Haunted by the past

Clashes at a protest in 2011 over the exhumation of civil war graves in the village of Poyales del Hoyo, Ávila.
Clashes at a protest in 2011 over the exhumation of civil war graves in the village of Poyales del Hoyo, Ávila. / SUR
  • books

  • Giles Tremlett (b. 1962). Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past (2006 & 2012)

Spain’s political landscape is about to undergo titanic shifts. Last Sunday, the coalition of separatist parties in Catalonia, Together for Yes, won a majority in the region’s parliamentary elections, and the imminent general election will see the dominance of Spain’s two main parties threatened for the first time in the country’s recent history. Now is the perfect time, therefore, to read ‘Ghosts of Spain’, British journalist Giles Tremlett’s magisterial work on Spanish politics, history and culture and Spain’s agonised relationship with its own past.

Tremlett’s book - powered by a forensic curiosity and written in flowing, addictive prose - deals with most aspects of Spanish culture: flamenco, football, attitudes towards women and family, the fascinating dichotomy of anarchy and individualism versus order and tradition, regional differences and Spain’s status as a tourism superpower are all discussed with first hand knowledge and understanding. But, as the book’s subtitle suggests, at its heart is an investigation into the legacy of Spain’s devastating civil war and its transition, after Franco’s death in 1975, to democracy - ironically pioneered by a king who Franco himself appointed as his successor.

Tremlett travels the length and breadth of Spain to reveal a country that, despite - or perhaps because of - its 1977 amnesty and associated ‘pact of forgetting’, is still divided and troubled by its civil war and ensuing 39-year dictatorship. The internal damage wrought by the conflict was catastrophic: by the time it ended in 1939 - when Franco took power, thus bringing Spain’s Second Republic to an end - half a million Spaniards, including one in thirty Spanish men, had lost their lives, and around 400,000 were in exile.

The central point around which Tremlett’s book revolves is his discovery, in the early years of the twenty first century, that “the sores of the Spanish Civil War …. were still there, untended and only partially cured”.

The village of Poyales del Hoyo in Ávila, where a local elderly woman named Obdulia recounts to him the horrific events of 29 December 1936, is at the centre of Tremlett’s investigation. It was on this night in Poyales that Obdulia’s mother, Pilar Espinosa, and two other local women, Virtudes de la Puente and Valeriana Granada (then pregnant) were denounced as Republicans by a fellow villager. They were dragged from their homes late at night by a gang of the local fascist Falange, driven out into the countryside, murdered, and thrown into a ditch by the road. There they lay until All Saints Day in 2002, when Tremlett arrived to hear the extraordinary story of locals’ efforts to give the three women a dignified burial, despite the fierce opposition or casual indifference of other residents, 66 years after their murder.

Haunted by the past

The residents of Poyales had been inspired by the example of Emilio Silva, who exhumed his grandfather’s unmarked grave in Priaranza del Bierzo 15 years ago and who then went on to lead the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Spain (ARMH). When Tremlett interviewed Silva in Madrid in 2011, after revisiting an only slightly changed Poyales, he learned that the movement had helped to exhume around 5,500 bodies of Franco’s victims from 280 unmarked ditches like the one in which Pilar, Virtudes and Valeriana were dumped. In January this year, the ARMH was awarded an €829,000 ($100,000) human rights prize by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and the Puffin Foundation in New York for further exhumations.

That Obdulia remembers the night of her mother’s execution in such vivid detail provides us with a harsh reminder of just how recently the Spanish civil war occurred. But despite being within - deeply traumatic - living memory for many Spaniards, discussion and knowledge of the conflict and its repercussions is still, Tremlett writes, shied away from within communities, often entirely absent on school curriculums, and passionately opposed by varying political factions.

Spain’s “pact of forgetting” was ratified, by both right and left wing parties, in the 1977 Amnesty Law; it constituted an agreement not to mention, in public or private discourse, the war itself, and not to try and seek out the perpetrators of terrible crimes or mourn openly for their victims, even if they could be identified. It was and is seen by many Spaniards, desperate to move away from this terrible epoch of their history, as the reluctantly-accepted condition of a smooth transition to democracy.

Tremlett convincingly shows that this amnesty was effectively an agreement to collective amnesia, an amnesia that is still prevalent in Spain. It has meant that no one in Franco’s rebel army, nor on the Republican side, has ever been put on trial for crimes against humanity. The tragic corollary of that is unknown numbers of murdered Spaniards languishing in anonymous oblivion for decades, their families denied knowledge of how or where their loved ones died.

The struggle of Poyales’ residents to bury their dead ceremonially, and to hold guilty individuals to account, is of course deeply moving on a human level; but it is also symbolic of Spain’s struggle as a whole to come to terms with its civil war and to what its countrymen did to one another. With seismic political changes on the horizon in Spain, it might well be that this struggle is entering a new stage of its tortuous journey. Tremlett’s book has never been more relevant.