ADMITTING THE PAST

The silence has been broken. After decades of avoiding the subject of the Spanish Civil War, young Spaniards are at last confronting their nation's past through a spate of new books and films. In the late 1930s, 350,000 people lost their lives in the conflict; tens of thousands more died during the ensuing dictatorship of the victorious Generalissimo Francisco Franco. But after Franco's death in 1975, the right and the left, the victors and the vanquished, agreed to a national "pact of silence," urging the country to look forward to a demo-cratic future instead of dwelling on a war-riven past. Now that pact is being ripped up--largely by the grandchildren of Civil War veterans and victims eager to recover their buried history.

Suddenly it's nearly impossible to pass a Spanish bookstore, movie theater or museum without being reminded of the bloody conflict. Last summer the Prado put on its first exhibition related to the Spanish Civil War, a collection of photographs depicting efforts to protect Spanish masterpieces from the bombs and mayhem of urban fighting. "The Sleeping Voice," by Dulche Cachon, a book about women from the left who were imprisoned by Franco, quickly made the best-seller list. And Javier Cercas's "Soldiers of Salamina," a novel about a journalist investigating the unlikely escape of a top Falangist from a republican firing squad in the final days of the war, has been flying off the shelves, selling more than 500,000 copies since it was published in 2001. A movie based on the novel has been playing in local theaters for almost a year, and was chosen as Spain's entry for a best-foreign-film Oscar nomination this year. "When I was 25, I [didn't] think about the war," says Cercas, 41. "It was an old, primitive thing. We wanted to be Europeans, postmodern, ironic. Now we can look at it in a different way."

Too young to remember the fear of El Caudillo's dictatorship and inspired by truth commissions in South Africa and Latin America, Spain's younger generation is pushing the country to confront its past. There is a growing sense of urgency among young journalists to record the memories of those who survived the war before they die. "Today, almost 30 years [after Franco's death], many young people in Spain wonder why they know more about crimes against humanity in Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Argentina and Chile than in their own country," says Montse Armengou, 40, who has produced two influential television documentaries, "Franco's Forgotten Children," which revealed the fate of several republican prisoners, and "The Spanish Holocaust," about the mass killings committed by Franco's troops.

The movement to preserve the country's forgotten history started about three years ago, when journalist Emilio Silva began researching the story of his own grandfather, a republican killed in 1936. His findings eventually led him to a mass grave in northern Spain, where he found the remains of his grandfather and 12 other men--prompting Silva, 38, to found the Association of the Recovery of Historical Memory in order to help other families resolve their unanswered questions. Since then, the association's teams of unpaid Spanish and international volunteers have exhumed 246 bodies from 37 mass graves across the country; more exhumations are planned for this summer. "[We] grandsons want to know what happened, to recover the stories of our grandfathers," says Silva. His moving tale of his search for his grandfather's grave aired on Spanish TVE2 last month.

Not everyone welcomes this historical awakening. Although every Spanish government since Franco's has insisted that Spain look forward and not back, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party has a special interest in letting the past--as written by the victors--lie. The PP was established (and Aznar chosen as its leader) by a former minister in Franco's cabinet. According to Prof. Sebastian Balfour of the London School of Economics, the party is still supported by Spaniards who believe that Franco's rebels were justified in starting the war to forestall the onslaught of communism and atheism. Indeed, though the government recently announced a program to repatriate the bodies of Spanish soldiers who fought for Hitler on the eastern front, it has so far refused to finance the exhumation of mass graves at home by groups like Silva's. But thanks to the determined efforts of a handful of writers and filmmakers, the push for historical reckoning seems certain to go on.

ADMITTING THE PAST | News