Spainish Parliament Passes Historic Law Condemning Gen. Francisco Franco

Spanish lawmakers passed historic legislation Wednesday condemning Gen. Francisco Franco's coup and the nearly 40-year dictatorship that followed, brushing aside opposition complaints that the bill would reopen old wounds and threatened to tear Spanish society apart.

The vote in Spain's lower house formally denounces Franco's fascist regime, mandates that local governments fund efforts to unearth mass graves from the 1936-1939 Civil War, orders the removal of all Franco-era symbols from streets and buildings, and declares "illegitimate" summary military trials that led to the execution or imprisonment of thousands of the general's enemies.

It also seeks to make symbolic amends to all victims of the war, including Roman Catholic clergy and others executed by militia loyal to the elected, leftist Republican government that Franco rose up against.

The legislation, known as the "Law of Historical Memory," must still pass the Senate — considered a formality — and be published in the government gazette before it becomes law.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose own grandfather was among the tens of thousands of people executed by Franco's forces, had made the legislation a top priority of his term in office and cobbled together an agreement between his ruling Socialists and several smaller parties.

The legislation passed despite the fierce objections of Zapatero's conservative opponents, who accused him of being driven by vengeance to rekindle national acrimony doused during Spain's transition to democracy following Franco's death in 1975.

Proponents say the legislation was a long time coming.

"This is a very important moment for Spain," said Emilio Silva, president of an organization that leads efforts to exhume the bodies of civilians killed by Franco's forces in the war.

"But this law is the beginning, not the end, and it is long overdue. Many, many victims and relatives of those killed have already died without receiving any justice."

That argument was rejected by leaders of the Conservative Popular Party. Conservative former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Zapatero's immediate predecessor, complained earlier this month that it was not for the government to "dig up tombs," and accused Zapatero's party of being "obsessed with revenge."

Angel Acebes, No. 2 in Aznar's Popular Party, was even more blunt, saying "Zapatero wants to divide Spaniards and turn them against each other."

Socialist leaders say the conservatives are less concerned with the social ramifications of digging up the past than they are with trying to keep past sins hidden.

While the Popular Party has pushed itself toward the political center in the three decades since Franco's death, it was founded by a top Franco minister.

Spain's 1936-1939 civil war left half a million people dead, becoming a proxy fight between Hitler's Germany, the Italy of Benito Mussolini — both of whom backed Franco — and Communist forces including the Soviet Union, which backed Spain's elected left-wing government.

Atrocities were committed on all sides, though the victorious fascists are generally considered to have committed the lion's share.

Many see the Spanish conflict as a precursor to World War II, the much larger conflagration that followed.