The Memory That Will Not Die – Exhuming the Spanish Civil War

The Memory That Will Not Die – Exhuming the Spanish Civil War

History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
—W.H. Auden,
“Spain, 1937”

Auden’s anthem to the doomed Spanish Republic, his somber warning, has rarely been more relevant.

Last September Spain’s homegrown “super-judge” Baltasar Garzón—best-known for his dramatic 1998 effort to arrest the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London— announced that he was investigating not only the whereabouts of the remains of the “disappeared” of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), but also the huge numbers of defeated Republicans executed by General Francisco Franco in the grim postwar years. His goal was to try to amass enough evidence to charge Franco’s regime posthumously with crimes against humanity. Could it be that, after so long, “help” and “pardon” were finally coming to the descendants of those who died defending the Spanish Republic?

According to the great Hispanist Hugh Thomas, the three-year Civil War claimed the lives of 365,000 Spaniards, a toll that includes both those loyal to the fascist rebel Franco and those who opposed him. Some historians put the figure higher. Both sides carried out brutal executions, the bodies of victims often ending up in unmarked mass graves.

When the Civil War ended in 1939, the victorious Franco regime executed an additional one hundred thousand-plus Republican prisoners, many of whose corpses were flung into yet more mass-burial pits. These unmarked mounds, visited stealthily by the families of the “defeated” during the dictatorship, are scattered the length and breadth of Spain.

Throughout the 1950s the Franco regime excavated and re-interred with full honors as many as possible of “their” mass graves—those containing the 60-70,000 soldiers and pro-Franco civilians murdered in the Republican zone during the war itself. The same efforts have never been extended to the Republican defeated. And here is the emotional crux of the debate, without which it is impossible to understand the passion and anger that the graves generate today.

There have been some gestures to honor the Republicans’ memory. In 2007 the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero—himself the grandson of an executed Republican army captain—passed the Historical Memory Law. Facing a backlash from conservatives, the new law was a much-amended version of the sweeping measures some had hoped for, backing down on earlier promises to grant full posthumous pardons to those executed in the postwar period. The new bill merely promised support to the historical memory associations—the loose network of volunteer groups whose members include descendants of executed Republicans—without providing much in the way of state-led initiatives.

Thus, many welcomed Judge Garzón’s announcement last September. For the first time, the judiciary was taking the lead. The historical memory associations were the most fervent supporters of Garzón’s initiative.

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