Corrected, September 23, 2009.
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
Audens anthem to the doomed Spanish Republic, his somber warning, has rarely been more relevant.
Last September Spains homegrown super-judge Baltasar Garzónbest-known for his dramatic 1998 effort to arrest the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London announced that he was investigating not only the whereabouts of the remains of the disappeared of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), but also the huge numbers of defeated Republicans executed by General Francisco Franco in the grim postwar years. His goal was to try to amass enough evidence to charge Francos regime posthumously with crimes against humanity. Could it be that, after so long, help and pardon were finally coming to the descendants of those who died defending the Spanish Republic?
According to the great Hispanist Hugh Thomas, the three-year Civil War claimed the lives of 365,000 Spaniards, a toll that includes both those loyal to the fascist rebel Franco and those who opposed him. Some historians put the figure higher. Both sides carried out brutal executions, the bodies of victims often ending up in unmarked mass graves.
When the Civil War ended in 1939, the victorious Franco regime executed an additional one hundred thousand-plus Republican prisoners, many of whose corpses were flung into yet more mass-burial pits. These unmarked mounds, visited stealthily by the families of the defeated during the dictatorship, are scattered the length and breadth of Spain.
Throughout the 1950s the Franco regime excavated and re-interred with full honors as many as possible of their mass gravesthose containing the 60-70,000 soldiers and pro-Franco civilians murdered in the Republican zone during the war itself. The same efforts have never been extended to the Republican defeated. And here is the emotional crux of the debate, without which it is impossible to understand the passion and anger that the graves generate today.
There have been some gestures to honor the Republicans memory. In 2007 the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapaterohimself the grandson of an executed Republican army captainpassed the Historical Memory Law. Facing a backlash from conservatives, the new law was a much-amended version of the sweeping measures some had hoped for, backing down on earlier promises to grant full posthumous pardons to those executed in the postwar period. The new bill merely promised support to the historical memory associationsthe loose network of volunteer groups whose members include descendants of executed Republicanswithout providing much in the way of state-led initiatives.
Thus, many welcomed Judge Garzóns announcement last September. For the first time, the judiciary was taking the lead. The historical memory associations were the most fervent supporters of Garzóns initiative. While the ruling Socialist Workers Party gave the judges actions its cautious respect, other parties on the left were more enthusiastic.
The right, though, railed against the judge for his reckless opening of old wounds. The countrys opposition Peoples Party, some of whose senior members have fathers and grandfathers who served in Francos 40-year dictatorship, came out strongly against the judge. The Spanish bishops, whose predecessors had endorsed Francos authoritarian national-Catholocism, also made their disapproval plain.
Within months Garzóns ill-fated process had the Spanish judiciary up in arms; a church- and conservative-led opposition fulminating against any attempt to shine a light on the countrys past; and a socialist government, once proud of its policy of historical memory, effectively in retreat. Garzón was forced to drop the investigation in November.
With the investigation halted, Spain once again failed to offer institutional recognition of the cruelty suffered by its citizens in the Civil War and under the 40-year dictatorship that followed. The events of last fall also reveal the continuing reluctance to evaluate the defeated Republic of the 1930s and its relevance to Spains democracy today. But if Audens gloomy warningthat history can merely shrug and say Alasis being amply fulfilled by Spains institutions, it is also fueling the determination of Republican descendants to help the defeated through memory.
Months before Garzón launches his bombshell, I find myself walking along the coast road toward the quiet, French seaside town of Collioure, just north of the Spanish border. It is April 2008 and a friend, Neus Valls, has come up with me from Spain. Below us the tidy, red-roofed town is in bijoux contrast to the vast castle at its center, as austere as a Crusader fort. Behind it rise the green Pyrenean foothills, staked out with vines. On this brilliant spring morning, smells of simmering fennel and cigar smoke drift from the seafront restaurants.
These days Collioure is a place for well-set family tourists, but it was once a place of painful arrivals and departures. A plaque set into the quayside recalls the last Jews in Spain deported from here in the 1490s. Further along, under the mighty retaining wall of the castle, another stone records the numerous Spanish exiles interned here by the French authorities in 1939.
