Features | Article Civil War

Lost memories of the Spanish Civil War


Mass graves from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) still account for 88.000 missing, Spain occupies the doubtful honour of being the second country with most disappearances after Cambodia. More than 70 years after the Spanish Civil War many wounds are still open and little has been done by the different governments to heal them despite pressures from the public and important organisations.


The Spanish Civil War became the culmination of a fight between social classes hidden behind political colours, its cruelty and hatred levels were close to those that Nazi Germany practiced against the Jewish population during World War II. Still today, it is possible to find hard feelings related to the civil war, especially in small villages were some times the executioners live next door of their victims or families. After the Spanish war and during the 36 years of Franco's dictatorship a tense silence about what really happened during and after the war was enforced and any criticism of the official statements was rapidly and brutally retaliated against. Still in modern Spain many people who fought on both sides or were victims of the dictatorship prefer not to talk about this period.


To understand the Spanish Civil War and its outcome it is necessary to go back to the first decades of the XX th. century, a period where Spain's main asset was its agricultural production and the recent bloom of industry in the main cities. Working rights are scarce, especially in the rural areas were latifundium is the main property distribution and the peasants still live in a sort of Feudal estate. Poverty and illiteracy are endemic and the colonialist war in Morocco produces a substantial number of deaths mainly affecting poor families, since the well standing ones could pay the 1,500 Pesetas that was required to avoid being enrolled (A waiter in Madrid earned about 125 Pesetas/month in 1920).


In the cities like Barcelona the fight between trade unionists and their employers evolved into a war between the henchman of either sides. The rural zones in the south also rose up against the land lords and the consequence was a brutal repression organised by the government. With the killing of more than 13,000 Spanish soldiers in Annual (Morocco, 1921) a deep governmental and social crisis unfolds.

On September 13th 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera, Captain General of the Catalonia region carried out a coup d'etat with almost full military support, two days later the King Alfonso XIII declared Miguel Primo de Rivera president of the Spanish Government.

Despite the attempts of Primo de Rivera to modernise the industrial estate applying protectionist economic measures and implementing some rights for the workers, his regime lost the support of many sectors and in 1930 he resigned in favour of General Damasio Berenguer.

During the local elections of April 12th 1931 most of the important cities and province capitals voted massively for the Republican party instead of the Monarchic one, this pushed Alfonso XIII into exile in France and the birth of the II Spanish Republic.

The II Republic brings many improvements in human rights, workers rights, social rights, education, land distribution, religion, laws and democratic representation in a country mainly dominated by the aristocracy and the church. But with the global crisis of 1929 the lack of international investors, who feared an extreme left wing government, combined with the strong opposition of the conservative right wing parties, brought another period of uncertainty and political unrest.


In 1932, General Sanjurjo, who was in favour of the previous dictatorship, tries a coup d'etat against the republican government but it fails and he flees to Portugal. Two years later the son of Primo de Rivera, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founds the fascist Falange party encouraging the use of violent methods to achieve their purposes.

On March 1936 several of the military high command met at the home of Gil Robles, a right wing politician to plan a coup d'etat against the Republic.

The uprising took place on July 18th following the orders of General Mola with the intention to “reinstall order in Spain” no matter the costs and as he would say later: “ It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of masterly eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do. There can be no cowardice. If we vacillate one moment and fail to proceed with the greatest determination, we will not win. Anyone who helps or hides a communist or a supporter of the Popular Front will be shot”.

The uprising failed in most of Spain, the south, centre, east, the Basque Country and Asturias staid under Republican control and led Spain in to a three year long civil war. The support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy for the uprising would become crucial to the outcome of the conflict.


The Spanish Civil War becomes a war that is not only fought on the front lines but in every village or city, revenge and retaliation are practiced on either sides.


On the Republican side executions of rebel military or politicians took place for supporting the military uprising against the Government. Additionally uncontrolled mobs who escaped the control of the Government took to the streets in a blind revenge against right wing people and clergyman. According to the files in the National Historical Archive 38,563 people were executed in the Republican zone, but it is commonly said that the number is closer to 50,000 dead.


The repression against anyone supposed to be Republican equally started from the first day, while in the north Falangist and Carlists militias entered the villages with the clear intention of cleaning out any possible ideological dissident, knocking on the doors of the victims mainly using the cover of night and taking them for a walk from which they will never come back.


In the territories conquered from the Republic by the uprising the repression gets to true genocidal proportions, specifically in the south, that was mainly conquered by the Moorish troops of Franco. As Paul Preston states in one of his works “The Africanistas (army from Morocco) and the landowners viewed the landless peasants and industrial proletariat as a racially inferior, subject colonial race.” Some lines later, he quotes a conversation by Captain Aguilera to AP correspondent Charles Foltz “Sewers caused all our problems. The masses in this country are not like your Americans, nor even like the British. They are slave stock. They are good for nothing but slaves, and only when they are used as slaves are they happy (…) we put sewers in these cities, sewers which extend right down to the workers quarters. (…) The result is that slave stock increases. Had we no sewers in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao all these Red leaders would have died in their infancy instead of exciting the rabble and causing good Spanish blood to flow.”


