The Crimes of Franco’s Fascist Regime 5: The Apparatus of Repression

During the 60s and 70s, General Franco’s fascist dictatorship in Spain responded to an increasing movement for basic human rights with horrific violence. Thousands were jailed, tortured, or assassinated, mostly for doing nothing more than being a member of an “illegal” organisation, such as the clandestine trade unions and political parties, handing out political leaflets, or going on a demonstration,all types of which were illegal.

In other parts of the world, such as Argentina or Chile, the perpetrators of similar crimes have been brought to justice – but not in Spain. Reel News is in Spain for two weeks to work with La Comuna, an organisation of ex-political prisoners fighting for justice and reparations.

On Tuesday we met Ramon Saéz, who is a class of person who you might have some difficulty coming across in Britain – a radical judge. He met with us to explain the legal framework for the oppressive apparatus of fascism in Spain.

Judge Ramón Sáez

Basically the core instrument used for oppression against people fighting for basic rights was the military tribunal – not just during and immediately after the Civil War from 1936 – 1939, but right up to the end of the dictatorship, as can be seen by the use of military tribunals to pass the last five death penalties in Spain in September 1975. (See Military tribunals were a way of pushing decisions through quickly with few, if any, rights for defendants.

In the 40s there were the tribunals of masonry and communism, used against anyone with different ideas to the state (masonry in Spain at the time, although a secret society, was associated with liberal and republican ideas). These were used to jail, exile and execute – and as a result to scare people into submission and accept the regime.

They were also used to expropriate money and property retrospectively. For example, Blas Infante, the celebrated Andalucian leader, was executed in 1936. In 1941 he was found guilty retrospectively of political crimes, and the house of his widow and children was taken by the state.

“Political crimes” became a catch-all term for anything the state didn’t like, or went against the twisted morality of the catholic church in Spain. So “political crimes” covered all forms of association in public places such as demonstrations and meetings; any form of organisation outside the state or church such as trade unions or political parties; freedom of expression such as criticism of the state or even statements of peace; sex outside marriage including adultery and homosexuality; the list went on and on. Ramón described it as “an absolute and ferocious control of the people to keep them in a permanent state of fear.”

The position of women under fascism was horrendous; quite simply they had no rights at all. They had trouble finding work, and if you got married you had to give up your job immediately. Only men were allowed to sign commercial contracts of any type (mortgages for example) so as a woman you had no right to own any property – your father or husband signed any contracts that needed signing.

As with other fascist states, Franco’s regime could only work by having a significant popular base. There was a whole network of formal and informal informants, collaborators and secret agencies of information to control the population. The taxi driver who just gave you a lift could be part of it, as could the caretaker who looked after your block of flats. The popular support came from a number of factors – a lot of it was down to currying favour with the regime out of fear that the widespread oppression of the civil war might return (around 75,000 people were executed between 1936 and 1939), but there was also the fact that you were more likely to get a job or increase your income – plus the fact that a significant part of the population had been won over to the ideas of fascism. However, Ramón pointed out that a lot of the time people were controlled because they’d internalised their fear of the regime – because they assumed they were being watched anyway, there was no need to waste resources on constant surveillance.

If communites got too uppity. “states of exception” were declared, where the few rights that did exist would be suspended completely. People could be arrested and detained indefinitely, and police could enter people’s houses at will and impose curfews. The first instance of this was during the Asturian miners’ strike of the mid- fifties.

There was a circular logic to the repressive apparatus, which continued even after Franco died, and the law was changed in 1976 and 1977. The culture was still the same – so the police could get away with atrocities such as the massacre in Vitoria in 1976, when police opened fire on a workers’ assembly in a church during a huge strike. 5 workers were killed and over a hundred seriously wounded – but as the police had done the shooting, obviously the workers must have plotting crimes against the state. Simiilarly, if you were arrested and then complained when you were tortured, you were likely to receive an increase sentence for telling outrageous lies about the police.

La Comuna demo yesterday:
“Against Impunity: Solidarity with the victims of Francoism”

Ramón supports La Comuna’s fight for justice and reparations for the crimes of the Franco regime, and the lifting of the law of impunity for such crimes passed in 1977. He rejects the idea of “reconciliation” that is put forward as justificaition for the law – as he says, you can’t have reconciliation without first officially recognising the suffering caused. He also pointed out another key point which shows why La Comuna’s struggle is so important as a prerequisite for a better world today. As he said, “The colour of the uniform may have changed, but the culture lives on, because the dictatorship has never been discredited.” You only have to consider how little the culture of the Met police in London has changed to see how true that is – and the Met police’s culture has been discredited not once, but at least twice, after Stephen Lawrence’s murder and after the 1981 riots.

La Comuna have now found a judge in Argentina who is prepared to put the fascist regime on trial under international law for crimes against humanity, in an ironic reversal of the trial in Spain against the generals of the military dictatorship in Argentina. Although this is largely symbolic, the trial of the generals did increase the pressure for justice and reparations that the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo had been bravely calling for, a struggle they ultimately won. This could be the first step in a similar process, but they’ll need international support and solidarity. This could take the form of messages, demonstrations, donations to the campaign – they need money in particular in the short term so that ex-political prisoners can travel to Buenos Aires to give their testimony.

In the meantime, La Comuna will hold a demonstration every Thursday, just as the Madres did, until they get the justice that the Spanish people so richly deserve.

We will need to make trips to other parts of Spain in order to help in this crucial struggle for justice – but we need money to do it. Obviously there is no funding for a project of this sort in Spain, and with the brutal austerity measures, our fellow film makers in Madrid have no money either. If you can help, please click the donate button below.