The difficulties posed by 21st century testimonies in studying the Spanish Civil War

Testimonies collected from the families victimized by Franco during and after the Spanish Civil War are a crucial part of understanding the historical memory movement. I hope to continue my research focused on the difficulties that surround projects of historical memory in Spain. As we transcribe and analyze the interviews of those in Cádiz who lost family to Franco’s dictatorship, I hope to add on a new dimension to my understanding of the difficulty of preserving the memory of an era that was forced into the periphery of Spanish society. While I focused nearly exclusively on the exhumation project at La Sauceda in my research project for the study abroad program, I hope to now shift the focus of my studies to the process of gathering testimonies. As the historian Santiago Moreno pointed out to me during our interview in Cádiz, “exhuming mass graves isn’t the only part of remembering, maybe the most striking.”

Our ability to adequately document the events of the Spanish Civil War and ensuing dictatorship has suffered tremendously as a result of the delay after the death of Franco in 1975 when so few people were willing to create a dialog about the trauma their country had just been through. Santiago Moreno shared his reflection on this issue saying, “perhaps we’ve arrived a little late because many people who remembered have now passed away.” This Pact of Silence was the result of a fear justified by the fact that the two Spains that existed during the war, a more liberal republican side that championed the causes of the working class, and a more conservative nationalist side that had close ties with the Catholic Church, were still divided in Spanish society. As encouraging as it is to confirm that the Pact of Silence is breaking, and that the new generation has outgrown its fear of the past, the gap in time adds a notable obstacle to the task of documenting this once hidden history. We can no longer rely on direct testimony from witnesses. 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. While this perspective is immensely valuable, it is far different from a direct source. While a few direct testimonies can indeed be found, they are the exception rather than the rule. I believe that this lack of direct testimony is a challenge that can be overcome simply by recognizing that it exists.

Several times I heard Professor Cate-Arries preface her interviews and conversations with the citizens of Cádiz by introducing herself as not a historian, and as more interested in the acts of resistance against the culture of forgetting that existed in Spain postwar. As we interview Spaniards who had yet to be born in the 1930s, we need to recognize that we are no longer studying the war itself, but rather the memory of it. This memory is obscured by inaccuracies, superstition, and unbelievable and unverifiable stories of inhuman violence. Our mission is not to sift out the truth from a mass of imperfect historical memory, but rather to analyze it as a whole and realize that it is indeed revealing of modern Spanish culture, which has been shaped directly by the legacy of Franco’s regime in terms of modern religious, social, and political trends, some of which can be interpreted as a responses to the strict control during the regime.

During the long round of farewells at the end of the Cádiz program, my grammar and culture Professor at the University of Cádiz, Arantza Galiardo, expressed that she hoped to see me again in Spain, either on W&M’s semester program in Seville or on my own travels. She, the granddaughter of someone executed during the war, added that there are sill a lot of voices that need to be heard and stories that need to be told in her country.

 

I’ve added english subtitles to the second half of the documentary about La Sauceda, just click the captions button and select English.

Comments

  1. mkmcculla says:

    While I confess little familiarity with the events of the Spanish Civil War, I find the research that you have participated in fascinating, and I can sympathize with some of your problems. My research deals with another Civil War in which a republic was ousted and a dictator gained power, and even though the ancient Roman Civil Wars are far removed from 21st century Spanish testaments, I think the transition periods following the turmoil must have been similar. I find it particularly interesting how you are differentiating between the study of the war with the study of the memory of the war, since I think many people are quick to dismiss personal bias instead of examining its cause and connotations.