Jonah S. Rubin is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. In 2010 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Re-membering the Spanish Civil War: Thanatopolitics and the Making of Modern Citizens in Spain,’ supervised by Dr. Jean Comaroff. We reached out to Jonah to learn more about how Spain’s war dead are now being increasingly mobilized in public memory and civic education.
Relatives of victims look on as ARANZADI scientific society exhumes a mass grave in Urzante, Navarra, 2011.
There have been many scholarly studies of the (re)formation of historical memory in the wake of repressive regimes, in places like Latin America, the former Soviet bloc and South Africa, to name a few. What makes the Spanish case stand out as unique or noteworthy to you?
When Spain underwent its transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s, contemporary democratic theory emphasized the need to “forget” a divisive past in order to build a common future together. Therefore, Spain undertook a tacit “Pact of Oblivion,” in which the various political and media elite agreed not to debate, discuss, or litigate the crimes of the fascist state. This means that in a very real sense, the successes of the Spanish transition to democracy depended upon the continuation of the violence of the fascist state against the families of Republicans and civilians who were murdered by the Franco regime. While many in the Spanish political elite continue to cling to the pacts of the transition, since the year 2000 families of victims and the NGOs they have formed have sought to import the sorts of forensic, documentary, and historical practices that have been developed in subsequent transitional justice processes, most notably those of Latin America, but also those developed in South Africa, Rwanada, and the former-Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, these efforts remain almost entirely funded and conducted by civil society organizations, as state aid has been tepid at best.
From an anthropological and broader social scientific perspective, however, this affords a unique opportunity to reexamine some ongoing debates about historical memory in post-conflict societies. Much of the existing literature on forensic practices focuses in on the inevitable conflicts that occur between the often bureaucratic forensic practitioners and the relatives of victims. In Spain, however, the NGOs can be far more flexible and responsive to the needs of family members. While continuing to follow standard forensic practices, these NGOs can afford to be far more flexible and responsive to the needs of families than state- or UN-sponsored efforts that inspired it.
In terms of transitional justice policy, then, while the Spanish model of democratic transition may appear to be anachronistic to most contemporary observers, the innovations of the Spanish memory movements may yet provide insight for governments designing forensic programs around the globe.
This unique situation opens up novel perspectives on certain very basic anthropological questions: What role do the dead play in the construction, circulation and authorization of historical narratives? How do the dead continue to play active roles in liberal democracies like Spain? And how do we explain the compulsion towards forensic evidence – even in the absence of the sorts of juridical forums, such as Truth Commissions or war crimes tribunals, in which such evidence might actually be applied?
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