Forced disappearances in Franco's Spain: recovering the memories

Spain is the second country in the world with the most forced disappearances, only behind Cambodia. If there is something more shocking than this already powerful headline, it is the extreme indifference that it causes, as a general rule, when it appears in the media. Strangely, the phrase that leads off this article can be found, almost verbatim and with some regularity, in the headlines of various media1 without any stronger reaction than the short-lived indignation of the few people who care to read the article.

Illustration by Klifton Kleinmann.

That is not the only reference to the Franco regime that, even today, is received with an almost routine indifference in Spain. One only needs to take a quick look at the street map of many cities and towns to find streets extolling generals of the uprising, government ministers and authorities of the dictatorship or even Francisco Franco himself2. The indifference is so extreme that some politicians who have reached positions of responsibility in important cities, in self-governing regions and even in the central government protest when municipalities propose to change the situation3. In contrast to other European countries that suffered fascist dictatorships, the current Spanish political system seems to have absolutely no will to remove the terrible legacy that the dictator left in the streets and, even more importantly, in its own institutions.

As a general rule, the opponents try to put the acts of repression of the Franco regime in the context of the civil war, and seek to justify them as "acts of war" that they try to equate with the atrocities committed by all sides in an armed conflict (the preferred example of the right is often the Paracuellos del Jarama massacres). However, beyond the bloodiest acts of the war like the assassination of the poet Federico García Lorca or the Badajoz massacre, the forced disappearances, unsolved deaths and executions after trials without any guarantees continued during the forty years of the dictatorship.

The cases are numerous. One of the most famous was the death under strange circumstances of the young student and anti-Franco militant Rafael Guijarro Moreno, in January of 1967. Although the police stated that it was a suicide, his death aroused strong controversy, expressed in the famous song "Què volen aquesta gent?” (What do these people want?) by the singer Maria del Mar Bonet4, which became over time quite an anthem against repression.

The goal of these actions was not only mere repression, but also to instill terror among the population. The case of the executions in the Camp de la Bota in Barcelona is especially macabre: between 1939 and 1951, prisoners were taken from the Model prison and driven in groups through Avenida Diagonal to the place where they were executed, without even informing their families, who usually learned the news when they came to visit them in jail5.

Commemorative plaque for the Republicans that were shot by Franco's dictatorship. Text: “In memory of the Republican victims shot in this place by the franquist dictatorship between 1939 and 1952. In my years of joy may I restart without erasing any scar of the spirit. Father of the night, of the sea and of silence, I want peace but not forgetfulness“.
By DagafeSQV, published under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Disappearances and assassinations even continued after the death of Franco, be it at the hands of a police still controlled by fascist authorities (like the events of Vitoria in 1976) or committed by clandestine groups protected by the absence of any political will to pursue them (like the Atocha massacre in 1977).

The Vitoria events are particularly relevant and are one of the cases that best illustrates the Spanish situation. The then Minister of the Interior, Don Manuel Fraga Iribarne, directly responsible for the events, including the death of five workers during a strike in the Basque city of Vitoria, not only did not answer for his actions before the courts, but is instead considered one of the fathers of the current Spanish democracy. He was one of the founder and, until his death in 2012, the Honorary President of the conservative Partido Popular6.

Every attempt for justice to investigate this type of practices rapidly encountered a wall. The most famous case is the one of the well-known judge Baltasar Garzón, who in 2008 declared himself competent for investigating the disappearances of the victims of the franquist regime. He holds Franco and 34 other chiefs of the Movement directly responsible of the disappearance of 114.266 persons. The case, that encountered from the start the opposition of the chief prosecutor of the Audiencia, started an important controversy and ended with the prosecution of the judge himself for perverting the course of justice, following a complaint by the far-right union Manos Limpias.

His case is not the only one. In 2010, the Argentine justice opened an investigation into the crimes of the Franco era. Four years later, in 2014, based on the conclusions of the investigations, an arrest warrant was issued against twenty former franquist officers who are considered involved in crimes against humanity, among which the father-in-law of the former Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon7. These arrests never took place.

