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The Ghosts of Justice and the Law of Historical Memory

Mónica López Lerma


S’appuyant sur la relation éthico-politique entre la mémoire et la justice dans le sens proposé par Walter Benjamin et Jacques Derrida, cet article porte sur le rétablissement de la mémoire historique des victimes de la dictature de Francisco Franco (1939-1975). Pour ce faire, il oppose le roman Beltenebros (1989) d’Antonio Muñoz Molina et la récente loi espagnole « loi de la mémoire historique » (2007). En juxtaposant le roman et la loi, cet article vise à retracer dans chaque texte une série de pratiques récurrentes de représentations (mots, images, expressions) qui cherchent à rendre justice aux victimes, avec un succès inégal. Les expressions récurrentes du roman (par exemple, les ombres, le refoulé, l’éternel retour, les fantômes et la cécité) soulignent l’importance de surmonter les « fantômes du passé ». La loi, quant à elle, se concentre sur d’autres mots et images (par exemple, la fondation, la réconciliation, la concorde et la fermeture) qui font allusion à l’idée du progrès historique sans une reconnaissance appropriée des injustices du passé. Ce faisant, la loi devient un lieu de commémoration pour la Transition espagnole, mais pas pour le rétablissement de la mémoire des victimes. La ré-appropriation de la loi de « l’esprit de la Transition » révèle la peur profonde de l’Espagne d’affronter les fantômes du passé, une peur qui peut être perçue encore aujourd’hui.

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No justice seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of war, political or other kind of violence.

Jacques Derrida—Specters of Marx

  • 1  Walter Benjamin (1842–1940) was a German-Jewish Marxist philosopher, who, after Adolf Hitler’s ele (...)

1In his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1968 : 253-264), Walter Benjamin offers a critical vision of history through an interpretation of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. In Klee’s painting, Benjamin sees an angel looking as though he is about to move away from the present to the future while keeping his face turned toward the past. There the angel, looking horrified, sees not the uninterrupted historical progress, but rather a single catastrophe that keeps piling ruins at his feet. The angel would like to stop, awaken the dead, and rebuild the ruins, but he cannot. The power of a storm blowing from Paradise prevents him from going back. The storm propels him forward, toward the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of wreckage grows skyward.1 For Benjamin, Paradise represents the historicist conception of history, which always reproduces the past in accordance with the official version of the dominant classes. The storm, in turn, is the ideology of progress that hides the barbarism upon which Paradise stands. The Angel of History, on the other hand, perceives the reality of a past excluded from the historicist discourse and is able to “brush history against the grain” (Benjamin, 1968 : 257). This dialectical relationship between the present and the past gives a new and hopeful meaning to the present (Benjamin, 1968 : 261). According to Benjamin, it is necessary to look back and reveal the barbarism of the past in order to avoid repeating it in the future.

  • 2  For discussions about the relationship between history and memory see, among others: Nora, 1989: 7 (...)

2Drawing on this Benjaminian critical image, this article addresses the recovery of the historical memory of the victims of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939–1975) by contrasting Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novel Beltenebros (better known as Prince of Shadows, 1989) and the recent Spanish “Law of Historical Memory” (2007).2 In juxtaposing the novel and the current law, I aim to trace in each text a series of recurring representational practices(words, images, expressions, and figures) that seek to do justice to the victims with unequal success. The novel uses a series of images and recurring expressions (i.e., shadows, the repressed, eternal return, ghosts, and blindness) which stress the importance of coming to terms with the “ghosts of the past.” The law focuses instead on words and images (i.e., foundation, reconciliation, concord, and closure) that allude to the idea of historical progress without proper acknowledgment of the injustices of the past. In doing so, the law becomes a commemorative site for the Spanish Transition, not for the recovery of the memory of the victims. In other words, the law becomes another instance of the Benjaminian paradise : a reproduction of the official version of history that ignores and hides the ruins of the past.

  • 3  For a critical study of the politics of memory during the Spanish Transition, see, among others, M (...)

3This study is not, and does not claim to be, a critical analysis of the Spanish Transition or of its “politics of memory.”3 Rather, I focus on Spain’s current attempts to cope with its traumatic past by examining the first legal document explicitly designed to deal with it. In my analysis of the law, I am not concerned with its concrete or positive legal measures, but with its justificatory and self-legitimating strategies, and for what these can reveal (or conceal) about the memory of the victims. These rhetorical strategies are best found in the law’s Exposición de motivos (exposition of reasons), the part of the law that precedes the concrete body of measures and tries to justify its own existence and goals. This is so because the Exposición de motivosnarrates the law’s own version of the history that precedes it and makes it necessary, describes the social reality and context that it wants to affect, and depicts the kind of society it imagines and wishes to establish for the future. My argument is that a critical reading of these representational practices yields a far less satisfactory outcome than what the law is set to accomplish. Contrary to its declared goal of recovering the memory of the victims, the law actually fails to address this memory. In contrast, the novel’s dark and ghostly representations unveil in the Angel of History the ghosts that return to claim justice, and which the law’s commemorative act renders invisible. As a result, and in a way that the current law is unable to accomplish, the language of the novel engenders the principle of responsibility without which “no justice seems possible or thinkable” (Derrida, 1994 : xviii).

4My analysis is divided into three sections. The first section provides a historical overview of the repression during the dictatorship and the politics of memory of the ensuing democracy. The second section turns to Muñoz Molina’s Beltenebros to explore the language with which the novel takes responsibility for these ruins and comes to terms with the traumatic past. The third and final section looks at the ways in which the “Law of Historical Memory” fails to achieve responsibility for the memory of the victims.

