History from the grave: politics of memory in exhumations of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 has long served as a model for researchers and practitioners of ‘transitional justice.’ This interdisciplinary field studies strategies employed by states and international institutions to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses. The Spanish transition entailed a moderation of political parties and an agreement not to address the past of the Civil War (1936–1939) and dictatorship (1939–1975) in the political and judicial arena. This came to be known as the ‘pact of forgetting.’ These policies guided Spain relatively peacefully into a democratic welfare state. Due to a recent memory movement, however, the Spanish transition model seems to have broken down. The memory movement calls for a second ‘memorial’ transition through ‘the recovery of historical memory.’ The practice that is believed to contribute the most to the rupture of the ‘pact of forgetting’ is the exhumation of mass graves from the time of the Francoist repression during and after the Civil War.
This dissertation aims to assess the contribution of these mass grave exhumations to a new collective memory in Spain. With a framework of historical theory, the author critically questions the following dominant ideas about the Spanish exhumation campaign: first, the idea that unexcavated mass graves are sites of forgetting and traumatic memory; and second, that the exhumation of mass graves is a natural and universal reaction to this. Indeed, many observers of and participants in the exhumation campaign believe that the past will inevitably ‘come to the surface’ if not properly worked through. The third idea that the dissertation questions is that the exhumations contribute to the historical record of Spain through the revelation of unmediated, objective truth.
To this end, the author investigates what kind of representation of the past is constructed in the wake of the exhumations. The exhumations are studied as ‘memory practices’ and the exhumation teams as ‘memory activists’ who disseminate norms about how to deal with the past. The study uses a diverse range of data such as popular and academic literature as well as documents and social media usage of the Spanish memory movement and related organizations. This study is mostly informed, however, by participant observation and interviews conducted in the exhumation movement. The author carried out multi-sited research, following one of the major exhumation teams, the ‘Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory’ (ARMH). By adding an ethnographic approach, this study applies historical theory to the ‘practical past’ or to how history is constructed by social actors in society.
The first findings of the study relate to the origins of the dominant ideas about exhumations outlined above. The author describes how the Spanish memory movement adopts some aspects of what she calls an international ‘forensic turn’ in memory. This turn, with roots in the fight against impunity for gross human rights abuses, regards a mass grave as both corpus delicti and witness of the past, and it disseminates the practice of forensic-scientific exhumations as a weapon against forgetting. The author argues, however, that the concepts of the forensic turn are somewhat incongruous in Spain, for in Spain, Francoism is not on trial, and the exhumations are organized by associations of relatives and volunteers rather than by judges. Furthermore, the exhumations themselves do not always contribute a lot of new facts to the historic record. Much information about the victims in the graves is locally known, and genetic identification is not always possible. Lastly, forensic truth is usually limited to factual truth about the cause of death of individuals and can only serve as a kernel of a broader historical narrative on the social grounds for the violence.
This dissertation therefore contends that the forensic truth gathered in the exhumations does not suffice to explain their perceived impact. Moreover, equating exhumations with confronting the past, and unexcavated mass graves with forgetting, holds the risk of dismissing other memory practices. Nonetheless, the author argues that despite the frictions between the Spanish case and the international forensic turn, this international alliance has been crucial for the Spanish memory movement. Indeed, the international forensic turn, with its roots in human rights and science rather than in politics, has helped to circumvent a fear, installed during the transition and held by many Spaniards, of political engagements with the Civil War past.
This finding made the author search for elements other than forensic truth that could explain the perceived impact of the exhumations on Spain’s collective memory. Subsequently, the dissertation first shows how the exhumations, rather than breaking a ‘pact of forgetting’ instead break a situation of ‘privatization’ of memory. They do this by aiming for public acknowledgement of the violence, as a form of reparation for the victims. The author describes how the exhumations in this regard serve as ‘mobile seminars’ of public history. Precisely because of their non-judicial character, the exhumations are very communal and turn the mass grave site into a public and participatory space for the local community, where an inclusive network of memory is formed that stretches from the most remote villages to national and international memory organizations. Through these strategies, the exhumation associations transform knowledge, previously confined to the private sphere, into acknowledgement.
Second, the dissertation shows that the exhumation movement breaks with the time concept used during the Spanish transition to deal with the Civil War past. While the architects of the transition decided that this episode was ‘passed,’ the exhumation movement argues that this violent past is an ‘open wound’ that needs to be actively addressed in order to move on. The author calls this new notion of temporality trauma-therapy-closure time (TTC time). She subsequently shows how this notion is constructed and disseminated by some of the memory associations, and influenced by international transitional justice discourse.
The author’s search for how the exhumations impact collective memory beyond the production of forensic truth led to the detection of a broad diversity of norms about how to represent the Civil War past. The author identifies different forms of ‘privileged representation’ and ‘privileged representatives’ of the dead in the mass graves that range from apolitical and private to very political and collective. While the ARMH and its collaborators put forward relatives as privileged representatives and depict the dead as missing grandfathers, other memory associations, such as the ‘State Federation of Forums for Memory,’ represent the dead as fallen combatants who can best be represented by the political heirs of their struggle. These differences determine whether the acknowledgement and reparation claimed includes commemorative and symbolic reparation or also social justice. Furthermore, the differences lead to different time concepts. The author indeed shows how the TTC-time of transitional justice, with its focus on healing and closure, is contested by both local communities and associations such as Forums for Memory, which deploys a time concept of regeneration of the anti-fascist struggle.
To conclude, the author asserts, first, that the mass grave exhumations do cause a rupture with the so-called ‘pact of forgetting’ installed in the transition but that this rupture goes in different directions. International trends such as the forensic turn and transitional justice help the ‘recovery of historic memory’ in Spain, but at the same time they constrain it, especially if the memory movement seeks to break the privatization of the memory of the Civil War and the aversion of political conflict that the ‘pact of forgetting’ installed. Second, by zooming in on the frictions between actors, the author shows that, rather than giving an unmediated glance on the past, the exposed graves are subject to a ‘politics of memory’ between local communities, memory associations, and international trends such as transitional justice and the forensic turn. This leads to the conclusion that representations of the past in the exhumation movement are, rather than natural and universal, constructed by different memory activists. Therefore, this dissertation recommends that transitional justice and memory practitioners take into account diversity and friction between different stakeholders, even when applying a memory practice with scientific and legal procedures such as mass grave exhumations.