In the winter of that year, the road we are now walking would have been packed with refugees, part of the mass exodus of troops and civilians fleeing the advance of Francos troops at the end of the Civil War. For Valls, head teacher of an elementary school in Barcelona, Collioure is a place with memories of a more recent exile.
These are not mere daytrippers from over the border: along with dozens of others every weekend, these Spaniards are here on a literary pilgrimage.
She was nineteen in the summer of 1975, and the Franco dictatorship was nearing its end. A scuffle with police at a Barcelona demonstration forced Valls and her friends to make a drastic decision. Panicked at the possibility of arrest, they slung tents into a car and made the dash over the French border some two hours drive away, hunkering down here in Collioure.
Valls explains how the group of friends stayed put in a campsite for the whole summer. They swam in the sea every day, but an otherwise typical summer of young freedom in the 70s was shot through with real political danger. It was only in the fall of that year that their families told them it was safe to return.
In the market square, we suddenly become aware of more Spanish spoken around us. Middle-aged and young alike, couples are congregating under the plane trees, their gestures louder and bolder than those of the French.
These, we quickly realize, are not mere daytrippers from over the border: along with dozens of others every weekend, these Spaniards are here on a literary pilgrimage. For among the many exiles who streamed through this town in the winter of the great Republican defeat was none other than Antonio Machado, the greatest Spanish poet of his generation.
Machados lyric on the pathmaker, who makes his own path by walking, is intoned in every corner of the Spanish-speaking world. Its protean form has leant itself to any number of interpretations. Al Gore invoked it in his 2007 Nobel acceptance speech. Here in Collioure, barely days after fleeing Barcelona in February 1939, defeated, ill, and with the Republic in ruins, Machado died in a house overlooking this square.
We follow the pilgrims down what is now called Rue Machado. Valls is pensive, suddenly, caught up in the complex associations this town represents. Some days before, she had told me how her mother still has vivid memories of the night in December 1936 when her own father, Juan Bautista Sostres, failed to return home from work. Sostres, a tram-worker and trade unionist in the city of Zaragoza, was executed without trial, the whereabouts of his body never revealed to his family. Only two years ago did Vallss mother, now in her eighties, receive a letter from researchers finally revealing the location of the mass grave where he was buried.
I wonder what has brought these other pilgrims here, what mournful family absences lead them to seek the magic presence of Machado? For while Vallss story may seem dramatic, it is hardly atypical among families of the defeated.
An old, high wall surrounds Collioure cemetery; it has a rural feel, of moss and peace. Machados tomb is a large slab in a privileged position at the center, framed by yew trees rustling and alive in the stiff breeze off the sea. The pilgrims cluster around, some taking pictures, others holding books of poetry. The top of the tomb is freighted with fresh and faded bouquets. There is a Republican tricolor, and dozens of scribbled notes weighted with stones rest at the site:
To the great poet, from your followers . . . in my breast a wound, and your poems in my heart.
The intercessions for the prophet-in-exile are brought from all corners of the peninsula: To Machado from the residents of Cerdanyola, of Soria, of Sevilla, of Majadahonda, Madrid. And elsewhere, Machado . . . the memory that will not die. The only clear patch on the tomb is the epitaph, excerpted from a Machado verse, which has taken on an uncanny significance:
When the moment comes of my final voyage
On that ship in which nobody returns,
You will find me aboard, light of luggage,
half-naked, like the children of the sea.
Valls sits down near the tomb. She says she would like to recite some Machado in honor of her grandfather, but when she gets to the second line, the converging emotions of the words and the place overwhelm her. The yews sigh above us, Valls rocking back and forth shaking with sobs.
Months later, the humid dog days in Barcelona easing toward autumn, the news breaks like a summer storm. It is the first day of September, and Judge Baltasar Garzón is all over the front pages.
In the heat of the early morning, I read the story at the newspaper kiosk. A little way off, an old man stands stock-still in the middle of the street, absorbed in the same pages. By the end of the day, Garzóns planned investigation to compile a census of the disappeared will become one of the biggest news stories of the year.
For over two decades, Baltasar Garzón has been courting both approval and outrage. Appointed a National Court judge in 1988 at just 34 years old, he became a national celebrity after tackling the countrys cocaine-trafficking webs. Pictured boarding patrol ships and helicopters, the image of Garzón with his thick hair slicked up over a broad, powerful face, became a popular symbol of tough, gloves-off justice. Ever since, he has savaged the two main socialist and conservative parties for corruption, and each has duly taken turns to loathe and disparage him.