Antecedents : Perversions of History

5On July 18, 1936, Franco’s coup d’état put an end to the democratic and constitutional government of the Spanish Second Republic (1931–1936). Its aftermath was three years of bloody Civil War (1936–1939) and almost forty years of a repressive dictatorship. According to the Francoist version of history, the Civil War was necessary and justified, as Franco “liberated” Spain from the public chaos of an illegitimate Republic led by “evil and degenerate Marxists.” During the years of the dictatorship, the military uprising of July 18 came to be commemorated as the “glorious uprising” (glorioso alzamiento), and April 1st, the end of the war, as the “Day of Victory” (El Día de la Victoria). Monumental sites such as the Valley of the Fallen(El Valle de los Caídos, built by the forced labor of Republican prisoners) or the Madrilenian Arch of Triumph(Arco del Triunfo) were built to honor the memory of those who “died for God and Spain.” Political propaganda such as the No-Do, News, and Documentaries, created to transmit Franco’s ideological discourses and to establish absolute control over education and the media, helped to promote the image of Franco as a national hero and to legitimize the repression of his ideological opponents. In the last decades of the regime, the exaltation of the war became the exaltation of the years of peace, which Franco contrasted with the “violent” and “chaotic” period of the Second Republic.

  • 4  In 2006, Maltese Socialist politician Leo Brincat presented a report to the Council of the Europea (...)
  • 5  These were the objectives of Antonio Vallejo Nágera, Director of the Military Psychiatric Services (...)

6In contrast, the History of the vanquished Republicans (those who fought against the heroes and liberators of Spain) was deemed unworthy of recounting. Their memories and suffering were severely repressed, and no memorials or mourning for their dead were allowed. Fear, humiliation, imprisonment, and threats of being punished or killed, became institutionalized mechanisms to censure any vision of the past that contradicted the Francoist version of history. A series of laws were enacted to persecute those who fought on the Republican side or were suspected of being its collaborators (Carrillo, 2006 : 501-527). The Law of Political Responsibilities (February 9, 1939) was enacted against those who supported the Republican cause and anyone who was considered an enemy of the new Regime ; the Law for the Repression of Masonry and Communism (March 1, 1940) was passed against those who, according to the law, represented the evils of Spain – they were the cause, among others, of the loss of the remnants of the Spanish Empire, the Civil Wars of the nineteenth century, the fall of the Constitutional Monarchy prior to the Republic, and the Civil War. To purify Spain from Republican evils, thousands of children were removed from Republican families and sent to state institutions, or adopted by families that could “adequately” raise them (Brincat Report, 2005 : 72-75).4 On the other hand, the Law of Public Order (July 30, 1959) was used to legalize torture and to repress and execute any person suspected of opposing the ideology of the regime. Women were not an exception. In the name of the Francoist concept of redemption, women were imprisoned, raped, and executed because of the behavior of a son or husband (Brincat Report, 2005 : 56). As a result, at the end of Franco’s regime, hundreds of thousands of people had been illegally detained, imprisoned, tortured, executed, and forced into labor, exile, or “disappeared” (Brincat Report, 2005).5 During almost forty years of dictatorship, the stories and memories of the vanquished were condemned to silence.

  • 6  As Aguilar explains, “[i]n exchange, regime reformists accepted the liberation of all political pr (...)
  • 7   Other than the radical Basque nationalists, the Spanish Socialist and Worker Party (PSOE), the Sp (...)

7Franco’s death in 1975 might have provided Spain the opportunity to seek justice for the victims of the regime and to honor their memory. Instead, the prominent political forces of the Transition agreed that securing a successful and peaceful transition to democracy required leaving the past behind – what has been referred to as the “pact of forgetfulness” (Pacto del Olvido). During the Transition (and to this day), no “truth commission” or trials to investigate and judge those responsible for Francoist crimes were (or have been) set up. In the name of national reconciliation, a parliamentary majority passed the Amnesty Law of 1977 (Amnesty Law/1977, 15 October, B.O.E. no. 248). The law exonerated “the authorities, officers and agents of public order who, prior to December of 1976, committed crimes and misdemeanors against the exercise of people’s rights” (article 2). The law excused the newly created democratic State from the obligation to investigate, judge, and punish those responsible for the disappearances, illegal detentions, tortures, and murders committed under Franco’s regime (Chinchón Álvarez, 2008 : 347).6 This amnesty “for all” was praised by almost all political groups, including communists who fought against Franco and his sympathizers, “because it was an instrument of ‘national reconciliation,’ intended to ‘close the past,’ ‘forget,’ and start a new phase” (Aguilar, 2001 : 103).7

8In the mind of many Spaniards, there was a direct link between the Republicans’ political “excesses” (as they were called by Francoist sympathizers) and the Civil War (not least because of persistent Francoist propaganda). This perceived link between the Republic and the Civil War made many weary of bringing back the ghosts of the Second Republic (Aguilar, 2008 : 234-235). There was a reluctance to relate the emerging democracy with the constitutional Republic, as it was feared that to do so could revive the conflict between the “two Spains.” In fact, the democratic regime chose not to restore the Republican tricolor flag (red/yellow/purple) and the national anthem (Himno de Riego). Instead, the Constitution of 1978 preserved the traditional red/yellow/red tricolor flag and the Marcha Real anthem (both used also under Franco). As Francisco Erice Sebares points out, “[t]he hypothetic consensus of pre-transitional memory could be judged, rather than like a meeting point, like a triumph of the re-elaboration of the Francoist ideology of memory over a possible alternative interpretation of the heirs of the Republican tradition” (2006 : 359, my own translation). After Franco’s death, Spain became the constitutional democratic monarchy of King Juan Carlos I – before his death, Franco designated the young prince as his successor with a view to continuing the regime.

