Time to Bury the Dead

Ian Gibson

Eighty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, tens of thousands of Franco's victims still lie in unmarked graves. Identifying the dead is a vital means of providing Spain with closure — and making sure fascism doesn't rear its head again.

A portrait of Federico Garcia Lorca hangs from a wall in a restaurant near the site where archaeologists are searching for a mass grave of victims of the civil war on November 19, 2014 in Alfacar, near Granada, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

Interview by
Tommy Greene
Eoghan Gilmartin

The Spanish Civil War came to an end on April 1, 1939, only days after Francisco Franco’s Nationalist troops entered Madrid. By the time the capital fell, following a long siege, the war’s body count had reached nearly half a million. About 150,000 of those deaths directly owed to the Francoite terror; a further 20,000 Republican prisoners would be executed in the immediate wake of the Nationalists’ victory. Thousands more died in concentration camps across the country or in refugee camps over the border in southern France.

In the words of Francoite general Queipo de Llano, it was “necessary to spread terror … to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.” Historian Paul Preston later called it the “Spanish Holocaust.” Yet it seems difficult for the country to reflect on the dead and those who orchestrated the mass killings. The bloodbath at the foundation of the Franco regime now lies decades in the past; Spanish democracy was re-founded in the 1970s precisely on the “pact to forget” and a bipartisan amnesty.

Nonetheless, since Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist-led government assumed office last summer, historical memory has returned to the forefront of the political agenda. Just a month into his term as premier, Sánchez announced that Franco’s remains, along with those of Falange founder Antonio Primo de Rivera, would be exhumed from the shrine built for the two at the Valley of the Fallen, just north of Madrid. The dictator built the monument for himself with the forced labor of thousands of Republican prisoners, who all now lie in unmarked graves. Decades later, the site is finally to be “resignified” in a belated effort to tackle this dark chapter of Spanish history.

While Franco organized the bloodbath, on the other side of the political divide this monstrous legacy is also embodied by the poet Federico García Lorca, killed at the beginning of the Civil War. In the words of journalist Antonio Maestre, Lorca “was left to rot in an unmarked pit in the hills outside Granada after his assassination by Falangists.”

Lorca’s work, his life and tragic death have been a major focus of the Irish writer Ian Gibson’s career. A vocal critic of the Spanish right’s treatment of Franco’s dictatorship and its painful legacy, Gibson has been at the forefront of efforts to locate and exhume modern Spain’s most celebrated poet.

Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene sat down with the internationally renowned Hispanist to discuss what this historic anniversary means to Spain, as well as the challenges facing it at another important juncture in its democratic history.


One of the discourses perpetuated around the Civil War on the Spanish right is that everyone is guilty for what happens in war — that neither side’s hands were clean. As the longtime leader of the Popular Party (PP) in Madrid Esperanza Aguirre put it “there were heroes and villains on both sides.” Yet it was not only the scale of the killing that differentiates Nationalist violence from that on the Republican side but also its systematic nature. It was the planned extermination of all political opposition.


Yes, it was a deliberate policy engineered before the war. Prior to the Nationalists launching their military uprising, they had come to the decision that if the coup failed, they were going to wipe out half of Spain. The American journalist Jay Allen conducted an interview with Franco just before he crossed over to the Spanish mainland [from Spanish territory in Morocco in July 1936]. In it Allen tells Franco that victory would require killing half of Spain, and Franco’s answer was he was willing to “pay any price.” He viewed the war as a crusade against communism.

From the beginning, the fascists initiated a campaign of mass terror. In the first weeks of the war came the massacre in the Southern city of Badajoz. As Franco’s troops approached Madrid, the ordinary people knew what was going to happen and so naturally, their reaction was violent. They killed priests and anyone wearing a tie. And yet you cannot compare the two sides’ behavior. There was brutality on both sides, but on the fascist side it was methodical and systematic. The numbers are terrible — there are still 115,000 bodies in unmarked graves.

