Projects of Historical Memory in Cádiz

On Sunday, I returned home from Cádiz, Spain after having experienced a multitude of once in a lifetime adventures. Some of the most inspiring, serious, and thought provoking moments of my study abroad came while I was working on my research project and while discussing the legacy of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with the diverse assortment of individuals I met in Spain. I attended documentary screenings about a recent exhumation of a mass grave at La Sauceda, interviewed a historian, and traveled through Cádiz with Professor Cate-Arries observing how modern Spaniards remember and commemorate their past. I heard a member of the audience at the documentary say that equally as important as the disinterment of the remains is the “recovery of the ideas of these bones.” I saw flags of the II República waving over buildings dedicated to historical memory. The flag of the government that ruled Spain in the early 1930s, only to be overthrown by Franco, is now a powerful symbol. My host parents in Cádiz told me that they couldn’t understand why anyone bothers to study the Spanish Civil War because it’s over, a part only of Spain’s distant past.

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The flag of the Second Republic

If at this point I can say anything with authority on this topic, it would be that the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship is still very much alive in certain sectors of Spanish society. During my time in Cádiz I had several opportunities to interact with the modern manifestations of the trauma of Spanish Civil War: projects of historical memory.


The Castle of San Sebastián: Location of executions during the Spanish Civil War

In Cádiz, the history of the war is all around you. There are castles on the beach of La Caleta that were used as prisons for political prisoners and shortly thereafter as the sites of executions. In addition to the presence of this history, a growing number on Spaniards are working to create a social and political dialog about those who were executed during war. These projects of historical memory take many different forms. During my time in Cádiz I met people involved with exhumations of mass graves, a traveling exhibition, books, a cd, documentaries, and the construction of a center of interpretation of historical memory. I focused my research project for the study abroad program on the project of La Sauceda. In this post, I will share what I learned about some other projects of historical memory that did not receive as much attention in my research paper.

In Puerto Real, a town close to the city of Cádiz, I traveled with Professor Cate-Arries to visit a cemetery where there is a large plaque dedicated to the people of the town who were executed and then buried in a mass grave adjacent to the cemetery during the Spanish Civil War. In the last seventy years, the cemetery has expanded over at least part the mass grave. We saw the area where, between the graves of people buried long after the execution, a new search for bodies is underway. This attempt at an exhumation project is happening now at the behest of organizations of historical memory, made up of family members of the victims and their supporters. This particular exhumation project will be made much more difficult by the fact that some, if not all, of the unmarked graves are inaccessible beneath the newer graves.


Plaque in honor of the victims executed by nationalist forces controlled by Franco in El Cementerio de la Villa in Puerto Real

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The exhibition “Exhuming Mass Graves, Recovering Dignity” in Conil

In the town of Conil, I went with Professor Cate-Arries to the exhibition Exhuming Mass Graves, Recovering Dignity. On the floor of a large room I saw a photographic representation of a mass grave. On the walls of the exhibit space I read information about the many actors involved in a successful exhumation project: the informants on the location of the graves, the archeologists, the DNA identification experts, and the families who eventually have the opportunity to lay their loved ones to rest in a real cemetery. One display in the exhibition, entitled “Forgetting in Europe,” read “this exhibition suffered strong opposition from the European political right.” The Partido Popular (PP) is the conservative political party currently controlling Spain. The PP’s opposition to this exhibition at the level of the European Union shows the tension between the projects of historical memory and the modern conservative party.

The PP has a terrible track record on funding such projects, justified in part by Spain’s economic crisis. The movement for historical memory took off in the early 2000s. For example, the first expert exhumation project in Andalucía took place in 2004. The socialist party controlled the Spanish government from that time until 2011. So, in the last three years budget cuts have provided an excellent and arguably legitimate excuse for the lack of funding for the 2007 Law of Historical Memory. This law was meant to facilitate greater support for projects of historical memory. Unfortunately, it is also easy to interpret the lack of funding by the PP as a loyalty to the Franco regime, which shared the same side of the political spectrum.

As I learned in my interview with Santiago Moreno, the problems faced by projects of historical memory are not only financial in nature. Moreno is the editor of the book The Destruction of Democracy that recounts the histories of Spain’s republican politicians, many of whom were executed during the war. He has also been involved in exhumation projects and explained to me the difficulties of accessing records and gaining the rights to land needed to conduct exhumations. The Law of Historical Memory aims to facilitate such processes, however in many cases the law is ineffective.


Me with the historian Santiago Moreno after our interview


  1. Kelley Doyle says:

    Hi! Your project is really interesting! I didn’t really know much about Franco’s regime in Spain before reading your posts. I was wondering why certain people were targeted and killed? Was it simply because they resisted him? On July 20th, you wrote “We are left to live the experiences faced by civilians during the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of their children who often grew up without parents in a society ruled by fear”. It seems Spain has a lost generation as a result of the dictatorship. Also, are there families who don’t support the exhumations? After not knowing for such a long time, the identities were probably a very painful discovery. The lack of funding for this project that would provide so many answers seems callous in the face of those tragedies. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Emily Abbey says:

    Thank you so much for writing this blog on your trip Cadiz! I’ve enjoyed reading it; your level of expertise and observations on the memory of Franco and the Spanish Civil War is truly impressive. I guess I always kind of figured that an event with such historical and national gravity would receive more attention, so I was surprised at your findings that perhaps the preservation of this historical memory is not as prevalent as it should be. A few questions: how do you think modern day politics – perhaps the divide between conservative and liberal – plays into this support, or lack thereof, for immortalizing the events of Franco’s regime? Should the government now do more to compensate families of the victims of atrocities committed during that era, and is it realistic for those families to expect some kind of reparation from the current government? Finally, how does the economic situation in Spain play into the debate over preserving this historical memory? Again, I very much enjoyed your insights and thoughts on your experiences in Cadiz; you have inspired me to look into opportunities such as yours to study abroad.

  3. robertobohnke says:

    Emily, you touch on a really important aspect of the challenges facing projects of historical memory in Spain: opposition from the current conservative government under el Partido Popular. Rather than trying to immortalize Franco’s regime (it’s pretty hard for anyone to argue he did Spain any great service), it seems that modern conservatives recognize that their best option is to let the atrocities committed on his behalf fade out of collective memory. Speaking in sweeping generalizations, this has been their strategy ever since his death.
    I think the Spanish government would do itself a great service by enforcing and funding the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, which specifically provides for the compensation of the victims.
    In part because of the current economic crisis, it is not realistic for such support or compensation to be expected from any conservative administration in Spain. While I would like to believe that the conservative government’s unwillingness to support projects of historical memory is a result of their economic conservatism, other failures of the Partido popular (such as their opposition to educational exhibitions and access to military archives) lead many to believe that their shortfalls demonstrate a lasting connection to Franco’s politics. Thanks for reading!