home Axis 1: Laws and the past Boding Well for the Next Ten Years? Learning from the Experiences of Victims’ Associations in Spain

Boding Well for the Next Ten Years? Learning from the Experiences of Victims’ Associations in Spain

Bilgen Sütçüoğlu and Ebru İlter Akarçay, Yeditepe University



The experience of the victims’ associations of Spain is analyzed based not only on the communiqués and press releases of the associations under study, but also face-to-face interviews conducted in June 2016. The associations were particularly asked to evaluate the nature of their relationship with other associations and public authorities at the local, regional and national levels. The ties they preserve to political parties and their normative stance regarding where political parties stand on the issue also constituted a prime focus. An answer to the question of what could be learned from the ongoing and everyday practices of the associations to guide the future of memory politics in Spain and other endeavors in other contexts is sought for.

Keywords: Spain, victims’ associations, post-transitional justice, bottom-up approach



The pluralist and dense network formed by the associations of victims in Spain has been pioneering in the articulation of alternative narratives on the country’s past, embodying in their work the politicized nature of memory. The principal areas of activity of the associations have been as diverse as memory donations (Labanyi 2008), exhumations, and seeking justice beyond the country’s borders.

This paper presents the initial findings based on the interviews conducted in summer 2016. Contacts were established with associations and platforms with a strong presence across Spain such as the Asociación para la Recuparación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH), La Federación Estatal de Foros por la Memoria (FEFFM), La Comuna Presxs del Franquismo, Asociación de Descendientes del Exilio Español, Todos los Niños Robados son También mis Niños, Plataforma Contra la Impunidad del Franquismo, Plataforma por la Comisión de la Verdad sobre los crímenes del franquismo. Social communication history professor Mirta Núñez Díaz-Balart was also contacted.


Civil Society and Victim Involvement

An interest in engagement with the local people, especially the victims of post-conflict and post-authoritarian settings, has grown in the literature on transitional justice (TJ). A “once size fits all” solution has become unacceptable, replaced by the recognition that local justice mechanisms need to correspond to people’s priorities and local circumstances (Volčič & Simić 2013).

This study has many parallels with the work of Robins, in its ‘victim-centred approach’ (2013, 2) and the definition of victim formulated by Mendez (2016). The focus is on the role of victims’ and their relatives’ associations.  Due to the fact that the transition in Spain took place four decades ago, most of the direct victims and indeed the perpetrators are no longer alive. Yet, the victims also include relatives ‘since the experience of suffering is not limited to that of persons who are directly targeted for murder, arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance or torture’ (Mendez 2016, 2). The victim and needs-centered approach of Robins proposes that TJ methods be shaped by the victims’ involvement, with the victims making their own claims, defining goals and participating in their implementation (2013, 58).

For Collins who has provided the most detailed definition, the term post-TJ refers to ‘challenges to or deepening of transition-era settlements around truth, justice and reconciliation’ (2012: 399). Collins additionally focuses on the ‘accountability actors’ of civil society who press legal charges against the perpetrators of past crimes (2010: 40). In line with Collins’ reference to the internationalised character of post-TJ measures (2010: 22), the legal complaint waged by the Spanish victims in Argentina against crimes of Francoism displays a commitment to the pursuit of justice beyond the borders. Collins draws attention at how the post-TJ processes have ‘been largely non-state, driven by private actors operating both “above” and “below” the state,… [with] divergent aims’ (2010: 22). The associations under study personify such efforts from “below” in Spain.

Setting the Base for the Associational Movement

A generational turnover is considered to be the prime factor in accounting for the increasingly vocal nature of the objections raised to the prevailing model of dealing with the past. Born in the 1960s (Humlebæk 2010, p. 426), it was the generation of the grandchildren who opened the debate on how the past would be dealt with. Members of this generation were ‘extremely critical of the Spanish model of transition, especially towards the institutionalized silence’ (Gelonch-Solé 2013, 514). It has been argued that the entry into the scene of a generation of grandchildren who persevered in finding out what their grandparents had been subjected to has been the underlying factor in accounting for the dynamism involved in social efforts aimed at reckoning with the past.

While the attempts at earlier decades were based on isolated, one-off, fragmented and limited claims centering fully on the individual, the memory movement gained momentum to achieve a collective dimension, questioning impunity frontally, diversifying its associative life and adopting a focus on human rights (Escudero, Campelo, González y Silva 2013, p. 21). The associative movement was increasingly regarded, however loosely, as constituting a network (Silva 2011, p. 71; Rubin 2014, p. 106). The existence of associations at the national, AC, provincial and village level (Silva Barrera 2011, p. 72) as well as those concentrating their activities on one particular site, theme or episode of Spanish history testify to the pluralist nature of the universe of associations.

