The Politics of Victimhood: Historical Memory and Peace in Spain and the Basque Region

By MacDonald, Ross B.; Bernardo, Monica C. | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Victimhood: Historical Memory and Peace in Spain and the Basque Region


MacDonald, Ross B., Bernardo, Monica C., Journal of International Affairs


Any society trying to transition from a history of violence to a future of peace struggles with reconciling the divisiveness of its violent legacy with the necessary cohesion and inclusiveness needed to build a peaceful future. The fields of historical reconciliation and transitional justice focus on the nexus where past traumas claw at the nascent reconstruction of politics and society. Both fields are concerned with at least two core questions. First, in order to constructively move into the future, to what extent must a society deal with its past? Second, how should a society in the pursuit of peace heed its past?

Although both the field of historical reconciliation and that of transitional justice seek to help societies confront divisive legacies of the past, each conceptualizes the problem in different ways and employs different strategies. The field of transitional justice recognizes the importance of retrospective accountability for ending cycles of impunity and for initiating peace. Transitional justice relies on the human rights framework, partly to emphasize universality and inclusiveness. In so doing, the field assists societies with eliciting the definitive truth about their legacies of violence by objectively documenting human rights violations, perpetrators and victims. (1) Similarly, the field of historical reconciliation guides struggling communities through a broad inquiry into conflicting historical narratives about their legacies of violence. (2) However, the historical reconciliation field advocates for a reconsideration of multiple, admittedly subjective truths as a means of building an inclusive political community. These differences and similarities are relevant for Spain, especially at this historical moment.

Spain has been the textbook case for understanding the relationship between building an inclusive future political community without having confronted its history of political violence. However, a careful consideration of Spain's history of violence over the last eighty years and the competing analyses of it actually demonstrates that, if unreconciled with its past, new cycles of impunity will ensue. In these cycles, in each new political context, those previously victimized use the past and their analysis of it to argue for their legitimacy as victims while at the same time justifying actions which do violence to others, in turn creating more victims and more deeply entrenched victim communities. Thus, contrary to conventional thinking, reconciliation in Spain and the Basque country will need to address the fact that victims of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) violence and victims of state counterterrorism methods have constructed competing historical narratives about their shared legacies of violence. In other words, it will be important for Spain to find ways to fit the objective truths of human rights violations into the more complex and subjective dynamics by which victims are also perpetrators.

In the 20th century, Spain experienced two key transitional periods and by many accounts entered a third beginning in 2006. Up until this third period, Spain has chosen not to open up the wounds of the past in either of the first two periods: (1) the 1936 to 1939 Civil War leading to the oppressive Franco regime and (2) the 1976-1982 democratic transition away from Franco's authoritarian rule. Arguably in the first period, as Spanish society transitioned from civil war to peace, Franco's authoritarianism made it impossible to consider its civil war past. It was not even a discussable choice. Yet in the case of the post-Franco democratic transition, Spain chose to forget, or at least to put aside, its history of violence from both the Spanish Civil War and the gross human rights violations of the Franco era. At that moment when Franco's regime ended, there was a wide social consensus that moving forward as a democracy required moving away from--that is, forgetting--the atrocities of the past. …

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