THE Roman Catholic Church in Spain has cautioned against over-simplified views of the past, as a new mass grave was discovered near Toledo, containing civilians summarily executed by forces loyal to General Francisco Franco (1892-1975).
“Obviously, the Franco regime was dictatorial and not a democracy — the constitution was a step forward, as was our amnesty law,” the secretary-general of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, Bishop Luis Argüello García, said.
“But it would be wrong to talk in black and white terms, to say that in Franco’s time everything was bad in Spanish society, whereas everything was good in the time of the republic.”
The Bishop spoke as the grave, containing villagers shot by Franco’s troops in November 1936, during the early stages of the Civil War, was unearthed at Recas by researchers with Spain’s privately funded Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory.
The daily newspaper El Diario said that the mass exhumation had been requested by Augustina Recio, the 91-year-old daughter of one of the victims, Florentino Recio Fernández. A formal complaint had been filed with Spain’s Guardia Civil police, as uncovered casings and projectiles indicated “signs of violence”.
Up to half a million Spaniards died during the Civil War of 1936-39, while at least 143,000 people were left unaccounted for during Franco’s subsequent 36-year rule.
Although a 1977 Amnesty Law restricted the investigation of human-rights abuses during the country’s transition to democracy, a Historical Memory Law in 2007 ordered the removal of monuments to the General and authorised the investigation of mass graves, thought to run into thousands across the country.
In October 2019, the law was used to secure the removal of Franco’s remains from a pontifical basilica at the Valley of the Fallen, outside Madrid, which also contains the graves of 34,000 victims of the Civil War and is dominated by the 460-foot cross.
A new Democratic Memory Law, backed by the socialist-led government of the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, will offer reparation to “victims of fascism”, and redesignate the Valley, known in Spanish as El Valle de los Caídos, as a civil cemetery.
The Association to Defend the Valley, however, has called on church leaders and the Vatican to oppose the changes as an assault on religious liberty.
Spain’s RC Church, which lost up to 8000 clergy during the four-year conflict, along with a dozen bishops and tens of thousands of laypeople, has conducted three mass beatification ceremonies for its Civil War martyrs this autumn, bringing to more than 2050 the number declared blessed or canonised.
Although the regional government of València warned against holding traditional services in memory of Franco on his birthday on Saturday (20 November), Spain’s online Religion-Digital news agency said that prayers for the former dictator had been arranged by the right-wing Spanish Catholic Movement during masses last week in Madrid, Málaga, Zaragoza, and other cities.
A Recas villager, Paloma Sevilla, told journalists that she had dug in search of her grandfather’s remains, with her mother, in the same field as a child; it was a “bittersweet feeling” that he had now been found and could be given a proper burial.
Another grave was exhumed in October at Belchite, near Saragossa, and found to contain 150 civilians slaughtered at the start of the conflict in July 1936.