The 2007 national law on Historical Memory constituted a landmark in the extension of recognition to the work of associations. The Interministerial Commission tasked with the preparation of the draft bill met the representatives of 36 different associations. The product of these efforts, the 2007 Law, states in Article 19 that ‘The work of the associations, foundations and organizations who have stood out in the defense of the dignity of all the victims of political violence referred to in this Law is hereby acknowledged’.

The associations have very frequently sought allies in the AC governments, many of which have raised the bar by going beyond the national governments in constructing a dense network of institutions and a legal framework in attending to the memory issues. Based on the framework set by the Law on Historical Memory of 2007 which envisaged an active role for the public authorities including those at the AC level, some AC governments have developed integrated strategies as well as institutions tasked with the pursuit of truth and justice. Furthermore, the Law on Historical and Democratic Memory of Andalusia and the draft laws inspired by it indeed devote a specific section to the work of the associations.


Andalusian law Aragón draft law Valencia draft law Extremadura  draft law Balearic Islands draft law
Recognition as well as the setting up of a registry and  a council to bring associational movements and foundations together  

Articles 38-42


Articles 37 –  38



Articles 29-31


Articles 37 – 39



Articles 18 -19


Interviews and initial findings on the ARMH and La Comuna

The memory movement might have been unthinkable without the initial steps taken by Emilio Silva, the founder and the current president of the ARMH. He initiated the process by going after the whereabouts of his grandfather, resulting in the exhumation of the deceased in a very public manner. While this incident might have brought closure to the family, it also triggered a whole array of interest, hope and politicization of the memory of Spaniards who have lost relatives during the dictatorship. Interviewing Emilio Silva helped develop an insight to the struggle of the victims and their families.

Another interview was conducted with Pablo Mayoral representing La Comuna, which is an organization of the prisoners of late Francoism. The association brings together direct victims, with firsthand experience of repression. During the interviews, when visiting the garage after which the publishing house (El Garaje Ediciones S.L.) is named, the publications examined were focused on the memories of the victims or documented the context existing under the dictatorship.

The analysis of activities of the associations as well as how they perceive their own experience was particularly delved into. The communiqués and press releases by the associations, along with the websites and documents provided by their representatives were studied with a view to deciphering their self-evaluation of achievements and limitations. Reaching a clear view of the self-definition and aims of the associations was the purpose of the first group of questions.

Pablo Mayoral gave a very powerful but also a generic answer when asked about their aim. He replied very decisively that it is ‘to end impunity of Francoism’ which certainly included, as he specified, ‘bringing the responsible before justice and prosecuting them all’. He had a critical tone when he complained that the essential first step was to manage to find ‘a judge who would dare to initiate a case.’

Regarding the organizational structure and decision-making procedures, both Silva and Mayoral identified the ARMH and La Comuna as being ‘highly decentralized’. Silva added ‘centralization amounts to wasting time’ with his practical attitude posited throughout the interview. Mayoral too highlighted the participatory and non-hierarchical processes at work inside the association, stressing that ‘members do everything together.’

Mirta Núñez Díaz-Balart also chose the similar words to describe the internal functioning of the associations, bringing to the forefront their ‘participatory, deliberative, decentralized’ nature. The work of volunteers was defined as an outcome of ‘conscience and commitment, … something habitual, open and normal’. She described the non-hierarchical character of members’ relations, noting that ‘they talk just like we are talking at the moment’.

During the interviews, the most important issue surfaced to be the generational replacement. Whether there will be a halt in the progress of the memory movement seems to be very much linked to generational turnover. It was crucial to find out how the new generations who have not directly heard stories or met their grandparents would be willing to continue the legacy.

Diaz-Balart has a pessimistic reading of the level of interest among the younger generations. In her perspective, those who preserve a tie are the middle aged, with the issue being a matter of intellectual interest all over the world. Yet, her views on the youth can be differentiated from those of Silva and Mayoral.

Silva rather does not believe that the cause will be lost with the new generation. Praising their awareness, he cites his personal experience with youngsters who pose challenging questions to him. The curriculum particularly in the high schools, in his opinion, does not set the target of revealing the truth about the past. History teaching is in his words is ‘horrible’, with the authoritarian period not even being spoken of ‘except for when a teacher has a personal experience’. Thus, introducing awareness in high schools would be a ‘miracle’. In pointing at the importance of constructing a culture of human rights, Silva makes the striking comment that what he knows about human rights, he has learnt from the computer.