9The failed attempted coup d’État of Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero on February 23, 1981, although a shocking reminder of Spain’s dictatorial past, reinforced the “politics of forgetting” of the Transition. In this regard, the arrival of Felipe González’s Spanish Socialist and Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) to the government on October 28, 1982 did not change things. In its attempt to break with the past, the Socialist government (1982–1996) did not confront or challenge the official history fabricated by Franco’s regime, nor condemn publicly its crimes against human rights. Only some economic pensions or symbolic reparations (i.e., monuments to honor the Republican memory) were granted to the victims. These limited reparations did not take into account the nature and gravity of the offenses, and in most cases they came too late or were insufficient (International Amnesty Report, 2005). The Socialist government’s priority was to reach the socioeconomic levels of its European neighbors, where modernization and Europeanization were tantamount to democratization. Incorporation into the European Common Market in 1986 was considered the culmination of Spain’s political and economic process of modernization. As a result, the victims of the dictatorship were doubly victimized, first by Franco, and then by the emerging democracy.

From Trauma to Justice: The Return of the Dead in Beltenebros

  • 8  According to Cathy Caruth, trauma “is understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon t (...)

10Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novel Beltenebros copes with the ghosts and wounds that, after almost twenty years of Franco’s dead (the novel was written in 1989), haunt and hurt democratic Spain deeply (Moreiras Menor, 2008: 9-10).8 Molina describes the post-Francoist period as the years in which “the rushed socialist catechism of modernity added a new nuance to the abolition of the past and its memory” (Muñoz Molina, 1997, my translation). In Beltenebros,he uses the perceptions of his protagonist to critically bring to light the Francoist legacy in the democratic present and to offer strategies for undertaking responsible historical memory.

  • 9  In 2004, the Military Division of Spain’s Supreme Court refused to revise 72 death sentences issue (...)
  • 10 Lawrence Rich reads Beltenebros as a “novel of memory” that challenges the foundations of Francoist (...)
  • 11 Psychologist proponents of the Narrative Exposure Therapy claim that victims of torture, terror, or (...)

11Beltenebros explores the crimes and injustices of the Francoist dictatorship from the traumatic perspective of the victims. Inspired by real events, the novel sheds light on two critical events in the history of the communist resistance : 1) the torture and execution of communist leader Heriberto Quiñones by the Francoist police in the 1940s, and 2) the case of Julián Grimau, an exiled anti-Francoist communist leader who was ambushed in mysterious circumstances, put on trial by a military court, sentenced to death, and consequently executed in the 1960s.9 The novel tells the story of Darman, an ex-Republican survivor of the Spanish Civil War, who, at the time of the dramatic action, works as an exiled professional killer for the clandestine Communist Party. Told as a flashback narrative by its non-omniscient protagonist, the novel does not follow a chronological order. The narrator pieces together what he experienced and partially witnessed as he imagines the events at which he was not actually present. This chaotic and subjective narrative of thoughts and past events is allegorical of traumatic memory – i.e., its disconnected fragments from the stream of consciousness that cannot be integrated into a totalizing history or account of the protagonist’s traumatic experience (Ruiz Vargas, 2006 : 331).10 Since “trauma is always the story of a wound that cries out […] in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available” (Caruth, 1996 : 4), the novel does provide language with which to overcome the traumatic experience by way of acknowledging the principle of responsibility, which makes “justice thinkable.”11

  • 12  With the terms specter and ghost, Derrida refers to the paradoxical condition of “the non-present (...)

12Paradoxically, the words “Franco,” “Francoism,” and “dictatorship” are never mentioned in the novel. Their ontological absence grants them a spectral presence in the text and reveals a “past/present” time haunted by ghosts. Both the title itself (Bel)tenebro[u]s and the name of its protagonist, Dar[k]man, allude to something shadowy, gloomy, and sinister,and anticipate the novel’s dark physical world and the specters that haunt the text.12Beltenebros presents two different types of specters : the “malignant” specters of totalitarian power structures, and the “benign” specters of the victims of these structures. Beltenebros’ “hauntology” stresses that “[w]e inherit not ‘what really happened’ to the dead but what lives on from that happening, what is conjured from it, how past generations and events occupy the force fields of the present, how they claim us, and how they haunt, plague, and inspirit our imaginations and visions for the future” (Brown, 2001 : 150). The question to be asked here is not what happened, but rather how the past in the form of ghosts interrupts, constrains, and shapes the present and the future.


  • 13 Derrida ascribes to the police the power to exercise a phantom-like violence. They “are present or (...)

13The novel begins in 1965, when Bernal, the leader of the clandestine organization sends Darman back to Madrid to seek out and kill a traitor called Andrade – allegedly, an informer of Inspector Ugarte, in charge of the Dirección General de Seguridad (Bureau of National Security) in Madrid. Ugarte is not a torturer like the rest, Bernal tells Darman, but a hunter with no past and no face and who has the ability to see in the dark.13 Andrade, on the other hand, has the cunning of an invisible man who hides like a shadow. This mission reminds Darman of another one he undertook in 1945, when he had to kill a traitor named Walter, and which he has spent the rest of his life trying to forget.

