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Shame & Silence: Authoritarianism in Spain

Since the 1980s, the Western European political landscape has undergone a transformation the likes of which hasn’t been seen for decades, and which reminds many pundits rather uncomfortably of a similar trend in the 1930s: namely, a rise in public support for far right-wing parties. These organizations, classified as “Populist Radical Right” parties by the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, differ in size, popularity, methods, and even some policy, but they generally share three main ideological priorities: authoritarianism, nativism, and populism. Countries with histories of fascism like Italy and Germany have both experienced resurgences of their respective PRR parties. Spain, however, has somehow remained unreceptive to any significant infiltration of PRR groups or members into their parliamentary politics. Despite, or perhaps because of, its uneasy and often undiscussed history of right-wing authoritarianism, the country that was once ruled for over four decades by authoritarian dictator Francisco Franco has not yet followed the example of its neighbours.

Francoist Spain

After a bloody three-year civil war, which saw the successful overthrow of the democratically elected Republican government, the rebel coalition known as the Nationalists, heavily supported by military aid from Hitler and Mussolini, gained political control of the country. “Generalísimo” Franco, having already gained the title of commander-in-chief of the rebel forces and “El Caudillo” (head) of the Nationalist government, became the default leader of the country. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the harsh and punitive measures of the regime (revenge for the brutal attempts at suppression of their rebellion by the Republicans) caused families to be torn apart by execution, kidnapping, imprisonment, and internment at labour camps and exile. Many of Franco’s policies centred around a national unifying identity: he outlawed any religion other than Catholicism and any language other than Castilian Spanish. He mistrusted Jews and left-wing politics of any kind, and promoted militarism and male superiority. By most standards, he would likely be a successful PRR candidate in today’s Europe. Even though these policies became national dogma, many on the right still rankled from the atrocities of the Republicans’ Red Terror during the civil war, and there are Francoists in Spain who feel they are victims still, as fervently as do the descendants of Republicans brutalized by Franco. The subsequent silence after his death regarding the crimes of both sides during the war, and the first few years of Francoism, has made objective truth hard to come by in Spain.

El Pacto Del Olvido

When Franco died of natural causes in 1975, Spain underwent La Transición, the transition from authoritarian dictatorship to democracy. Their example is unique: no ousting of a dictator by ‘joyful revolution’ like neighbouring Portugal, no physical abuse of their dictator’s corpse in the streets as the Italians had done with Mussolini; nor did they rise up in arms like some of their cultural descendants in Latin America later would to topple their own dictatorships. The catharsis that some countries must have felt when their authoritarian leaders died violently (Hitler’s suicide could be considered in the same vein) was not available to the Spaniards to help with the healing process. Instead, they elected to enter into what is known as el pacto del olvido, or the pact of forgetting/silence. Politicians writing the new constitution were either scared of digging up old divides or were themselves Francoists, and neither wanted to dig too deeply into the past crimes of the regime or hold those responsible accountable. In 1977, the democratically elected parliament passed an Amnesty Law which pardoned all political crimes regardless of affiliation, including those committed by Franco, to ensure the smooth transition to democracy. While many scholars hold up Spain’s example as a transitional miracle for this very reason, others have argued that the wounds of war were never allowed to fully heal.

Far-Right Movements in Europe Today

As mentioned above, the far-right parties of Europe today usually share some core identifying characteristics. Described by Mudde as Populist Radical Right parties, they oppose immigration and multiculturalism, support welfare chauvinism (the idea that native-born citizens be the first or only recipients of social security from the state), and advocate Euroskepticism (distrust in the vision of a united European market and government). For these reasons, parties such as these tend to gain ground when there is economic recession or inequality, either rightly or wrongly blamed on trade and mass immigration, which can be perceived by the ethnic majority, native-born constituents as overwhelming and threatening to their culture. Both factors are not necessary to see a rise in popularity for PRR parties: for example, Sweden has low inequality and a booming economy, but an unprecedented 163,000 asylum applications in 2015, during the height of the refugee crisis, has led to a surge in popularity for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, who are now Sweden’s second most popular party with over 20 % of the vote according to recent polls.

