As expected, the processing by the Congress of Deputies of the Democratic Memory Law has been accompanied by heated controversy. It is obvious that many of those who criticize or completely reject the law, like others who defend it, have not read it. It also seems evident that, even if it had not extended its effects until 1983, it would still have been repudiated. In part this is due to the fact that the word ‘Memory’ provokes a visceral rejection in large sectors of Spanish society, who see it as partisan and revengeful. For others, on the contrary, it is a term that encapsulates the historical, symbolic or material reparation of the victims of Francoism and their descendants. Perhaps the time has come to think about what will come after the implementation of this law and how we can redirect the current situation of confrontation about what to do with our past.
The Movement for the Recovery of Historical Memory emerged more than two decades ago because there was a very painful reality for many and that had also become anomalous in the Western world: the existence of hundreds of mass graves, unmarked or unidentified, containing the remains of tens of thousands of people killed during our uncivil war and the cruel dictatorship that followed. The objective was to recover and identify the bodies of those buried there or at least dignify their resting places. This has been partially achieved. Thanks to the efforts of these associations and the collaboration of many entities, including different administrations, some 10,000 bodies have been recovered and a third of them identified. Experts estimate that this number, not counting those found in Cuelgamuros, could double in the coming years. According to these same professionals, then the process will have concluded. The remains, tens of thousands of disappeared in the war, cannot be recovered.
The new Democratic Memory Law, for the first time, forces the central administration to finance these efforts to recover and dignify the victims. It is hard to believe -it would be an international scandal- that a future government of the Popular Party would end this process (the law itself is another matter), which, after all, is simply humanitarian. In any case, whatever happens, the best and most lasting legacy of Memory, the exhumations, will have remained there, and without a doubt it has made Spanish society more dignified. It also seems unlikely that the legal measures included in the new law to legally and materially compensate the victims and their descendants will be challenged or annulled. And that will also have been very good for the country. As it will be that a guide is finally created for visitors to Cuelgamuros to replace the Francoist one in use, or that an official tourist circuit is drawn up for the monumental complex. All these measures are realities that can be adjusted, but it is reasonable to think that they are irreversible.
Despite all of the above, or rather as a consequence, the time has come to look to the future and reflect slowly on what we want to do. We can engage in cultural wars that lead nowhere, or we can search for solutions, even at the risk of being naive. In this sense, the validity in the political debate of the concept of Memory has already fulfilled its function and should have its days numbered. Many of us historians who have written on this topic for quite some time have been continually uncomfortable with how loosely the term has been used, not to mention its partisan usage. We also did not like that it focused only on the traumatic aspects of the past. Among other reasons, because there are clear dissonances between the complexity and tragedy of the lives of previous generations, the current reality of Spain and, finally, the insistence of some on remembering only the painful -which can also be obsessive and cause fatigue- as if Memory were the same as trauma. Spain is not a traumatized country; but we Spaniards do have different memories of a common history, and that is not going to change soon.
The word Memory has become entrenched in public debate, and probably provokes more visceral reactions than enriching and productive exchanges. This situation must be redirected, seeking to calm things down, and start a new, healthier dynamic in Spanish society. To do this, given that the language we use is already contaminated by our own collective vices, we should adopt a new vocabulary that opens us to other mental horizons, and public policies, in which a majority of citizens feel comfortable. These, on the other hand, when they have expressed themselves in opinion polls about what to do with our yesterday, have shown in a very majority a humanist and democratic attitude. Let us then channel these values towards inclusive political actions.
Language defines our horizons, opens or closes doors for us. Let’s change the words that hinder the dialogue, let’s keep your best goals and set new ones. To begin with, we should talk less about Memory and more about public instruction. The latter does not mean that anyone should be forced to swallow history, but that imaginative ways must be sought to offer citizens the possibility of learning it, if that is what they want, in a rigorous way, curated by historians and museologists, and away from of sectarian polemics. To achieve this, neither words nor policies have to be invented. Germany, for example, has developed in recent decades an ambitious and successful Public History program, in the form of museums, exhibitions and educational projects, to teach the country’s history. In Spain we can do the same. In this new process we could discuss how we are going to educate ourselves about our past and consider, for example, creating a good network of museums that, although they include terrible aspects, go further. Until now we have been quite allergic to doing so. In our country there are few history museums. There is not, for example, a museum of the History of Spain or, better, of the Spaniards: an educational center of our history as a society in which citizens are explained what it was like to work and live before our current prosperity. This museum could exist and collaborate with others of a very different type, including those that deal with the traumatic past such as the interpretation center that is being planned in Cuelgamuros, or with the civil war museum that is being built in Teruel.
There is much to do to educate ourselves in the history of our country (including its colonial past), in the good and the bad, in the everyday and the great, in the private and the public. But this is a task that only the State can undertake. Although there is always a risk that politicians will attempt to colonize Public History institutions, this is not inevitable. In Spain we have shown many times that we can do things very well. But for this we need imagination, and to speak with new words, to discuss new ideas and thus make peace with the past (what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung). In this way we will be able to ensure that history remains a problem, above all for historians, while for society it can become a cultural resource and even a source of wealth.