Silva equally complains of how the universities do not offer studies of the repression and human rights. Silva is critical in stating that none of the five universities in Madrid have departments or programs on the issue. He is certain that ‘this is a political choice’. Moreover, it is a socio-political problem that the issue is treated ‘softly, made fun of and even ridiculed’ in literary productions and films. He is still quick to provide a long list of alternative theatre plays and art exhibitions that reproduce different narratives than the commonly negligent attitude.

The attitude of Mayoral is along the same lines. He explains how his generation felt the passion and was fierce, despite the repression the left experienced back then. They very much believed in the struggle in the 1970s and especially between 1975 and 1977, when there was an enormous mobilization. However, with the introduction of the Amnesty Law in 1977, an illusion of national reconciliation was created. In his account, this illusion silenced many people while masking other things and leading to a major delay.

Whereas the young generation certainly did not experience the repression, according to Mayoral, 16 to 25 year olds are curious and indeed keen to pay homage to their grandparents. University students take up internships in the association, a point also highlighted by the ARMH as one of their organizational strengths. 15-M popular mobilization introduced fresh air as youngsters took to the streets. The energy and motivation of the young generation, Mayoral says, ‘gives him hope’.

In order to pinpoint the current state of memory politics in Spain and the cooperation among various actors, the questions on relations with other actors emerge as the most explanatory ones. Firstly, an evaluation of the approach of the public authorities (at the national, AC, local government levels) to the issue of historical memory was requested. A more committed role on the part of various levels of public authorities in terms of funding, support and equal treatment is regarded to be a step forward, with repeated references to the greater attention paid to the victims of ETA violence.

The main emphasis of the memory movement in Spain has been on reiterating that it was indeed the state that had to shoulder the burden in the pursuit of truth. In its struggle to invite the state in, the social movement for the recovery of memory in Spain has followed a policy made up of the three pillars of raising the media profile of the plight of the defeated, seeking judicial intervention and internationalizing the search for justice by seeking remedies beyond Spain’s borders.

The essence of the replies to the questions on the public authorities has been one of criticism, emphasizing neglect. It is fair to claim that most public authorities, especially the national government and the judiciary, insist on a ‘blank-page’ approach. Silva refers to public authorities as ‘inoperative and ineffective’. Indeed, he claims that the public authorities are acting as accomplices to crimes with this stance. Silva rather adopts a critical attitude towards the 2007 Law. He mentioned the fact that it is underlined (indeed six times in the prologue) that it is the responsibility of the person claiming reparations to prove that he or she deserves it, instead of the Ministry being tasked with that. Moreover, in 2011, the issue of historical memory was transferred from the Department of Justice to the Department of Culture which is regarded by Silva as an ‘insult’. In another sign of discontent, Silva confirms that ‘when human remains are found in a grave, a complaint is always made because there is a crime. The judge never arrives. There is a very big collection of complaints.’

Díaz-Balart also supported the statement that ‘judges do not fulfill their mission to attend to exhumations’. She claims that the national government takes a reluctant or even an obstructionist stance. She complains that repression has taken new forms instead of a naked physical form. In her opinion, the national government is almost trying to annul the 2007 Law by defunding it. She draws attention to how ‘While zero subsidies are provided for exhumations, 300 thousand euros are allocated to the reconstruction of the Valle de los Caídos’, along with the bodies of the members of the Blue Division being brought home with public money. Another crucial example cited by Díaz-Balart is that the decisions of the War Councils were not annulled but only declared to be illegitimate.

Mayoral defines the public authorities as negligent, incompetent, and apathetic. He notes that the complaints of victims fall on deaf ears. Once more the 2007 national Law is referred to as insufficient and even ‘hypocritical’. In Mayoral’s words the law ‘is a wet paper’ as ‘no means were provided for the cause’. The key argument of La Comuna is that Francoism persists. Mayoral believes that ‘It may been weakened but the Francoist state has not collapsed’, pointing at how the Amnesty Law is not derogated and purges of Francoists members has not taken place as they keep on functioning as policemen, judges, and military officers.