Can Garzón really set Spains house in order? By the end of September when I travel to Madrid, the knives are already out for the judge.
Constantly assailed by left and right for playing to the media and for a sometimes-sloppy record as an investigator, he retains hero status for many. A man who irreparably changed Chile with the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, who ordered the detention of Osama Bin Laden and even had George W. Bush in his sights at one stage, possesses a belief in justice that is, at the very least, exhilarating.
And now, on this September morning, it seems even a dead dictator is not beyond his reach. Agreeing to examine the charges of crimes against humanity filed by four historical memory associations, the investigation represents the first meaningful, national-level judicial investigation of the Franco regime.
There are plenty of rumors as to Garzóns motives for taking the case. Some say he was stung by Argentine and Chilean criticisms that he went after their dictators while conveniently forgetting his own: Wooden knives in the house of the ironsmith, as the Spanish phrase puts it. Others say he is eyeing richer career opportunities on offer in the United States and that the Franco dictatorship is his last bit of unfinished business.
Can Garzón really set Spains house in order? By the end of September when I travel to Madrid, the kniveswooden or otherwiseare already out for the judge. A piece of folly that will dredge up the worst of Spains past is the conservative oppositions verdict. Zapateros socialist government is tight-lipped, while support from Garzóns judicial colleagues is distinctly lackingmost insist that the disappeared are the responsibility of the executive.
Yet the process shows every sign of going ahead. That very day, the combined historical memory associations, consisting of volunteers from all over the country, converge on the capital to deliver 130,000 names of the disappeared for Garzón to include in his census. For his part, Garzón has ordered the governments of major Spanish cities to submit their death registers from the war and postwar era.
The judge is not giving interviews, so I find myself in a nondescript Madrid suburb in the melancholy quiet of the siesta time. Emilio Silva, who sits with me in his lounge, is perhaps the true center of the whole storm, someone who in resolving his own family history is making national history, too.
Back in 2000, then 35, Silva went to a village near León in northern Spain to start to piece together the sad events of October 1936. That month his grandfather, also named Emilio Silva, was arrested by Franquista troops and paseadothat is, walked a short distance from the open truck in which he and other terrified prisoners had been driven, and shot. His body was dumped in ditch.
Silva coaxed elderly people to impart information on the horrors of 1936, and one interview left a permanent mark. After broaching the topic with an elderly lady, she glanced aroundand this, dont forget, in the year 2000!to check that the window was shut. This unconscious gesture of fear deeply shook Silva. Shortly thereafter he founded the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which in less than a decade has supervised not only dozens of excavations of Republican mass graves, but also the identification of its victims, later reburied in family plots.
Four branches linked to Silvas association filed the charge of mass murder against the Franco regime in the National Court, the case that ended up on Baltasar Garzóns desk.
Silva will not be drawn on Garzóns motives, but expresses a certain weary satisfaction that the judge has taken the case on. A journalist by training, Silva has totally immersed himself in the associations work. As befits his profession, he has a precise and all-encompassing feel for words, and a desire to puncture certain myths. While his association has awoken huge interest in the last decade, he is by no means the first graves campaigner, he says. The crippling fear of the old lady was not felt by all, and many had taken a stand long before 2000.
Silva talks of the pact of silence, the notion that Spains transition to democracy in the late 1970s was only realized by keeping quiet on the past. Reaching for his laptop, he shows me a rather different version: footage of a crowd of people descending on a Republican grave site in 1979. One stocky woman, swathed in black, recounts how the regime used to try to block access to the grave, but she and the other women still came to pay their respects. Another man says, simply, we couldnt talk about this before; now we can.
Clearing the thick drapes of time and darkness covering that pinewood is possible thanks only to the fortuitous survival of a centenarian.
The pact of silence, Silva suggests, was constantly undone by such spontaneous expressions from the street. To look at the footage of these bereted country people now, to hear them talking passionately and clearly after so long in silence, is to understand the term transition in its deepest social sense.
