Spain’s orphaned children of the revolution

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics

A heartbreaking story in The Times this month underlines the sheer, unprecedentedly ideological cruelty of the 20th century – and the lasting traumas it left behind, like so many time bombs:

Find General Francisco Franco’s stolen children of the Spanish Civil War, says court

She was 54 when she first got to know her mother, but Antonia Radas was one of the luckier ones. Taken away when her mother, Carmen, was imprisoned after the Spanish Civil War for her father’s Republican links, Mrs Radas’s adoptive parents lied to her, telling her that she had been abandoned, and changed her name to stop relatives tracing her. Mother and child were finally reunited in 1993, 18 months before Carmen died.

Now 71, Mrs Radas is among an estimated 30,000 children who were separated from their parents on the orders of General Francisco Franco. Many of them never knew who their real parents were.

Their cause was taken up by Judge Baltasar Garzón, the man who went after Pinochet and officers from the Argentinian junta:

Garzón [..] has claimed that Franco and 34 henchmen were guilty of the systematic killing or disappearance of at least 114,000 people during and after the civil war.

Among the victims were children of Republicans who were adopted by Franco sympathisers to prevent them coming under the influence of Marxism. Others, whose families fled abroad, were lured back to Spain under false pretences. “Child refugees were also kidnapped in France by the repatriation service of the regime and put in state institutions,” Judge Garzón wrote. [..]

Julián Casanova, a historian, claims that the aim was to “reCatholicise” the children of “Reds”. He said: “The Church was responsible for the theft of these children, from Red families. It wanted to purify them.”

The stories are all the more tragic because it’s too late now, for all but a few victims. The children who were robbed from (and of) their parents are in their old age. Their parents will almost certainly be dead, so there is no prospect of a cathartic reunion.

Womens prison Les Corts in Barcelona, 1952 (Image shared under CC license by Jaume dUrgell). Google Books allows for a peek in Prison of Women, by Tomasa Cuevas and Mary E. Giles, which has testimonies from this prison.

Women's prison Les Corts, Barcelona, 1952 (shared under CC license by Jaume d'Urgell). Google Books provides a peek in "Prison of Women" by Tomasa Cuevas e.a., which has testimonies from this prison.

Moreover, Garzón last November had to relinquish “what had promised to be the first criminal investigation of wrongs committed by Franco and his allies”. He was forced by state prosecutors to concede jurisdiction to regional courts, “who now have the authority to decide whether or not to take up these controversial cases”. He also had pass the responsibility “for opening 19 mass graves believed to hold the remains of hundreds of victims” to regional courts.

Xenu Ablana, 80, holds little faith in the proceedings. “The courts are still run by Francoists. These people have a lot of influence,” he said. His story is one of the heartbreaking ones:

[Ablana] was sent to a centre run by Franco’s Social Aid charity for children of Republicans, where he was taught allegiance to the Falange, the party allied to Franco.

“I know all the Falangist hymns, all the prayers of the Church. They brain-washed me against my father [..],” Mr Ablana told The Times.

“I never had any toys, never knew anything about girls until I escaped. I was robbed of my childhood. I am still looking for my childhood now.”[..]

Or there’s Emilia Girón, “the wife of a leftwing guerrilla fighter [who] searched fruitlessly for her son, Jesús, who was taken from her in prison”:

She died last year aged 96. In an interview with Spanish documentary-makers before her death, she said: “I know I gave birth to him. They took him to be baptised but they never brought him back. I never saw him again.”

This is the tragedy of dictatorships that were allowed to fester on for fourty years. Even if they mellowed out over time, their enduring grip on power de facto buried any opportunity to uncover the crimes of their early days and come to terms with them. It took long before anyone dared to dig into the records and stories of totalitarian crime, too long, as the generation who consciously lived through the Civil War died off.

Franco’s rule eventually gave way to democracy in 1975, but the first years of democracy were still fraught with danger, highlighted by the 1981 coup attempt. Focused on integrating Spain into the EU and modernising its provincial economy, the socialists of Felipe Gonzalez mostly shied away from digging into the past for the next thirteen years.

