Researching Exhumations and Memory in Contemporary Spain

Since 2000, a loose coalition of NGOs, victims’ relatives, and academics have set about exhuming the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and ensuing Franco dictatorship. The panelists of “Bare Bones: Civil War and Memory Politics in Contemporary Spain” examined various aspects of this recent phenomenon.

Francisco Ferrándiz traced how the rights discourses and concepts have been steadily translated into the Spanish case, increasingly becoming the language in which civil associations frame their claims and actions. Especially after the high-profile, though ultimately frustrated investigation of Judge Baltasar Gazon, terms like crimes against humanity and forced disappearance increasingly entered the Spanish lexicon. Dr. Ferrándiz argues, this case study demonstrates the necessity of going beyond a legislative approach to rights in favor of a more performative analysis.

Justin Crumbaugh examined another aspect of the historical memory movements’ discourses, in his analysis of the mutual discursive entanglements on victimhood in campaigns by the relatives of ETA’s terrorist bombings and those of Franco’s repression. Drawing on Freud’s mystic pad, Dr. Crumbaugh argues that victims’ movements leave behind impressions to be re-discovered and interpreted by others. He argues that dead bodies do not simply impact the living, but also the treatment of other dead bodies. Such victimhood discourses, however, may in fact be inherently conservative, Dr. Crumbaugh argues, eliding the need to explore the violence inherent to political commemoration in the first place.

Questions of representation were also central to Jackie Urla’s examination of the work of one of the memory movement’s most prominent photographers and filmmakers, Clemente Bernad. For Bernad, the lives of civilians killed in Franco’s repressions have become ungrievable because they do not exist in the photographic archive. Bernad, Dr. Urla demonstrates, attempts to give visual prominence to the dead bodies, capturing the evolving social process surrounding the exhumation, rather than producing full engagements with the past. In so doing, she argues, Bernad transforms forensic practice from a detached scientific practice into a civic actor.

Jonah S Rubin analyzed the affective lives of dead bodies at exhumations of Franco’s victims. Mr. Rubin traced the ways the memory movements experience the dead as an active presence at the excavation, shaping their emotional and political interactions with the event. Such experience of the dead requires significant work on the part of the forensic scientists and activists of the memory movements in order to render the dead body visible and intelligible for the uninitiated viewer. Drawing on fieldwork at the forensic exhumation, he argues for an approach to the dead that pays closer attention to the dead’s agentic capacities.

Rachel Carmen Ceasar likewise focused on the ways dead bodies are socially constructed in her exploration of a Civil War era grave containing a Moroccan Amazigh (Berber) soldier who fought in Franco’s army. The grave, she demonstrated, was regarded as taboo by nearly all modern Spaniards: the activists of the leftist historical memory movement excluded this rightist soldier, while the grave of a foreign soldier did not fit neatly into the rightist national-Catholic historical narrative. Ms. Ceasar argues that the Muslim corpse is a curious one within the story of the Spanish Civil War and the current exhumations, inhabited by multiple voices of the living, fashions various goals through the dead.            

Maria Garcia Alonso analyzed another group conventionally excluded from current narratives of the memory movements in Spain through her inquiry into the emotional tools available to right-wing Spaniards in the aftermath of the Civil War. Dr. García Alonso demonstrated the ways that Catholic narratives of persecution by Moors and Jews were remobilized to make sense of the aftermath of the Second Republic and Civil War. The very same tools that allowed the pious to make sense of their post-war lives, however, rendered the current memory movements incomprehensible for those who felt themselves to have generously forgiven the persecutors of good Catholics.

In her discussion of the panel, Uli Linke highlighted the ways broader forces of globalization, capitalism, and increasing European integration influence Spanish exhumations. She also asked the panelists to consider what impact the increased visibility of what were once public secrets has on the broader Spanish public.

Those interested in more information on the Spanish historical memory movements may want to consult Unearthing Franco’s Legacy: Mass Graves and the Recuperation of Historical Memory in Spain, edited by Carlos Jerez-Farrán and Samuel Amago (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).

Cultural Anthropology has also published several related articles on memory and violence, including Rosalind Shaw’s “Displacing Violence: Making Pentecostal Memory in Postwar Sierra Leone”, Jack Kugelmass’s “Bloody Memories: Encountering the Past in Contemporary Poland,” and Ruth Behar’s “Death and Memory: From Santa María del Monte to Miami Beach.”

Jonah S Rubin is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the relationship between remembering, forensic practices, and democratic politics in contemporary exhumations of dead bodies from the Spanish Civil War and ensuing Franco dictatorship.

Image Citation: Oscar Rodriguez via