The German case is similar: a robust economy has not stopped Alternative for Germany (AfD) from garnering 15% of national support in the polls, three times as much as any previous right wing party. Less thriving nations such as Hungary and Poland have already elected far-right populist governments, and Spain’s “cousins” in Italy have shifted towards the PRR party The Northern League, which saw a rise from just 4% national approval in 2013, to 16-17% in 2016. Almost all of these countries share two growing sentiments: a distrust of the political establishment, and an aversion to the influx of refugees and migrants that they’re currently experiencing. Some may argue that the controversy surrounding the issue of immigration has made it politically unwise for mainstream politicians to tackle, thus forcing otherwise moderate voters into the arms of extremist parties who are the only ones mentioning the subject, albeit often with xenophobic undertones (or overtures). Others would contend that the naturally racist and tribalistic tendencies of European culture, having lain dormant at the political fringe since World War II, are being exposed by this PRR movement. Those who profess their support for these parties often try to distance themselves from the inevitable affiliations with white supremacist groups, arguing that the desire to preserve their culture from threats posed by immigration, in particular Islam, should not be considered bigotry or racism. In any case, the patterns that have emerged from this movement seem to be found in almost every Western European country, with Spain as a notable exception. No PRR, or similar, party has managed to get more than one percent of the vote since the 1980s.

Spain as an Anomaly

How has Spain avoided this phenomenon of right-wing populism in Europe? Is the population more tolerant of immigrants than its fellow ex-Axis members Germany and Italy? Research suggests that this is not the case. According to data drawn from Community Innovation Surveys done in 1996 and again in 2009, attitudes towards immigrants have become significantly less favourable over the time period, mirroring the trends in the rest of Europe. These sentiments are measured by gathering responses to statements like “the number of immigrants is excessive” or “immigration laws are too tolerant.” So, is Spain immune to this PRR movement by virtue of thriving financial and job sectors? Of course not. The economic collapse of 2008 hit Spain especially hard, leading at one point to 40% youth unemployment. Also, as previously established, economic recession is not necessary for a country to throw significant support behind populist, anti-immigrant, anti-Europe parties. So how has this former authoritarian, nativist, and (ostensibly) populist nation managed not to repeat its own history as so many of its neighbours have? The famous quote, generally attributed to Spanish philosopher George Santayana comes to mind: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” However, could it be that Spain’s willful collective amnesia regarding its four decades of authoritarianism (few scholars consider Franco’s Spain to be a true example of fascism) has prevented it from returning to similar policies? Has the catharsis experienced by the Germans and the Italians, having seen the deaths of their leaders and returned to democracies decades before Spain did allow some of them to go through the process of collective guilt to a place where they can once again adopt protectionist, xenophobic attitudes without worrying about where those attitudes can lead? Was el pacto del olvido, as argued by many scholars, helpful in ensuring a more unified Spain by sweeping past injustices under the rug, despite the individual pain felt by countless families? Is the Spanish impulse of tapando vergüenzas (covering up of shame) after the Civil War even now still a motivating factor that prevents Spain from re-adopting nationalist, anti-multiculturalist policies? Whatever the case, the PRR movement is certainly one of Europe’s most immediate issues, and both its critics and supporters may want to look more closely at Spain’s history to understand what makes it, thus far, invulnerable to the temptations of the far right.

William Greenblatt
Will Greenblatt is a freelance writer and avid traveller. Having studied philosophy and politics at the University of King's College in Halifax, he went on to the National Theatre School of Canada, where he developed two original shows as a writer/performer. After graduating, he travelled through Europe, basing himself in Spain and working as an English teacher and travelogue writer. He has also spent time in China, studying Mandarin and Chinese culture at Gongshang University in Hangzhou, while working as a researcher and director for a corporate consulting startup. He now lives in Toronto, where he works in film & theatre and as a freelancer, with previous work published in Intermission magazine. He speaks 4 languages and has a passion for politics, foreign cultures, music, and cooking.

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