The Nationalist side then hardened into a brutal dictatorship. Something dreadful that people who lived through this told me is that the prisoners all thought in 1944 the Allies were going to liberate Spain from Franco. That was the hope that they held onto. But then the truth dawned that that was not going to happen, and it meant they were going to be there for forever, as it were, with the threat of death and torture hanging over them.


You are known internationally for your work on the murdered poet Federico García Lorca — probably the most famous victim of Franco’s terror. Your first book investigated his death, placing it in the wider context of the Nationalist killings in Granada. What is the significance of his death here?


I went to Granada to work on my PhD in 1965. Franco still had ten more years to live and it was the first time I experienced a police state. You could feel the sense of fear everywhere. People were always worried about who was listening. I was originally there to do research into the rural roots of Lorca’s poetry but after a few months the peasants started to open up about what had happened there at the beginning of the Civil War. You are talking about the murder of thousands of people in a very small city. I realized I had an opportunity to write something important — to document the terror in the region and so putting aside my thesis, I wrote The Death of Lorca.

For me, Lorca symbolizes all the disappeared people of Spain. We are talking about a poetic genius — one of the greatest poets that Europe has produced. Everything he wrote was created in the twenty years before he was murdered at thirty-eight. He is the national poet of this country and yet they have not been able to find his body. And so I see him as symbolizing all those who lie out there in unmarked graves. After Cambodia, Spain is the country with highest number of disappeared people in the world. Even the Pope, in an interview on Spanish television just this week, has said that the country cannot hope to look to the future until it buries its dead.

All ancient cultures knew you cannot leave people out to be eaten by the vultures and rats. The issue could be dealt with if the Right was able to be a bit magnanimous instead of telling us we are “reopening old wounds” or that it is an evil leftist plot. They were able to bury their dead eighty years ago but the other side were not even allowed to look for the graves of their loved ones.

The only place where this has happened is in Malaga. At the beginning of war, the Italian fascists went in with Franco’s troops and there was absolute butchery. They killed something like 4,000 people — of which they have exhumed 3,000 bodies. The conservative Popular Party mayor Francisco de la Torre spoke at the exhumation, underlining that what had happened was a crime and has to be acknowledged as such. This should not be that difficult for the Right.


Yet if anything the Spanish right seem to be going in the opposite direction. The emergence of the extremist Vox party is now dragging other right-wing parties in an ever more reactionary direction. It has vehemently opposed policies around historical memory in places like Andalusia. How do you view their trajectory?


Vox is very interesting. Before its breakthrough, the extreme right found its place within the Popular Party — the party of government on the Right. Now, with Vox, it has gained its own autonomous expression. For me this is better as we can see who they are, what they look like, and how they express themselves without any of the subterfuge there was before.

There has always been a part of the Spanish right whose allegiance to democracy is skin-deep. I remember one PP minister who said that “a lot of us lived very well under Franco.” Of course they bloody did! There was nowhere in Europe that the rich lived so well. Their kids were the only ones who could afford to pay for university — to study law, etc. — while at the same time a huge amount of wealth was amassed and stashed away outside of Spain. This was the result of forty years of unchallenged oligarchy.

When I see the footage of Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal astride his horse, like a Spanish version of Putin, I am reminded of some the old Falangists that I met in the 1960s — this sense of machismo gone mad. All that matters are the muscles and, of course, the prick, while women are mere objects.

I remember meeting Ernesto Giménez Caballero, who published The Spanish Genius in 1934. It is a fascist manual. In works like that you get a sense of a basic evil built into fascism. It is an ideology about the weak and the strong — essentially about eliminating the weak and degenerate from society.


A recent investigation by Spanish journalist Carlos Hernandez has uncovered the existence of almost three hundred concentration camps in Spain — about 50 percent more than previously thought — in which over a million Spaniards were imprisoned. There have also been revelations surrounding Francoite eugenics programs. How much more of this kind of information do you think is yet to come to light?


