Spain Reconsidered: The Pact of Forgetting


I recall the cool night in 1971 when I reached the frontier of Franco’s Spain. The border guard sized me up: Backpacker. He pawed through my pack and pulled out a baggie of white powder.

¿Qué es esto?”

“Soap,” I said. His eyes were blank. “Sopa,” I said, making a bad guess at Spanish. Clearly, the powder in the baggie was not soup. Actually it was Woolite, for washing my dirty socks. I made a motion to the guard: You take it.

No. He was there to take me.

With a stab of fear, I pantomimed scrubbing. The guard wetted his hands and tried scrubbing with the white powder. It was slick, but no suds. His superior came over, peeled off his white gloves and felt the slickness between thumb and forefinger. He sniffed it, carefully. His expression lightened. “Jabón,” he said. Soap. He waved me into Spain.

That was my brush with the fascist state — a puny event, but it did remind me of where I was. Earlier this month I crossed into Spain for the first time in 50 years. There were no luggage inspections and no guards, only a sign on the side of the road: España.”

I was on a tour organized through the UW Alumni Association. The tour was of the country’s Roman, Moorish, and Medieval past, as well as Spain today, a relaxed and friendly place of sidewalk cafes and tapas bars. The tour didn’t promise anything about the 20th century, which included some terrible times, but I hoped to satisfy a private interest.

My interest was in the Spanish Civil War. It began in 1936, when the right-wing military attempted to depose the left-wing government of the Spanish Republic. The war lasted for three years and drew in people and arms from around the world. The rebellious generals were backed by Mussolini and Hitler. The Republic was aided by thousands of foreign volunteers recruited into the International Brigades. Some of the volunteers came from Seattle. On the University of Washington campus is a monument to them.

For several years, support of the Spanish Republic was the great cause of the American Left, which presented it as a fight for freedom and democracy. That was arguable. The Spanish Republic included liberals, but its chief foreign backer was the Soviet Union, under Stalin. The International Brigades put American volunteers in a unit called the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, but the whole operation was run by the Communist Party.

How Spain would have looked had the Republic won, we’ll never know. The Republic lost, and Spain became a fascist state under Francisco Franco. Atrocities had been committed on both sides, and some 500,000 people killed.

Twentieth century history was not on the agenda of my UW Alumni tour. I did pick up occasional remarks from local guides. One of them mentioned to me that Portugal and Spain used to be in the same time zone, but that Franco had changed it, “in order to be in the same time zone as his pal, Hitler.”

Some days later, we came to the historic city of Toledo. There a guide noted that the fort at the top of the hill, the Alcázar de Toledo, had been wrecked in the Civil War and rebuilt. We didn’t visit the fort, but we visited the cathedral, which was stupendous. But the story of the fort interested me. At the beginning of the Civil War, a handful of Franco’s supporters were besieged there for weeks. “They ate their horses,” the guide said to me. Later I read that they were rescued by Franco’s forces and made into Nationalist heroes. Well, that’s not a story Spain promotes to foreign visitors.

In Madrid, we toured the National Palace and saw big paintings of the current monarch, Felipe VI, and his family. I asked the guide whether all the major political parties support the monarchy. “Not all of them,” she said.

I also asked her why the tour showed nothing of Franco. “We don’t like to think about him,” she said. Indeed, after Franco died, and the dictatorship ended, the parties of the left and the right made a deal called the Pacto del Olvido, the Pact of Forgetting. The Civil War and its aftermath had been so awful that they agreed to let it alone.

Later, Spain’s parliament passed the Law of Historical Memory, which called for the removal of pro-Franco images from public buildings and spaces. Under that law, the last statue of Franco, in the North African exclave of Melilla, was pulled down three years ago. Franco’s body was removed from a national shrine and reburied in an ordinary cemetery at the edge of Madrid.

The other side’s heroes have fared little better. in 1936, when Franco’s forces were the gates of Madrid, Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri famously stirred the militias with her slogan, ¡No pasarán!” — “They shall not pass!” — and the fascists didn’t pass. The Republic’s supporters venerated her as “La Pasionaria.” Madrid does have a statue of her, but it is a poor representation in a poor place, and is sometimes vandalized. Glasgow, Scotland has a more heroic one.

Most notably, Spain has no national museum of its civil war. In 2021 came an announcement that such a museum was being planned for Teruel, an out-of-the way town where one of the great battles was fought. The museum, it was said, would be open by 2025 and would tell the story of the war without taking sides. Even the idea of neutrality stirred passions. Supporters of the Republic declared that failure to denounce fascism would be moral cowardice.

Seventy-five years after that very painful war, it is still easier not to talk about it.

The big exception to Spain’s Pact of Forgetting is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Raina Sofia Museum in Madrid. The big black-and-white painting memorializes the bombing of innocent civilians by the Hitler’s Condor Legion in April 1937. Picasso started work on the painting within days, and it was a sensation when he unveiled it in Paris that June. My UW Alumni tour took us to see it at the end of the trip. The painting is of disembodied cubist images of humans, a bull and a horse, screaming. If it is not nice to look at, neither was Guernica after the bombers were done with it. At least I could see the painting in the country where it belonged. Fifty years ago, I could not.

Here I was again in Spain, an American on a guided tour, not speaking Spanish, with my knowledge of history limited to a handful of books. No doubt I missed a lot. But on my last day in Madrid, a warm Sunday, I did notice a clot of protesters on a broad avenue called the Paseo del Prado. The protesters were raising a flag much different from the red-yellow-red banner of today’s Spain: the red-yellow-purple flag of the old Republic. The protesters were middle-aged. They shouted and sang, but they did not block the road, and the police paid them little attention, nor did madrileños out for a Sunday stroll.

The protesters stopped at the central post office and stood behind two banners. One called for remembering history and restoring justice. The other said, “Viva the Third Republic.” The one in the ’30s was the Second Republic. There is no Third.

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. What a coincidence, that this was published on the 50th anniversary of the Portuguese Carnation Revolution.

    Salazar, the founding father as it were of the Estado Novo dictatorship had already died a few years before of natural causes. He was nothing like Franco, just an economics professor with some pretty conservative ideas. Those ideas didn’t turn out very well – essentially 3rd world conditions, repressive police state with informers and torture – but I think it was eventually their version of Vietnam that was the dictatorship’s undoing. (Portugal was fighting rebellions in African colonies.)

    The revolution was a military coup that came off with only a handful of deaths, when the secret police opened fire on people who had gathered in front of the palace. The coup was followed by a fairly rapid transition to civilian government. It’s the “Carnation” Revolution because as people crowded into the streets in Lisbon, someone started with carnations to the soldiers, in at least some cases in the rifle barrels.

    I think the Portuguese are deservedly proud of the way that was handled, and it’s well remembered today. No fireworks though, in this town anyway, and they do like their fireworks, but on May Day they’re going to do something in honor of one of the principal figures, who had some connection with the town.


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