That this newfound voice has not, so far, yielded state recognition of the disappeared is the core of Silvas message. His organizations work, he says, gives the dead grandparents or parents honor, where no Spanish state institution has ever given honor before. But it is a task that Silva believes cannot be carried on indefinitely by the private sector. Zapateros 2007 Historical Memory Law provided a sense of opportunity, but refused outright annulment of Franco-era sentences. The new legislation offers support to our work, he concedes, but when is the state going to shoulder the burden?
The next day I set out to meet Silvas colleagues at a mass grave they are excavating some 300 kilometers to the north of the capital. A few hours later I am in deep country near the Portugese border, a savannah-like plain with regularly spaced, bobbly holm oaks under a big sky. The cars of the volunteers are parked on a crossroads ahead of usas obvious a place to park as it would have been that night 70-odd years ago, when the driver searched for a site to dump his five-man cargo.
Which is why, sliding down the track into the pinewood, it is impossible not to sense for a moment those prisoners, their hands tied, stumbling deeper into this oubliette, a place far from sky, light, love, help, or pardon.
A little farther down in a clearing come the voices of the volunteers. I had imagined feverish activity, the grate of picks and shovels, but the helpers are watching an earth mover, which has already dug a rectangular trench about the size of a small truck. There is a quiet but slightly festive air to the occasion; the volunteers chat and smoke, with occasional glances into the trench itself. Suddenly a woman shouts, the digger stops, and all gather round to peer; there has been a slight change in the color of the soil, which, someone explains, may indicate buried objects. A false alarm it turns out, the digger resumes, and someone passes around a paper plate of cookies.
His hands pushed deep in a waxed jacket, Santiago Macías keeps one eye on operations, while he describes to me the method of digging. An inseparable colleague of Silvas, Macías has supervised many such digs since 2000. He makes a gesture, the machine halts again with a whir, the scoop flails a moment, then lowers again to break new ground some meters from the old trench.
Weve gone too deep on this first one, Macías explains. There is nothing there, so we work out from our starting point, like spokes on a wheel, until we find something.
Is he confident they will? He shrugs and recounts the occasional disappointments they have had, days spent digging and finding nothing. This time, though, he thinks they have every chance of success. Their source is the man, now over one hundred years old, who had been forced to dig the grave. He even remembers, apparently, how the bodies were laid out in a line, with one lying in a different direction from the others.
Clearing the thick drapes of time and darkness covering that pinewood, then, is possible thanks only to the fortuitous survival of a centenarian. It is a sobering thought. On the drive back, to keep some sense of critical perspective, I think of the words of American Hispanist Stanley Payne, a critic of the whole notion of historical memory.
In an interview with Spains ABC daily in 2006, Payne argued: Historical memory is neither history nor memory. It is rather a version or versions [of history], created by patriots, politicians, or journalists, and even certain historians.
I live in Barcelona, whose leftist regional government is one of the few in Spain to have enthusiastically embraced historical memory. Paynes warning note strikes a chord here, in a city with its own historical taboos. As Catalan separatism grows, and with it the tendency to lay all blame at the door of reactionary Spain, certain things are best not mentioned. The brutality of Barcelonas anarchist mobs during the Republican era itself, for example, is rarely discussed in liberal dinner party conversations. Likewise, the violent anti-clericalism and church-burnings.
Paynes comments were seized on by Spanish conservatives as scholarly proof of the dubiousness of Zapateros Historical Memory Law. Even though in the same interview Payne approves of certain of the grave-excavation projects, the words of such a distinguished historian have become a useful brush with which to tar any effort to uncover the past.
Left-wing discourse in Spain does tend to impose a version of exclusively Republican suffering, and conservatives often lump organizations like Silvas with a general trend of historical tendentiousness. Yet fundamentally, Silva and his colleagues are activists, not historians. What moves them is a desire to help (in Audens sense), to ensure that the honor long ago granted the families of murdered Franquistas can also, now, be granted the families of the defeated.
It could even be said the taboo at the heart of Spanish politics is as much the Republic as the Civil War and the dictatorship it preceded.
Even so, there is certainly an important political element in the message of the historical memory associations, one that is often overlooked, as it does not concern the war or dictatorship, but rather the Republic itself. The Republic, Silva and his colleagues say, was a harbinger of current Spanish democracy.