Again a striking example offered during the interview was a clear case of favoritism and even obstruction of justice by public authorities. Mayoral’s personal experience throughout the Argentinean complaint is telling. After being captured and accused of killing a policeman and a soldier, Mayoral was condemned to a death sentence. He was tortured and forced to sign a confession, which he could not even read. He spent three years in jail and was released as a result of the amnesty law towards the end of 1977. The irony is that he is currently an activist campaigning against the same amnesty law because it has a broad coverage, also amnestying the Francoists. He lists one by one the names of the judges at his trial and is still hoping to see the ones that are still alive being prosecuted. Mayoral states that when he was to testify in the embassy, the government impeded it. The second time, he was to testify through a videoconference but a protocol matter blocked that effort too. In 2013, he was finally able to travel to Buenos Aires to give his testimony.

Special mention is made of the AC governments by all interviewees. Díaz-Balart refers to a cradle of social demand in Andalusia, which leads to associations working very efficiently and continuously. The ARMH can be described as being satisfied with the role taken by the AC government of the Basque Country. In both Extremadura and Andalusia the care given to the issue depends on the political party in power, a situation defined as ‘arbitrary’ by Silva. A total neglect of the issue is referred to as characterizing the state of affairs in Madrid. Silva also has a reserved attitude on the law in Andalusia, arguing that the real challenge is that of implementing the laws rather than drafting them. When reminded of the sanctions for noncompliance upheld in the Andalusian law, he asked whether anyone was fined already.

In the meeting with La Comuna, there was a detailed elaboration of how in the AC of Madrid symbolic reparations such as the removal of Francoist plates and badges were proposed. The bill did not go through, as the PP and Ciudadanos voted against while Ahora Madrid and Socialists voted affirmatively. The efforts of the AC government of Navarra and Aragón are praised by Mayoral. Optimistic accounts are presented on Andalusia where, in places like Cádiz, it is possible to talk about a keen interest in memory politics. In Valencia, there has been a call for more collaboration and that the legal complaints be joined in. Finally, in addition to Barcelona, the municipalities developing their own complaints against Francoism are also frequently mentioned.

Relations with other associations are arguably another pivotal factor in leading to the politicization of historical memory. Based on the insights provided by Díaz-Balart, each association has its own objectives and area of specialization, meaning that they normally work apart. Many work in some regions and not all across Spain as a consequence of the demand from the people of the region. The ARHM qualifies the project Todos los Nombres as being collaborative, with the exchange of information between the two initiatives. However, according to Silva ‘there are those who make pure propaganda, aim at securing monopoly and allow for the intervention of political parties’ and ‘these groups have other intentions and purposes’.

In Silva’s opinion pluralism and specialization serve as assets inside the associative movement. Alongside a kind of division of labor in the commitment to different TJ methods ‘there is also a regional flavor among the associations’. Once again in Silva’s words, ‘atomization is the best. It leads to natural alliances and joint projects are undertaken’. The ARHM considers itself to be distinctive when compared to other associations with their claim to represent the memory of all, including the right. Silva elaborates his point by stating how he was criticized for campaigning for Paracuellos prisoners. Mayoral in turn depicts La Comuna’s relations with other associations as being ‘complementary, supportive, and collaborative’.  He adds how important it is to work with both national and international associations when asked about the future goals of his association.

Another important aspect of the debate on the politicization of memory relates to the ties between associations and political parties. During the interviews, the aim was to get a sense of whether the ties were seen to be necessary or considered as liabilities. Díaz-Balart is critical of right-wing governments but refers to the example of Málaga, where a right-wing party supports the recovery of part of the cemetery where the victims of Francoism are located. She believes that, for the Spanish right, ‘historical memory can do damage to peace in Spain’ and is better left untouched. She states that this approach reminds her of the Francoist mentality which seeks for peace in economic progress and in exchange for silence. She also qualifies the PSOE policies as being ‘soft’.

Díaz-Balart draws attention to the fact that ‘the ties between parties and associations are not really official or clear’. Associations rather work at the margins of political parties especially the Communist Party and the Izquierda Unida (IU). She praises the work of the IU during the passing of the 2007 national Law. While acknowledging that the existence of ties or greater cooperation varies from one Spanish region to another, she is still confident in stating that the left prevails among the members of associations. In support of the comments of Díaz-Balart, frequent references are made to the IU by La Comuna. Yet, the association can also engage in cooperation with other parties. Mayoral expresses how, in the Basque Country, they collaborate with Podemos as well as nationalists/proindependence groups and, in Catalonia, with the CUP.

