Bringing Up The Bodies: Mass Graves From Spain’s Civil War Exhumed

The Guardian reported in May that descendants of 21 out the 3,400 Republicans executed in Valencia after the Spanish Civil War will finally recover the remains of their ancestors, whose bodies were flung into mass graves in Paterna Cemetery.

The war began in 1936 after Nationalist military leaders, convinced that Jews, Freemasons, Communists, and atheists intended to bring about the downfall of Christian Spain, launched a coup d’état against the democratically elected and predominantly left-leaning Popular Front government. Historian Julius Ruiz says that General Francisco Franco’s paramilitaries executed around 150,000 trade unionists, left-wing activists, vegetarians, liberals, and Basque, Galician, or Catalan separatists in Nationalist-held territory, while Republican-aligned forces killed 50 to 60,000 “enemies of the people,” including priests, businessmen, and landowners, in retaliation.

Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Great Britain, and the United States all either overtly supported or quietly tolerated the fanatical crusade, which ended in the Nationalists’ complete victory in 1939.

Anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz argues that Franco’s autocracy imposed a “funerary apartheid” in Spain. The corpses of the defeated were abandoned in mass graves, often outside cemeteries, and left untouched as warnings to dissuade anyone from challenging the regime. Since the early noughties, at least 740 mass graves containing 9,000 bodies have been unearthed so far.

On the other hand, Franco celebrated, decorated, and commemorated fallen Nationalist ideologues or collaborators who played a part in precipitating the destruction of the Second Republic. General Emilio Mola, for example, was both the brains behind the traitorous putsch which triggered the civil war and the inquisitor responsible for engineering “an atmosphere of terror” to silence or eliminate anyone who thought differently from the Nationalists. Mola received an extravagant funeral for his efforts.

This funerary apartheid is even more damning when one considers the multitude of crimes and atrocities that Franco and his clique committed under his nearly forty-year reign.

Franco kept a photograph of Adolf Hitler on his desk until the waning days of World War II, according to Enrique Moradiellos, just in case Germany’s tyrant emerged triumphant against the Allies. His pro-Nazi sensibilities also showed in the manner he treated vanquished Republicans. Investigative journalist Carlos Hernández de Miguel says that Franco’s regime transformed Spain into “a gigantic concentration camp” until the late 1940s: between 700,000 and a million prisoners languished in 300 camps scattered throughout the country, condemned to endure torture, humiliating indoctrination, and back-breaking labor.

Franco also conscripted famished and sickly slaves to construct a lavish crypt of his own design: the Valley of the Fallen. This grand mausoleum, larger than Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, according to Lynn Cartwright-Punnett, and once referred to as “the ninth wonder of the world,” is a testament to the dictator’s Napoleonic hubris. His remains slumbered in the Valley, immortalized as the saviour of Spanish civilization, until they were exhumed in 2019. Shattered bones from Republican victims, entombed secretly without permission from their families or descendants, were shambolically scattered nearby.

The body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of autocrat Miguel Primo de Rivera and founder of Spain’s fascist party, the Falange, still rests in the Valley. Scholar Alexander Parsons argues that for decades, numerous Anglophone and Hispanic historians trivialized, minimized, or romanticized de Rivera’s abhorrent beliefs. His handsome features, flowery speeches, and aristocratic charm seduced friends and foes alike, in his lifetime and beyond the grave.

Yet de Rivera led a movement that worshipped violence and lionized militaristic virtues. He endorsed the formation of Falangist death squads in 1934, and his fiery speeches incited followers to indulge in brutal street fights with leftist or anarchist opponents. De Rivera himself possessed, as Irish historian Ian Gibson emphasized, “a biblical wrath capable of frightening his own collaborators and which led to outrages of the worst kind.”

De Rivera’s death, at the hands of a Republican firing squad in 1936 and aged only 33, turned him into a martyr of the Nationalist cause. Franco co-opted the Falange and crafted a post-humous cult of personality centred on de Rivera, whose name was inscribed in every major church in Spain. The anniversary of his execution became a day of mourning. Falangists gave de Rivera a hero’s farewell as they carried his body to El Escorial, the final resting place of Spanish monarchs in 1939, before moving his remains to the Valley of the Fallen 20 years later.

General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, another Nationalist rebel that helped topple the Second Republic, earned riches, property, honours, acclaim, and a burial ground fit for royalty in return for his heinous record during the civil war. De Llano’s grotesque radio broadcasts urged Nationalist troops to rape Republican women with impunity and threatened to unleash the “virility” of colonial Moroccan soldiers under Franco’s command.