In contrast with that wall of absolute indifference, if not ridicule8, broken only occasionally by a law of absolutely insufficient historical memory and without the practical means to make it effective9, there are hundreds of initiatives that have emerged from individuals, groups, parties or unions to make up for this contempt of the central government, and tried to the extent possible to draw out from the trenches the corpses of those who were murdered, remember the executed and re-establish the dignity of the victims of 40 years of barbarism

One of their main open fronts is the exhumation of the bodies buried in ditches and common graves. Estimates speak of approximately 145,000 victims of forced disappearances, although the exact figure may even be greater, of which something in excess of 8,000 bodies have been recovered.

One of the mass graves discovered in an excavation in July–August of 2014 at Estépar (Burgos). Dating from the start of the Spanish Civil War, the grave contains twenty-six bodies of Republicans who were killed by nationalists in August-September 1936. By: Mario Modesto Mata, published under CC-BY-SA

Since 2000, organizations with the objective of investigating the Franco years, locating their victims, and telling their story, have multiplied, so that, despite the obstacles interposed by an uninterested administration, the stories of those people who were repressed by the barbaric fascists have begun to emerge from the shadows.

In recent years, another related controversy has gained force - the disappearance of almost 30,000 minors, sons and daughters of prisoners or political dissidents who could have been adopted by people related to the regime. In 2012, the situation was so hot that it led the Spanish government to announce the realization of a census of the cases and the creation of a service to look out for the people possibly affected.

Meanwhile, in the institutional world, more and more city councils try to recover the memory of their cities and towns: the “memorialist” movement is now pushed by the city councils elected in May 2015. Barcelona, Cadiz, Valencia, Madrid, ... have all announced recently the creation of commissions for historical memory. These cities also consider changing the name of streets extolling the dictatorship, and organizing exhibitions, seminars and other events devoted to remembering and restoring the dignity of the victims, and rememorating the parts of their history that were being buried.

Badalona is one of the cities that created a commission for historical memory. Some unexpected electoral results allowed a grouping of several left-wing movements to win the municipal government. To understand the workings and goals of these commissions, Kinea has been able to meet with historian Sergi Caravaca, one of the coordinators of the commission of this city.

According to Sergi, the Commission of the Historical Memory of Badalona includes representatives of the academic world, of the civil society, of the city government, and experts of local history. Its first action, on the 15th of October, was an homage, in the city itself, to the President of the republican Government of Catalunya, Lluis Companys, on the 75th anniversary of his execution.

Presentation in homage to Lluís Companys in Badalona.

Sergi also emphasizes the excellent work of recovery and conservation of documentary sources that has been realized by citizens' initiatives. Among the examples he mentions, the archive of the Llefià neighbourhood compiles and keeps since 2008 a rather important base of documents. He also cites the scientific work done by the Museum of Badalona, which investigates and spreads the history of the city during the dictatorship. To continue this effort, he points out the need for a grant that would be directed to initiatives for investigating and recovering this history.

Sergi signals the importance of continuing this work with exhibitions and monographs, such as the one being prepared by the commission for this year, under the direction of historian Joan Villaroya, on the bombings registered in Badalona. They also plan other events to commemorate, for example, the international day for the victims of the Holocaust, or the first legal demonstration of the Asamblea Catalana, an anti-fascist organization, in February 1976.

As for the streets, the responsibility of the commission is to analyze the names of every street of the city to identify its origins, point out those that should be changed, and suggest as a replacement the names of people forgotten from the city's history.

We end this brief interview with Sergi by asking him his opinion on those who think that this type of activity only serves to reopen old wounds. With the expression of someone who has heard this argument much more often than he wanted to, he looks me in the eyes and answers gravely: “Before closing the wounds, it is necessary to clean them. And they won't be clean before we can investigate and explain the past without fears.”