Last week the Supreme Court of Madrid ruled that the monument to the International Brigades, the foreign volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight the Francoist forces during the Spanish Civil War, should be removed from the campus of the Complutense University. This sparked protest, including an Early Day Motion signed by 8 Labour MPs on 6 June.
This debate raises important questions about public history. How should the past be reflected in the streets of towns and cities today? What role should politicians play in shaping a vision of the past through public spaces?
There is a long history in Spain of the stamping of public space with figures and events plucked from history in accordance with contemporary attitudes and political projects. Street names were changed both spontaneously and by the authorities during the Second Republic (1931-1936) to reflect the values of the new regime, followed by a counter-revolution carried out by the Francoist dictatorship. More recently, the conservative Popular Party-led council in Madrid decided to name a street after Margaret Thatcher.
This ruling is part of a wider attempt to reverse initiatives from the last decade which had contributed to debate about how to deal with the legacy of the Civil War and Francoist Dictatorship (1939-1975).
‘Historical Memory’ projects have been a target for cuts, with all government funding removed. The government has also opted to leave Franco’s remains in the Valley of Fallen, the gigantic mausoleum and monument to the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War, despite the conclusions reached by a committee of experts who called for the exhumation of Franco’s body and its removal from the site. Baltasar Garzón, the judge who became famous internationally for investigating Pinochet, was prevented from investigating crimes against humanity from the Francoist regime last year. Earlier this year, the city council of Oviedo decided to re-erect the statue of Teijeiro, a Francoist Lieutenant Coronel who ‘liberated’ the city from the besieging forces loyal to the Second Republic during the Civil War.
There are difficult questions to be asked about the role of the past in present public space. Living in a period in which efforts are made to save buildings from destruction as far as possible, what should be done to those monuments constructed by the Francois regime which arguably glorify a dark, dictatorial past? Should public space reflect contemporary values or should symbols remain as a reminder of the past, such as with Auschwitz?
Claims that the past has been overcome and wounds have healed when the Civil War and Dictatorship are discussed only serve to highlight the absence of official consensus about Spain’s traumatic past. Meanwhile, it is local authorities and organisations who battle to reflect their vision of the past on public space. The removal of the monument to the International Brigades will not erase the history of their fight against Francoism, but it does show a clear attempt to restrict certain visions of the past. Demolishing statues and changing street names does not change history, but it does influence how the past is viewed from the present.
Matthew Kerry is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield working on political identities in northern Spain in the 1930s.
 Over the last ten years grassroots organisations have been working to exhume the bodies of those killed from common graves in fields and at the side of roads, while in 2007 the ‘Law of Historical Memory’ included provisions for the removal of symbols from the dictatorship from public places, despite accusations of reopening old wounds. Such developments were envisaged as a just and necessary reparation for the dead by many, while others saw this is as opening up the healed wounds of Spain’s past and as a way of retrospectively winning the Civil War.