Where are the missing? Truth and justice as a requisite for peace

The struggle for historical memory in Spain: beyond genealogy and generations

In Spain, when we speak of “historical memory”, we are referring to the traumatic period of the Civil War and Francoism. More precisely, we are talking about the previously silenced memories of the victims of the Civil War. These memories have resurfaced through the questions and concerns of the generations that grew up after those years of violence. After a long period of silence imposed during the Franco regime and an “agreed-upon” silence during the transition to democracy, new questions have arisen about the history of the Civil War and demands for the recognition of its victims have been made since 2000. This new concern for the violence of the past is influenced by the current global interest in memory and human rights. So it is important to highlight that “historical memory” is constructed in the present: it is the fight to give meaning to the difficult period of the Spanish Civil War according to current needs and concerns. Consequently, the construction of memory of the Civil War is a task that is carried out by a transgenerational group of activists.

In this essay, I would like to emphasize the importance of understanding the struggle for historical memory as a movement that precisely transcends generational and genealogical frameworks. In other words, the objectives and purposes of this movement are not only limited to a specific generational cohort, nor to the families of the victims, but also appeal to society at large.

The current struggle to recover the dignity and memory of the victims of the Civil War begins with the exhumation of the “Priaranza Thirteen” in October 2000. This first exhumation of the current series of mass grave exhumations of Civil War victims was promoted by the grandson of one of the victims, the journalist Emilio Silva. His article, entitled “My grandfather was also a disappeared person”, published on 8 October of that year in the local newspaper La Crónica de León, is still an important reference to understand the key elements of the movement for historical memory that arose after that first exhumation. By using the word “disappeared”, the article puts the victims buried haphazardly in ditches in a transnational discussion on human rights and transitional justice and the experiences of the Southern Cone. These transnational links still exist today when we think, for example, of the Argentine Lawsuit –the lawsuit filed in a criminal court in Argentina to demand an investigation of crimes committed under Franco between 1936 and 1977.

The struggle for historical memory has to be understood as a movement that transcends generational and genealogical frameworks

In this initial text, Silva clearly defines his objective: “To recover memory and give all those who fought for freedom and democracy the place they deserve in History”1.As the grandson of one of the victims, Silva underscores his family connection with them. He describes the trauma that the disappearance of his grandfather left in the memory of his relatives. Indeed, the disappearance of a loved one also has a psychological impact on the victims’ families, who face the difficulty or impossibility of mourning. Therefore, the word disappeared not only refers to the violence perpetrated, but also to the experience of subsequent generations: silence, uncertainty, impunity2.

After the publication of that article, many people in a situation similar to Silva’s contacted him to ask him for help in the search and exhumation of their loved ones from the thousands of mass graves that still exist throughout Spain. Thus an activist movement was born focusing on the exhumation of mass graves, but extending its activism to denouncing the Francoist legacy in present-day Spanish society, such as the vestiges of Francoism in public spaces. It is a movement that covers many issues related to the oppressive and violent nature of the Franco regime and that challenges today’s society to address traces, taboos and silences that have not been dealt with.

National and international political pressure from the associations has resulted in official acknowledgements of the victims and the adoption of laws

Since its inception in 2000, the movement for historical memory has had a huge social and political impact. Today there are many memory associations throughout Spain and hundreds of mass graves have been exhumed. National and international political pressure from the associations has resulted in official acknowledgements of the victims and the adoption of regional and national laws. Legal efforts to prosecute Franco’s crimes and repeal the amnesty law sought the support of international justice through the Argentine courts, especially after Judge Baltazar Garzón was penalized for trying to move forward in this regard. Although these international channels have not yet been “successful”, they have contributed to giving the movement more visibility. However, there is still a lot of work to do. The so-called Historical Memory Act of 2007, albeit an important step, delegated the responsibility and initiative of the exhumations to the activist associations. This model, which the anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz has called a “subcontracting system”, has resulted in many ethical and logistical difficulties due to the lack of national protocols and coherent coordination. For now, the government only assumes a “facilitating” role, relying on the self-management of the associations3. This situation of “outsourcing” historical memory to the associations usually results in historical memory being understood as a matter pertaining to the victims’ relatives. There is less awareness of the importance of this movement for the strengthening of democracy as a whole.

