Book Review: Franco’s crimes against Humanity

September 18, 2011

Unearthing Franco’s Legacy: Mass Graves and the Recovery of Historical Memory in Spain. Ed. Carlos Jerez-Farrán and Samuel Amago. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. (Buy at Powell’s and support ALBA)

In the past 10 years, organizations both in Spain and abroad have vindicated the need to honor victims of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. Their political pressure resulted in the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, which aims to pay homage to the victims’ memories. The contributors to this volume memorialize victims by looking at a number of phenomena that illuminate their faces and voices. The book offers four perspectives: historical; visual; literary; and anthropological. Each section begins with commentaries that engage in intelligent dialogue with the ensuing essays. It is fitting that the Guardian’scorrespondent in Spain, Giles Tremlett, writes the afterword, as journalists have been instrumental in the process of recovering memory.

Historian Paul Preston’s essay provides vast evidence of the political Right’s anti-Semitism as early as 1912 and its belief that the Socialist revolution had been organized by Jews. The association of Judaism with the Left sheds light on the brutal repression of the initial months of the war as well as subsequent xenophobia. Preston ends by linking the rhetoric of Francoist repression to the “theorists of extermination.” This essay previews his newly published book, The Spanish Holocaust (2011), where he compares Franco’s crimes with the Holocaust. Julián Casanova, an expert on the role of the Church in the Francoist period, offers a detailed description of the “vengeful” phase of the regime. This period in the early years of the dictatorship accounts for more than 50,000 victims.

Documentary television and film present the clearest picture of Franco’s victims. Jo Labanyi’s essay demonstrates that victim testimony is crucial to our comprehension of past events. Furthermore, she argues that testimonial interviews, as they appear in many documentaries, acquire full meaning in the realm of feelings. Although the victims’ narratives are inherently subjective, they prove central to the understanding of history.

The second essay of this section is by television reporter Montse Amengou, who describes how investigative journalism serves as a tool for recovering historical memory, which indeed has been the case in Spain. Gina Herrmann analyzes one of Armengou’s documentaries made for Catalan television, Les fosses del silenci [Graves of Silence] (2003), and compares it to Las fosas del olvido [Graves of Oblivion] (2004) by Adolfo Domingo and Itiziar Bearnaola, which was broadcast by Spanish television. While both address the excavations of mass graves, Domingo’s report suggests that the exhumations have brought closure to the victims’ families. However, Armengou points out that most mass graves in Spain remain uncovered.

Much like documentary film, literature provides a voice to the victims. Samuel Amago, in his essay “Speaking for the Dead: History, Narrative, and the Ghostly in Javier Cercas’s War Novels,” analyzes the best-selling Soldados de Salamina [Soldiers of Salamis] as well as the lesser known La velocidad de la luz[The Velocity of Light]. He concludes that the role of the narrator/writer serves a vindicating function.

The last section addresses the physical excavations of mass graves. Fernández de Mata explains their meaning for the victims’ relatives as well as for the perpetrators through a discussion of painful testimonies. Along the same lines, Ferrándiz writes a perfectly balanced essay that begins and ends with the personal story of Esther Cimadevilla, whose father was killed and buried in a mass grave in Asturias. Her suffering provides a personal voice among the new generation of narratives about Spain’s violent past.

Unearthing Franco’s Legacy is a seminal reference for Spanish Memory Studies. The volume’s front cover is a composite of a bright red image of Franco and a photograph of a mass grave by Catalan artist Francesc Torres. The image of the dictator superimposed over the mass grave provides readers with a reminder that Franco’s legacy is consumed by human remains drowning in a pool of blood. In order to repair their pain, the editors dedicate the book “To those who fought and continue to fight for justice and the defense of democratic rights, arduously gained, perilously maintained.”