14Despite the parallels of the two missions, Darman is not the same man that killed Walter. Now he is “someone else, a catalogue of strangers whose photographs [he]’d been burning or losing like a murderer getting rid of his guilty past, like a traitor who forswears his loyalty and memory” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 20).When Bernal shows him the photograph of Andrade, his next target, Darman does not see a traitor, but a person like himself, “a man who is prematurely dead […], a shadow” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 40). Darman accepts the new mission because he feels a strong desire to know not the reasons behind Andrade’s treachery but the reasons behind his sadness. He is drawn into the crying wound of the man in the photograph, “not as the story in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another” (Caruth, 1996 : 8). Andrade’s photograph is to Darman the first manifestation of consciousness of his own condition as living dead ; to know Andrade’s story may mean knowing his own. The novel’s struggle against oblivion is illustrated in Darman’s journey back to Madrid – to the “interior” as he calls it. His return to Madrid becomes both a process of a recovery of memory (individual and collective) and of a search for justice.

The Repressed

  • 14 Rebeca Osorio works as a singer in a clandestine club called Boîte Tabú and she signs for inspector (...)

15As soon as Darman arrives in Madrid, he encounters names, people, and places from the past that take him back in time and make him relive the repressed details of “Walter’s case.” He remembers that, in 1945, Walter ran a theater called Universal Cinema, where he lived with his lover, Rebeca Osorio, and Valdivia, another member of the organization. He also remembers that he shot Walter knowing that doing so would shatter Rebeca’s life (she was in love with Walter). After the killing, Darman had escaped to England, Valdivia was supposedly killed by the police, Rebeca disappeared, and the Universal Cinema was closed. Twenty years later, Darman faces an almost identical situation : He encounters a second Rebeca Osorio, who not only looks exactly like the first one, but is also the lover of his target, Andrade. (Later, Darman will also discover that she is the daughter of Walter and the first Rebeca Osorio).14 This new encounter makes him realize that he never regretted killing Walter, “but it cost [him] years of sleepless nights not to keep seeing Rebeca Osorio’s eyes everywhere” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 113). Darman’s return to Madrid is “like shedding the skin of indifference and oblivion time had added to memory, and everything hurt[s] as if it had happened yesterday” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 45).

  • 15 As Jean Laplanche puts it: “[O]n the one hand, the repressed scene, an unpleasant memory, on the ot (...)

16Caruth’s conception of trauma may shed light on Darman’s situation here. In her view, trauma is an “unclaimed experience” that is “not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature – the way it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on” (Caruth, 1996 : 4). The traumatic event is never contained in a single moment ; it must be first internalized and afterwards revivified in a second scene that echoes the original traumatic one.15 Darman’s twenty years of exile in England are the “latency period” of a trauma, the period during which the effects of the experience are not apparent, because the traumatic effects have been repressed and forgotten (Caruth, 1996 : 17). In Madrid, the juxtaposition of past (1945) and present (1965) triggers the memories of the original traumatic scene that Darman had forgotten. The relationship between the second Rebeca Osorio and Andrade, his new victim (second scene) surfaces as the “symbol” of Darman’s repressed love for the first Rebeca Osorio and his old victim Walter (the primary scene). Darman goes from shadows (his condition of living dead) to consciousness (life),from forgetfulness to memory, as he comes to terms with his traumatic past.

17The recovery of the traumatic memory enables Darman to realize that Andrade’s sadness is part of the reality of his (Darman’s) present :

I know who you are, […] I know what you’ve seen and what you’ve lost, your life and country, your own history sacrificed in the name of a sterile heroism that no one will ever thank you for, […] because what you paid is much more valuable than everything you imagined you would receive and that no one will give you. (Beltenebros, 1993 : 143)

18Darman is, like Andrade, part of the Republican vanquished, whom it is impossible to tell their story, mourn for their dead, and recover their dignity, making them feel like the living dead, like shadows. His understanding of both his own trauma and that of the rest of the victims transforms Darman from executioner to victim’s savior : now, he wants to save Andrade, both from Inspector Ugarte and from the organization.

Eternal return

19However, Andrade’s fate seems predestined. As if following a script written by someone else that leaves no room for agency, Andrade is ultimately killed by Luque, another member of the organization : Andrade’s death is the repetition of Walter’s ; Luque is the repetition of Darman ; the love between Andrade and the new Rebeca replays the love between Walter and the old Rebeca Osorio ; and so on, endlessly. Darman thus faces a new challenge : is it possible to break the eternal cycle of violence ?


20After Andrade’s death, all the dead and phantoms from past and present, the two Rebecas and Valdivia, follow in Darman’s wake. Yet when “the dead return, […] return more stubbornly than the living, […] the dead return and mask their shadows in the features of the living and walk slowly through the places from the past” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 143). These are, in Derrida’s language, the revenants, the specters, the victims of violence who always return to claim their debt from the living, and one cannot control their comings and goings because they “begin” by coming back (Derrida, 1994 : 11). The coming of the ghosts pushes Darman to take responsibility not only for the dead, but also for the living ; for those who yet have a life to live. This responsibility, which began with Darman’s acceptance of the new mission, takes shape during the expedition through the tunnel that connects the Boîte Tabú (the present), where Ugarte keeps the new Rebeca, with the old Universal Cinema (the past), where Darman fell in love with the old Rebeca. Out of loyalty to the dead and to the living, Darman rebels against the game of duplicity to which he has been subjected and rushes to confront the author of this duplicity, Ugarte/Beltenebros. He wants to respond to the ghosts’ claim for justice, that is, to their memory.


