The Right to Remember

by Dick Edelstein

Republican Prisoners – Spanish Civil War

Hello, my name is David Coronado. The grave where your grandfather is buried is being exhumed. I think you can come to collect his remains and say a proper goodbye to him.

The above quote from a recent article in the Spanish newspaper El País illustrates how David Coronado approached relatives of people executed in 1940 by the forces of General Franco’s regime. The bodies of their family members had been buried in a common grave in Paterna, a townland near Valencia. Coronado was working with the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH), an NGO founded by journalist Emilio Silva following the exhumation in the year 2000 of a common grave containing the bodies of thirteen Republicans. Silva’s grandfather was one of those buried in the grave, and relatives of other victims asked him to help them recover the remains of their loved ones. Thus, Spain joined the vanguard of the current movement for the recovery of historical memory, a worldwide movement whose general aims have become a topical issue during the past two decades.

A longtime Spanish friend, Concha Catalan, told me her family’s Civil War story:

My family experienced trauma too. My grandfather was imprisoned by both sides during the Civil War. After the war, he was sent by the regime to various prisons and later to one of General Franco’s colonias militarizadas penitenciarias [penal colonies], where he worked as an engineer directing a crew of fellow prisoners forcibly assigned to public works tasks. His absence and suffering had a lasting effect on my family.

Concha is one of the founders of Innovation & Human Rights, a Spanish NGO that focuses its efforts on facilitating public access to archival data relating to Civil War casualties and victims of reprisal. Concha, who had worked and trained as an investigative journalist, met co-founder Guillermo Blasco at a hackathon in Barcelona, an event that brought together journalists and computer experts to share skills and resources and develop solutions to specific problems involving data and information technology. Blasco, a proficient coder, took an interest Concha’s work as an open data activist in the field of human rights, and their subsequent collaboration resulted in the founding of Innovation & Human Rights.

The NGO, which is popularly known by its URL, has three aims: the first is to facilitate public access to information about victims of repression and reprisal in Francoist Spain and about Civil War casualties; the second is to publicize the work of archivists since the activists working with this NGO regard archives not like museums where knowledgeable people are granted access to curated works, but rather as places that should be accessible to anyone looking for answers, seeking information or just browsing. Their view is that archivists who control data about the deceased must stop considering their archives to be places where dead things are kept safe and instead help make the public aware that the pertinent information these archives hold is a part of living history that should be accessible to the suffering individuals who have inherited the pain and trauma of their parents. The third aim is to employ up-to-date technology to explore new ways of using data in the service of historians and all those who take an interest in history.

A visit to a Civil War refugee camp in Elna, France, near the Spanish border, initially sparked Concha’s interest in the war. Later, she led a project at a local TV station to visually represent data on some two thousand citizens killed in the Civil War bombardment of Barcelona. While interviewing the grandchildren of one of the casualties, she learned they had only recently discovered the date of their grandmother’s death and her place of burial. Previously, the family had not known where to look. Their grandmother had been killed by a bomb when she went out to get milk for her children and the five children, aged between two and twelve years, were all sent to live with different family members.

By chance, the family happened to see their grandmother’s name on a memorial wall created to display the names of Civil War casualties. They contacted the exhibition curator and found information on her date of death and the cemetery where she was buried. Otherwise, they would have needed to pay seventeen euro to each of the city’s cemeteries to find out whether the body of their grandmother happened to be there. “This story made me really angry,” Concha told me. Her research for the bombardment of Barcelona project led her to look for more lists of people who had died in the war.

She said, “I realized that this woman had found her grandmother only by sheer chance because the process was so difficult, and I thought ‘Why is this information not easily accessible to the public?’ Then I learned of a database that contained the names of all of the people in Catalunya who had died in the Civil War, so we got an appointment and visited the relevant authorities in the Generalitat [the seat of the Autonomous Government of Catalunya]. And we discussed the subject with the people in charge and offered to help them modernize their database, which was not even Google searchable. The response was ‘No, you can’t just help. We would have to hire you and we’re not going to do that.’  When we asked them when they were going to publish their data, they said ‘We don’t have a schedule. Our work is dictated by objectives’. As we left the building Guillermo turned to me and said ‘They’re not going to do it’, and we decided to do it ourselves.”

