Spain’s new memory law to help search for Franco’s victims

Law will make state responsible for identifying victims and pave way for probes into abuses

Spain's leftist government has unveiled details of a historical memory Bill which seeks to address the legacy of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

The Democratic Memory Law will make the state responsible for the identification of victims of Franco who are buried in unmarked graves, while paving the way for investigations into the regime’s abuses.

"The Memory Law represents a major effort to confirm our democracy with the dignity that it deserves as a country," said deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo after the Bill was approved by cabinet. It will need to go through parliament before it can come into effect.

Franco led a right-wing uprising against the elected republican government and was the victor in the ensuing 1936-39 civil war. He ruled Spain until his death in 1975.


Activists say that the bodies of more than 100,000 victims of Franco from the civil conflict and dictatorship remain in mass graves across the country. Until now, mainly self-financed volunteer associations had led efforts to find graves and identify remains, thus allowing relatives to give loved ones proper burials.

The Spanish state will now finance and oversee the logistics of such searches and the new Bill will create a DNA bank in order to ease that task.

“We acknowledge those who are in mass graves, yet to be identified, and the enormous suffering that this situation, which is not fitting for a democracy, has caused,” said Ms Calvo.

In 2007, the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero introduced a historical memory law which was widely criticised by the political left for being too timid.

But the current prime minister, Socialist Pedro Sánchez, has made the issue a priority. In October 2019, his government exhumed the remains of Franco from the dictator’s grandiose mausoleum outside Madrid, the Valley of the Fallen, and reburied them in a nearby cemetery.

The Socialists are now in a coalition with the far-left Podemos party, which has long campaigned for the country to address its Francoist past.

The legislation’s establishment of a prosecutor linked to the supreme court potentially means that human rights crimes of the civil war and dictatorship will be probed, although many of the culprits are no longer alive to face punishment.

The law also seeks to convert the Valley of the Fallen into a historical site, abolish organisations which promote the image of Franco and strip officials who were involved in repression of their titles and awards.

The Bill is likely to face stiff resistance in parliament. Ahead of the Bill's presentation, the far-right Vox party labelled it "totalitarian". The main opposition Popular Party (PP), meanwhile, has accused the government of using historical memory as a distraction from other issues.

"Whenever Sánchez has problems, he pulls Franco out of the bag," said PP senator Javier Maroto.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain