Pere Puig and students from the University of Tuebingen discussing historical memory and Spain's mass graves

From the Ship

Franco’s dictatorship: the silence of the painful past

Jan 20, 2021

This article is part of a reportage series from selected ports of call of Peace Boat’s 102nd Global Voyage, seen through the eyes of students from the University of Tuebingen who joined the voyage.

University of Tuebingen students in Barcelona, Spain

By Selina Kleinmann, Joshua Beer and Daniela Bold

While calling in Barcelona, we have an appointment with Pere Puig from the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory of Catalonia (Associació per a la recuperació de la memòria històrica de Catalunya). We find the Association in the very center of Barcelona, in an old building in a small street, surrounded by shops and bars. Pere is a biologist and researcher engaged in excavating mass graves from the time of the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939-1975). He tells us that his work is difficult, slow and made harder by lack of governmental support to fully investigate the crimes committed by Franco’s regime, and finally heal the still open wounds of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship in Spain.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was a civil war between the Republicans (communists, anarchists, syndicalists) and the Nationalists (monarchists, fascists, conservatives). It was won by the Nationalists and their leader General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain with dictatorial power until his death in 1975. The Franco regime oppressed any kind of opponents, leaving numerous secret mass graves with the remains of people whom the regime had executed. After Franco’s death, the ruling parties agreed on the so-called “Pact of Silence”, not wanting to deal with the painful past. It was not until 2007 that the Spanish government adopted the Act of Historical Memory, which formally condemns the Franco regime and recognizes its victims. This act, which includes measures to provide financial support for exhumations and the removal of Francoist symbols, is still a matter of controversy and divided political views in Spain.

Photo - Civil War shelterOn tour of one of the air raid shelters used during the Spanish Civil War

There are 2382 mass graves in Spain, dating back to the years of the Civil War and General Franco’s repression, containing the remains of an estimated 45,000 victims. Of these, only about 400 are identified so far. Furthermore, there are 114,226 enforced disappearances registered, as well as 30,960 children abducted from families who opposed Franco’s politics. Those children were either orphaned or given to families more politically amenable to Franco’s regime. 

Pere Puig tells us a very moving story about an abducted child who searched for his roots for his entire life: Vicente was a man without a past. He was an orphan from Barcelona. All that he had was a photograph of him as a child and a scrap of paper with his name scrawled on it - but without the ‘e’ at the end. He was adopted in Belgium in 1939 when he was about five years old and grew up with no memory of his biological relatives. Again and again, but in vain, he sent handwritten letters to Spanish cities asking them to help him find his family. What he didn't know was that his aunt was also tirelessly searching for him in Catalonia. She had given him to an orphanage near Barcelona during the war so that she could work. One day, when she went to visit him, he was gone. The house was evacuated when the Catalan front collapsed against the fascists, and Vicente ended up in Belgium.

Photo - Vicente              Vicente at the age of five

Many decades later, Vicente finally had some luck. His "message in a bottle" reached two women in Bilbao who decided to help him. And when Vicente’s aunt turned 100, her name and life story was featured in the newspapers. The two women from Bilbao contacted her and all information indicated that she could be Vicente’s relative. But genetic evidence was missing. This was finally provided by the Genetic Identification Group, where Pere Puig worked on the case. Vicente could finally find his roots, his origin and family history. 

Pere Puig tells us with a big smile that this is his most successful case to date. It means a lot to him.  He believes that it is important to identify and name the victims, and to help family members to learn the truth. In 2015, at the age of 82 and more than 70 years after their separation, Vicente was finally able to figure out where he came from and reunite with his family in Spain.

Many others still do not know what happened to their family members during General Franco’s rule. There were, and still are, many families searching for loved ones who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War or Franco’s dictatorship. Most active in finding the truth about the mass graves and identifying victims are civil society groups and associations. At the same time very little has been initiated by the state, and much too late. Similar to what we learnt in the previous ports of Belfast and Lisbon, we realised that much still needs to be done also in Spain, to break the silence and openly address the painful past and memories.

Photo - ListeningAt the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory of Catalonia

This report from Barcelona is adapted from the radio series broadcasted by the Wueste Welle, Tuebingen. Listen to all podcasts here (in German)

Our partners in this project: University of Tuebingen and Berghof Foundation Tuebingen