Spanish Civil War mass graves unearthed – The Organization for World Peace
The Guardian reported in May that the descendants of 21 of the 3,400 Republicans executed in Valencia after the Spanish Civil War will finally recover the remains of their ancestors, whose bodies were buried in mass graves at 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, staged a coup against the democratically elected and predominantly left-wing Popular Front government. Historian Julius Ruiz says that General Francisco Franco’s paramilitaries executed around 150,000 Basque, Galician or Catalan trade unionists, leftists, vegetarians, liberals and separatists in Nationalist-held territory, while Republican-aligned forces killed 50–60,000 “enemies of the people”, including priests, businessmen and landowners, in retaliation.
Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Britain and the United States all openly supported or quietly tolerated the fanatical crusade, which ended in complete victory for the Nationalists in 1939.
Anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz argues that Franco’s autocracy imposed a “funerary apartheid” in Spain. The corpses of the vanquished were left in mass graves, often outside cemeteries, and left untouched as warnings to deter anyone from challenging the regime. Since the early 2000s, 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 role in hastening the destruction of the Second Republic. General Emilio Mola, for example, was both the mastermind behind the treacherous putsch that sparked the civil war and the inquisitor charged with creating “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 you consider the multitude of crimes and atrocities that Franco and his clique committed during his nearly forty-year reign.
Franco kept a picture of Adolf Hitler on his desk until the final days of World War II, according to Enrique Moradiellos, just in case the German tyrant emerged triumphant against the Allies. His pro-Nazi sensibilities also showed in the way he treated defeated Republicans. Investigative journalist Carlos Hernández de Miguel claims that the Franco regime turned Spain into “a gigantic concentration camp” until the late 1940s: between 700,000 and one million prisoners languished in 300 scattered camps across the country, condemned to endure torture, humiliating indoctrination, breaking labor.
Franco also enlisted starving and sick slaves to build a lavish crypt of his own design: the Valley of the Dead. This grand mausoleum, larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, according to Lynn Cartwright-Punnett, and once called “the ninth wonder of the world”, testifies to the Napoleonic pride of the dictator. His remains slept in the valley, immortalized as the savior of Spanish civilization, until they were exhumed in 2019. Broken bones of Republican victims, secretly buried without permission from their families or descendants, were chaotically 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 many English-speaking and Hispanic historians trivialized, downplayed, or romanticized de Rivera’s abhorrent beliefs. His handsome features, florid speeches and aristocratic charm won over friends and foes alike, during his lifetime and beyond the grave.
Yet de Rivera led a movement that worshiped violence and extolled militaristic virtues. He endorsed the formation of Falangist death squads in 1934, and his fiery speeches incited supporters to engage in brutal street fights with leftist or anarchist opponents. De Rivera himself possessed, as the Irish historian Ian Gibson pointed out, “a biblical anger 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 just 33, made him a martyr for the nationalist cause. Franco co-opted the Falange and created a posthumous cult of personality centered on de Rivera, whose name was enshrined in every major church in Spain. The anniversary of his execution has become a day of mourning. The Falangists bid a heroic farewell to de Rivera by transporting his body to El Escorial, the final resting place of the 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 who helped overthrow the Second Republic, gained wealth, property, honours, praise and a cemetery fit for royalty in return for his heinous record during the Civil War . De Llano’s farcical radio broadcasts urged Nationalist troops to rape Republican women with impunity and threatened to unleash the “manliness” of colonial Moroccan soldiers under Franco’s command.
Archaeologist Laura Muñoz-Encinar claims that sexual violence, especially against Republican women, was rampant during the war. Adam Hochschild found that in Seville, Nationalist troops raped female prisoners, “threw their bodies down a well, then marched through a nearby town, their guns draped in the undergarments of the murdered women.” De Llano viewed “red women” like Matilde Sánchez, who dedicated their lives to implementing the Republic’s admirable education and labor reforms, as repugnant or irredeemable “prostitutes” who deserved to be degraded. , raped, slaughtered and thrown into mass graves, riverbeds, or mine shafts – their entire existence erased.
Additionally, de Llano played a vital role in “La Désbanda”, the massacre of thousands of civilians fleeing the Nationalist invasion of Malaga in 1937. Researcher Jesús Majada explained that de Llano promised to drown Malaga 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 the elderly to flee along the coastal road linking Malaga to the Republican strongholds of Almería. Franco’s ground and naval troops, supported by German and Italian aircraft, bombarded the highway incessantly, ensuring that around 6,000 people were never able to get to safety. This war crime is hardly forgotten today.
El Correo says that from Llano, a man who oversaw the execution of 13,000 people in Seville alone, a man who, according to historian José María García Márquez, forced political prisoners into hard labor on his vast estate , had a holy head of state funeral when he died in 1951. His remains are interred in the Basílica de la Macarena, although they are now being removed.
Psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo Nágera, a close friend of General Franco known as Spain’s answer to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, was also lavishly rewarded with life and death for his misdeeds. Scholars like Ethan Pearlstein, Michael Richards, María Teresa Riquelme-Quiñonero, and Ramón Castejón Bolea have amply demonstrated that Nágera popularized eugenic theories that justified extreme violence against Franco’s enemies, both during and long after the Civil War. Her academic books and articles portrayed 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) were to be quarantined to preserve the nation’s well-being. In practice, this meant that Nationalist forces ruthlessly exterminated “biologically deficient” Republicans, kidnapping thousands of children born into “unhealthy” Republican homes. Nuns like Sister María Gómez Valbuena perpetrated schemes that saw an estimated 300,000 children between 1936 and the 1990s separated from their mothers and sold to “faithful” families.
Nágera had an illustrious career in academia independent 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 the Republican remains brought a sense of closure and peace to the families of the deceased. Pino Sosa, president of a local faction of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) in the Canary Islands, has finally recovered 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 also committed their share of flagrant crimes. Antonio Montero Moreno revealed that religious persecution resulted in the murder of 6,852 priests and nuns. Sánchez Recio discovered that a Republican minister had created horrific labor camps for suspected traitors, and Julius Ruiz argues that the institutionalization of “popular justice” meant that thousands of supposed “fascists” were summarily executed without court case.
The ARMH, along with other organizations and researchers, must set aside prejudices and proceed with the identification and exhumation of the victims of the Republican purges. Only then can the polarizing exhumations, if they are to educate and benefit all Spaniards, become a reconciliation project that can appease right-wing parties like the Partido Popular.
However, this solution involves risks. The far right and other extremist groups could very easily turn nationalist mass grave sites into sanctuaries or meeting places. The Forward reported that neo-Nazi marches in Madrid often pay tribute 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 the Second World War. In 2021, neo-Nazis even laid flowers in front of a Blue Division memorial chanting, “The Jew is still the enemy.”
Nevertheless, a state-supported and well-funded exhumation process dedicated to the exhumation of all mass graves, regardless of the political or ideological beliefs of the deceased, is necessary if the Spaniards ever hope to bury the literal skeletons in their closet and put their ghosts to rest.