Spain, 2018: To prison for expressing an opinion?

Published in Expansión

In his classic novel 1984, George Orwell described a sinister totalitarian society of the future supported by three large bureaucratic structures. One of these was the Ministry of Truth, in charge of falsifying historical facts in order to back up the version approved by the Government. Brandishing the slogans “Freedom is Slavery”, “Ignorance is Strength” and “War is Peace”, the Ministry of Truth rewrote history and burned in huge incinerators all documents that might rebut the official truth.

Well, on the initiative of the radicalized Spanish Socialist Party, currently in the opposition, there is a proposal to broaden the scope of the infamous Historical Memory Law. If approved by the Parliament, it will bring the Ministry of Truth to Spain. Disguised, as usual, under seemingly praiseworthy intentions, what the law really wants is to forcibly impose a unique “approved” history, a specific version of the Civil War and the period from 1936 to December of 1978, when the current democratic Constitution was approved. To this end, the idea is to create a “Truth Commission” that will determine the Mandatory Official Truth, and to modify the penal code to include up to four years’ prison time for bureaucrats or elected officials who vote against or fail to comply with the requirements of the law, and four more years for regular citizens (journalists, teachers, professors, historians, etc.) that “praise or justify” Franco’s regime by any means, proceeding to destroy any books or documents to this effect (here it is: the burning of books of the 21st century). A prestigious North American Hispanist historian has already expressed his astonishment because his books, once forbidden by the Franco regime, might now be censored by the supposedly democratic Spain.

The violation of constitutional rights and freedoms that this proposal brings forth is outrageous. What will happen to ideological freedom (article 16 of our Constitution)? And what about the freedom of expression (to be allowed to “freely express and disseminate thoughts, ideas and opinions through the spoken word, in writing or by any other means”, article 20)? What about academic freedom and the freedom of teaching (articles 20 and 27)? What will become of the freedom of association and the right to create a foundation (articles 22 and 34), as the proposal aims at closing the only known pro-Franco foundation in a clear example of an unlawful single-case law?

This bill is not only a direct attack against the Spanish Constitution, but also against the UN Charter of Human Rights, whose Human Rights Committee (OG nº34, 2011) considers that “laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts” are incompatible with the freedom of opinion and expression, since “the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not permit general prohibition of the expression of erroneous opinions or incorrect interpretations of past events”. It seems difficult to believe that the party that wants to create a crime of opinion punishable with imprisonment is the same one that ruled Spain thirty years ago, with its achievements and its mistakes, but almost always with moderation and statesmanship. Will the party Ciudadanos also want to create opinion crimes punishable with prison as well? Will the Popular Party allow it?

The law also provides for a compensation of 135,000 euros for the descendants of those who died “fighting for freedom” between 1968 and 1978. The list will be necessarily short: according to the most detailed available research, a total of 12 people died in those years in confrontations with law enforcement officials during some kind of demonstrations and 4 more died in suspicious circumstances while being held in custody. Regarding the death penalty which was in force in Spain at that time, according to the best available research there were just over 70 executions between 1952 and 1975 (3 per year), all for murders that had nothing to do with the battle for freedom (assassins or terrorists guilty of murder). For comparative purposes, let me say that during that same period 45 people were executed in France (the guillotine remained in place until 1977), 102 in the United Kingdom and 906 in the USA. Fortunately, the death penalty would be abolished in Spain in 1978 and in France in 1981, three years later. It is quite suspicious that the year of origin for the period proposed by the Socialist Party (PSOE) coincides with the first deadly attack of the Basque terrorist group ETA (1968). Therefore, it seems plausible that those who will benefit the most from this compensation might be the descendants of terrorist members of ETA, GRAPO and FRAP (all of them terrorist groups of a totalitarian Marxist-Leninist ideology, guilty of more than 1,000 murders) who were tried and executed for the cold-blooded murders of members of the Civil Guard, the Police and bystanders. If today’s socialists consider that these killings committed by terrorists with a totalitarian ideology were in “defense of freedom”, we must surely take note.

We cannot continue to have a Manichean vision of 40 years of our history. The Ministry of Truth that the Socialists intend to establish pulls out of the hat the invention that the Civil War was a struggle between an oppressive army and a people who were defending their freedom. This is such a ridiculous and cynical tale that contradicts all historiography, evidence and memory. The Civil War was an ideological confrontation between half of Spain and the other half (that’s why it’s called a “civil war”, right?); Army members fought on both sides, as sometimes did members of the same family. It is time we learn to judge that episode (which began almost a century ago!) without passion, like any other period of our history, and that we let it be the subject of free and open debates among historians and not an ideological struggle between politicians, much less the excuse for censorship. The Second Republic against which Franco’s uprising fought and won began as an exciting ideal, sure enough, but soon degenerated into a violent pre-revolutionary anarchy which was allowed —if not sponsored— by the leftist government of the Popular Front (closely monitored by Stalin) since February 1936. In July 1936, just before Franco’s uprising, truth is there was no law, order or justice in Spain and few political parties defended freedom and democracy, certainly not the Socialist Party of that time, led by Mr. Prieto and Mr. Largo Caballero (nicknamed the Spanish Lenin), who ousted the brave Julian Besteiro, the moderate and democratic socialist leader who would afterwards be outrageously imprisoned by Franco’s regime. At the beginning of the war both sides committed atrocious mass murders. Around 50,000 to 75,000 were perpetrated by the socialists and communists in the so-called Red Terror, including the Catholic genocide that killed 7,000 priests, pastors, monks and nuns in cold blood, often after horrible torture, just for being Christian. In those first few months of war, Franco’s side killed a similar number of people for the opposed reasons. After the war, the harsh and systematic judicial repression of the dictatorship judged on a case-by-case basis, sentenced to death and executed more than 25,000 people (mostly until 1945), many for murders committed during the Red Terror and many others simply for belonging to the losing side. We know that history is written by the winners, but we also know that usually wars are not a fight between good and evil. Reality is always more complex than that. Our Civil War was no exception. It is true that justice was done to the innocent of one side and not to the innocent of the other, but there were innocent and guilty people on both sides and both sides have reasons to be ashamed.

I have always believed that defending the freedom which I treasure so much is, above all, defending the freedom of those who don’t think as I do, so that they may continue to do so. After Franco’s natural death, the great success of the Spanish Transition (1976-1978) was not the making of what I consider a mediocre Constitution, but the generosity, magnanimity, patriotism and statesmanship showed by a group of political leaders with antagonistic ideas, but who were, above all, fellow Spaniards who lived in a reconciled society that did not want to reopen old wounds. The Transition closed the door to the mass agitators because it wanted to fulfill the hopeful words of Republican President Manuel Azaña: “When the torch is passed to other hands, to other men, to other generations (…), think of the dead and listen to their lesson: those men who have fallen magnificently for a great ideal and who now, sheltered in the maternal earth, no longer have hatred, no longer hold a grudge, and send us —with the flashes of their light, calm and remote as that of a star— the message of the eternal homeland that says to all its children: peace, piety, forgiveness”. It is nauseating that after 40 years of democracy the mass agitators have reappeared to literally unearth the dead, stir the hatred and spread lies just to satisfy their personal thirst for political power. Spain does not deserve it.