Archaeologists Open One of Many Mass Graves From the Spanish Civil War

The excavation comes amid a push to deal more openly with a difficult chapter of Spain’s history

Spanish mass grave
A skull with other bones of a victim's body is classified by anthropologists following an exhumation of a mass grave at the cemetery of Paterna, near Valencia, Spain, Emilio Morenatti / Associated Press

Across Spain, hundreds of mass graves hold the bodies of those killed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and in the ensuing years by the authoritarian regime headed by Francisco Franco. This week, one of those graves was opened, revealing “piles of skeletons” that had been buried for decades , reports Aritz Parra of the Associated Press. The action is likely among the first of a series of actions meant to reconcile a bloody history long ignored by the Spanish government.

Graveyard 112, as the site is known, is located in Paterna, a town on the outskirts of Valencia. According to Parra, researchers believe that at least 2,238 prisoners of the Franco regime were executed in the area and buried in 70 mass graves that were then sealed off with quicklime. Graveyard 112 contains the remains of two groups of 50 prisoners who were interred a few months after the civil war ended in 1939. They were among tens of thousands of Franco enemies who were killed or imprisoned once the war drew to a close, as the dictator solidified his grip on Spain.

Dozens of bodies have already been exhumed from the site, reports Mark Armstrong of Euronews. The excavation of the grave was sponsored by the provincial government of Valencia, but spearheaded by a group of 42 relatives who believe their ancestors are buried there. Among the descendants on hand to witness the excavation was Remedios Ferrer, who told Parra of the AP that her anarchist grandfather was executed and buried in Paterna.

“It makes me sad and angry, because it was heart-breaking for my mom, and before her for my grandmother, to know that grandpa was buried here like an animal,” she said.

The Spanish Civil War stemmed from long-standing political tensions in the country. Nationalists were pitted against Republicans, with extreme factions on either side veering towards fascism and militant anarchism, respectively. But as Encylopaedia Britannica notes, “[b]etween these extremes were other groups covering the political spectrum from monarchism and conservatism through liberalism to socialism, including a small communist movement.”

In February 1936, a leftist political coalition was elected to power. In July of that year, a military uprising was launched across Spain. Within a few months, Francisco Franco, a general who had been instrumental in gathering troops and securing assistance from European fascist powers, was named the leader of a new Nationalist government. After a brutal three-year conflict, the Republican opposition collapsed and the Nationalists emerged victorious.

In those three years of fighting, according to Omar G. Encarnación of the New York Review of Books, some 200,000 soldiers died in battle and 200,000 people were executed—mostly by Franco’s forces, but thousands were also killed by leftist factions. Still more died during Franco’s bombings of cities and towns in Spain. After the war, another 20,000 people were executed, and some 370,000 were detained in concentration camps.

Franco stayed in power until his death in 1975. Unlike Germany and Italy, which had also been dominated by fascist regimes during the WWII era, Spain did little to reckon with the atrocities that had been perpetrated during the Franco dictatorship. Instead, as Alex W. Palmer explains in a recent Smithsonian magazine story, Spain implemented a political agreement known as the “Pact of Forgetting.”

“In the name of ensuring a smooth transition to democracy, the country’s rightist and leftist parties agreed to forgo investigations or prosecutions related to the civil war or the dictatorship,” Palmer writes. “The aim was to let the past stay buried, so Spain could move on.”

In recent years, however, there has been a push to deal more patently with a difficult chapter of Spanish history. Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s new socialist prime minister, vowed in June to exhume Franco’s remains from the grandiose mausoleum where he is buried and transform the site into a monument into a “memorial of the victims of fascism.” Sanchez’s promise brought renewed attention to the issue of Spain’s anonymous mass graves. There have also been calls to amend a 1977 amnesty law that pardons atrocities committed during the Franco regime.

In Paterna, some of the bones that were found in graveyard 112 are cracked, which could mean that the people who were executed at the site were tortured. According to the AP’s Parra, archaeologists have asked authorities to launch a criminal investigation into the victims’ violent deaths.

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