Spain’s Past Is Lost

The center-left won the election, but the far right received a significant share of the vote.

Pedro Sánchez speaks to supporters while celebrating the election results in Madrid.
Pedro Sánchez speaks to supporters while celebrating the election results in Madrid. (Sergio Perez / Reuters)

“We have won the election,” Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), told a jubilant crowd at his party’s headquarters on Sunday night. “The future has won and the past has lost.”

Much of the campaign leading up to Spain’s third national election in four years did indeed feel like an argument over the country’s history. Sánchez presented himself as a strong advocate for a clean break with the past: If he were reelected, he vowed, he would literally exhume General Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled the country until his death in 1975, from his resting place in a massive shrine to fascist martyrs.

This pledge set up a clear contrast with Spain’s major right-wing parties. The PSOE’s traditional rival, the conservative People’s Party (PP), has at times soft-pedaled criticism of the Franco regime in an attempt to mollify his present-day admirers. Meanwhile, a new far-right party has shocked the country’s establishment by waxing nostalgic for Spain’s authoritarian past in a much more open manner; the leaders of Vox have vowed to “make Spain great again”—a rather complicated proposition in a country that was ruled by fascists less than half a century ago.

In this contest of historical visions, the left enjoyed a rare victory on Sunday. The PSOE won 29 percent of the vote, nearly twice as much as the PP. With the support of Podemos, a far-left populist movement, and a smattering of regional parties pursuing greater autonomy from Madrid, Sánchez is likely to cobble together a governing coalition—which makes him the first center-left politician in about half a decade to win a reasonably clear mandate in a major European country.

Sánchez can, then, be forgiven for overstating the significance of his victory. And yet his proclamation was at least as interesting for what it got wrong as for what it got right.

In truth, the victory of the PSOE is, at best, a qualified triumph. As recently as a decade ago, the Spanish political system had, in effect, been divided between its two major parties, which usually enjoyed a cumulative vote share of more than 80 percent. Elections often marked a peaceful transition of power between coherent ideological blocks: When the allure of the center-left faded, voters handed the baton to the center-right, and vice versa.

Over the past few years, extreme fragmentation—there are now a total of 14 political parties in Madrid’s Cortes Generales—has rendered such cohesive governments impossible. To govern, Sánchez will not only have to accommodate the populists of Podemos, who have at times fanned the flames of Euroskepticism and until recently vowed to emulate Hugo Chávez’s government in Venezuela. As important, he will also need to rely on the support of a smattering of regional parties that openly aim to break up the country.

In the best-case scenario, Sánchez will negotiate a deal that grants regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country a little more autonomy without setting them on a path to full independence. In the worst-case scenario, which is perhaps more likely, his prospective coalition partners won’t be satisfied with anything short of a referendum on full independence, leading to a collapse of his government if Sánchez stands firm—or to Spain’s disintegration if he caves.

Moreover, far from marking a clear rejection of the fascist past, the Spanish election can just as easily be understood as a sign that the lessons of the postwar period have lost their hold over European politics. The past hasn’t lost, in other words; it’s just been forgotten.

When I spoke with leading German politicians in the fall of 2016, the refugee crisis was dominating headlines and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) enjoyed double-digit support in the polls. Even so, many of my sources predicted that the AfD would fail to clear the country’s 5 percent hurdle in national elections scheduled for the spring of 2017, and quickly disintegrate even if it did. Germany, they told me, had learned the lessons of the Third Reich. A far-right party that plays with nostalgia for the Nazi past could not possibly carve out a significant place for itself in the German political landscape.

Sadly, that prediction turned out to be wide of the mark. As the polls foretold, the AfD became the country’s third-biggest party within the year; it is now represented in all of Germany’s state parliaments as well as the Bundestag. Signs of its imminent demise are conspicuous by their absence. Seventy-five years after World War II, the German taboo against far-right politics has been breached.

The rise of the AfD left Spain as the last major European country without a significant far-right presence in its politics. And though the country had never reckoned with its past as thoroughly as Germany, local political elites were just as convinced that a proudly far-right party could not gain a large national following. It turns out that they were just as wrong as their counterparts in Berlin: After a meteoric rise in regional elections, Vox gained 10 percent of the vote on Sunday, proving that it has significant national appeal. Though Vox did not “win” the elections, its ascent was the day’s most significant development—more than the PSOE’s victory—one that marks a true turning point in Spain’s, and Europe’s, attitude toward the past.

In retrospect, it is perhaps remarkable just how long a shadow World War II has cast over European politics. When I was born in 1982, the Communist system that the Soviet Union had, in the war’s immediate aftermath, imposed upon the continent’s eastern half seemed unlikely to collapse anytime soon. Meanwhile, the liberal democracies in its western half looked remarkably stable, in part because the brutal reality of totalitarianism had robbed extremists of the allure they had once enjoyed. Both systems, in their own ways, were based on an explicit rejection of the fascist politics that had led the continent on the path to perdition.

In 2000, when I turned 18, the fault lines of World War II no longer marked the continent as starkly, but the war’s lessons seemed to mark its politics even more deeply: In Central and Eastern Europe, citizens who had purchased their freedom with decades of suffering could be counted upon to guard it jealously. Meanwhile, the political culture of Western European countries—especially those, such as Germany, that bore the heaviest historical responsibility for World War II, or those, such as Spain and Portugal, that had been ruled by fascists well into the 1970s—seemed committed to moderation. The suffering of the past would, at least, ensure that the far right would never again gain a real seat at the political table.

Two decades into the 21st century, both of these assumptions have turned out to be wishful illusions. Across Central Europe, citizens have freely elected authoritarian populists. Meanwhile, countries that thought they were immune to the resurgence of the far right are finding out that the salutary effects of their violent past have started to fade.

When Sánchez said that the past had lost, he meant that his country had firmly rejected the far right. As the ascendance of Vox demonstrates, that is a dangerous piece of hubris. But in a more literal sense, Sánchez may have been more correct than he realized: After three-quarters of a century in which the legacy of World War II shaped the basic categories of the continent’s politics, its lessons are being thrown overboard.

Europe’s long 20th century is coming to an end. The past is lost—and the future is far less certain than many European politicians appear to grasp.