Spain’s lawmakers pass bill honouring Franco-era victims

Almost five decades after the death of Francisco Franco, Spanish lawmakers passed a flagship law Wednesday seeking to honour the victims of the 1936-1939 civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

Spain's lawmakers pass bill honouring Franco-era victims
View of the skull of a woman as archeologists and villagers searched a cemetery in the southwestern Spanish town of Gerena in 2012, looking for a mass grave thought to contain the remains of 17 women who were shot by General Francisco Franco's forces in 1937. AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUICLER (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

Honouring those who died or suffered violence or repression during war and decades of dictatorship that followed has been a top priority for the left-wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez since he came to power in 2018.

The senate approved the law — which aims to pay homage to those who died, were subjected to violence or persecution during the Franco years — with 128 votes in favour, 113 against and 18 abstentions.

Known as the “law of democratic memory”, the legislation seeks to advance the search and exhumation of victims buried in mass graves and upending decades-old political convictions.

“Today we are taking another step towards justice, reparation and dignity for all victims,” tweeted Sánchez after the vote.

But it threatens to fuel tensions in a nation where public opinion is still divided over the legacy of the dictatorship that ended with Franco’s death in 1975.

The right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) has vowed to overturn the law if elected in the next election, which is due by the end of 2023.

“History cannot be built on the basis of forgetting and silencing the vanquished” of the civil war, reads the preamble to the law.

Franco assumed power after the civil war in which his Nationalists defeated Republicans, leaving the country in ruins and mourning hundreds of thousands of dead.

While his regime honoured its own dead, it left its opponents buried in unmarked graves across the country.

A worker belonging to Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory (ARMH) exhumes the remains of victims executed by Franco’s security forces during Spain’s civil war, in Porreres (Mallorca) in 2016. (Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP)

Finding mass graves

The bill, which was approved by the lower house of parliament in July, will for the first time make unearthing mass graves a “state responsibility”.

It also calls for a national DNA bank to be established to help identify remains and for the creation of a map of all mass graves in the country.

“The state must exhume the remains of the victims of the Franco dictatorship,” Sánchez told parliament in July.

“There are still 114,000 people who were forcibly disappeared in Spain, mostly Republicans,” he said, referring to people whose fate was deliberately hidden.

Only Cambodia, he said, had more “disappeared” people than Spain, its population suffering atrocities under 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime.

Up until now, it has been associations who have led the search for those who went missing during the Franco era, as portrayed in Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s most recent film “Parallel Mothers”.

The new legislation seeks to build on a 2007 “historical memory” law, which experts and activists say fell short of excavating the hundreds of still untouched mass graves scattered across Spain.

Sánchez’s predecessor, Mariano Rajoy of the PP, famously bragged that he had not spent a euro of public money in furthering the provisions within the law.

Annulling Franco-era convictions

The new law will also annul the criminal convictions of opponents of the Franco regime and appoint a prosecutor to probe human rights abuses during the war and the ensuing dictatorship.

Previous attempts to bring Franco-era officials to justice in Spain have been blocked by an amnesty agreement signed by political leaders after his death.

The deal was seen as essential to avoid a spiral of score-settling as officials sought to unite the country and steer it towards democracy.

And the law will also mean that for the first time, “stolen babies” will be recognised as victims of Francoism.

Those babies were newborns who were taken away from “unsuitable” mothers — Republican or left-wing opponents of the regime, then unwed mothers or poor families.

But not everyone was pleased with the outcome of the vote, with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) saying the new legislation did not go far enough.

The law “perpetuates impunity for the Francoists” because it leaves the amnesty agreement in force, “it will not put anyone on trial” nor will it “compensate the families of the disappeared”, it said in a statement.

The PP has accused the government of needlessly opening the wounds of the past with the law.

This is Sánchez’s second major effort to tackle the Franco legacy.

In 2019, he had Franco’s remains removed from a vast grandiose mausoleum near Madrid and transferred to a discreet family plot, despite opposition from the late dictator’s relatives and right-wing parties.

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Why do Spain’s civil guards wear those strange hats?

If you’ve ever seen Spanish national day parades on October 12th, then you’ve most likely seen groups of Spain’s Civil Guards marching along wearing strange black hats. What’s the reason behind this odd uniform attire and where did they originate?

Why do Spain’s civil guards wear those strange hats?

Known as the tricornio, this type of hat is one of the most representative symbols of the Spanish Civil Guard and has been a true piece of their identity for as long as most people can remember.

The main characteristic of the hat is that it has three points. Today, the hat is black, rounded at the front, while at the back is a kind of headboard with two points or wings jutting out either side. Although this is what it looks like in the modern day, its material, shape, size and its colors have evolved over time.

Origin of the tricornio

The origin of this quirky hat goes back to almost the very founding of the Civil Guard. The tricornio became part of the Civil Guard uniform in 1859, only 14 years after it was formed.  

The first ones were made from felt and were the brainchild of the Duke of Ahumada (1803 – 1869), a Spanish Army officer known for being the founder of the Civil Guard and its first director-general. He wanted to make sure the uniforms were both elegant and authoritative, yet with a showy appearance.  

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He presented General Narváez, head of the Civil Guard at the time and the 1st Duke of Valencia, with a mannequin dressed in the uniform and topped with the tricornio hat, to be worn by the cavalry forces.

This uniform was accepted, but on the condition that the infantry forces also wear it. It was Queen Isabel II, at the proposal of General Narváez, who ruled that the tricornio should be worn by both.  

At the time, it was a type of hat with wings, in which the rear and front wings folded over the crown, and were kept in place by a ribbon and a button, this is why it is said to have three peaks or corners.  

Spanish Civil Guard troops march during the Spanish National Day military parade in Madrid. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Evolution of the tricornio

Both its shape and its size have changed considerably over the years to adapt to the needs of the civil guards – the main ones being that it is now a lot smaller and has also changed colour. Sometimes a gold band was added, while the more modern versions were plain black.

From felt hats, they changed to rubber to be able to withstand various weather conditions. The rubber version was based on a design created by the Civil Guard wives who decided on a new flap with buttons on each side. This version consisted of different layers and colors, but the shape has remained until today.

READ ALSO: Why does France give a gift of three cows to Spain every year? 

Later on, the rubber was covered in plastic, until it became replaced by vinyl, which would give it both shape and shine.

This again was subsequently changed to a material that resembled patent leather to promise better vision and durability.

In the post-war period, the uniform was modernised to prioritise combat requirements, practicality for transport units, and any symbols that may be required.

Starting in 1989, the tricornio came to be worn only as part of the gala uniform for ceremonies, parades and solemn acts, as well as in some operational services, such as those in charge of surveillance of embassies or airport security.  

Even so, these oddly-shaped hats have continued to be used throughout the 20th century and still serve as a visual reference and the most important symbol of the Civil Guard today.