A Republican prisoner embraces his daughter in the Porlier prison, Madrid. The Porlier prison, the largest gaol for male prisoners in Madrid directly after the war, was a converted religious college - regular prisons were already filled with upwards of five times as many prisoners as they were built for. As late as 1942-43, five years after the end of the war, a prisoner wrote down the names of all those taken out for execution, and listed about 500 in a year and a half. (Image used under CC license from Jaume dUrgell; info from Francos Justice, by Julius Ruiz)

A Republican prisoner embraces his daughter in the Porlier prison. The largest gaol for men in Madrid directly after the war, it was a converted religious college - regular prisons were already filled with many times the number of prisoners they were built for. As late as 1942-43, three years after the fall of Madrid, a prisoner wrote down the names of all those taken out for execution, and listed some 500 in 1,5 year. (Image shared under CC license by Jaume dUrgell; info from "Francos Justice" by Julius Ruiz)

You can’t really blame them; as Georgina Blakely put it in a paper for Entelequia, their choice “reflected what was possible given the “political opportunity structure” in place at the time”. But then the conservatives came into power and actively resisted an emerging groundswell of attempts to scrutinize Franco’s rule. It wasn’t until 2002 that a parliamentary body officially condemned Francoism.

By that time, there was “a veritable explosion within civil society of books, exhibitions, television documentaries and radio programmes” to air “what had until then been private memories of the Civil War period and the subsequent Francoist dictatorship”, as Blakely put it. But the conservative government party resisted moves to remove statues from the Franco era.

Only since the socialists returned to government in 2004 has the pace of ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ picked up officially as well – not least because the socialists needed to secure the support of the far left and the Basque and Catalan parties to govern. Even then, while an “Interministerial Commission for the Study of the Situation of the Victims of the Civil War and Francoism” was established in October that year, it took almost two years before the government first approved a “Law of Historical Memory”. Political parties responded with 377 amendments, and it was a full three years after the Commission had been established, in October 2007, that the parliament approved it – over strident objections from the conservative opposition.

The sheer apprehension with which the government had approached the issue is clear from the tentative language of the first draft, which was stocked with euphemisms like “the conflict between Spaniards” to describe the Civil War and “the two factions” to describe the Republican government and Franco’s putschists. It was only under pressure from the far left and autonomist parties that most phrases suggesting such an equivalence were scrubbed from the final text.

The law imposes a variety of tasks on the government, including, for example, producing a map of all of the mass graves from the civil war and the Franco dictatorship, and drawing up work plans to ensure that they are opened. The final text also declares any sentence handed out by Francos courts for political, ideological or religious reasons “illegitimate”.

In theory this opens the way for individuals or groups to at long last have the prison or death sentences of their (grand)parents annulled. But in practice Xenu Ablana’s fears are justified. Many in the court system still refuse to recognize the illegality of Franco’s rule, and the Supreme Court rebuffed several attempts to annul Franco-era death sentences which evoked the parliament’s 2002 condemnation of Franco’s regime. It is in this context we should see Garzon’s fight to force the issue through, and the rap on the knuckles he received from within the judicial system. Even just having the mass graves uncovered is a long struggle.

The Law on Historical Memory was adopted by the Senate later still, in December 2007, by a narrow majority. (Image shared under CC license by Jaume dUrgell)

The Law of Historical Memory was adopted by Spain's upper house, the Senate, only in December 2007, by a narrow majority. (Image shared under CC license by Jaume d'Urgell)

The post-war experience of Germany showed that it takes a generation before a society is ready to raise and investigate its own misdeeds – and then arguably only if it is enjoying a stable enough prosperity to allow people to do more than focus on surviving. The famously critical German introspection only emerged in the sixties. The Spanish example suggests a similar timeline. In the immediate aftermath of the dictatorship’s demise, society focuses on reconstruction and agrees on what Blakely calls “public silence” and “apparent” forgetting. Only after the first two decades of democracy does the lid get lifted on the dirty past. Blakely cites a 2006 poll in which 53% of the Spanish agreed that “the victims of the Civil War had been forgotten and that it was now time to put right this injustice”.

