Coming to Terms with the Past: Spain’s Memory Wars

Helen Graham reveals the key role historians are playing in the aftermath of Franco’s ‘Uncivil Peace’.

Between 1936 and 1939 Spanish society was ripped apart in a brutal civil war. It had been unleashed by a military coup supported by those who feared the potential for change opened up by the democratic Second Republic in 1931. In the aftermath of the coup a dirty war was waged in territory controlled by the army. Civilians collaborated with the military authorities in the mass murder of their compatriots -urban and rural workers, liberal professionals, regional nationalists and intellectuals, all groups identified with the Republic. The killers, ritually and sadistically, enacted their desire to annihilate not only their human enemies but change itself. The civil war meanwhile escalated into an international conflict. Largely as a result of the military aid provided by Hitler and Mussolini, General Francisco Franco went on to win the war against Spain's fledgling democracy. But although the military conflict was over by April 1st, 1939, what followed cannot be called peace.

Under Franco, state and society were to be remade by the violent exclusion of the defeated. All those who had supported the Republic were demonised as 'anti-Spain'. Placed beyond the nation, they were deemed to be without rights. Tens of thousands were executed, judicially murdered after summary military trials. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children also spent time in prisons, reformatories, concentration camps and labour battalions.

History itself became a weapon in this work of exclusion. Franco legitimised his violent new order by reference to an ultra-conservative reading of Spanish history - one that had, significantly, been challenged under the Republic. He erected a repressive myth of a monolithic Spanish 'nation' born in the fifteenth century with the Catholic Kings, where hierarchy and cultural homogeneity, guaranteed by integrist Catholicism, had generated imperial greatness. Although the empire was gone, metropolitan Spain under Franco would be great again as a bulwark against the Republic's 'sins' of modernity: enlightenment freethinking, the acceptance of levelling change and a tolerance of cultural heterogeneity. Francoist legislation deprived Republican-identified professionals of property and public employment as well as subjecting them to internal exile. Their children were denied access to university. The Catholic Church in Spain collaborated by denouncing their Republican parishioners to state tribunals.

Work in 1940s Spain was presented as a way in which the 'sinful' could redeem themselves. Prisoners became slave labourers: 20,000 worked to hew out of sheer rock the basilica known as the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), Franco's monument to his victorious crusade and the winning side in the civil war. Republican labour battalions were also used by the army and hired out to private enterprise. The state agency responsible for overseeing them was called the committee for the redemption of prison sentences through work. Catholic notions of expiation through suffering here permitted extreme economic exploitation. Those most heavily targetted were, unsurprisingly, urban workers - the Republican social constituency par excellence. They were also the main focus of the regime's drive for 'purification'. For notwithstanding Francoism's Catholic core, it also incorporated elements of social darwinism. The defeated carried the germ of 'anti-nation', a form of degeneracy that, if not cleansed to the last trace, would contaminate the healthy body of Spain. Military psychiatrists experimented on prisoners in search of the 'red gene'. Purification and purging were fundamental concepts in 1940s Spain, as they have usually been in all the barbaric episodes, racial or political, that inhabit Europe's dark mid-twentieth century.

Among the victims of this worldview were the 'lost children' of Francoism. They were the babies and young children who, after being removed from their imprisoned mothers, had their names changed so they could be adopted by regime families. Many thousands of working-class children were also sent to state institutions because their own Republican families were considered 'unfit' to raise them. There were also cases of child refugees being kidnapped from France by the regime's external 'repatriation' service and then placed in Francoist state institutions. In theory, the punishment was of the parents of the children being 'rehabilitated'. The reality was that children had to actively expiate the 'sins of the fathers'. They were repeatedly told that they too were irrecuperable; and, as such, they were frequently segregated in state institutions and mistreated both physically and mentally.

The forms of brutal exclusion that happened in Franco's Spain - from extrajudicial murder to daily humiliation of the defeated - were no less devastating for being defined in terms other than those of race. In Francoist Spain, as in Nazi Germany, the creation of outgroups through violence was designed to discipline the 'nation'. Francoist repression likewise depended for its success on the complicity and collaboration of ordinary Spaniards. This was achieved via the use of denunciation as a major mechanism to trigger the detention and trial of Republicans. Tens of thousands denounced their neighbours, acquaintances and even family members - denunciations for which no corroboration was either sought or required.