Since the origin of the historical memory movement lies in the biological (filiative) ties with the victims, activists are often referred to as the “generation of the grandchildren”. It is the generation that grew up under a more or less stable democracy and further removed from the initial trauma of the Civil War and the experiences their grandparents went through. Following the example of the memorial movements in the Southern Cone, the Spanish associations emphasized these family ties. The iconography of the movement promoted portraits of living relatives showing photos of the disappeared. In the judicial developments to prosecute the crimes of the Franco regime, the testimony of direct relatives, often very old, has also been highlighted. This emotional bond with the past, based on biological relationships with the victims, has also been the strategy of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH), founded by Emilio Silva, linking it with human rights as its main political perspective. This strategy has been criticized by the Foro por la Memoria (The Memory Forum), closely linked in its political vision to the Spanish Communist Party, which, in turn, centralizes ideological ties with the past4. For the Forum, victims of the Civil War were shot and punished because of their political orientation. Therefore, according to them, recuperating and dignifying the victims should centralize their political struggle, projecting it to the present and the future. Despite this criticism, family claims for the recovery of the remains of their relatives are also at the core of their activism. Thus we can say that historical memory in Spain seems to be a matter for the victims’ relatives: the memory ties are filiative.

The movement for historical memory only makes sense if it is the basis for building a democratic memory that appeals to all citizens

It is true that intergenerational communication is an important mechanism in the construction of collective memory. Marked by family stories and also by silences, objects and other forms of non-verbal communication, it is one of the basic mechanisms in the formulation of memory about the recent past. It therefore includes all the opportunities and acts of shared memory (and silence) that occur in families and that are characterized by affection and loyalty. There is also a more abstract transmission, which goes from generation to generation. In this case, the generations, defined as cohorts determined by their age and characterized by their socio-temporal context, represent memory communities. These generational groups share a reality in the present and this same present indicates how they relate to the past. They study the same history curriculum at school; they know the same television programs and the same political debates. So the generation of grandchildren in Spain is understood on the one hand through an intergenerational (family) transmission, and on the other hand as a group further removed from the experience of war.

Cultural critic Marianne Hirsch has proposed the concept of “postmemory” to talk about the relationship between later generations and the trauma of those who came before them5. According to her, although these stories are “remembered” only through images, anecdotes and emotional behaviour, they have had such a profound effect on subsequent generations that they form the basis for the construction of memories in their own right. It is a memory based on imaginative and creative investment instead of personal recollection. For her, postmemory is not only limited to biological ties and structures, but also includes those who identify with the legacy, for example, by political affiliation. Based on the experience in Spain, the Hispanist Sebastiaan Faber develops and defines “affiliative postmemory” to indicate conscious association, based on political solidarity, compassion and identification to generate a commitment undertaken voluntarily6.

It is essential to recognize this “affiliative” dimension unrelated to genealogy and generation in the current struggle for truth, justice and reparation with respect to Franco’s crimes

I believe it is important to be aware of the acts of “affiliative postmemory” in order to give visibility to the groups of activists who strive for the recognition of victims of the Franco regime without having biological ties or belonging to the so-called “generation of the grandchildren”. The recent bookConstruyendo memorias entre generaciones (Building Memories between Generations) (Postmetropolis 2019) gives voice to a group of young activists in the movement for historical memory. For all of the book’s participants, memory is something that is built in the present and has an important projection on the future. Thus, in “¿Qué hace una millenial como yo en un movimiento como este?” (“What is a millennial like me doing in a movement like this?”), Marina Montoto Ugarte explains that she understands her memory activism as an act of “joining temporalities”. For her, “the exercise of our democracy depends on that vibration that connects us with others, past and present”7

. The book states that it is essential to bridge the generation gap and that “grandpa’s old war stories” concern us all. The movement for historical memory only makes sense if it is the basis for building a democratic memory that appeals to all citizens. Thus, it could be said that they advocate a postmemory that, as memory studies specialist Astrid Erll has described, dissociates itself from the genealogy and generation frameworks and becomes an active self-identification option for any subsequent generation8.