But the Germans had the time. Parents and contemporary authorities were still alive in the sixties, they could be questioned, confronted. But a twenty-year-old combatant of the Spanish Civil War would be over 90 now; anyone in a higher position is long gone. In an odd kind of mirroring, with the ideological roles reversed, the same is true for the efforts that were kickstarted in the 1990s and continue even now in Eastern Europe to deal with the communist past. While there was a torrent of research and debate, the actual secret service archives were often only opened partially, or merely leaked from strategically to discredit political opponents. In some states of the former Soviet Union, the whole process of uncovering the regime’s crimes was buried again before it even got properly started. This was even as survivors of the Stalinist terror were dying off, and now, another ten to twenty years on, we are rapidly losing even veterans of the 1956 and 1968 uprisings.

When in 1972, Hans Magnus Enzensberger compiled The Short Summer of Anarchy: Life and Death of Buenaventura Durruti, his fascinating puzzle of personal testimonies and contemporary sources, he could still interview those who had taken part, but he had no access to the wealth of archive material in Spain. Now that it will be finally forced open in full, the documents can no longer be corroborated or explained by survivors.

The puzzle is broken, the continuity disrupted; even if some agent or other could still be found, the kidnappers of those children basically got away with it – and to some extent at least achieved their goal. You can only imagine the bitterness this must have left in families that consciously continue their grandparents’ erstwhile Republican, anarchist or socialist traditions.



  1. FBR  •  Jan 22, 2009 @3:49 pm

    My opinion here is divided, nimh.
    For many years those of us interested in Spain’s future thought that it was best that the Civil War may be forgotten, for the consolidation of democracy’s sake.
    Now that democracy is well rooted, the ghosts come out again and memory will not be lost.
    But I can’t really be objective, since I don’t live in Spain, but in Mexico. Mexico received a big flux of Spanish refugees in the late 30s-40s, never had diplomatic relations with Franco’s Spain, and as late as 1975 demanded Spain to be expelled from the UN.
    For at least 35 years I heard all kind of horror stories coming from the refugees -who sometimes were parents of my friends-. The mother of my former boss scaped to France and liberty holding on below the chassis of a car. She was 11, and her little sister was tied to her. The mother of a college friend was with her mother and brother in Barcelona when the Fascist arrived at the dock and started shelling the city… the mother ran away clutching her two children, until the boy collapsed, beheaded. My assistant Pepe’s grandfather was shot to death by a firing squad: he was the socialist major of a small Castillian city. A similar thing happened to my friend Blanca’s grandfather and uncle. I could go on and on… and even tell about my classmate Fernandez’s father, who was an anarchist: he and his mates grabbed 15 priests, took to sea, and drowned them all.
    But the most significant story is about my friend Maca. Once she was telling me her parents’ story. Maca’s mother was from Valencia, the daughter to a Communist Party cadre who, before he and his wife got shot, was able to send his children to Moscow. At one moment, the girl decided to move to Mexico, and lost contact with her sister. Maca’s father was from Madrid, a Socialist, captured in the last stand of the Republic in Alicante -he told stories about that last night in the beach, you’ll hear a shot every now and then… people shooting themselves- sent to a concentration camp “where there was nothing but sand, sea, hunger and shit”, while his wife divorced him and married a Civil Guard; a couple of years later he managed to scape and flee to Mexico, where he met Maca’s mother. Maca was crying while she was telling me this: “Why, why did the bastard Franco win?!” My answer: “Who knows. But had the Republic not be lost, you wouldn’t have been born”.

  2. nimh  •  Jan 22, 2009 @4:05 pm


    Thank you very much for your stories, FBR.

    What to say …

    The 21st century damn well better end up an improvement on the 20th.

  3. Guio  •  Jan 31, 2009 @9:18 am

    I grew up in Spain at the end of the 70´s and obviously we never studied that in High School. Now 30 years later books still do NOT talk about it. Silence and oblivion have been the rule.
    People need to know and the truth needs to surface, not only for the people who lost family and friends but, also and most importantly for the generations to come.
    I live in the US and teach European history and recently I have been teaching Memoria Historica and it is very tough.

  4. mark justice  •  Apr 7, 2009 @5:23 am

    Hi, my name christian name is mark justice, i am dark in completion,i am 23 years old boy,i am based in spain, i am an orphan and have no families in the worlds, i am looking for some one to adopt me for ever his or her son. I hope i will be considered grant authorised. You can send me mail in my private mail when you are interested, its Thank you.

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