But unlike the German case, Spain's brutal new order was not overturned by military defeat. For Franco won not only the civil war but also, in the end, the Second World War. In spite of Franco's close political identification with the Nazi new order he did not align Spain militarily with the German-Italian Axis. The Allied liberation of Europe therefore stopped at the Pyrenees. Franco's dictatorship was left in place by Western powers increasingly preoccupied with Cold War divisions and prepared to turn a blind eye to mass killing and repression in return for Franco's repeated affirmation of crusading anti-Communism. By 1945, anyway, the frenzy of killing was diminishing in Spain.

Like many repressive dictatorships, the Franco regime publicly denied the existence of those it had killed - both the extrajudicially murdered and the executed consigned to the anonymity of common graves. The intention was not so much to destroy their memory as to relocate collective memory elsewhere, to the personal and private family sphere where the fears and nightmares could go on doing their work, thus stifling any opposition.

The defeated cast no reflection. No public space was theirs. The Francoist dead had war memorials and their names carved on churches: 'caidos por Dios y por Espana' ('those who fell for God and Spain'); but the Republican dead could not even be publicly mourned. The defeated were obliged to be complicit in this denial: women concealed the violent deaths of husbands and fathers from their children in order to protect them physically and psychologically; sisters mentally mapped the location of their murdered brothers, but never spoke of these things. The silent knowledge of unquiet graves necessarily produced a devastating schism between public and private memory in Spain.

The longevity of Franco's regime massively exacerbated this schism. Spanish society changed dramatically in the 1960s. Industrialisation and urbanisation occurred at a dizzying pace, but the civil war was still portrayed as a war of liberation or religious crusade fought against the hordes of anti-Spain; a war of morality against depravity.

Even with the death of Franco in November 1975 and the beginnings of superstructural political change, in important respects the long 'postwar' was still continuing. The return of democracy was agreed by the Francoist elites in return for a de facto political amnesty, based on the 'pact of silence'. No one would be called to account judicially, nor would there be any equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Fear of the army and the considerable residual firepower of the civilian extreme right made the Franco regime's democratic interlocutors accept this as the lesser of the available evils. But the 'pact of silence' was also the inevitable result of the complicity of ordinary Spaniards in the repression. There was a widespread fear of reopening old wounds that the Franco regime had, for so long, expressly and explicitly prevented from healing. Those who had been obliged to be silent for nearly forty years were once again required to accept that there would not be public recognition of their past lives or memories.

Yet one of the most remarkable features of the 1980s in Spain was the explosion of detailed empirical works of history that have minutely reconstructed the repression on a province by province basis. By the end of the 1990s about 60 per cent had been researched to some degree. This ongoing work constitutes the necessary memorialisation of the civil war and its long aftermath. Most crucially, it means the public recognition of all the stories that could not surface under the dictatorship, nor under the precarious circumstances of the democratic transition in the late 1970s. This new history, told with real names and counting the dead from municipal registers and cemetery lists, is, in a very real sense, the equivalent of war memorials for those who never had them. Where 'history', in the shape of a Francoist myth, was once an instrument of repression, now the work of independent historians, amateur and professional, is a pivotal part of the work of reparation and, as such, an act of democratic and constitutional citizenship.

But for remembrance to happen fear had to be overcome. This has taken until the start of the new millennium. In the last three years there has been an explosion of Republican memory with the creation of civil pressure groups, most notably the Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (ARMH). This has petitioned for the exhumation from common graves of the remains of those extra-judicially murdered so they may be identified and reburied by family and friends. The ARMH grew out of founder member Emilio Silva's search for his own grandfather, killed in October 1936 by Francoist vigilantes in Priaranza del Bierzo, Leon, in north-west Spain. Silva's grandmother, although fully aware of the fate of her husband, never told any of her six children what had happened. In Silva's case, as in so many others, it would be the subsequent generation that felt compelled to ask the questions - spurred on by their experience of the pervasive sense of mental absence, anguish and loss attaching to their elders. The shallow roadside grave in Priaranza, Leon, containing the remains of Silva's grandfather and another thirteen victims, became the ARMH's flagship case and was taken to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As a result, the grave was exhumed in October, 2000, and in May, 2004, Emilio Silva's grandfather became the first victim of Spain's civil war to have his identity confirmed by a DNA test. Since 2000, the Association has exhumed the remains of over 100 people. It has many new digs pending, in response to requests from the families of 'the disappeared', who are estimated to number around 30,000.

