Street names signal bitter dispute over Spain’s historical memory

Signs paying tribute to supporters of Franco dictatorship return to streets of capital

  A street in central Madrid has once again been named after Franco supporter General Millán Astray. Photograph:  A. Perez Meca/Europa Press via Getty Images

A street in central Madrid has once again been named after Franco supporter General Millán Astray. Photograph: A. Perez Meca/Europa Press via Getty Images


Attempts to tackle the legacy of Spain’s civil war and ensuing dictatorship have suffered a setback after a Madrid street name was changed to pay tribute to a notorious supporter of Francisco Franco.

Under the previous, leftist, local government in the capital, dozens of street names that made reference to the dictator Franco and his allies were changed, in line with a 2007 historical memory law.

In 2017, for example, a street in central Madrid bearing the name of José Millán Astray, a prominent pro-Franco propagandist during the 1936-39 civil war, was changed to that of educationalist Justa Freire.

However, far-right organisations lodged appeals against some of the changes. In May, a court ruled that because Millán Astray had not played a direct role in the military coup that triggered the civil conflict, or in the repression that followed under Franco’s dictatorship, he could not be subject to the historical memory law.

On Tuesday, the conservative local government enforced the ruling. The street sign bearing Freire’s name was removed and Millán Astray’s name reinstated.

The court has also ruled that the name of the Blue Division, a unit of Spanish volunteers who fought for the Third Reich during the second World War, should be restored to another street in the capital.

“What kind of damned disgrace is this?” asked Carolina Alonso, of the leftist Unidas Podemos party, in response to the news of the name changes. She added: “The city is now dirtier than ever, in every sense.”

Military unit

Millán Astray is closely linked to Franco and perhaps best known for a public confrontation he had with the intellectual Miguel de Unamuno at the start of the civil war.

According to some reports, Millán Astray shouted “Death to intelligence” as he harangued the writer. He also led the Spanish legion, a military unit known for its brutality and still seen as having associations with the far-right ideology of Franco, who died in 1975. One of the legion’s sub-units is still named after the dictator.

The return of the controversial street names to the Spanish capital comes despite efforts by the leftist coalition government of Pedro Sánchez to remove all symbols of Franco’s legacy from public spaces.

In 2019, the government transferred Franco’s remains from his vast mausoleum in the mountains outside Madrid, Valle de los Caídos [Valley of the Fallen] , which was a magnet for right-wing extremists, to a low-key cemetery.

The government has also unveiled a new historical memory bill which seeks to take a more rigorous line on the removal of symbols linked to Franco than the existing law.

The new legislation is expected to generate fierce debate when it goes to parliament in the coming weeks. The far-right Vox party has claimed that the civil war was caused by the leftist republican government, not Franco and his co-conspirators, as mainstream historians have established.