A Painful Process – How Spain Is Coming To Terms With Its Civil War

Bombing in Barcelona in March 1938 by Italian Royal Air Force.

Barcelona’s Fossar de la Pedrera – Mass Grave of the Quarry – is fairly inaccessible from the city. It is hidden within walls of sandy rock. Tourists rarely visit and locals stay away. Once a month, however, small groups can be seen moving through the plaques and monuments, occasionally stopping to read and remember a name, paying tribute.

At the end of the Spanish civil war, in 1939, the bodies of 1700 Republicans, both soldiers and civilians, were dumped here without ceremony, after being executed by General Francisco Franco. The bodies were covered with quicklime to speed decomposition. A memorial was built in 1985, and tours have been conducted for the last few years.

A granddaughter of Eudald Coma Gironella paid her respects. Her family had never known what happened to his remains until a friend saw his name on one of the columns listing the dead.

Savoia-Marchetti SM.79. Photo Credit.
Savoia-Marchetti SM.79. Photo Credit.

Alfons Vázquez Obiols shows his daughter the name of a relative, Antonio Alcoverro Aliern. He was a policeman forced to testify at the trial of someone who was part of the conflict

“He was forced to testify,” Obiols says. “It was his job, he wasn’t politically involved. When Barcelona fell to the fascists in ’39, Antonio was arrested. My aunt went every day to the jail to bring him breakfast. One day she was told he was killed. The family were never given the body.”

Against his aunt’s will, Obiols is seeking the files on Aliern. “My aunt said, ‘Don’t do this. Just forget.’ That generation is still a bit frightened. They said it happened a long time ago, we want to forget. So in the end I didn’t tell them what I did.”

Even some of Vázquez’s friends are unsympathetic to his quest for documents. He says:

“I’ve got friends in Madrid who say, ‘What’s the point? Just leave it’.” However, he has no intention of doing that, believing that Spain has a long way to go before its accounts with the civil war are settled.

Map showing Spain in September 1936. Blue: Area under Republican control. Pink: Area under Nationalist control. Image Credit.
Map showing Spain in September 1936. Blue: Area under Republican control. Pink: Area under Nationalist control. Image Credit.

He is particularly upset with the memorial of the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen). Franco claimed to build it as an act of national atonement. Franco is buried there himself. It never became a site of reconciliation. Just a few weeks ago, a judge ruled that the remains of two Republicans who had been executed could be exhumed and given a dignified burial somewhere else. “That place is a scandal,” Vázquez says. “It is simply a fascist memorial. It’s unacceptable.”

Sergio Lobo wanted his 12-year-old daughter to come with him to the memorial, but she declined. “She says they’re not teaching her about this at school. She doesn’t feel like she understands enough,” he says. 69% of 14- to 17-year-old survey respondents say they’ve received little or no information about the war.

Lobo’s grandfather’s body was never found. His remains could be near Girona in northeast Catalonia where he fought, or they might be closer to Barcelona. “I have no idea where my grandfather is buried,” he says. “I can’t give you any details at all. Can you imagine?”

Two things bother Lobo – the fact that he can’t find his grandfather and the fact that his daughter’s generation is growing up with no knowledge of the war that claimed his life. “Why haven’t we done what other countries have done? Why haven’t we done what Germany did and performed the hard work of remembering and debating? Why don’t the schools do more? I try with Candela but it’s very difficult.”

Members of the Condor Legion, a unit composed of volunteers from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and from the German Army (Heer). Photo Credit.
Members of the Condor Legion, a unit composed of volunteers from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and from the German Army (Heer). Photo Credit.

“The fact it is left to an Englishman to take guided tours of this place tells you something. We have just stuck a bandage on top of the wound and forgotten about it. It won’t do. Here in Catalonia all the talk is about independence from Spain. Yes, that’s all well and good. But first things first. I fear that my daughter will not be able to tell her daughter about what the civil war really was.”

Eighty years after Franco led an uprising against the elected Republican government headed by Santiago Casares Quiroga on July 17, 1936, there is still no museum dedicated to telling the full story of the civil war.

Near the Aragón battle sites, where George Orwell fought alongside the revolutionary Marxist militiamen from the Poum, small museums are located that tell the story of that battle. In the southern port of Cartagena, the naval base of the Republic, a former air raid shelter is now the home of a series of galleries that show local experiences during the war. In Guernica, the Basque town that was bombed by German and Italian planes in 1937, there is a permanent museum devoted to peace. But there is no museum that tries to tell the entire tale of suffering that Spain experienced between 1936 and 1939.

The destruction wrought on Granollers after a raid by German aircraft on 31 May 1938.
The destruction wrought on Granollers after a raid by German aircraft on 31 May 1938.

Paul Preston, the eminent British historian of 20th-century Spain, thinks it’s astonishing that there is no museum devoted to telling both sides of the conflict. Preston is on the board of the Association of the International Museum of the Civil War (Amigce). They have asked Barcelona’s mayor to provide suitable housing for such a museum. The project would be non-profit and self-funding. It has the support of the Orwell Society in Britain and the relatives of International Brigadiers around the world. It’s also received a letter of support from the National Socialism Documentation Centre in Cologne, the largest regional memorial for victims of Nazi Germany.

A 2001 book, Soldiers of Salarmis, indicated a new attitude in Spain; a move to look at the war objectively. After all this time, the question is being asked: Why is there no museum to remember and examine the civil war? And, increasingly, many are demanding it happen.