Chamberí District Council
This is the façade of the building that houses the offices of the district council of Chamberí in Madrid. If you look closely, you will see the rectangular outline of something that is no longer there, the almost invisible remnant of a recently excised piece of memory. With time, the outline will fade, becoming even less distinguishable, and this trace of memory will become ever fainter and eventually disappear.
In the second half of the 19th century, Chamberí was a working-class area and the building that stood on this site was the birthplace of one of Spain’s most important working-class figures: Francisco Largo Caballero, trade union leader, Socialist politician, and prime minister of the Republic during the first months of the Civil War (September 1936 to May 1937). In 1981, the Madrid city council voted unanimously to place a commemorative plaque on the front of the building.
By 2020, however, that kind of agreement among left and right was a thing of the past as the Civil War and its legacies had become increasingly politicized. On October 15, 2020, the 151st anniversary of Largo Caballero’s birth, the right-wing dominated city council had the plaque removed without giving any prior notice. This was the latest in a series of attacks on municipal memory sites that began shortly after it took power in 2019 with the removal of the plaques in the Almudena cemetery bearing the names of people executed in the city by the Franco regime between 1939 and 1944.
The initiative came from the far-right party VOX, which cynically argued that because of what it called Largo Caballero’s “sanguinary personal and political trajectory”, commemorating him was a violation of the 2007 Law of Historical Memory. It also referred to a resolution of the European Parliament that condemned “totalitarian regimes and their representatives”. VOX, like the mainstream conservative parties, the People´s Party and Citizens, had opposed this law arguing that it reopens Civil War wounds long healed and that it is inspired by a spirit of revenge. The city council also ordered that the streets named after Largo Caballero and fellow prominent Socialist leader Indalecio Prieto, who VOX had characterized as “criminals and “anti-democrats”, be renamed. Municipal workers took chisels to the plaque to remove it, destroying it in the process.
The Socialist trade union organization UGT and the Madrid Socialist group both went to court to demand the plaque be replaced. In July and October 2022, the judges in both cases ruled in their favour. They declared that VOX’s historical arguments “lacked rigour” and were “replete with value judgements”; that the city had acted illegally; and that it had to have the plaque restored and replaced. A third judicial decision in December 2022 emphasized that Largo Caballero and Prieto had not “rebelled against the Republic, supported or praised the July 1936 military coup or the Civil War it caused, nor the Francoist dictatorship of which they were victims who were persecuted and died in exile”. What the city will do remains to be seen.