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Tuesday January 26, 2010

Should Spain be digging up its past?

It is almost inconceivable to imagine the terror felt by poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, as he was led stumbling to his death at the hands of a right wing Nationalist death squad during the Spanish Civil War. The date was August 1936, shortly after the hostilities began, and it is believed that he was shot and dumped in a mass grave on a lonely Spanish hillside facing Granada, the Spanish town of his birth.

Most likely 38 year old Lorca, the author of such celebrated works as Blood Wedding, was targeted for his Republican sympathies and homosexuality. For years, the writer’s many devotees sought to have his remains exhumed including biographer and Lorca expert, Ian Gibson, an Irish Hispanic living in Madrid.

Interestingly, members of Lorca’s own family were reluctant to dig up the mass grave but the enthusiasts got their way and from late October until December last year a team of archaeologists from Granada University searched an area in Alfacar believed to be the location of the mass grave. Nothing was found.

So should Spain be unearthing the relics of its bloody three year civil war? Although figures vary, historians believe that Franco’s death squads killed 130,000 people, during the war’s duration and that tens of thousands were buried in unmarked mass graves. Following the dictator’s death in 1975, a ‘pact of forgetting’ was created in order to progress a peaceful transition to democracy and it remained in place until current prime minister, José Rodriguez Zapatero, overturned it in 2007, paving the way for many to seek the remains of their lost relatives.

Why though has it taken until recently to overturn the pact? The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), the very architect of the former Republic, was in government for much of the seventies to the end of the last century. Was it a fear of opening a Pandora’s Box, and of freeing too many ghosts from the closet?

Spaniards themselves are divided on the issue as I discovered when exploring the repercussions of the Spanish Civil War in the Baleares, for a forthcoming book. Local historians were more than happy to talk with me on the subject but many Majorcans were uncomfortable, especially on the issue of recovering Republican remains.
‘Why are you so interested?’ asked one middle aged señora suspiciously. ‘Isn’t it time we all forgot the past and moved on?’ Another elderly man told me that in digging up the past, old enmities would resurface and villages and towns could find themselves torn apart and once again at loggerheads.

Lorca’s biographer, Ian Gibson, has said: ‘Scars can’t heal unless you admit that they’re there.’ True, but is the government’s gesture too little and too late? It is now seventy one years since the end of the Spanish Civil War and the main culprits are long gone. Attempting to exhume 30,000 dead in unmarked graves across the country could be a major and costly task. Is it perhaps more fitting that a monument be erected in each town honouring those missing individuals, a place where relatives could mourn their loss and leave flowers? In other words, should old ghosts from Spain’s violent past be allowed to rest in peace?

When discussion raged about whether Lorca should be disinterred, his niece, Laura García Lorca de los Rios, commented at the time: ‘We feel the mass graves are a kind of cemetery as they are. My uncle lives in good and noble company and the little information to be gleaned from digging up the graves doesn’t justify what is essentially an extremely violent act.’

Food for thought, indeed.

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