The ARMH's work to date has depended on volunteers and on the financial contributions of the families. Some-times local authorities have offered aid, but this is discretionary and certainly no central government funds have been forthcoming. A similar predicament faces surviving members of the slave labour battalions who want what was done to them to be publicly acknowledged before they die. As with the long-term political prisoners of Francoism, this would make some of them eligible for financial compensation under enabling legislation passed in 1990-92 by Spain's previous social democratic government. But the conservative incumbents, the Par lido Popular (PP) in government from March 1996 to March of this year, proved unresponsive and so the question of compensation devolved to Spain's regional governments where again the PP's representatives generally opposed such initiatives.

Financial cost is unlikely to he the main issue here. The number of surviving long-term political prisoners and slave labourers is now relatively few. And while the PP government denied funds to the ARMH, it was prepared to offer economic support to Spaniards seeking information about relatives who belonged to the fascist Blue Division that fought with the Germans on the Eastern front in the Second World War. It also contributed financially to maintaining the graves of Blue Division volunteers.

The PP's attitude doubtless reveals its perception of democratic Spain as the inheritor state to Franco's, rather than as representing a break with it. This also explains its position in the current 'archive wars'. These are being waged over documentation that began life as Francoist war booty but now forms part of the holdings of the national civil war archive in Salamanca (one of Franco's wartime capitals and still the heartland of Catholic, centralist, conservative Spain). The PP has so far opposed all attempts by the Catalan regional government to have the archive return the originals of Catalan documentation seized by the advancing Francoist armies during the war and stored in Salamanca as evidence with which to prosecute the regime's Republican opponents. That the civil war is still a contested past is also deducible from many other contemporary symptoms, above all the lack of major museum coverage of the civil war, especially in Madrid. Such representations are much more likely to be found at the periphery - most notably in Guernica in the Basque Country which has the nearest thing to a modern civil war exhibition - or else on a small-scale as local, temporary exhibitions.

Yet this institutional absence and ambiguity now contrasts dramatically with the return of Republican memory through the channels of civil society. The specialist history books of the 1980s and 1990s continue to be published. But they have been joined by a flood of journalistic works and television programmes on the Francoist repression, most emotively on the 'lost children' about whom a television documentary transmitted last year drew huge audiences. The Francoist backlash has also appeared, in the form of a popularised history book, Pio Moa's Los milos de la guerra civil ('The Myths of the Civil War') published in 2003. Its content of anachronistic Francoist propaganda is entirely bankrupt in the face of the past quarter century of national and international historical research but, unlike most of the Spanish publications deriving from this research, Mitos is written in a clear and accessible prose style and aimed specifically at a general readership. Despite the poverty of the work, it has enjoyed an extraordinary commercial success in Spain, most notably among the young, who are vulnerable because coverage of the 1930s and 1940s in school history syllabuses is still frequently patchy or non-existent.

Nevertheless, the debate around Moa is occurring within civil society - the very entity the Francoist crusade sought to annihilate. For all that Moa has powerful supporters in the Spanish media, his unreconstructed Francoism is no longer invested with the power of a repressive state. Spain's civil society is growing stronger and more complex, as the campaign around Republican memory and the mass graves indicates. And even Moa has been massively outsold by Javier Cercas' The Soldier of Salamis, a civil war novel that subtly and humanely debunks the sterile values of Moa's coupunleashing 'honourable soldiers'. In the end, too, even the lack of funds hampering the work of the Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory may be a price worth paying for its independence. For when governments and states promote public remembrance - even if they are liberal democratic ones - then this changes the meaning and value of such remembrance. Memory work that emanates from civil society is inherently more healing and more useful in terms of building a democratic culture. As the anthropologist Michael Taussig puts it, such work 'allows the moral and magic powers of the unquiet dead to flow into the public sphere'.

'Forgetting is a strategy that enables life to go on, although some of us keep our finger on the trigger of memory, just in case.' So wrote Juan Marse, the great novelist of Spain's post-war trauma. His is a resonant reference to the tension between the need to remember, to achieve collective reparation and, on the other hand, the need to move on as a society, not to live shackled to the past. But this is, perhaps, only an apparent tension. For the importance of public remembrance is precisely that it permits, or liberates, the process of private forgetting. Once there has been public recognition then there can be private forgetting, the necessary letting go.

The explosion of Republican memory now occurring constitutes an outpouring, before the generations who suffered what it remembers pass away for good. This is the same imperative that has engendered much Holocaust research. But the return of Republican memory is necessary not just for those who must tell their story, but for all living Spaniards of whatever generation. Because democracy in the end cannot anywhere be constructed on an unacknowleded hecatomb.

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