Spain: Emerging from the Labyrinth

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Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
A portrait of General Francisco Franco at the celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of his being proclaimed generalissimo of the Nationalist army and the Spanish head of state by the leaders of the military rebellion against the Spanish Republic, Madrid, October 1, 1971

On August 19, 1936, militiamen loyal to General Francisco Franco murdered Spain’s famous poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. Afterward, one of the killers, the Falangist Juan Trecastro, burst into a local bar and said, “We’ve just killed Federico García Lorca. We left him in a ditch and I fired two bullets into his arse for being a queer.”

In Salamanca there is an archive of the Nationalists’ files, including over 2.5 million “Social” and “Political” cards on their enemies. Here is what the British writer Jeremy Treglown found on Lorca’s: “Poet [;] his works treated of popular poems [a mistake for “themes”?]. Died in––Granada.” “How tantalizing the dashes are!” Treglown comments.

In recent years, there has been much controversy over Lorca’s gravesite. Spain’s Law of Historical Memory, passed in 2007, led to a campaign to exhume corpses from ditches and fields throughout the country as part of a wider effort to reckon with the past. In October 2008 a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, widely known for issuing an international arrest warrant for former Chilean president General Augusto Pinochet in 1998, took up his own country’s transition from dictatorship. He announced that Franco and thirty-four others were guilty of crimes against humanity, responsible for over one hundred thousand killings.

Included in his sweeping decree was a call to exhume nineteen mass graves. One of them was Lorca’s. While the media widely reported these events, some demanded that the deceased rest in peace. These included the poet’s niece, Laura García Lorca, who was accused of complicity with a cover-up. “But no,” she told the New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson, “it seems it is conservative to not open a tomb, and progressive to open it.” She broke down in tears; later she told Anderson: “We don’t want this to become a spectacle. But it is very difficult to imagine that the bones and skull of Federico García Lorca will not end up on YouTube.”1

The controversy surrounding Lorca’s remains is part of a global debate about whether to reckon with past atrocities by recuperating memories and sacralizing the victims. After the Greek dictatorship fell in 1974, there were hearings on the brutal actions of Greek military officers. The work of the Argentine Truth Commission, which sponsored mass unearthings of graves and led to crucial trials, encouraged other countries to excavate bodies, memorialize victims, and inform the public in order to prevent future atrocities and heal traumatized societies trying to build democracy after civil war.

Jeremy Treglown has ventured into such controversies and exposed some of the limits of using historical memory or forgetting to reconcile bitter social divisions caused by civil …

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  1. 1

    See Jon Lee Anderson, “Lorca’s Bones,” The New Yorker, June 22, 2009.