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Human Rights and Memory in Post-Franco Spain

Human Rights and Memory in Post-Franco Spain

How has Spain addressed its history of grave human rights abuses under the Franco Regime? In which ways does the memory of these atrocities affect present-day society and politics?

On February 25, 2016, Ofelia Ferrán of Spanish and Portuguese and Lisa Hilbink of Political science presented findings in their forthcoming book, Legacies of Violence in Contemporary Spain: Exhuming the Past, Understanding the Present, at the biweekly Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence Studies workshop. 



This comprehensive and interdisciplinary study brings together contributions from history, political science, literary and cultural studies, forensic and cultural anthropology, international human rights law, sociology, and art to unpack the various legacies of the Franco era in Spain, specifically focusing on the exhumations of mass graves from the Spanish civil war until regime’s demise. 


Both Hilbink and Ferrán began with the historical context, outlining the political atmosphere following the Spanish civil war in which Franco institutionalized fear through violence as a means of controlling society.  This sort of state control manifested itself in acts of forced removal, exile, incarceration, kidnapping, torture and summary execution. Their research puts civilian deaths during and after the war somewhere around 170,000, with approximately 500,000 incarcerated and 500,000 exiled. However, these numbers remain contentious in Spain today. A group of mass graves function as another legacy of this authoritarian phase in Spanish history. Uncovering these crimes has been incredibly controversial in modern Spain, due in part to the nature of its transition to democracy.  This period was characterized by an attempt to repress the past in order to build a new democratic system through a sort of “pact of silence.” Moreover, an amnesty law was passed in 1977, prohibiting any Franco-era crime from going on trial.


The early 2000s have witnessed the emergence of movements dedicated to recovering historical memory through the work of grass-roots cultural organizations to exhume mass graves. These movements have used literature from both the Holocaust and various episodes of genocidal violence to discuss the Franco period, even employing the language of “the disappeared” for the victims, reminiscent of political violence in Latin America. The Law of Historical Memory in 2007 was passed to extend broader reparations and instituted official policies to fund exhumations, create research and documentation of repression, remove certain insignias and street names, and reverse auction sentences from the Franco regime. Members of the historical memory movement found the law to be too timid, partially because it does not annul Franco verdicts and did not hold the central government accountable for the exhumation process. Consequently, the movement has turned to the courts for their new battle ground.


According to Ferrán and Hilbink, the growing movement in Spain can be understood in an international context, which has borrowed strategies from locations of contentious politics and violence. Several significant events inspired the editors to compile literature and research that interrogates and explores this very crucial moment in Spanish history, including the political and legal battle over Judge Baltasar Garzón’s efforts to investigate the Franco-era crimes, and  the decision of an Argentine judge to accept jurisdiction over the investigation of the exhumed bodies.


The book employs a number of angles regarding issues of memory and violence in the Franco era, particularly the exhumations of mass graves, forensics from the Spanish civil war, rebel violence, gender violence, dreams of transition to democracy, the law of historical memory, and legal accountability for Franco-era crimes. This book also addresses the issue of mass graves through other mediums, such as poetry and film, and one chapter is dedicated to an interview with Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón regarding truth, reparations and justice. 


The editors explore the silences around the legacy of violence, which, according to Ferrán and Hilbink, have become ingrained in Spanish society. They describe the violence as “what is known, but cannot be said.” The book examines historical timing (i.e. post-Nuremberg era) and geopolitical developments (Spain being a Latin case in Western Europe) and how these influenced the categorization of these crimes.  The book explains the differences and implications between what Hannah Arendt described as “regimes of criminals” -- best exemplified in Latin America -- and “criminal regimes” -- associated with Eastern Europe. Finally, the book discusses the effects of this unearthing of crimes on the nature of debate in Spain and the evolution of its democracy. 


The book will be published later this summer. 


-Written by Marie-Christine Ghreichi
April 14th, 2016