Archaeologist Laura Muñoz-Encinar says sexual violence, especially against Republican women, was endemic during the war. Adam Hochschild found that in Seville, Nationalist troops raped women prisoners, “threw their bodies down a well, and then paraded through a nearby town, their rifles draped with the murdered women’s underwear.” De Llano perceived “Red women” like Matilde Sánchez, who devoted their lives to implementing the Republic’s admirable education and labour reforms, as repulsive or irredeemable “prostitutes” who deserved to be degraded, violated, butchered, and dumped into mass graves, riverbeds, or mineshafts – their entire existence erased.

Moreover, de Llano played a critical role in “La Désbanda,” the slaughter of thousands of civilians fleeing the Nationalist invasion of Málaga in 1937. Researcher Jesús Majada explained that de Llano promised to drown Málaga in a sea of blood and rape, warning women they would soon know “who the real men are.” These terrifying broadcasts prompted around 300,000 women, children, and elderly to flee down the coastal road connecting Málaga to Republican strongholds in Almería. Franco’s ground and naval troops, backed by German and Italian aircraft, incessantly bombed the highway – ensuring that approximately 6,000 people never made it to safety. This war crime is barely remembered today.

El Correo says that de Llano, a man who oversaw the execution of 13,000 people in Seville alone, a man who, according to historian José María García Márquez, press-ganged political prisoners into forced labor on his sprawling estate, had a saintly head of state’s funeral when he passed away in 1951. His remains are buried in the Basílica de la Macarena, although they are now in the process of removal.

Psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo Nágera, a close friend of General Franco known as Spain’s answer to Nazi physician Josef Mengele, was also handsomely rewarded in life and death for his misdeeds. Scholars like Ethan Pearlstein, Michael Richards, María Teresa Riquelme-Quiñonero, and Ramón Castejón Bolea amply demonstrated that Nágera popularized eugenic theories that justified extreme violence against Franco’s enemies, both during and long after the civil war. His books and academic articles depicted Republicans, and Republican women in particular, as physically and psychologically inferior degenerates riddled with incurable “red” or “Marxist” genes.

Citizens who did not conform to “positive psychiatry” (unwavering loyalty to General Franco, the Catholic Church, and conservative societal or family values) had to be quarantined from society to preserve the nation’s wellbeing. In practice, this meant Nationalist forces ruthlessly exterminated “biologically deficient” Republicans, kidnapping thousands of children born into “unhealthy” Republican households. Nuns like Sister María Gómez Valbuena perpetrated schemes which saw around 300,000 children between 1936 and the 1990s separated from their mothers and sold to “faithful” families.

Nágera enjoyed an illustrious career in academia regardless of his mostly pseudoscientific output, and even had a street, the Paseo del Dr. Vallejo Nágera, named after him in Madrid.

The discovery and dignified reburial of Republican remains has brought a sense of closure and peace to families of the deceased. Pino Sosa, president of a local Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (A.R.M.H.) faction in the Canary Islands, finally retrieved the remains of her father, a handyman, at the age of 81. El Diario notes that she was barely forty days old when he disappeared.

But many historians remind us that Republican authorities committed their share of egregious crimes as well. Antonio Montero Moreno revealed that religious persecution resulted in the murder of 6,852 priests and nuns. Sánchez Recio discovered that a Republican minister created horrific labor camps for suspected traitors, and Julius Ruiz argues the institutionalization of “popular justice” meant that thousands of supposed “fascists” were summarily executed without trial.

The A.R.M.H., along with other organizations and researchers, must set aside biases and proceed with the identification and excavation of the Republican purges’ victims. Only then can polarizing exhumations, if they are to educate and benefit all Spaniards, become a reconciliatory project likely to appease right-wing parties like the Partido Popular.

This solution, however, is fraught with risks. Far-right and other extremist groups could very easily turn Nationalist mass grave sites into shrines or meeting grounds. The Forward reported that Neo-Nazi marches in Madrid often pay homage to the Blue Division, a brigade of around 47,000 Spanish volunteers who fought alongside Nazi regiments on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union during WW2. In 2021, Neo-Nazis even laid flowers at a Blue Division memorial, chanting, “The Jew is always the enemy.”

Nevertheless, a state-backed and well-funded exhumation process dedicated to disinterring all mass graves, no matter the departeds’ political or ideological persuasion, is necessary if Spaniards ever hope to bury the literal skeletons in their closet and put their ghosts to rest.

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