As to the PSOE and the PP, both Mayoral and Silva are critical of how the two parties made a pact with the monarchy and ended up avoiding the judicial processing of the crimes whereby the struggle against Francoism was halted. The two strongest nationwide political parties are indeed regarded as having done nothing or having inflicted damage on memory politics. The PP indeed cannot escape the criticisms of Mayoral who refers to its members as the ‘heirs of Francoism’, with the prototype of Francoist ministers. Silva, on the other hand, accentuates that these political parties abandoned the families to their faith, with no public apologies, and instead presented an idyllic account of the transition.

However, Mayoral and others in La Comuna do not prefer to isolate the political parties. They are rather in favor of inviting the PSOE to join their cause. Their stance can be summarized as a tendency ‘to build ties with political parties but not leaving them the initiative’. Mayoral indeed explained how, after the general elections, La Comuna went to the European Parliament with the deputies of Podemos. They are indeed content with reaching out for various forums with the help of political parties. Compromís, En Comú, Podemos, and Ahora Madrid are regarded in a positive light, as presenting associations with more possibilities to that end.

The ARMH does not aim to build ties with political parties and is indeed skeptical of them. Silva considers political parties to be belligerent. He points at how the amnesty law was passed with unanimity and that the parties opposing the monarchy were not legalized. The ARMH also considers political party affiliation as a factor slowing down the search for truth. Fierce criticism of both left and right-wing political parties is evident in the words of Silva. In Silva’s opinion, political militancy is a ‘waste of time’ and the prime concern has to be for the families. In turn, during the initial years of his memory work, the Communists proposed Silva to work for the party, an offer he declined to accept. He complains of how the Communists at present argue that supporting the ARMH is erasing memory. As for the PSOE, there is a disagreement on how the victims whose remains are found should be honored. The PSOE opposes exhumations and rather advocates that a monument be erected wherever the graves are, whereas the ARMH argues it is the right of the families to bury their relatives. Asked to pinpoint the major limitations of their organizations, Silva refers to the lack of a government that is eager to help them. Mayoral replies with an emphasis on the lack of resources and activists. He hence focuses on the necessity to raise and collect funds, increase the awareness of the mass media and recruit more people. He also adds that education at the university level is essential for the sake of spreading democratic, anti-fascist and anti-dictatorial values. For Mayoral, at the heart of real change lies the need for a restructuring of the legal framework. Similar difficulties such as the lack of economic resources as well as that of a change in the legal and juridical framework are also cited by Díaz-Balart. In addition, she mentions the challenge involved in working in the archives. In her opinion, the real complication is not only gaining access but also getting hold of the relevant information.

On the whole, La Comuna members are content with their achievements and contributions. Mayoral admits that, in spite of repression, associations have achieved the unearthing of bodies and the paying of homage in various ways. Mayoral particularly points at the permanent nature of the struggle. The same hopeful analysis is shared by Díaz-Balart. She defines herself as ‘satisfied and hopeful with the progress so far’ and reiterates the need for truth commissions and prosecutions.


Based on the present stage of the research, though not exhaustive, a set of lessons learnt from associational activism in the past decades may be identified and may serve to guide the efforts in the coming decade as well as elsewhere around the world.

  1. Commitment to democracy within the associations, voluntary membership and loose as well as participatory decision-making are principal assets,
  2. The division of labor among the associations in terms of priority demands, areas of specialization and where the memory work takes place contribute to spreading activism throughout the country,
  3. It is so far not possible to pinpoint whether ties with political parties are an asset or a liability. Whereas the ARMH regards close cooperation with political parties as tantamount to serving the political ends of these parties instead of that of families, La Comuna works with political parties such as the IU in order to make their voice heard. The Descendientes del Exilio and the Foro por la Memoria, to the contrary, are characterized by their ties to the Socialist and the Communist parties respectively.
  4. Generational shifts are an integral part of the analysis. It is not only that generational turnover can be cited as an indicator of the revival of memory politics in Spain, but also different generations develop distinct objectives. The ARHM (the generation of grandchildren) and La Comuna (direct victims) posit a different stance vis-à-vis the perpetrators. La Comuna seems to advocate a relatively more retributive approach.
  5. The creation among the new generation of a culture of awareness and willingness to question the past as well as find out about the truth and ensure that justice is served still remains to be unfinished work.
  6. Education, especially at the higher education institutions, is pivotal to enhancing awareness. The need for artistic and literary productions dealing with the truth is also mentioned among methods in raising awareness.
  7. Funding, cut particularly after the PP’s taking over of the national government, remains to be a core limitation.
  8. The associations are unlikely to be satisfied without criminal prosecutions or judicial presence during the labor at the sites critical to filling the gap on memory.




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