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SPANISH HISTORY

Why do many people see Spain’s flag as a fascist symbol?

Spain is a country with strong regional identities reflected in its flags, but for some the Spanish national flag is associated with fascism and Spain’s dictatorial past. Is it with good reason?

Why do many people see Spain's flag as a fascist symbol?
A man with a Spanish flag hanging from his balcony directs the fascist salute at a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in Madrid, with one demonstrator giving him the finger in return. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The distinct identities of Spain’s regions are often reflected in their language and customs, but also in their flags.

Catalonia has La Senyera (the official regional flag) and La Estelada (the independence flag with the star), the Basque Country has la La Ikurriña, and even less separatist-minded parts of Spain such as Andalusia and the Canary Islands take pride in their flags.

However, the symbolism of the Spanish national flag – the traditional red and yellow band known as La Rojigualda – is often associated with right-leaning politics, at the least, and fascism at worst.

Much like in England, if you see someone going to the trouble to display the St. George’s flag, or in the United States, with the Confederate flag, you likely have a good idea of what their political idealogies are.

In recent years in Spain, the rise of far-right party Vox has rekindled the debate about the Spanish flag, dug up painful historical memories and divides, and led many to view it as a symbol of Spain’s fascist history.

But why is that?

History

So, what’s the history of the Spanish flag? Well, what is now considered (by some) to be a symbol of fascism initially began as a naval flag.

In 1785, King Carlos III asked his Navy Minister Antonio Valdés to design a new national flag for the Navy because the flag they had at the time was often confused at sea for other nations.

Valdés came up with 12 sketches, all of which are now on display in Madrid, and Carlos III not only changed the flag to something more recognisable to us today – the striking red and yellow colours were thought to be more identifiable at sea – but removed the Bourbon coat of arms.

Then, in 1843, Isabel II declared by Royal Decree that the national flag established should be the same colours as the naval flag and it was flown for the first time in non-naval buildings the following year.

spain flag history

The 12 flags suggested by Antonio Valdés, on display at Madrid’s Naval Museum. Image: Museo Naval de Madrid

The politicisation of the Spanish flag

After the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1931, the flag’s second red band was replaced with a purple band to honour the Comuneros of Castile, a group which revolted against King Charles I in 1520. This modified version was used as the Republican flag during the Civil War, while Franco’s army used the traditional yellow and red flag.

After winning the war, Franco added the Eagle of Saint John to the flag, and it underwent some very minor changes during the dictatorship (which lasted between 193 and 1975), but largely remained the same until Spain’s transition to democracy began.

The eagle added to Spain’s flag by Franco was also a symbol adopted by the Nazis in Germany. Image: Wikipedia

Some historians have suggested that the republican decision not to embrace the Spanish flag and stick by their own creation laid the foundations for the political divides over the flag’s symbolism that would come in later years.

What’s clear is that the Spanish right (and far right) have appropriated the national flag as a symbol of their vision of Spanish history and identity, whilst the Spanish left have missed an opportunity to claim it as their own.

In countries that also had fascist dictatorships, such as Iberian neighbours Portugal, both the right and left take pride in and make use of the flag.

Transition

The Spanish flag that we know today was established in Article 4.1 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, when the national coat of arms was incorporated, and the more Francoist elements removed.

But the Spanish left hasn’t always viewed the flag as a symbol of fascism. In the years after Spain’s democratic transition the left accepted the rojigualda and both PSOE and the Spanish Communist Party used it in electoral and promotional material.

Former US President George Bush (L) and Spain’s former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González in 1991, with the Spanish flag in the background. (Photo by David AKE / AFP)

After more political instability and a failed coup in 1981, for many on the left, embracing the flag signified reconciliation after decades of dictatorship and polarisation.

But by the turn of the 21st century, the Republican tricolour flag began to make a bit of a political comeback as a broader anti-authoritarian, anti-imperial, left-wing symbol.

As war in Iraq began it took on anti-NATO connotations, and as separatist sentiment grew in the Basque Country and Catalonia the traditional flag began being associated with fascism and Francoism again.

A man holds a Republican flag during an anti-monarchy demonstration in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

With the more radical elements of the Spanish left completely turning their back on the national flag, in recent years far-right party Vox has used the flag as a rallying call against separatist regions and re-established the flag as a symbol of what they perceive to be traditional Spanish identity.