  • 16  Darman’s expedition to the Universal Cinema may be read as an immersion into darkness, that is, in (...)

21Darman advances into the darkness of the Universal Cinema, into the “kingdom of dead, to the dark subsoil where infamy thrived, because [he] realized each step was moving [him] close to the source of guilt and corruption” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 172).16 In the uppermost seats of the cinema, Darman finds the new Rebeca still alive, blindfolded, and terrified. He also sees a red pupil in the dark that dulls and brightens like a reptilian eye. But when a torch suddenly illuminates Ugarte’s face, like a flash of lightning, it reveals him as Valdivia, the member of the organization who twenty years earlier had been allegedly killed by the police. Meanwhile, Rebeca had “torn the bandage from her eyes, and slid down the rows without him seeing her till she was sure that when she switched on the torch it would be right in his face” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 194-195). The torch steadily advances until Ugarte can neither see nor retreat further. He ultimately falls into the dark void, looking up at Darman for the last time.

  • 17 As Foucault explains, “[a] central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, (...)
  • 18 Rebeca is Ugarte’s invention. He had her duplicated to satisfy the sexual desire for the original R (...)
  • 19 For an interesting analysis of the cinematic techniques and influences of the novel, see Richardson (...)

22At the end of the novel, blindness and sight are reversed. Once the Prince of Shadows is blinded, Darman recovers his sight and, just then, he realizes that Valdivia, Ugarte, and Beltenebros are all the same person. Valdivia/Ugarte/Beltenebros is the malignant specter that observes everyone without being seen and strategically sets its enemies one against the other.17 Under its spectral machination, Walter and Andrade are falsely accused of treason, tortured, and executed ; Darman is forced into exile, transformed into the living dead, and contrived to repeat the same mistakes of the past ; and Rebeca is deprived of identity.18 The space of the Universal Cinema functions as the ideological apparatus through which Ugarte weaves the web of predestination and the repetition of violence, erases the memory of the past, and projects idealized images of the present (the official version of history). Those remaining within this space find themselves caught in a “deceptive reality” that manipulates, controls, and shapes their thinking and actions.19 The only way to resist and break through these repressive effects is to render their deceptive mechanisms visible.

23In the darkness of the cinematic space, Rebeca’s flashlight allows Darman finally to access the hidden “truth” – the violence, manipulation, and injustice that Ugarte, as representative of Francoist repression, has inflicted on everyone. Benjamin links this moment of revelation to a political action in the fight for the oppressed past and the transformation of the present (Benjamin, 1968 : 263). Darman and Rebeca embody this possibility. They are able, in the end, to uncover the impenetrable logic of repetition and deception and to destroy its point of origin. Having regained their sight, a new future opens to them, one in which they can reclaim their agency and eventually their (lost) dignity. Only by confronting the cycle of violence and deception created by Beltenebros, and by acknowledging the ruins left in its wake, can Darman and Rebeca finally transform the reality that has kept them trapped for so long.

Remembering to Forget : The “Law of Historical Memory”

  • 20 The response in the international community to Truth Commissions, such as in South Africa and Latin (...)

24While fictional worlds like Beltenebros attempt to recover the historical memory of the victims of Franco’s regime, many years would pass until the Spanish State would give a legal answer to the victims’ claim for justice. At the end of the nineties, grass roots organizations such as the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory) (ARMH) mobilized themselves to demand the debt the Spanish State owed Franco’s victims, and to assert their right to know the truth, and to regain appropriate reparations and historical recognition (or “historical memory”). Their claims sought justice without revenge.20 They wanted to recover the (around 30.000) bodies of those buried in common graves, honor their memory, and repair their dignity. They also demanded the formal declaration of Franco’s uprising and regime as illegal. To them its laws, trials, and legal proceedings should be declared null and void.

  • 21 José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s grandfather was shot while on Franco’s side in 1936. For an analysis (...)

25The conservative government of Partido Popular (Popular party, PP), led by Prime Minister Jose María Aznar (1996–2004), opposed any debate regarding the recovery of historical memory in order to avoid opening old scars. This is not at all surprising considering that many of Partido Popular’s leading members come from Francoist families (Aznar’s grandfather was Franco’s collaborator) or, like Manuel Fraga Iribarne, were ministers under the dictatorship (Balfour, 2005, 146-168). Only in 2006, partly in response to the ARHM’s demands, did the newly elected Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero present a bill to recognize and extend these rights in favor of those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the dictatorship.21 The bill was approved by Congress on October 31, 2007. Its full and verbose name is “Ley 52/2007, de 26 de diciembre, por la que se reconocen y amplían derechos y se establecen medidas en favor de quienes padecieron persecución o violencia durante la guerra civil y la dictadura,” but it is popularly known as the “Law of Historical Memory.”

  • 22 All translations of the law are my own.

26The 52/2007 law also addressed a non-binding majority resolution by the Constitutional Commission of Congress of November 20, 2002 (the 27th anniversary of Franco’s death), stating that : “No one is entitled to use violence, as it has occurred in our past, for the purpose of imposing political ideology or totalitarian regimes that are contrary to our liberty and our dignity, and that deserve the condemnation and rejection of the democratic society.”22 The “Law of Historical Memory” reproduces this condemnation verbatim, and also incorporates the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of March 17, 2006, which condemns the “severe violations of human rights” that occurred in Spain from 1939 to 1975.