Queipo de Llano, General of the southern Army in Andalusia usually expressed his ideas directly on Radio Seville for everyone to hear: “Our brave Legionaries and Regulars will demonstrate to the cowardly Reds what it means to be true men. And at the same time to their women. This is totally justified since those Communists and Anarchists talk about free love. At least now they will know what are true men and not gay militants. They will not avoid it no matter how much they shout or kick.”

These quotes became more than simple threats.


Paul Preston tells us a few accounts of the brutality level the military uprising achieved:

“The cacique of Palma del Rio, Don Felix Moreno bred fighting bulls which limited the amount of work required on his states. He refused to cultivate his land. (…) When the labourers demonstrated against him, he shot one of them. Before the Civil War Felix Moreno fled to his place in Seville. When war  broke out the village was collectivised and food supplies rationed until fields could be tilled and the harvest came in. His fighting bulls were killed for food and the villagers tasted red meat for the first time in their lives. When the Nationalists (the name taken by the military uprising) captured the town on August 27th their columns were accompanied by Felix Moreno driving his black Cadillac together with other prominent landowners of the area. When soldiers rounded up those of the village menfolk that had not fled he selected ten men to be shot for each of his bulls that had been slaughtered. As desperate men pleaded with him on the ground that they were his godson, his cousin or linked with him in some way he just looked ahead and said 'I don't know anyone'. At least 87 were shot by the soldiers on that day and twice that many over the following days.”


“In a wealthy farming community, Cantillana (Seville) where there had been no history of social tension, Queipo de Llano's forces appeared in the early hours of the morning of July 26th. In the course of the following three days two hundred people were killed.” “In Carmona (Seville), for instance, there were two deaths under the Popular Front which were revenged with the murder of 700. The owners view that their labourers were on par with their livestock was illustrated in Castro del Rio where day labourers were  slaughtered using the same technique as they employed with cattle.” “In Lora del Rio the Civil Guard, the priest and the local right-wingers had greeted the news of the military uprising by taking arms and creating a stronghold in the town church. It was quickly captured and they were all released except the notoriously brutal cacique. In revenge for this execution a simulacrum of a trial was mounted in which the judge was a landowner and artillery reserve captain, who, according to an eye-witness, had pretensions to nobility equaled only by his ignorance and brutality. Three hundred labourers, including some women, were 'tried' en mass without defence. The crimes of which they were accused ranged from having flown a Republican flag from their balcony to having been heard expressing admiration for Roosevelt. Domestic servants were accused of having criticised their employers. All were found guilty and shot. The executions were followed by a great orgy with drink provided by grateful wine-producers. Advantage was taken of the towns many widows to meet 'the sexual excesses of that collectivity without women' (The occupying African columns).”


Malaga capital, called “Malaga the Red” during the war, was an important left hand bastion were many of the military uprising and right  wing citizens were executed. The revenge was terrible. The largest mass grave found from the Spanish Civil war is situated in the old cemetery of San Rafael were documents state that 4.000- 4.500 people were executed between 1937 and 1948.

The total death estimates for the Spanish Civil War is thought to be about 540,000 dead, other versions increase the number up to one million.


The Francoist repression continued after the end of the war, especially during the years between 1939 and the end of the second world war. At this point he started changing his repressive policy fearing an eventual invasion from the allies that never came. The geographical position of Spain, between the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic ocean, made it a key strategic point for the Allies who, tolerating Franco's dictatorship, try to avoid the possible risk of Spain falling under the influence of the Soviet Union.


Eduardo de Guzmán quotes in an article published in (Tiempo de Histora magazine 1978) the words of Count Galeano Ciano, brother-in-law of Mussolini and Minister of Foreign Affairs who said during a visit to Spain in July 1939: “ It would be useless to deny that over Spain still lays a dark shadow of tragedy, the executions are still numerous, in Madrid alone, there are about 200 to 250 executions a day, in Barcelona 150 and 80 in Seville which in no moment was in hands of the Reds”.


The number of Republican victims from the post-war Francoist repression is still quite a mystery. Experts think that Franco executed about 50,000 people after the war. However it is difficult to tell since it is based mainly on uncertain demographic information. In 1946, AP correspondent Charles Foltz asked the Ministry of Justice about how many people who were under arrest in Spanish prisons were killed between 1939 and the 30 of June 1944. As he recalls in his book “Masquerade in Spain” the response is a staggering amount, 192,684 people died or were killed from about one million prisoner population. This did not account for the deaths that occurred in the  numerous concentration and hard labor camps.


Repression against the defeated lasted for the whole dictatorship. Many families and Republican combatants left for exile before the end of the war, but any persecuted family members or republican individuals that survived the cleansing could not talk about their experiences or political ideas, not even search for their lost ones. Entire families were mistreated by the regime, living under a constant fear of being considered enemies of Franco's “Crusade” and seemingly were excluded from any war compensation. The history of the Spanish Second Republic ended up buried under a veil of silence.


