Digging up Franco-unfinished business of the Spanish Civil War.

JR Max Wheel

5 December 2019

Stumbling around in the TV schedules for anything intelligent, my eye was caught by BBC’s showing of The Spanish film “The Silence of Others”, a film which documents the attempt to bring to justice some of the Franco regime’s torturers and assassins to account for their war crimes and to investigate the horrible eugenic experiments resulting In the “stolen babies” outrage.

This film touched one personally as being a young man in Spain in the early 1970s, initially living in Barcelona, where any illusions one might have had were quickly scotched by the obvious and often personal loathing for the regime, the near refusal to speak anything other than Catalan wherever possible. This was early 1972, the country largely at peace except for the Basque Country and long-standing ETA violence and Barcelona, even in its pre-Olympic face, a delight. Behind the façade were colleagues’ constant worry, the police, for stepping out of line, I recall someone was garrotted for a trivial crime, the compulsory military service which hung over the young and the often painful silences from the older staff, who had direct experience as young men and whose families had suffered.  Much of this was oddly  still more obvious when in Madrid, still 2 years before the death of Franco. The stories were more vivid and especially in the countryside, where truly awful crimes were committed and in the same area covered by the film on the edge of the Sierra de Gredos range. Civil wars are the most brutal, bloody and unforgiving kind, what is extraordinary is that Spain  has never really come to terms with its past in a cathartic way, even Cambodia, Chile and especially outh Africa have had their Truth & Reconciliation moments, this is vital as to quote the film ” you need to be able to shake hands with your fellow citizens without rancour” It is a way of coming to terns with the past, no matter how awful. The Spanish moved with extraordinary speed from dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy and a Constitution [1978] in barely three years. In so doing they agreed a Pact of Forgetting [Pacto de Olvido] a self-imposed national amnesia to avoid confronting the horrors of the Civil War and the crimes committed by some, possibly many who were ministers under the Franco regime, some of whom went on to serve in the new democratic Spain. There has been no closure.

One particularly egregious case begins in the village of Pedro Bernardo, where an old lady recounts the loss of her parents, with typical speed the grave was rapidly concreted over by a main road.

A small group of us rented a tumble-down cottage in the nearby village over the north side of the mountain, we soon heard extraordinary stories, the local mayor who miraculously survived was banished from his village to live his entire life out away from his birthplace and family, never readmitted as having been a republican.  Across the country there are mass graves in fields, cemeteries where multiple bodies were piled in under a single-family name. It is hard to see the sunny and happy country that one learned to love and appreciate through this lens.

In a bizarre twist the film’s story is also he attempts to bring to justice those who had committed the crimes and the intervention via appeal to Human Rights and Universal Justice via an intervention of a brave judge from Argentina. Argentina of all countries with its own dreadful record of the disappeared ones -desaparecidos under another military junta. Remarkably this process is now belatedly under way, as is the equally awful story of the “stolen babies”, committed by mad eugenicist doctors to eliminate the “red gene” of socialism and republicanism. Nobody knows how many, as the records have been falsified and erased. It was a frequently used expressions during my time in Spain, almost with a note of pride but equally possibly a grim sense of humour – “How well we live in Spain” “Que bien se vive en Espana! Renaming the streets and wiping out the traces of the victorious Civil War Generals and whole squares has taken time. Exhuming the body of Franco from the grotesquely impressive Valley of the Fallen is a belated start and sits in stark contrast to those politicians who oversaw the transition to democracy, but who wanted to leave the past behind as too grisly to face and confront.

The sleep of reason produces monsters.