27This law establishes some economic, legal, and symbolic measures : the declaration of the illegitimacy of Franco’s courts and legal sentences (article 3) ; economic compensation for different categories of victims (articles 5–10) ; assistance to private citizens for locating and identifying the bodies that remain in unidentified graves (articles 11–14) ; banning of symbols, monuments, and the glorification of Franco and his regime from buildings and public spaces (articles 15–16) ; the creation of the Center of Documentation of Historical Memory in Salamanca ; and maintaining and developing the General Archives of the Civil War and the private right to access them (articles 20–22).

28Despite these undeniably positive contributions, I want to focus on the rhetorical strategies found in the law’s Exposición de motivos. I inquire how and in what ways the law “remembers,” or “forgets,” that is, what kind of narratives of the past it validates, and which ones it doesn’t consider or excludes. I explore, in other words, how the law “stands in relation to the past, the present, and the future” (Sarat and Kearns, 1999 : 12). Through these acts of remembering (and forgetting), the law becomes an active participant in the process through which history and collective memory are being constructed.

29The Exposición de motivos of the Law of Historical Memory states that “the spirit of reconciliation and concord and of respect to pluralism and peaceful defense of all ideas” that guided the Transition resulted in the Constitution of 1978, “the best constitutional model of coexistence in Spain’s history” (Law 52/2007). Appealing to this “foundational spirit of concord,” the law says it is time for Spain’s democracy and for the living generations to honor and to recover the memory, once and for all, of all the people who directly suffered injustices and offenses for political, ideological, or religious reasons. The law cautions us that “it is not the task of the legislator to impose a specific collective memory.” Rather, it reaffirms the “obligation to protect each citizen’s right to his or her personal and family memory as an expression of democratic citizenship.” Likewise, it establishes the commitment “to promote the constitutional values” and “the knowledge and reflection of [the] past to avoid the repetition of situations of intolerance and violation of human rights.”Thus, the law lays the grounds for public policies aimed at “the knowledge of Spain’s history and the promotion of the democraticmemory.” The final goal of the law is to contribute to “healing the wounds [that are] still open.” To do so, it appeals to the Transition’s “spirit of reconciliation and concord.” Despite the law’s attempt to recover the “historical memory” – first by protecting the citizens’ rights to personal and family memory, and then by establishing public policies aimed at the promotion of “democratic memory” – an analysis of the law’s own representational practices may yield a more debatable result than what was intended.


30The law begins by situating the Transition, and the Constitution of 1978 as the points of origin of contemporary Spanish democracy. In choosing the Transition as the foundational moment of democracy (and by marking this period as the origin and cause of the law as well), the law neglects the antecedent democratic government of the Second Republic, to which Franco’s uprising put an end in 1936 (Moreno Díaz, 2008 : 252). The Second Republic represents precisely the democratic values for which Republicans fought against Franco and the reason for which they were killed, tortured, or disappeared under his regime. The exclusion of this memory from the law contradicts its expressed goal of recuperating the memory of the Republican victims of Francoism.

  • 23 According to Equipo Nizkor (2007: online), which represents more than twenty civic associations, th (...)

31By omitting any reference to the democratic and constitutional heritage of the Republic, the law “forgets” that the fundamental rights were not born with the Constitution of 1978 – the Constitution of 1931 recognized, among others, the rights of religious and political pluralism, freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, the separation of Church and State, the right to divorce, and women’s right to vote, and included the obligation of the State to respect International Law. Reclaiming the “democratic memory” of the Second Republic would have meant emphasizing the fact that Francoism was a post-constitutional illegal regime established by military force against an elected government (Moreno Díaz, 2008 : 250). In this sense, the law’s declaration of Francoist legal framework and legislation as “illegitimate” instead of “illegal, null, and void” (as the Associations of victims had demanded) seems to validate retroactively the legality of Franco’s regime, even when it seeks to denounce its immorality.23

32If words such as “Franco,” “Francoism,” and “dictatorship” were absent from the novel, the word “Republic” is never mentioned in the legal text. Its ontological absence grants the Republic a spectral presence in the law and reveals a present time haunted by the same ghosts that haunted the Transition. Like the Transition, the law is reluctant to link the contemporary democracy with the democracy of the Republic : to revive its memory may break the spirit of reconciliation and concord of the Transition in which the law is founded. By casting out the ghosts of the Second Republic, the law leaves unquestioned the Francoist version of Republican evils and the direct link between their actions and the Civil War (see Preston, 1978).

33In contrast to the law, Beltenebros begins by reclaiming the legality of the Republican constitutional order : “Now, as then, we were united by the need to defeat treachery and it didn’t matter that we no longer wore uniforms or that the law we swore to obey had been abolished by our conquerors : the law survived within us, as intact as our pride, re-established by our determination to abide by it” (Beltenebros, 1993 : 97). To recover the democratic memory of the Second Republic would mean to restore the memory and dignity of the victims of Francoism.

Reconciliation and Concord

34The law praises the spirit of reconciliation and concord that guided the Transition as being the same spirit that now guides the current law. This identification between the spirit of the Transition and the spirit of the current law is problematic because, as it has been explained, the reconciliation and concord brought by the Spanish Transition was achieved precisely at the cost of forgetting, rather than by making peace with the past. Thirty years later, the law’s commemorative act reproduces the same ideological “forgetfulness” that characterized the former period : in the name of a new sense of national reconciliation, once again the law suppresses an open and honest debate about the Transition’s lack of accountability regarding those responsible for past crimes. And it does so, paradoxically, contrary to the principle of memory that the law wishes to vindicate. This apparent contradiction between what the law claims to do for the victims and what it does through its rhetorical choices of self-legitimation casts doubts on its ability to provide any sense of reparation and justice to the victims. The law, unlike the novel, looks at the past from the point of view of the State and uses an idealized version of history to justify itself.

