The Return of Republican Memory in
By Helen Graham
This article is an abridged version
of the 2003 Len Crome Memorial Lecture presented on March 8
at the Imperial War Museum in London, under the auspices of the International BrigadeMemorial Trust.
Len Crome served in Spain as a doctor and Brigade Chief Medical Officer.
It appeared in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade's "The Volunteer" Summer, 2003, issue:
In this year's memorial lecture I have chosen to focus on the return of Republican memory, since it is a subject of extraordinary importance now in Spain.
In 1989, the North-American raised son of the Spanish Republican novelist, Ramon Sender, published an account of his own and his sister's search for the remains of their mother, Amparo Barayon and for the truth about her imprisonment and extra-judicial murder. She was killed at the age of thirty two, in rebel-held Zamora in northwest Spain, the Catholic heartland of Old Castile, in the early months of Spain's civil war.
The book, called simply "A Death in Zamora," charts an extraordinary odyssey in time, space and memory. On his return to Spain, in the 1980s, the son, also called Ramon, discovers he has a whole extended Spanish family, which emerges like a lost continent, bearing with it the history, the traces, the unquiet ghost of his mother Amparo. He meets Amparo's niece, Magadalena Maes, who in 1942 at the age of 17 had, in an act of tremendous courage, physically with her own hands removed her beloved aunt's remains from the common grave where they lay, reburying them in the family tomb. "The bad thing [Magdalena tells Ramon] was that they [had] put quicklime in with her. There was no coffin or anything, just the body and the quicklime." For this act of temerity, even though Amparo's niece had sought and received the requisite official authorization, she and her family received anonymous death threats.
I've begun with this snapshot from "A Death in Zamora" because it is an extraordinary book that deserves to be much more widely known and read. And it does so precisely because it tells in microcosm almost every profound thing one could want to say about the civil war in Spain, as a civil war; its complex social and cultural causes and its tremendous costs in the long aftermath of uncivil peace, up to and well beyond the death of Franco in 1975.
Above all its narrative paves the way for the long, slow, and painful recuperation of Republican memory, the memory of the defeated, that is only now exploding in Spain: of which the most well known examples are probably the campaign to open common graves to identify the remains of those extra-judicially murdered by the Francoist forces both during and after the war; the campaign for recognition and compensation by those used as forced labor by the regime; and most recently the television documentary about the lost children of Francoism, most notoriously those who were taken from their mothers, Republican women prisoners, and forcibly adopted by Francoist families -- which for us now immediately recalls the shades of later violations -- in Videla's Argentina or Pinochet's Chile.
In the title of this memoir, "A Death in Zamora," one death stands for the many. For the tens of thousands of people killed in the Francoist repression had one thing overwhelmingly in common with each other: they had benefited in some way from the redistribution of power under the Republic. (Local studies of the repression demonstrate quite clearly that those targeted the length and breadth of rebel Spain were precisely those constituencies on whom the Republic's reforming legislation had conferred social and political rights for the first time in their lives.) Conversely, the many who supported Spain's military rebels (whether we take this 'many' as individuals or as entire social constituencies) had in common a fear of where change was leading -- whether their fears were of material or psychological loss (wealth, professional status, established social and political hierarchies, religious or sexual (i.e gendered) certainties) or a mixture of these things.
The assuaging of this overwhelming sense of fear was a very important element driving the Francoist repression. Why do I say this? Well, because horrifying repression took place everywhere in rebel-held territory. That is to say, it took place in many places -- of which Zamora was one -- where the military rebels were in control from the outset, where there was no military or armed resistance, no political resistance to speak of either -- in short, where one would be hard-pressed to find a 'war-situation' at all (at least according to a conventional definition of war). Nor is it feasible to argue that the initial violence stemmed, as it did in the Republican zone, from 'uncontrollable' groups. In Republican Spain the military coup provoked the total collapse of the state apparatus. But in the rebel zone there was no collapse of public order. The fascist Falangist or clerical Carlist militia and other volunteers of the right could at any time have been disciplined by the military authorities that underwrote public order from the beginning. Not only did this not happen, but instead, as the research of the past decade has made clear, the military actively recruited thousands of civilian vigilantes to carry out a dirty war. Thus military and civilian-instigated repression existed in a complementary relationship. This was the beginning of the 'fellowship of blood,' of the complicity of whole sectors of Spanish society, ordinary Spaniards who became enmeshed in the murder of their compatriots.
Who was targeted by this repression? Well, as I've already suggested, all sorts of people -- whether or not they were active combatants -- the rural landless, but also many rural smallholders and above all lease-holding farmers who had achieved new tenancy rights under the Republic; urban workers, progressive teachers, trade unionists; "the new woman." The military rebels and their civilian supporters were thus redefining 'the enemy' as entire sectors of society that were perceived as out of control because they were beyond the control of traditional forms of discipline and order. And I mention here "the new woman" because a pathological fear and loathing of emancipated women was a very powerful motive force among the rebels. Amparo Barayon wasn't just killed in lieu of her husband the famous Republican writer, Ramon Sender, as many commentators have previously claimed. No, she was killed, as it were, in her own right. For Amparo was a modern woman. In 1930, as Spain's monarchy crumbled, Amparo had, aged 26, left the conservative provincial backwater of Zamora and gone to Madrid, the "big city" to become independent. She found work as a telephone switchboard operator -- a new employment opportunity that was itself an indicator of Spain's burgeoning modernity. In Madrid she supported herself, she lived independently, educating herself both politically and culturally, and she met Ramon Sender and began living with him -- which was quite something for those times, even in urban metropolitan Spain -- for Madrid was not Berlin or Paris.
