The Politics of Erasing the Past

I think it is safe to say almost everyone is familiar with the metaphor, “We all have skeletons in our closet.” In other words, we––being naturally flawed––make mistakes, and we harbor parts of our pasts that we are not proud of––things we want to keep hidden and locked away in a closet forever so that no one else may ever find out. The same is true for nations. Every nation has its own unique history, and each has enjoyed at one time or another intermittent golden ages of prosperity and transient peace. In the same vein, however, each has also undoubtedly suffered intense pain and been marred and tainted by dark ages of social strife, corruption, persecution, and even civil war.

With that said, and in relation to the aforementioned metaphor, is it possible or even normatively suggestible to try and shove those skeletons in the closet forever? Should nations forgive, forget, and move past their historical atrocities, or always remember? Furthermore, can a less-than-admirable past be polished up or ever truly erased? These questions are complex and multi-faceted, and while I do not have a coherent answer to them myself, I will attempt to highlight both sides of the argument by comparing Spain’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory with the United States’ current and ongoing effort to remove all public symbols of support and solidarity with the long-deceased Confederate States of America.

The Law of Historical Memory is a law that was passed in Spanish Congress in October of 2007 by 8 out of the 10 major political parties and coalitions. Drafted by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the goal of its creation and implementation is to recognize the suffering of all those who endured persecution and religious, political, or ideological violence during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the following military dictatorship (1939-1975) under General Francisco Franco. Among its various objectives, the law champions the extraction of all Franco and fascist symbols on buildings or in public spaces. It requires the Spanish government to help financially with the continued search, identification, and exhumation of the bodies of the thousands of victims who still remain at the bottom of mass graves throughout the country. With the more recent addition of its seven amendments, it also points the finger at the federal government as being responsible for providing continued financial aid to the victims and their descendents––a kind of ongoing reparation process, if you will. By formally condemning the Franco regime and trying to make amends with the families of those who felt (both directly and indirectly) the wrath of his oppression and brutality, the law is a cry for poetic justice. It is a direct leftist response to the more conservative Law of Amnesty––dubbed “The Pact of Forgetting”––that was passed in 1977 almost immediately after Franco’s death in 1975. This law, on the other hand, was essentially a formal governmental pardon to all those who participated in the atrocities of the war and the following regime. There would be neither repercussions nor compensation to anyone after everything was over. According to its right-wing supporters, the past should be left in the past where it belongs so that Spain can heal and move forward in its transition towards becoming a fully functional, modernized democracy. In other words, remembering will only prove a hindrance to progression. Both points of view continue to undergo extreme contentious debate, as the Spanish people cannot seem to agree on what is best for the future of their country: turning a blind eye to the nasty truth or confronting it head-on in an attempt to come to terms with it and ensure that something like it never happens again.

This same debate has been rehashed a little closer to home here in the United States. After the neo-Nazi white supremacist groups marched through Charlottesville in August of this past summer in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, we as Americans were all forced to take a good look at our history as a country and what the continued presence of statues and monuments of the like mean for our present and our future. Just like in Spain with the Law of Amnesty facing off against the Law of Historical Memory, a solidified consensus about what to do with all the remaining Confederate general statues and monuments has not been reached. Some states have made full-scale, conscious efforts to sift through their public parks and spaces in an attempt to eradicate any trace of the Confederacy, while others have not gotten completely on board. However, does that mean that those states who have not taken down all their statues and monuments are full of maniacal racists and bigots? Not necessarily. They might just view the issue as being too divisive and controversial to take action, for fear that the removal of every last remaining symbol would be extremely tedious and costly and do more harm than good. After all, once the decision is made to remove one statue, it is almost implicitly expected that all the rest be removed as well. As the New York Times summarizes the debate, those who favor the removal see these symbols as monuments to white supremacy and public portrayals of nostalgia for the Confederacy, while opponents of their removal see it as a futile and nonsensical attempt to erase the past.

At the end of the day, there is a marked difference between remembrance and veneration. The acknowledgment and acceptance of a nation’s past do not imply pride. Spain without its brutally repressive post-civil war dictatorship under General Franco would probably not be the same socially liberal and progressive Spain that it is today. However, that does not mean that Spain is to be thankful for the role Franco played throughout its history. Spain owes him nothing. Similarly, the United States would not be the same country without its civil war and longtime struggle with racism and discrimination. Removing historically inaccurate statues and monuments that glorify the Confederacy is one thing, but keeping some as a remembrance and reminder of that historical time period should not be a problem. People should be able to feel safe saying this and recognizing that it does not make them supporters of the Confederacy or venerators of racist Confederate generals. Let’s not try and hide our scars, because they tell a story. The bad times, just as the good times, are part of the historical DNA and legacy of a country.