Julius Purcell: The Memory That Will Not Die, Exhuming the Spanish Civil War

Roundup: Talking About History

[Julius Purcell writes on Spanish visual arts and culture for the Financial Times. He lives in Barcelona.]

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. While the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party gave the judge’s actions its cautious respect, other parties on the left were more enthusiastic.

The right, though, railed against the judge for his reckless “opening of old wounds.” The country’s opposition People’s Party, some of whose senior members have fathers and grandfathers who served in Franco’s 40-year dictatorship, came out strongly against the judge. The Spanish bishops, whose predecessors had endorsed Franco’s authoritarian national-Catholocism, also made their disapproval plain.

Within months Garzón’s ill-fated process had the Spanish judiciary up in arms; a church- and conservative-led opposition fulminating against any attempt to shine a light on the country’s past; and a socialist government, once proud of its policy of historical memory, effectively in retreat. Garzón was forced to drop the investigation in November.

With the investigation halted, Spain once again failed to offer institutional recognition of the cruelty suffered by its citizens in the Civil War and under the 40-year dictatorship that followed. The events of last fall also reveal the continuing reluctance to evaluate the defeated Republic of the 1930s and its relevance to Spain’s democracy today. But if Auden’s gloomy warning—that history can merely shrug and say “Alas”—is being amply fulfilled by Spain’s institutions, it is also fueling the determination of Republican descendants to help the defeated through memory...

... Months later, the humid dog days in Barcelona easing toward autumn, the news breaks like a summer storm. It is the first day of September, and Judge Baltasar Garzón is all over the front pages.

In the heat of the early morning, I read the story at the newspaper kiosk. A little way off, an old man stands stock-still in the middle of the street, absorbed in the same pages. By the end of the day, Garzón’s planned investigation to compile a census of the disappeared will become one of the biggest news stories of the year.

For over two decades, Baltasar Garzón has been courting both approval and outrage. Appointed a National Court judge in 1988 at just 34 years old, he became a national celebrity after tackling the country’s cocaine-trafficking webs. Pictured boarding patrol ships and helicopters, the image of Garzón with his thick hair slicked up over a broad, powerful face, became a popular symbol of tough, gloves-off justice. Ever since, he has savaged the two main socialist and conservative parties for corruption, and each has duly taken turns to loathe and disparage him.

Constantly assailed by left and right for playing to the media and for a sometimes-sloppy record as an investigator, he retains hero status for many. A man who irreparably changed Chile with the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, who ordered the detention of Osama Bin Laden and even had George W. Bush in his sights at one stage, possesses a belief in justice that is, at the very least, exhilarating.

And now, on this September morning, it seems even a dead dictator is not beyond his reach. Agreeing to examine the charges of crimes against humanity filed by four historical memory associations, the investigation represents the first meaningful, national-level judicial investigation of the Franco regime.

There are plenty of rumors as to Garzón’s motives for taking the case. Some say he was stung by Argentine and Chilean criticisms that he went after their dictators while conveniently forgetting his own: “Wooden knives in the house of the ironsmith,” as the Spanish phrase puts it. Others say he is eyeing richer career opportunities on offer in the United States and that the Franco dictatorship is his last bit of unfinished business.

Can Garzón really set Spain’s house in order? By the end of September when I travel to Madrid, the knives—wooden or otherwise—are already out for the judge. “A piece of folly that will dredge up the worst of Spain’s past” is the conservative opposition’s verdict. Zapatero’s socialist government is tight-lipped, while support from Garzón’s judicial colleagues is distinctly lacking—most insist that the disappeared are the responsibility of the executive...

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