A 2005 argument by the rightist commentator Luis María Anson in the Spanish daily El Mundo reveals just how controversial such a theory is among conservatives. Anson railed against Zapateros proposed Historical Memory Law. The Civil War, he argued, was buried and surpassed by the transition to democracy in 1978. Yet Zapatero is claiming that democratic legitimacy was established by the Republic (emphasis added).
In fact, Zapatero, conscious perhaps of the political fallout, rarely lauds the Republic openly. It could even be said the taboo at the heart of Spanish politics is as much the Republic as the Civil War and the dictatorship it preceded. Going beyond the tit-for-tat of who did what to whom 70 years ago, the memory associations are part of a wider discourse that seeks to force the Republics contemporary democratic relevance into the open: its freeing of Spain from the dead hand of the Church, its (attempted) abolition of rural feudalism, its support for womens rights and progressive education.
Today, democratic Spain has the most far-reaching same-sex marriage laws of any country and is about to legalize abortion. Conservatives like to portray its current socialist government as a collection of dangerous radicals who are denaturing the Catholic soul of Spain. In fact, the soul of Spanish history is precisely the long struggle between Catholic conservatism and socially progressive liberalism, the so-called dos Españas that characterized the liberal struggle to found the Republic in the first place and that in turn spawned the reactionary struggle to overthrow it.
The 1931-1939 Republic casts its shadow over every speech in parliament, over every discussion of democracy. But to the dismay of Silva, Macías, and their ilk, the Republic is rarely alluded to by Spanish public figures.
The day after I witness the excavation in the north, the press reports that Macías and his team have uncovered the skeletons. As predicted by the old gravedigger, one body was lying in a different direction from the others.
While in one small corner of Spain the frailest of memories overcomes oblivion, in Madrid Judge Garzón will eventually, and spectacularly, fail.
Initially, Garzón issues a writ declaring himself competent to investigate the allegations of mass murder carried out by Franco and 34 of his henchmen. They, of course, are now all deada point made with great ironic relish by the right-wing press, though it is the judges intention to prove that criminality was attained in their lifetimes, even if responsibility for it was extinguished with their deaths. Garzón, say the opposition conservatives, has lost the plot.
The judges writ is a rich repository of press reports from the Civil War. He is prepared to slaughter half of Spaniards if that is necessary to pacify the country, reports Jay Allen of the Chicago Tribune after meeting Franco in 1936. Our valiant soldiers . . . will show the women [of the Reds] what real men are, screamed the hideous General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano in a 1936 radio broadcast. No amount of kicking and screaming will help them.
Even if Garzón proves the clarity of Francos intentions to systematically destroy his enemies, his other problems are legion: chiefly, Spains 1977 amnesty laws, and the fact that most of the executions took place before relevant human rights laws were established. To address the second problem, Garzóns writ centers on the victims ongoing disappearance rather than their long-ago murder.
It is a somewhat eccentric line, leapt on with glee by the right. Soon, even the National Courts chief prosecutor himself steps in to cast doubt on Garzóns competence to proceed, referring the whole process for appeal. Every day, and from every corner, the pressure on Garzón mounts.
The case is fast descending in tone from a solemn exploration of a Spanish tragedy to a courtroom farce. Between the attacks on the judge and the actions of a judiciary that can only look pettifogging to non-Spaniards, the tremendous fact of Francos crimes slips into the background. On November 18th Garzón finally backs down, referring the crimes to regional courts to be judged as common criminal cases, and effectively scotching any effort to prove the disappearances were centralized and systematic.
The next day, Emilio Silva appears on the evening news to put the defeat of Garzóns initiative into context:
Seventy-five years ago today, the government of the Second Republic held the first-ever democratic elections in this country in which women had the vote. It is a date that no public institution in Spain marks or remembers in any way.
The same rebuke grows louder over the winter, taken up and amplified over the French border. It is now just after Christmas, and the train is winding up through Pyrenean blizzards toward the frontier station of Latour-de-Carol. A plaque on the wall recalls a far bitterer winter: 70 years ago, when thousands of exiled Spanish Republicans passed through.
