that the stone memorial was under protection.

The local government also has plans to remove other memorials, including a gigantic monolith dedicated to José Calvo Sotelo located in Madrid's gigantic Plaza de Castilla roundabout in front of two tilted skyscrapers. Calvo Sotelo was a right-wing deputy who was assassinated days before the Civil War began.

Street signs near the defense ministry which pay homage to generals who fought with Franco and fallen Nationalist soldiers are also scheduled to be removed. In some cases, residents have already darkened the names on the signs. At least 250 street names across Madrid are on the list.

street sign on wall copyright: Martin Delfin
A street sign dedicated to the Martyrs of Paracuellos de Jarama, mass executions of prisoners shot by Republican forces during the final battle for Madrid in 1936Image: DW/M. Delfin

Controversial law

In 2007, the Socialists, who were in government, passed the controversial Historical Memory Law which, among other things, calls for the removal of Francoist vestiges across the country, and aims to provide aid for people who want to find the remains of their loved ones - victims of the Civil War who are buried in common graves.

Because conservative forces complained that the law went against the spirt of the Transition and would only open up old wounds, the law was never enforced.

"It is a law that is still on the books, but it lacks the framework to put it in place," historian Pablo Navarro, who works with several Civil War societies in Andalucía, told DW.

Madrid city officials have now acknowledged that they didn't have a standard "procedure or rules" to carry out their plans under the 2007 Historical Memory Law.

"The city has begun working on a draft framework with legal experts and a team from the Heritage Committee," the city said in a statement.

But the Francisco Franco National Foundation is not sitting on the sidelines. The organization has filed a criminal complaint against Mayor Carmena and her cultural commissioner, accusing them of "perversion of justice" for their unilateral actions and violating heritage laws.

Their convictions could lead to impeachment proceedings, explained Alonso.

"Eighty years later, they still want to win the war against Franco. The hard fact is that Franco is no longer here to defend himself and his surviving family is not involved in any of this - they have other lives," he said.