You are right that more and more information has come to light in recent years. The terrible thing, though, is that many of the older generation are going to die before the remains of their loved ones are found. Part of the difference with the Hitler and Mussolini regimes, is that this was a forty-year dictatorship — and that is a long time. The Amnesty Law in 1975 [i.e., at the end of the Franco regime] aimed simply to turn the page on the past. This made any kind of investigation into the atrocities very difficult.

But the work is now being done. A huge study has just been published on the terror in the La Mancha region. A group of researchers spent four years tracking down all the families, seeking documentation, filling in the gaps, etc. The Right refuses to acknowledge the genocide and cannot accept the thesis of Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust. But there was a holocaust. It happened and the evidence is mounting up.


You have been critical of former Socialist (PSOE) prime minister Felipe González’s inaction on addressing the issue of historical memory during his fourteen years in power. Do the Socialists have to assume a certain responsibility here?


Yes, I think that when the PSOE was elected in 1982 with a huge overall majority, that was the time to act — to put into motion a serious process of historical memory and reconciliation. In an interview with the former El País editor Juan Luis Cebrián, González said a leading general had implored him not to touch the issue of Francoite repression because the army was still very dangerous and likely to retaliate. He then told Cebrián that he realized now he should and could have acted, but that this was not clear at the time.

I do not fully accept this excuse. They had this massive mandate from the Spanish people for change. But they did not risk it, did not have the moral courage to push ahead. At least the whole process could have been gotten under way — for example getting rid of the symbols, such as the fascist street names and statues of Franco that were dotted around the country. Some Socialist mayors did this in their towns and there were only mild protests, but González’s government never risked even going that far.

Now we are in a situation in which Franco is still in his mausoleum at the Valle de los Caídos in 2019. It is an outrage. There is no other equivalent monument to a fascist dictator in Europe. It is something they should be ashamed of, but shame is not a feeling which comes easy in this country, particularly to those on the Right. [Current Socialist prime minister] Pedro Sánchez decided to remove his remains last June but we are [still] waiting and waiting — there are endless delays and legal challenges. Now they are saying the exhumation will be May 10, but we do not know if that will be possible or not.


Sánchez also recently became the first head of government to visit the graves of two of the most famous Republican exiles — poet Antonio Machado and the last president of the Second Republic, Manuel Azaña. What was the significance of this gesture?


It was very important. Obviously, there was an electoral element to the visit, but it was more than that. Machado in particular has come to symbolize the half-million exiles who fled to France after Barcelona fell to Franco. This mass exodus, made up predominantly of ordinary people, were bombarded from ships in the Mediterranean and machine-gunned by German and Italian planes as they made their way to the border. On the eightieth anniversary of what is known as the Retirada (the withdrawal), it was important that Sánchez made this gesture.


The early years of the Second Republic were an incredible moment culturally for Spain. The country was beginning to move in a more secular direction while you had a real flourishing of the arts as symbolized by the “Generation of ‘27” poets — the likes of Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Luis Cernuda, and even Pablo Neruda who was living in Madrid before the war. The fall of the Republic marks a break with this. How do you view this loss?


The Republic was under threat from the word go, with the Church firmly against it and the fascists already plotting together with Mussolini’s regime. But that did not stop the incredible flowering that took place. Beginning in the 1920s, there was an extraordinary cultural scene in Madrid: foreign painters, the arrival of cinema, a booming theater scene, and this group of incredible poets and novelists known as the generation of ‘27. These young writers were also in contact with the previous generation, which included the likes of Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno, and Antonio Machado. Madrid was a small city — everyone knew everyone else and you just had this exciting mix.

Then the military uprising wrecked it. It was an absolute cultural disaster — when you think of what was lost. We will never know what Spain could have been. Most of the country’s intellectuals were forced into exile or had been killed. You had the loss of documents and cultural artifacts — in the case of Lorca, his correspondence with Salvador Dalí. He was infatuated with Dalí and so in his letters tried to impress the painter. The few that remain are extraordinary documents. And this is the same with so many writers and intellectuals. There are important holes in and gaps in their works and archives.

The result is a kind of truncated culture. It is truly heartbreaking.