Although back in Zamora they wouldn't have know about Sender, nevertheless the very fact that Amparo had spread her wings inspired horror among the pillars of provincial society and also among conservative members of her own family who saw her as on the road to damnation. And it would be some of these family members, determined to ensure the fulfillment of their own bigotry masquerading as prophecy who were responsible for denouncing her to the military authorities in Zamora. This happened in the late summer of 1936, after Amparo had fled back to her hometown with her two young children in the aftermath of the military rising. She did this in the mistaken assumption that home would mean safety -- a mistake she shared with the poet Federico Garc'a Lorca and also with many thousands and thousands of anonymous victims of the repression.
As a result of the denunciation, Amparo was imprisoned in late August 1936. What happened to her then takes us to the heart of what the rebel repression sought to achieve. She was interrogated with the express intention of making her "recant." In her case the objective was that she make a formal denunciation of her husband, Ramon Sender (her husband by a Republican civil marriage ceremony, even though Amparo herself was a practicing Catholic). She was subjected to extraordinary pressure, including by a priest, who subjected her to a torrent of abuse and, after she made her final confession, refused her absolution. In other words Amparo Barayon was subject to a form of sustained psychological torture the object of which was to humiliate her and ultimately to break her. So even though she had avoided the public forms of violent humiliation commonly visited upon Republican women the length and breadth of rebel-held Spain -- the head shaving, the purging with castor oil and public parading. And even though Amparo Barayon was not physically tortured and raped, as many, many other female Republican prisoners were in the course of police interrogations -- the object was the same: to break her. Then one day her name featured on the list of those the death squads came by night to take out of jail in the deadly sacas. On 11 October 1936, nearly 3 months after the military coup against the Republic, Amparo Barayon was taken from the town jail to the cemetery. There, by lantern light, they shot her and buried her, where she fell, in a common grave next to the cemetery wall.
We know of Amparo's fate from several specific sources, including from the priest in question who gave an account to members of her family days after she had been killed. But most notably because in the 1980s Amparo's son Ramon tracked down two of the women who were jailed with his mother. One of them, Pilar Fidalgo, who was herself saved from execution by a prisoner exchange, wrote her own contemporary account of her imprisonment which was published in 1939, outside Spain. Before the exchange could happen, however, Pilar Fidalgo's own baby, who had been imprisoned with her, had succumbed to illness and died. As many Republican women were imprisoned with their babies or young children both during and after the war in massively overcrowded and unsanitary conditions such deaths were not an unusual occurrence (whether inside jails or in the transportations to or between jails). Indeed this seems to have been part of the punishment for their gender transgression. One prison official remarked to Fidalgo that "red" women had forfeited their right to nourish their young, while there are many accounts of police interrogators remarking pointedly that red women should have had more sense of responsibility than to have had children because "reds are without rights." There were also cases of women imprisoned in an advanced state of pregnancy whose executions were delayed until after their confinement. For the older child survivors too, the price of nourishment (via Francoist social welfare organizations) often involved what Fidalgo herself has described (in the 1939 memoir) as "moral suffering: obliging orphans to sing the songs of the murderers of their father; to wear the uniform of those who have executed him; and to curse the dead and blaspheme his memory."
If we can think past the sheer horror of these events, as historians, eventually, always have to do, we must ask what was going on here, what did these things mean? To answer that question we clearly need to focus on the purpose of the habitual physical and psychological torture. Why was there such a need to humiliate or to break the enemy, publicly or otherwise? Well, all these forms of violence (in which I include the humiliation and moral suffering inflicted on Republican children who came under the tutelage of the Francoist state) were functioning as rituals through which social and political control could be re-enacted. And significant here too is the manner in which the 'enemy' so often met his or her death at rebel hands: at the start of the civil war, the mass public executions followed by the exhibition of corpses in the streets; the mass burning of bodies the quasi auto da fe of a socialist deputy in the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca in July 1936, or the fact that executions in the center-north of the rebel zone often took place on established saints and feast days; or the uncanny mixture of terror and fiesta (executions followed by village f'tes and dances, both of which the local population was obliged to attend). This violence served to exorcise the underlying fear of loss of control which was the subconscious linkage uniting the military rebels with their various groups of civilian supporters. When they murder the 'enemy,' they're murdering change, or the threat of change. And there was an assumption, again which united the various civilian and military components of the rising, that Spain could only be reborn through a blood sacrifice. In the same way, the widespread complicity of priests throughout Spain in the mass process of denunciation, killing and torture of those deemed opponents has to be understood in these terms, as a reassertion of control, rather than solely as an avenging response to the phenomenon of popular anticlerical violence in Republican territory.
Helen Graham teaches history at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of "The Spanish Republic at War" (Cambridge).