  • 24  The final draft of the bill, however, declares Francoist sentences “illegitimate” and “unjust” (Bl (...)

35Furthermore, despite its claim to the kind of consensus that made possible the Constitution of 1978 and the transition to democracy, the law conceals the fact that it passed amidst fierce controversy and a lengthy legislative process. For instance, mainstream political forces and the outgoing government of the right-wing Popular Party (PP, 1996–2004) disagreed with the law, claiming that it would split the country, revive the conflict between the two Spains, and endanger the spirit of the Transition. PP voted only in favor of some aspects of the law, such as providing financial support to the victims and the banning of commemorative services in the Valley of the Fallen by Franco’s supporters (Robertson, 2008). Leftist parties such as United Left-Initiative for Catalonia Greens (IU–ICV), and regionalist parties such as the Catalan Convergence and Union (CIU) presented alternative texts which demanded, among other things, that Franco’s sentences ought to be declared null and void, and voted in favor of the law only after having added several amendments to the final bill.24 Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) voted against the law, claiming that it was insufficient and did not do justice to the victims. The law’s re-appropriation of “the spirit of the Transition” hides the difficult political context of its own existence, ignoring that acknowledgement of dissent and conflict becomes both necessary and possible as a part of the functioning of democratic politics (Blakeley, 2008 : 317). According to John R. Gillis, “[c]ommemorative activity is by definition social and political, for it involves the coordination of individual and group memories, whose results may appear consensual when they are in fact the product of processes of intense contest, struggle, and in some instances, annihilation” (Gillis, 1994 : 5). This is why the law does not embody true reconciliation, but the commemoration of reconciliation. The law’s re-appropriation of the spirit of the Transition may function rhetorically as a charm to guard against reproducing the conditions that led to the Civil War, but it reveals Spain’s deep fears of confronting the ghosts of the past.


  • 25 See Draft Recommendation unanimously adopted by the Committee on 04.10.05 par 94-95 doc 10078 ref 2 (...)

36Even though the law includes the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of March 17, 2006, that condemns Francoism, it does not follow the Council’s main recommendation “to set up a national commission to inquire into violations of human rights committed under the Franco dictatorship” with a mandate to establish “the truth regarding repression under Franco” (Tamayo, 2008 : 271).25 The Law of Historical Memory obligates the Spanish administration only to “provide assistance” to individuals and families for the identification of corpses in unidentified graves. However, the law leaves the State’s task of location and exhumation of bodies in the hands of private citizens and their families, making it particularly hard to recover the remains and therefore to reveal the truth surrounding individual deaths (see Barcala and Calvo, 2009).

37Indeed, the right to know cannot be merely a private matter but rather a “collective right” that the State must guarantee :

  • 26 The collective right to know was expressed in a United Nations’ report by M. Joinet (1997). In 2005 (...)

The right to know is not simply the right of any individual victim or closely related person to know what happened – a right to the truth. The right to know is also a collective right, drawing upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future. Its corollary is a “duty to remember,” which the State must assume, in order to guard against the perversions of history that go under the names of revisionism or negationism ; the knowledge of the oppression it has lived through is part of a people’s national heritage and as such must be preserved.26

38The law cautiously states that it does not want to impose a concrete “collective memory,” but in its goal scrupulously to avoid it, it relegates the democratic regime of the Second Republic and the memory of those victimized by Franco to a threshold beyond public recognition. In doing so, the law constructs another version of the Benjaminian Paradise, in which words such as foundation, reconciliation, concord, and closure, serve to hide the barbarism upon which it stands. The law’s inability to assume the ruins of the past may ultimately prevent it from healing the wounds as intended ; and it may keep them barely covered in ways that will continue to cause pain in the future.

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1  Walter Benjamin (1842–1940) was a German-Jewish Marxist philosopher, who, after Adolf Hitler’s election as Chancellor, had to leave Germany. Years later, he was incarcerated by the French authorities for three months. During his return to Paris in 1940, Benjamin wrote his Theses of the Philosophy of History. However, shortlyafter the Nazi takeover of France in 1940, fearing that he would fall into the hands of the Gestapo, he committed suicide at the Spanish border.

2  For discussions about the relationship between history and memory see, among others: Nora, 1989: 7-24. Within the Spanish context, see: Juliá, 2006: 7-19; Ruiz Vargas, 2008: 53-76; Erice Sebares, 2008: 96.

3  For a critical study of the politics of memory during the Spanish Transition, see, among others, Morán, 1991; Vilarós, 1998; Resina, 2000; Moreiras Menor, 2002; Gallego, 2008.

4  In 2006, Maltese Socialist politician Leo Brincat presented a report to the Council of the European Union that demanded Spain formally condemn the human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.

5  These were the objectives of Antonio Vallejo Nágera, Director of the Military Psychiatric Services and of the Psychological Investigations Cabinet during the dictatorship. He claimed to have demonstrated through psychological experiments the infrahuman, dangerous, and evil condition of the Republican enemies (Ruiz Vargas, 2006: 325-328).

6  As Aguilar explains, “[i]n exchange, regime reformists accepted the liberation of all political prisoners, the legalization of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), and truly free elections in June 1977” (2001: 96).

7   Other than the radical Basque nationalists, the Spanish Socialist and Worker Party (PSOE), the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), Center Democratic Union (UCD), and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) voted in favor; the right-wing party, Popular Alliance (AP), abstained from voting.