Although inter- and intra-generational transmission is extremely important to understand the rise of “historical memory”, it is essential to recognize this “affiliative” dimension unrelated to genealogy and generation in the current struggle for truth, justice and reparation with respect to Franco’s crimes. This struggle –indeed transgenerational, but also transgenealogical– is best defined by a political position in the present, in line with the values of human rights and transitional justice. Recognizing self-identification with the fight against Franco’s crimes is crucial when transitional postjustice9 is understood as a cornerstone in the building of a democratic society for the future. At the same time, it leads to a less rigid and more inclusive model than the ideological ties proposed by the Forum for Memory, since it identifies historical memory as a cornerstone of democracy beyond ideological leanings. The legacy of the memory of the victims of the Civil War and its values is not only accessible to those who have biological links with the victims, nor is its significance restricted to the generation of the grandchildren. In the recognition of its transgenerational and transgenealogical value, its importance is understood for current and future Spanish society as a whole.

1. Emilio Silva, “Mi abuelo también fue un desaparecido”, La Crónica de León, 8 October 2000, sec. El Bierzo.

2. Silvana Mandolessi and Mariana Eva Perez, “The Disappeared as a Transnational Figure or How to Deal with the Vain Yesterday”, European Review 22, No. 4 (2014): 606.

3. Francisco Ferrándiz, “Exhuming the defeated: Civil War mass graves in 21st-century Spain”, American Ethnologist 40, No. 1 (2013): 50.

4. Layla Renshaw, Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of the Spanish Civil War(Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2011); Francisco Ferrándiz, “From tear to pixel: political correctness and digital emotions in the exhumation of civil war mass graves in Spain today” in Engaging the emotions in Spanish culture and history, ed. Luisa Elena Delgado, Pura Fernandez, and Jo Labanyi (Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 2016), 242-61.

5. Marianne Hirsch, The generation of postmemory: Writing and visual culture after the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

6. Sebastiaan Faber, “Actos afiliativos y postmemoria: asuntos pendientes”, Pasavento: Revista de Estudios Hispánicos II, No. 1 (2014): 137-55.

7. Marina Montoto Ugarte, «¿Qué hace una millenial como yo en un movimiento como este?: Reflexiones de una joven antropóloga dentro de la “Querella Argentina”», in Construyendo memorias entre generaciones. Tender puentes, buscar verdades, reclamar justicia, ed. Ana Messuti (Madrid: Postmetropolis, 2019), 49.

8. Astrid Erll, “Generation in Literary History: Three Constellations of Generationality, Genealogy, and Memory”, New Literary History 45, No. 3 (2014): 385-409.

9. Paloma Aguilar and Clara Ramírez-Barat, “Generational dynamics in Spain: Memory transmission of a turbulent past”, Memory Studies, 2016, 1-17.

Marije Hristova is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie / WIRL-COFUND postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Advanced Study/School of Modern Languages and Cultures in the University of Warwick (United Kingdom). She is part of the Memorias en Red association and is a researcher of the R&D SUBTIERRO project. She is a specialist in memory studies and production of mnemonic discourses after the exhumations of the graves of the Civil War in Spain. She is the author of Reimagining Spain: Transnational Entanglements and Remembrance of the Spanish Civil War since 1989 (Maastricht 2016).

This is a translated version of the article originally published in Spanish.

Photography: Exhumation in Larrasoaña

© Generalitat de Catalunya