A few days later, in the medieval town of Mirepoix, I am introduced to Pablo Gandal. Pablos name hardly strikes an unusual note here. But while southern France is now home to hundreds of thousands of second- and third-generation Spanish Republicans, Pablo is one of the few remaining survivors of the Republican rout. At 88, his feeling of injustice is undiminished:
Every Spring in Madrid they remember how they fought Napoleon in 1808. But they cannot even bring themselves to remember what happened in 1939, they havent got the courage to say what was fought for, what was lost. What we lost!
The figures of the Retirada of 1939 are their own testament. In the two weeks between January 27th and February 12th, half a million exiles crossed into France, among them seventeen-year-old Pablo, who had already seen active service in the Republican army. He was interned in the notorious camp at Argelès just north of Collioure, suffering the hunger and disease that finished off so many of his comrades.
He gives me the tour of his house: the hoard of history books on the Republic, the photos and pamphlets. Sometimes his Spanish deserts himits not really been my main language since I was seventeenand he clicks his fingers with frustration. His daughter Colette, who is taking Spanish lessons, quietly prompts him.
Again and again, he tirelessly recounts the events of that winter. The defeat, the scramble north, the grim camp at Argelès, the exhaustion, illness, shame, and loss.
On the walls, clusters of fading photos of comrades. A Republican flag. The whole house a shrine to a brief period in early adulthood whose flame he has not let gutter for one moment in 70 years. On the little terrace upstairs he has painted a mural of the beach camp at Argelès under the title Les plages dexile. Over the barracks and barbed wire rises a sun that is shaped like Spain.
A little after the Garzón defeat, the Archbishop of Madrid assures the country it is better to learn to forget. Aside from their hypocrisythe same Archbishop has spearheaded the canonization of the many Spanish nuns and priests murdered in the Republican zonethe condescension of these words only confirms Spains institutional incapacity to recognize the exile and death imposed on the Republics defenders.
Instead, as the winter unfolds, it is the actions of grassroots organizations and individuals, many in France, that in some ways compensate for the rout inflicted on Garzón. It is a winter of cross-border encounters, ceremonies at Argelès and the other camps. But perhaps the most notable of the commemorations returns us to where we started: the tomb of Machado in the little cemetery in Collioure.
It is still quite early on the morning of February 22, 2009, the 70th anniversary of the death of the great poet. A stiff wind blows from the Pyrenees. Before the official act begins, a group of elderly pilgrims arrives from Barcelona, and suddenly, quite spontaneously, an elegant middle-aged woman starts to address the visitors in French-accented Spanish.
She is the daughter of an exile, and it was only since her fathers death in 1985, she tells them, that she started to realize the debt owed him for his defense of democracy.
The poet Machado, too, is our great symbol of the Republic, she calls out above the wind, then leaning out over the poets festooned grave: Dont let the amnesia imposed by Franco bury it. Tell them, ¡Recordad!
The pilgrims nod and murmur. The contrast to her militancy is almost apologetic, as if they know but cannot quite express how the view from the other side of the border is so much more complicated.
People are arriving steadily now. Many have come long distances, the tricolor of the Republic brought over the border in the form of scarfs, bandanas, even earrings. The speeches battle with the rising wind, and the crowd presses tighter around the tomb. Then, in the lull following the official ceremony, a woman starts to recite Machados most famous lines:
Pathmaker, the path is your tracks,
Pathmaker, there is no path,
The path is made by walking . . .
All at once, the words forming irresistible and contemporary associations, the voices of the secular pilgrims take up the poem in spontaneous unison:
And turning the gaze back,
look on the trail that will never be
Pathmaker, there is no path,
Only the wake on the sea.
The act of homage disbands, and I approach a father who has come up with his young family from Barcelona. Infected by the imagery of the mysterious path, we talk about what happens to memory now; where does it go, and what is its future? His five-year-old daughter sits on the ground, forming the gravel of the cemetery into little piles. Will she come here on February 22 when she is his age?
He smiles, says he hopes she will. And then, warming to the subject, he sketches a vision of what it might be like when his daughter is 38. Spain a republic again, its crimes faced up to and pardoned, her great-grandparents values vindicated, the debt of memory paid.
Correction notice: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Juan Bautista Sostres had been sentenced to death by a Franquista military court. Mr. Sostres was executed without trial.