Concha and Guillermo’s first task was to analyze and define the problems they were going to face in setting up their database. The archives are held by many different institutions and are often not accessible, and not digitized or searchable.  Concha explained, “We realised that the only solution was to create a centralized index, searchable by name, place, and other variables. A huge amount of information would have to be compiled, cleaned up, organised and indexed. It hasn’t been easy and there were many obstacles along the way, but we now have a database of 1,330,362 records and a small part of the database can also be searched on a map based on the individual’s birthplace.”

Today has a permanent team composed of a dozen volunteers supported by a few occasional collaborators and contributors. When I asked Concha what motivated her and her colleagues and collaborators to undertake the mammoth task of entering, correcting and indexing several million data fields, she mentioned her conviction that this data needs to be freely available to everyone. She also talked about all the letters and donations she has received from people who have finally been able to find out what happened to their relatives or loved ones thanks to the index. “One woman wrote to thank us because she had finally found the records relating to her grandfather’s fate. More importantly, her father had found answers to some of the questions he had been asking most of his life and, at age ninety-six, he was able to start a healing process.”

After Franco’s death in 1975, the leftist and rightist parties in Spain agreed that the best way forward was not to look back at the legacy of the dictatorship but rather to move forward and focus on the construction of a democratic society. This agreement resulted in the basic understanding called the Pacto del Olvido. In October 1977, this pact took concrete form in the Ley de Amnistía, which freed political prisoners but also protected the perpetrators of crimes committed during the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship. For 40 years, this law has made it impossible for the families of people who died or disappeared to seek justice.

Thirty years later, in 2007, the Spanish parliament passed the Ley de Memoria Histórica, an act proposed by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). That legislation recognised the rights of victims on both sides in the war, condemned the repression under Franco’s regime and included measures to support the investigation of human rights violations and the exhumation and identification of victims buried in common graves. The law was strongly opposed by conservatives, who felt that it went against the spirit of the transition to democracy and the Pacto de Olvido, and also by some leftist parties that felt it did not go far enough.

However, between 2011 and 2018, the Spanish government under the Partido Popular essentially rendered this legislation unviable by defunding its implementation.

With the return to power of the PSOE in 2018 and the subsequent formation of a coalition government with the left-wing party Unidas Podemos in 2020, the Spanish government has once again started to fund these activities and is in the process of drafting a more ambitious act—the Ley de Memoria Democrática— intended to build on the 2007 legislation. The aim of the new law is to tackle the legacy of the Civil War and the dictatorship. Among its specific objectives are to do the following:

  • Teach school children about the causes of the Civil War and about the subsequent dictatorship.
  • Create a grant system to fund the ongoing exhumation and reburial of victims, including the use of DNA for identification.
  • Ensure the investigation of crimes that were committed in the past.

As with most discussions about human rights, the issue of historical memory and the right to remember is far from a simple one since the rights of one group of individuals almost inevitably impinge on the perceived rights of others, who are quite likely to see things differently. For example, Concha tells of individuals who for one reason or another have wished to prevent details of lives of their forebears from being made public and who have been granted protection from the courts.

This article is the first in a short series to be published every four weeks in my Monday Magazine slot.  Since the issues relating to historic justice are too extensive and complex to treat comprehensively in a series of essays, I intend to merely focus attention on a few aspects of the right to remember and the right to forget. For example, one of the forthcoming pieces will  discuss an effort in Ireland to give visibility to historical Irish women poets that was initiated a few years ago by an Irish collective known as Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon.


PHOTO: Republican prisoners in Utrera. Author: Serrano (1888-1975). Delegación del Estado para Prensa y Propaganda. Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. Biblioteca Nacional de España