Imagine a street called Hitler Street. Or a plaza name after Göring. Or a Himmler Way. Or a Pol Pot Avenue. Or seeing the Klu Klux Klan flag engraved on the wall outside a village church. In most parts of the world the presence of such names and symbols on the public thoroughfare would be deeply offensive, monstrous in its wickedness, and evidence of a town hall that had lost the bearings of its moral compass. Well how about a plaza named after General Francisco Franco (El Generalissimo), Spanish dictator, instigator of a bloody coup d’état and civil war, and by any standards war criminal? How about a street named after José Antonio Primo de Rivera, intellectual powerhouse of the Spanish equivalent to the Nazi party, the Falange?
In the Spain of today you will not have any difficulty in finding streets or public places named after El Generalissimo, a pantheon of Falangistas or a raft of generals and colonels who helped Franco snatch power from the lawfully elected republican government in 1939, following a brutal and bloody civil war. There are no remaining streets named after Hitler or Mussolini in Spain, but I did recently come across a street named after another one of Franco’s foreign allies, the Portuguese fascist dictator, Antonio Salazar. (After the defeat of the Axis in 1945, Franco was quick to play down his friendship with Hitler and Mussolini — he couldn’t have won the Civil War without their planes and tanks respectively — but Salazar, who, just like Franco, was busy cosying up to the United States for all those Marshall Plan dollars, and had done much to free himself of that whiff of cordite so disliked in the West, was still publicly acknowledged as an amigo especial.)
You would think that many Spaniards have problems with their streets and plazas being named after a menagerie of mass murderers, torturers and blanket-bombers of open towns — and you would be right. The last decade in particular has seen the murmur of disapproval that such street names be allowed to remain rise to a clamour. Millions of Spaniards would love nothing more than to see all the Avenidas del Generalissimo scrubbed off the walls of their towns and cities and be replaced by names such as Avenida de la Reconciliación (Reconcilliation Avenue) or Calle de la Unidad (Unity Street). But in this still deeply divided country there are also millions of Spaniards who see nothing shameful about a street named after a man who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of summary executions and disappearances, allowed his African army run riot, literally raping, pillaging and plundering in its push from the south of Spain to Madrid, and who gave cart blanche to the German and Italian war machines to use Republican Spain as a testing and training ground for the upcoming World War.
Franco’s coup d’état in 1936 was and is unlike any other in history. He didn’t just fly and ship in his African Army from Spanish-occupied Morocco and make a dash for the centres of power. Over the course of three years, his armies crept painstakingly from village to village, “cleansing” newly occupied zones of any republicans, socialists, anarchists, communists and atheists (real or suspected) — anyone not on he and his Falange’s side. It is widely acknowledged that Franco, with a couple of tactical coups de grâce could have won the war by late 1937. But Franco was in no hurry. He did not only want to win the war; he wanted to systematically annihilate the opposition. By late 1938, when it was clear that no other outcome but a Nacionale victory was possible and the Republican government was putting out feelers for peace talks, Franco would have none of it. There would be no truce, no peace deal, no reconciliation. Franco would prolong the war for enough time to allow him the opportunity to wipe all his enemies off the face of the earth. He even went to far as to use gunboats and warplanes to strafe the long lines of refugees fleeing to France in the final weeks of the war.
As one would expect from the manner in which Franco made war on his own people, he was not magnanimous in victory. His entire dictatorship, but especially the early 1940s, was one long purge, with God knows how many executions and disappearances, and hundreds of thousands of prisoners sent to grim, inhuman labour camps, some for as little as not attending mass. Thus Franco’s Spain was a nation of victors and the defeated. In his Catholic, conservative and ultra-nationalist kleptocracy the goodies were divided out among his supporters, from the highest generals to the lowliest falangista who may have gotten his street cleaning job by virtue of being a member of the Party. For forty years, Spain was their country, and part of Franco’s policy to keep himself and his regime secure was to never allow the victors forget who had secured that victory — and never allow the defeated forget who had reduced them to second-class citizens. Hence the street names.
The legacy of having a large swathe of the population believe that Spain belongs to them, that they are the true Spaniards, that only for them and their decisive action during and after the Civil War the country would have fallen into the hands of anarchists or communists, is that even now, forty years after Franco’s death and with three and a half decades of a carefully fostered democracy put in, many will refuse to even contemplate criticism of Franco’s regime — including the implied criticism of changing the names of streets designated in his honour. This would be the stance of many on the Spanish Right, especially members of the ruling PP (Partido Popular — People’s Party). Only a few name changes from the party formed by leading Francoists following the dictator’s death, the PP is ever loathe to acknowledge its origins, never mind engage in revisionist thinking concerning its dark roots. “Let’s leave everything as is. Let’s not delve into that and reopen old wounds. Let’s forget about the past,” would be their attitude.
One could say that forgetting is one of the PP’s main policies: from the collective amnesia that has engulfed the party concerning the dozens of financial scandals in which it is embroiled, to any reference to making good the damage done by Franco to millions still living. When the issue of street names arises (or indeed that of identifying and returning to their families the bodies of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Civil War and Franco’s regime who lie in mass graves all around the country) the PP conjure up the Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) which both Right and Left entered into in order to transition the country from a dictatorship to a democracy following Franco’s death. The Pacto was later signed into law as the 1977 Spanish Amnesty Law, the main clause of which prohibits the investigation and prosecution of any crimes committed by Franco’s government or agents thereof during the dictatorship. In spite of the Left’s call for the repeal of the Amnesty Law, backed up in 2012 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the passing in 2007 by a Socialist Party government of a far-reaching Ley de Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory Law), the PP is not for moving. Mariano Rajoy’s PP government has done nothing to facilitate the measures laid down in the Historical Memory Law and has in fact withdrawn funding for the exhumation and identification of Franco’s victims.
So what are the chances of those shameful plaques that name Spanish streets being removed and replaced by something less divisive and obnoxious to moral sensibilities? Funnily enough, it’s all down to local politics. Town halls are responsible for the naming of thoroughfares. Where the town hall is in the control of progressive or left-wing parties, offensive street names have and will continue to be changed. Sometimes such renamings make it into the national press: the hand of the town hall may have been forced into renaming a street by public protests; or public protests have resulted from the redesignation. Where the PP is in charge of a town or city there is always a firm determination to let sleeping dogs lie. Thus, the outlook is: in parts of Spain where the left regularly controls the town halls these deplorable appellations will disappear bit by bit, but in the blue (the colour of the PP) half of the country the streets of shame will continue to live on.