As an example, according to local witnesses, in Malaga during the construction of an urbanisation in Puerto de la Torre during the late 60's, workers found a considerable amount of bones buried in the ground. Still under Franco's dictatorship these findings were censored and  no one knows what happened with those remains. The Association for the Historical Memory of Malaga, an organisation that works to recover and identify the buried in mass graves, says that neighbours remember how trucks full of bleeding corpses were dumped in several holes dug in the ground.

In total there are 2,246 mass graves so far located all over the Spanish mainland.  But no one knows what the real number is, all too often a land slide or a construction uncovers a mass grave that no one knows about.


Mass killings continued until the 50's evolving into selective political executions. The last deaths occurred on September 27th 1975, with the shooting of 3 members of the F.R.A.P and two from E.T.A, scarcely two months before the death of Franco.

With the arrival of democracy some families exhumed their relatives from the mass graves using their own resources, but the climate of optimism after the death of Franco was short lived. On February 23rd 1981 Antonio Tejero, Colonel of the Civil Guard, tries a coup d'etat, supported by some military forces. Without the support of the newly restored King, Juan Carlos I de Borbón, the coup fails in it's attempt to gain control of the government, but it has a deep psychological effect on the population and the democratic institutions, reminding everyone that Franco's regime is not as dead as they thought.


It was not until 2007 that the Socialist Government, under the presidency of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, approved the Law of the Historical Memory intended to increase awareness and compensate some injustices of the war and dictatorship.

This law recognised the unfair sentences past during Franco's regime without condemning them. 135,000€ was provided to compensate Republican war victims who did not previously receive any war compensation. The government promised to help locate and finance the recovery of the remains in mass graves. It granted Spanish citizenship to the International Brigades as well as to the sons and nephews of exiled Republicans and it makes mandatory the removal of Francoist symbols from the streets and monuments.


The approval of the law did not satisfy completely the victims and received direct opposition from the Popular Party. It is fair to remember that a major part of the Spanish political and social apparatus is still heir of Franco's regime. As an example, many of the relevant politicians that have been or are in the Spanish Government are descendants from important Francoist politicians or civil servants like: Miguel Arias Cañete, Minister of Environment, Agriculture and Food, whose father Alfonso Arias de la Cuesta was State Attorney during Franco's dictatorship; former Minister Frederico Trillo-Figueroa's father was Civil Governor in Teruel and Burgos, as well as Procurator of the Spanish court, Mayor of Cartagena and military judge. Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Vice president of the Spanish Government, whose father was a commander who directed the fight and repression against the 'Maquis' (armed political dissidents that fought against Franco's regime). Jorge Fernandez Diaz, Minister of Interior, son of a Francoist military official and chief of the local police in Barcelona during the dictatorship. Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, President of the Popular Party in Catalonia, daughter of a Civil Guard commander during the dictatorship, and José María Aznar, Former Prime Minister, whose grand father Manuel Aznar Zubigaray was director of EFE news agency and known by many as the “regime journalist”.

This is probably the main reason why the 1977 Law of Amnesty has never been abolished, despite the continuous protests of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN High Commission for the Human Rights that in February 2012, stated that this law was contrary to the International Human Rights Regulations.

In 2008, Judge Baltazar Garzon was denounced for prevarication when he tries to open a case against 35 key members of the dictatorship. The accusation is formed by Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), an organisation represented by Miguel Bernard Remon, former General Secretary of the extreme right wing organisation Frente Nacional (National Front), and Falange de las JONS, heir of the extreme right wing political party founded prior to the Civil War.


The judge was provisionally suspended for the cause until a sentence of the Supreme Court absolved him in 2012.

In 2013, Argentinian Judge Maria Servini dictated a preventive international detention order against four former policemen as alleged torturers during Franco's regime. The accusation that was formed by the Spanish Association of Historical Memory, found that the the Spanish Government tried to avoid the detention and extradition of two former policeman from the extinct Socio-Political Police Brigade, a former escort corp of Franco and a Civil Guard respectively, arguing about the  prescription of the crimes and other technical aspects of the Spanish law. All the parties are still waiting for the National High Court to reach a resolution about the extraditions.


Not surprisingly Manuel Fraga Iribarne (1922-2012), former Minister in Francos Government, “father” of the Spanish Constitution, former President of the Popular Party as well as President of the regional government in Galicia, following a conference at the Moscu School of Political Studies in 2002 answered a comment by a Siberian Parliament Member with this joke: “Franco is resurrected and meets a man who is nostalgic for the days of the regime, the resurrected general asks the man about who governs Spain, the man says 'Aznar'. 'The journalist?' responds Franco. 'No, no, his nephew'. 'And who is the Government spokesman?' asks the dictator. 'Pio Cabanillas' answers the man. ' Oh! My minister? He is very intelligent', but the man tells him: 'No, it's his son'. Franco continues to ask for several other politicians until he gets to Galicia were he asks about who rules there. The man tells him:'Fraga'. '¿His nephew?' Franco asks. 'No, the same as it always has been' responds the man.



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© Xabier Mikel Laburu, all rights reserved.  

Terms and conditions     Privacy    GDPR statement