8  According to Cathy Caruth, trauma “is understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind […] [T]he breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world” (1996: 3).

9  In 2004, the Military Division of Spain’s Supreme Court refused to revise 72 death sentences issued by Francoist courts, among them Julián Grimau’s, because they “were legal.” See Bagué, 2004.

10 Lawrence Rich reads Beltenebros as a “novel of memory” that challenges the foundations of Francoist historiography: “Muñoz Molina questions what is generally accepted as historical ‘fact’ by foregrounding the very process of history-making as his characters attempt to recover the past” (Rich, 1999: 39). I would add that it is a novel of “traumatic memory” that reflects the contemporary Spanish difficulty of dealing with its violent past.

11 Psychologist proponents of the Narrative Exposure Therapy claim that victims of torture, terror, or war can only overcome the traumas if they have the chance to narrate what happened to them. By transforming the trauma into words, they recuperate their dignity, and discover the truth (Ruiz Vargas, 2006: 332).

12  With the terms specter and ghost, Derrida refers to the paradoxical condition of “the non-present present,” that is, the “being-there of an absent or departed” (1994: 5). In turn, “[t]o be haunted is at once to experience the profundity or significance of something from the past and not to know what that something was. […] So haunting takes place between history and memory; it is simultaneously an achievement of memory and a failure of memory with regard to some significant historical effect” (Brown, 2001: 152).

13 Derrida ascribes to the police the power to exercise a phantom-like violence. They “are present or represented everywhere that there is force of law. They are present, sometimes invisible but always effective […] they are […] the faceless figure, a violence without a form [….] The police become hallucinatory and spectral because they haunt everything” (1992: 44–45). During the dictatorship, the Dirección General de Seguridad was synonymous with repression and torture.

14 Rebeca Osorio works as a singer in a clandestine club called Boîte Tabú and she signs for inspector Ugarte, who always hides behind the curtains while looking at her performance.

15 As Jean Laplanche puts it: “[O]n the one hand, the repressed scene, an unpleasant memory, on the other, an apparently subordinate, concomitant memory, a circumstance contingent to the traumatic event, which unlike that event, has remained in memory as a symptom or ‘symbol’ of the first scene, which itself cannot be brought to consciousness. The connection between the two cannot be consciously maintained. […] Every new perception which irritates the unconscious memory of the traumatizing event, and every new trauma which may echo it, results in the emergence into consciousness not of the scene itself but of the symbol of the scene, and of the symbol alone” (1976: 35).

16  Darman’s expedition to the Universal Cinema may be read as an immersion into darkness, that is, into the unconscious (Peres, 2000: 249).

17 As Foucault explains, “[a] central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape” (1977: 173). In Beltenebros, the “ability or inability to see defines the various characters, and determines their subject position as seers or objects of contemplation” (López Valero Colbert, 2007: 89).

18 Rebeca is Ugarte’s invention. He had her duplicated to satisfy the sexual desire for the original Rebeca Osorio (Beltenebros, 1993: 135).

19 For an interesting analysis of the cinematic techniques and influences of the novel, see Richardson, 2004.

20 The response in the international community to Truth Commissions, such as in South Africa and Latin America, and the charging of Pinochet for crimes against humanity in Spain in 1998, influenced the creation of different civic associations. Among others: Forum for Memory; Association for the Creation of Archives of the Civil War; International Brigades; the Children of War; the Spanish Resistance and Exile (AGE); and Association of Families and Friends of Republicans oppressed during Francoism (AFARIIR).

21 José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s grandfather was shot while on Franco’s side in 1936. For an analysis of the use of the Law of Historical Memory as a political strategy to win the elections of 2004, see Blakeley, 2008: 315-330.

22 All translations of the law are my own.

23 According to Equipo Nizkor (2007: online), which represents more than twenty civic associations, the law “implies the legality of the Franco regime and evidences an intention to defend this ‘legality’ by placing on equal footing victims and criminals (those responsible for the crimes under international law).”

24  The final draft of the bill, however, declares Francoist sentences “illegitimate” and “unjust” (Blakeley, 2008: 321-322).

25 See Draft Recommendation unanimously adopted by the Committee on 04.10.05 par 94-95 doc 10078 ref 2926, March 2, 2004, [online], consulted on May, 2009,

26 The collective right to know was expressed in a United Nations’ report by M. Joinet (1997). In 2005, Diane Orentlicher updated the set of principles elaborated by Joinet in Report of the Independent Expert to Update the Set of Principles to Combat Impunity (2005).

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Mónica López Lerma, « The Ghosts of Justice and the Law of Historical Memory », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #9 | 2011, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2011, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL :

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Mónica López Lerma

est chercheure visiteuse au Centre of Excellence of European Law and Policy Research de l’University of Helsinki (Finlande). Elle détient un doctorat en littérature comparative de l’University of Michigan (Etats-Unis). Ses intérêts de recherche touchent au droit et aux humanités et portent particulièrement sur l’éthique, les politiques mémorielles, les films mémoriels et la théorie légale. Son dernier article a été publié dans le Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal et elle travaille actuellement sur un projet de livre sur le droit et le cinéma.

Mónica López Lerma is a Visiting Researcher at the Centre of Excellence of European Law and Policy Research of the University of Helsinki (Finland). She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan (United States). Her research interests focus on the intersections of law and humanities, with a particular interest in ethics, politics of memory, film and legal theory. Her latest article has been published in Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal. She is currently working on a book on Law and Film.

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