Remembering the Oft-Overlooked Women Victims of the Spanish Civil War

Archaeologists in northeastern Spain recently unearthed the remains of ten individuals kidnapped and executed in 1936

The Lives of Women
L to R: Leonor Villa, Melania Lasilla and Julia Claveras, three of the ten women executed by a fascist firing squad in August 1936 Courtesy of Charata Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory

Toward the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, fascist followers of General Francisco Franco kidnapped ten women from their hometown of Uncastillo and transported them to a prison under the cover of darkness. The next day, August 31, 1936, a firing squad executed the women—who ranged in age from 32 to 61 years old—and dumped their corpses into a mass grave in nearby Farasdués.

Now, reports Iker González Izagirre for Spanish newspaper AraInfo, archaeologists have exhumed the burial, shedding light on the oft-overlooked traumas endured by women during the 1936 to 1939 conflict.

Excavations led by the Charata Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory and the Aragonese Memorialist History and Archaeology Collective (CHAMA) began in November. According to Reuters’ Juan Medina, some of the objects found in the grave—such as the iridescent white buttons that were once affixed to the victims’ clothing—were surprisingly well preserved.

“Many of the bodies appear accompanied by hairpins, combs or thimbles, small objects they were carrying at the time they were arrested, and only a day later [when] they were executed,” Cristina Sánchez, a scholar of civil war–era violence against women, tells Alejandro Torrús of Spanish newspaper Público, per Google Translate.

As lead archaeologist Francisco Javier Ruiz explains in the publication Uncastillo, Mujeres del 36, Franco’s forces targeted women who had advocated for reform under the previous government or had relatives with links to leftist organizations.

“Why did they kill her? Because they couldn’t find my uncle? Because she could read and write? Because she voted for the republic? ... I don’t know ... Nothing they did makes sense,” says Mari Carmen Rios, granddaughter of massacre victim Inocencia Aznares, to Reuters.

Similarly brutal killings took place at the prison in the days and months following the group’s execution. On one occasion, soldiers executed 12 men; another time, they killed seven men and one woman. A final slaughter at the site targeted ten men from the town of Asín, according to Público. (This fall’s excavations also uncovered a mass grave containing the bodies of at least seven men, reports Reuters, but the remains have yet to be identified.)

The Spanish Civil War was the result of deep-seated political differences between Nationalists and Republicans, who trended toward fascist and militant anarchist ideologies, respectively. As Encyclopedia Britannica points out, “Between these extremes were other groups covering the political spectrum from monarchism and conservatism through liberalism to socialism, including a small communist movement.”

Tensions came to a head in July 1936, when the Nationalists staged a military coup against Spain’s leftist government. The two sides battled for three years, but in March 1939, the beleaguered Republicans surrendered, enabling Franco to remain in power as dictator until his death in 1975.

The conflict’s exact death toll remains unknown. Nationalist forces claimed that around 1,000,000 died, but more recent estimates place the figure closer to 500,000. As Omar G. Encarnación noted for the New York Review of Books in 2018, approximately 200,000 soldiers died on the battlefield; another 200,000 were executed, mostly at the hands of Franco’s forces.

In the aftermath of Franco’s death, Spain’s rightist and leftist parties sidestepped investigations into atrocities carried out during the civil war and subsequent dictatorship in order to hasten the country’s transition to democracy, wrote Alex W. Palmer in the July 2018 issue of Smithsonian magazine. In recent years, however, Spain has increasingly attempted to reckon with its past. Last October, for instance, authorities exhumed Franco’s body from his ornate mausoleum, which detractors had argued glorified the dictator without acknowledging his regime’s victims.

Still, certain aspects of the war’s horrors continue to be overlooked. As Sánchez pointed out in a 2019 journal article, most academic research on the conflicts focuses on the experiences of men.

“Where are all the women? ... Now we are finding that they were present as victims of violence and as perpetrators,” the scholar tells Reuters. “… We have deaths by drowning, deaths by hanging, and the majority were killed by firing squad.”

The Farasdués grave’s discovery represents a chance for victims’ descendants to gain a sense of closure. According to AraInfo, Ruiz and his colleagues are asking friends and family members of the deceased to contact the exhumation team so they can be reunited with the remains of their loved ones.

Speaking with Reuters, Rios reflects, “When you say, ‘We’ve found her, she’s there, we’re going to bury her with grandpa,’ honestly it makes me very happy.”

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