On May 5, 2005, Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero journeyed to Mauthausen, a small Austrian town picturesquely situated on the Danube. A solemn task awaited him: commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp on the hill above the town where, over the course of seven years (1938–1945), almost 200,000 prisoners had been held, including some seven to nine thousand Spaniards who, having defended the Second Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), went into exile and then were captured by the Germans when France was defeated in 1940 (many had joined the French army). Although 14,000 Jews were liquidated in Mauthausen, it was not set up as an extermination camp. Its purpose was to exploit the slave labor of “incorrigible” and “unredeemable” political prisoners from a wide array of nations, as well as of smaller numbers of gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and criminals. The harshest of the Nazi labor camps, it operated under conditions so brutal that approximately 65 percent of the inmates perished.1
Rodríguez Zapatero’s presence at the anniversary marked a significant shift in his country’s official recognition of the suffering of its citizens who had been deported and killed as part of the Nazi genocide. As Sara J. Brenneis explains in Spaniards in Mauthausen: Representations of a Nazi Concentration Camp, 1940–2015, her painstaking and definitive book on the subject, for many decades those victims were “unacknowledged ghosts in contemporary Spanish society.” The Franco dictatorship—which was complicit in the Nazi persecution of its opponents2—had zero interest in remembering them, but they did not fare much better during the intricate transition to democracy after the Caudillo’s death in 1975.
The success of that transition hinged, at least initially, on the “pact of silence” reached between Franco’s successors and those who had resisted his authoritarian and bloody rule: it amounted, Brenneis writes, to a “decision not to enter into recriminations about the Civil War and dictatorship.” Even when it came time for a reckoning with the past, public attention was focused on the vast internal repression of the Franco years, leaving scant space for those Spaniards who had been tyrannized in Nazi concentration camps abroad. And yet, as Brenneis notes, from 1995 onward, as part of the “historical memory movement” of survivors, intellectuals, and grassroots organizations determined to disinter the uncomfortable truths of the Franco era, the Spanish voices of those who had experienced the Nazi camps started to be heard.
The most striking, charismatic, and popular voice was that of the Catalan activist Enric Marco, whose rise to fame and precipitous fall is recounted by the Spanish author Javier Cercas in his fascinating book The Impostor: A True Story. Until…
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