The emphasis on a one-flag country is not only an allusion to Vox’s pro-centralisation, anti-separatist politics, but also harks back to the dictatorship when regional identities, flags and languages were restricted.

Supporters of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco perform the fascist salute and hold Spanish flags as they attend the anniversary of the dictator’s death in Madrid. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal makes heavy use of the flag in his public appearances, social media posts, and Vox memorabilia.

The rise of other regional flags, he believes, is in direct confrontation with the Spanish flag. “It’s either our stained, trampled, and spit-at flag,” he said in a speech in 2019, “or our flag waving with pride”.

As Spanish politics has become more and more polarised in recent years, flags have re-emerged as divisive political symbols.

Unfortunately, for many people the Spanish flag continues to be an image of Franco’s fascist dictatorship and reignites the historical divisions from the Civil War, rather than being an emblem of different people and regions that are united as one nation (flag-wielding support for the national football team La Roja and other national sport teams are an exception to this, however).

For other parts of the Spanish population, the national flag represents their politics and view of Spanish history and identity. They drape Spanish flags from their balconies or wear red-and-yellow bracelets and belts to showcase their patriotism. 

In modern-day Spain, La Rojigualda is still without a doubt a very loaded symbol.

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SPANISH POLITICS

How Spain’s PM Pedro Sánchez is set to become ‘King of the Socialists’

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will on Friday become president of an international socialist grouping encompassing 132 countries, a potential springboard to a major post on the world stage.

How Spain's PM Pedro Sánchez is set to become 'King of the Socialists'

A year before a general election in Spain, which polls suggest he will struggle to win, Sánchez is the only candidate to head the Socialist International (SI) — an umbrella group of 132 centre-left parties from around the world.

The telegenic 50-year-old will take over the reins of the SI, which is gathering in Madrid this weekend, from former Greek prime minister George Papandreou.

“While symbolic… this post could be a way (for Sánchez) to regain credit among voters by presenting himself as influential on the world stage,” said Pablo Simón, political science professor at the Carlos III University.

“But it also could be that he plans on capitalising on this network of international contacts” which the post offers to “play a prominent role later” in a top global body, he added.

Former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres led the International Socialist before he went on to head the United Nations refugee agency in 2005 and then become UN secretary general in 2017.

“All prime ministers who love foreign affairs have a tendency to look for an international post to secure a post-governmental career,” said Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso.

‘More weight’

Sánchez has made international affairs a priority since he came to power in June 2018, in contrast to his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy, and has sought to boost Spain’s influence in the European Union.

Within days of taking office, Sánchez made international headlines by agreeing to take in migrants from the Aquarius rescue ship who were rejected by other European nations.

The first modern Spanish premier to speak English fluently, Sánchez served as chief of staff to the UN high representative to Bosnia during the Kosovo conflict.

He has fostered good relations with France and Germany, which has made Spain “one of the engines of European politics”, said Simon, citing as an example Madrid’s lead in talks over the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his wife Maria Begoña Gómez Fernández arrive for the welcoming dinner during the G20 Summit in Badung on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 15th, 2022. (Photo by WILLY KURNIAWAN / POOL / AFP)

Sánchez successfully lobbied to have his foreign minister, Josep Borrell, appointed as European Union foreign policy chief in 2019.

“Spain has much more weight in the European Union debate than 10 years ago,” said Barroso, adding the premier had “boosted Spain’s credibility” with its “European partners”.

Beyond the EU, Sánchez hosted a crucial NATO summit in Madrid in June, just four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has “reconnected” with Latin America, which has shifted to the left in recent years, said Simon,

Sánchez visited four Latin American countries in August 2018, his first official trip outside Europe, in what was seen as an effort to underscore the region as a priority of his foreign policy.

With Biden and Macron

During the recent G20 summit in Indonesia, Sánchez posted a photo of himself meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden.

Seen as an attempt to burnish his credentials on international affairs, the photo was much mocked on social media.

But Ignacio Molina, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute think tank, said he believes Sánchez’s priority is to remain Spanish prime minister after the general election, which is expected at the end of 2023.

The speculation about a possible senior role for Sánchez at a global body comes from Spain’s opposition parties, which have “spread the idea that he uses international meetings to prepare his future in case of an electoral defeat next year”, Molina said.

“I don’t think he’s deliberately developing an international network for personal reasons. It’s more because he’s at ease in European politics, where he faces less opposition.”

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