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Spain’s buried past

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Spain's Second Republic. But with many mass graves from the Civil War era still not excavated and those who dare probe the crimes of the past facing legal action themselves, the country still appears reluctant to face up to its violent past.


Spain's buried past

The families of many of those who fought for the Republic believe Spain has still not acknowledged their loved ones. Photo: James Blick.

A true city of the dead, five million bodies lie buried in Madrid’s Our Lady of the Almudena Cemetery.  And bar the towering cypresses, it’s a monochrome landscape of powerful granite tombs and austere crucifixes.  Winding through the graves, half lost, I finally glimpsed a flash of colour.  Red, yellow and purple – the flag of the Spanish Republic.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Second Spanish Republic.  A short lived affair, running from 1931 to 1939, the Republic was ring-fenced by dictators.  And for many left-wing Spaniards it represents an oasis of progressive secular government – women’s rights, civil marriage and divorce, clear Church and state separation – before being torn apart by civil war and buried under Franco’s 36- year repressive rule.

The Republican flag I’d seen was one of several as a couple of hundred Spaniards gathered at an old brick wall down the back of the cemetery.  It was April 16, two days after the date the Republic, back in 1931, was legally established.  They’d come to pay tribute to the men and women who had defended, unsuccessfully in the end, the democratically elected Republican government against Franco’s uprising.  And, more specifically, to remember the over 2,500 Republicans – among them bakers, teachers, poets and labourers – who were, between 1939 and 1944, lined up in front of this brick wall and shot.  Having won the war, Franco purged Spain of thousands who had opposed him.

Scores of black-and-white photos, portraits of those executed here, hung temporarily from the brick wall.  They were a mix of young and old, some well dressed, others clearly poor.

And hanging interspersed amongst the faces of the dead were hundreds of red carnations.

Songs were sung and speeches made.  But it was when the ceremony was over and people approached the photographs for their own private tributes that it was clear how fresh and deep the wounds of Spain’s fascist past remain.  Many of those gathered were the children, grandchildren and even siblings of the dead.

Two middle-aged women sobbed as they kissed carnations held in their hands and, calling out, “bonito!” (beautiful), hung them next to the old photograph of a young man, a cigarette sagging from his smiling lips.

And Daniel, 91, with a small Republican flag pinned to his cardigan, pointed with his walking stick to the photo of a handsome, fine-featured man wearing a suit, his hair slicked back.  It was his brother, killed here in 1941.

José Luis, in his fifties, told me his family’s woeful history.  His grandfather was imprisoned and tortured after the Civil War, his father survived the fighting but was condemned to forced labour, building an airport that is still used today. One uncle was killed in battle and another uncle shot here.

The silenced victims

Their stories tie into the broader narrative of the many Spaniards who continue to grieve, without closure or catharsis, the fate of their Republican relatives killed during and after the Civil War.  Thousands of Franco’s opponents still lie in unmarked communal graves throughout the country – their bones buried in fields, in ditches, or thrown down wells.  And over the last 10 years a growing number of families have begun tracking down their relatives’ remains in the hope of finally giving them a dignified burial.

But the pain felt by those who had congregated at Madrid’s sprawling cemetery is intensified by the fact that they have little hope of finding the bones of their relatives, or even knowing if bones still exist.  Given the secrecy that surrounded the executions, families were typically not told of their relatives’ fate and, with the climate of fear that pervaded Franco’s Spain, they never dared ask questions.  The bodies of the executed remained mostly unclaimed and were eventually dumped in the cemetery’s common grave, rendering them untraceable.

José Luis, who described the situation as Kafkaesque, has oral evidence to suggest that around 1980 his uncle Tiburcio’s remains, among those of others, were exhumed and incinerated.  Tiburcio’s family was never informed of his execution.  They knew he’d been arrested, but 29 April 1940 – the day of his death – was, for his family, the day Tiburcio disappeared.  Only in 2005, when José Luis became interested in family history and began to investigate, did he discover his uncle’s fate.  And only then did José Luis’s father, now 91, finally learn what had become of his own brother.

Without bones or a known place of burial the families have no grave where they can grieve or leave flowers.  Only a small plaque set into the old wall – the result of lobbying by two historical memory associations – pays tribute to the dead.  But it’s so small as to be barely noticeable and certainly negligible given what happened here.

Yet nearby, in the same cemetery, lie marked graves and a large memorial to the Condor Legion, the German pilots who, sent by Hitler to help Franco win the Civil War, rained bombs on Madrid and, famously, obliterated Guernica.  And opposite is another sizeable memorial to hundreds of Franco’s Nationalist troops who died, as “martyrs” reads the inscription, fighting the Republicans in an early Civil War battle.  Both memorials pay tribute to the dead as having fallen por Dios y por España – for God and for Spain.

In 2008 the families of the Republicans executed against the old wall wrote to the conservative Mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, asking that a memorial be built in the cemetery.  They were not only asking for somewhere they could pay their respects, but also for a monument that would afford their relatives the same recognition that, just a stone’s throw away, had been granted to Franco’s men.  More than a thousand signatures supported the letter.  The Mayor never replied.

