Go to the U of M home page


Monday, May 19, 2014

Lecture on grave exhumations in Spain unearths the dynamism of memory restoration processes

ferrandiz-2.jpg Watch the lecture online.

On May 8th, 2014, the U of M hosted honored guest Francisco Ferrandiz of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) as part of the in-public, one-credit course "Reframing Mass Violence: Human Rights and Social Memory in Latin America and Southern Europe." Ferrandiz's lecture Exhumations, Memory, and the Return of Civil War Ghosts in Spain investigated the connections between the anthropology of the body, violence and social memory in the context of the current exhumations of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In his talk, Ferrandiz unearthed the complexity and dynamism of the process of grave exhumations--a process that has largely focused on the abandoned graves of civilians killed during the Francoist rearguard by paramilitary groups. Since 2000, the exhumation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War and the Post-War years has become a central element in highly charged social and political debates in the country surrounding the nature of the armed conflict and the dictatorial regime following it.

After the fall of Franco's regime, Spanish society emphasized the need for collective reconciliation, passing amnesty laws and focusing on the rebuilding of democracy. Few questions were asked, and no responsibility was assigned. However, the atrocities of the Civil War and Post-War years were not to be entirely forgotten, as they proved to be sedimented in the shared memory of Spanish society, and despite efforts to submerge these memories as part of a definitive past, demands for justice following Francoism gained visibility in their push for grave exhumations. The process of grave exhumation proved to be a highly effective way for forcing into the public arena neglected topics of past violence and oppression, challenging an unspoken, widespread understanding that silence was the price to be paid for the building of social order after the fall of Francoism.
Since 2000, grave exhumations in Spain have captured the public's fascination, a fascination reinforced by the new popularity of forensic science TV-shows and widespread media coverage. The unearthing of buried bodies has come to represent the resurfacing of social truths that had previously been obscured, as these graves provide the site for a collective refocusing on the past, and thus create an avenue into historically taboo conversations. As more graves are exhumed, the Spanish geographic landscape becomes a physical "memory-scape," representing a national quest for truth restoration.
Although exhumations have become a crucial tool for symbolic reparation and have triggered claims for justice for the crimes committed and now unearthed, the social process unleashed by their opening extend far beyond the grave sites and is quite complex, propelling the surfacing of a broader, fragmented and heterogeneous political culture regarding the memory of the defeated in the war. This emergent political culture is expressed in multiple acts of 'memory recovery' and 'dignification' of the diverse victims of Francoism, such as concerts, homages, book publishing, street renaming, battleground tourism, pressure over Francoist monuments, or even academic conferences. Particularly striking is the transformation of memory production that has taken place through the use of new technologies, as online social networks become political models, and memory sharing and circulation become digitalized. The unprecedented digital element of the memory restoration process adds new iconographies and means of exposure to the dynamics of the surrounding political culture.
This "memorial movement" as Ferrandiz termed it has been laregly characterized by human rights language, thus positioning itself within a larger, global conversation on human rights, bringing to the dialogue a discussion on the political and social power of grave exhumations in demanding rights and justice. But the grave exhumation process in Spain has linked itself to the global arena in other ways as well; many in Spain have adopted the terminology of "disappearances", popularized in Latin America following periods of terror and violence perpetrated on behalf of states across the region. The adoption of such vocabulary has received mixed feedback, also becoming yet another focal point of contentious debate in the social process of memory restoration. Some find the sharing of language to symbolize a crucial element of global networks, in that it provides a cohesive, global linguistic platform that can act as a base of understanding for human rights activists to convene, strategize, and express solidarity. Others stress the importance of nuances of each localized context of violence and attrocity, which run the risk of being undermined or neglected when not understood through the lense of each locale's particular traditions, customs, culture and history.
The dynamic human rights conversation that has emerged along with bodies, memories, and political culture in the process of grave exhumation in Spain is one that has captured global attention, opening new questions and possibilities for future efforts aiming to use memory restoration as a channel for improving human rights practices and reclaiming justice. Through Ferrnandiz's talk, participants witnessed an academic approach to harnessing the complexity and electricity that arises around this politically and culturally charged social process, perhaps providing the human rights community with deeper understanding that can offer insight, direction, and enhanced strength moving forward.
The lecture was organized by the IAS Reframing Mass Violence Research Collaborative. Cosponsored by the Human Rights Program, and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. This talk occurred on May 8, 2014, from 3:00-4:30pm in 1-109 Hanson Hall.
Written by Anna Meteyer