The lack of a memorial, or even a reply, is not surprising given the thorny politics surrounding the issue of historical memory in today’s Spain.  In 2008 a high-profile Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, opened an investigation into the Civil War and post-Civil War disappearances and executions of 114,266 Republicans.  Moreover he accused Franco and 34 of his henchmen of crimes against humanity.

Garzón on trial

But in a bizarre turn of events that signals Spain’s persistent unwillingness to fully confront, or universally condemn, its fascist past, Garzón now finds himself on trial.  A right-wing group accused him of contravening the Ley de Amnistía de 1977 – the 1977 Amnesty Law – which Spain enacted as it made the transition to democracy.  The law guarantees amnesty for political crimes committed during the Civil War and the subsequent Franco regime.  But what was employed as a tool to prevent the fledgling democracy from becoming mired in blame and recriminations is now obstructing the investigation of, and responsibility for, Franco-era crimes.

Garzón has been charged with overstepping his authority and, if convicted, could be forced off the bench for up to 20 years.  He is currently suspended pending the outcome of the trial.

Those who support a thorough examination of, and accountability for, Francoist Spain blame the 1977 law for not only creating an amnesty, but also an amnesia. They accuse the ‘pact of silence’ that followed Franco’s death – the tacit agreement that permeated Spanish society not to discuss the dictatorship or the Civil War – for leaving the country’s history only half told.

In 2007 the current Socialist government passed the Ley de Memoria Histórica – the Historical Memory Law – as a way to break the silence and tell the other side of the story.  Officially the law recognised the victims of both sides of the Civil War, but its principal raison d’être was to balance the scales.  It set aside money and greased the bureaucratic rails for those families trying to trace the fate and the remains of their Republican dead.  And in May the government finally released, as it promised it would under the 2007 law, a map of the more than 2,000 known communal graves throughout the country.

But while the law has practically benefited individuals searching for information about, or the burial places of, their relatives, it stops short of requiring that the government take an active role in the search.  This means that while the state is willing to publish a map of where Franco’s victims lie, it’s not willing to do any digging.

That Spain remains unable to confront its past as a unified nation is not surprising given the strong ideological divisions that continue to split the country.  The policy of keeping silent on the Civil War and the Franco years is supported by the powerful and conservative opposition Popular Party (PP).  Its leader, Mariano Rajoy, has said opening the wounds of the past serves no purpose.  But the Popular Party traces its origins back to Francoist ministers and the party remains reluctant to endorse any policy that might appear to condemn the Caudillo’s regime.

A swing to the right

And with Spaniards having just delivered the PP a decisive victory, and the ruling Socialists a humiliating defeat, in the May regional and local elections, odds are Rajoy’s party will form the country’s next government.  Voters return to the polls for general elections early next year at the latest and it’s predicted they will again punish the Socialists for an economic crisis that has no end in sight.  For his part, Gallardón, the mayor who never answered the families’ request for a memorial, won another term in May by a wide margin.

So as Spanish politics swing to the right it appears the onus will remain on those who gathered to remember at the old cemetery wall, and on other families, academics and historical memory associations throughout the country who continue to uncover the past in an often personal and largely piecemeal way.  José Luis said to me, “Only once I had reconstructed the history of my family was I finally able to reconstruct the history of Spain.”  His experience, undoubtedly not unique, suggests the overlooked pages of his country’s history will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be narrated principally through individual resolve and perseverance.

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Published: Jun 29 2011
Category: Politics, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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2 Comments for “Spain’s buried past”

  1. Great article James. Do you think all of those directly affected by the Civil War will be dead before there is a real investigation?

  2. Hi there,

    My apologies for the very late reply – I’ve been overseas and had a lot of trouble connecting to the net.

    I met one woman at the cemetery (Carmen, in her forties) who was there to remember her grandfather (who was shot against the wall). Carmen cried when she spoke about what had happened to him. She had brought her son along – he was about 18. She talked about wanting to know exactly where the bones of her grandfather were and said that if she wasn’t able to to find out before she died she hoped her son would continue the search. Clearly, in her forties, she still likely has a lot of years ahead, but what she said made me think about what the future holds for ‘memoria histórica’ in Spain. With each generation the pain (and the perceived relevance) of the civil war surely diminishes. How relevant does the civil war feel to Carmen’s son and is he ever going to invest time and energy fighting for justice for his great-grandfather? It seems unlikely.

    If Carmen’s son is going to fight for something 15M suggests that it’s going to be for issues that he believes (and rightly so) affect his life today. While there’s a connection between 15M and those at the cemetery – a sense that Spain hasn’t found true democracy or been totally honest with itself through the Transition – the focus is clearly very different.

    Especially as the PP look likely to take power, the idea of a ‘real and final investigation’ appears very distant. But even if PSOE remained in power, I’m not sure that any such investigation would happen. The current piecemeal and limping way of facing up to the civil war may be as good as it gets.

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