Book Review: Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of The Spanish Civil War

Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of The Spanish Civil War, Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, 2011
Layla Renshaw
Reviewed by Michael Humphrey, University of Sydney

There has been a explosion of writing on memory and the Spanish civil war, especially after the Law of Historical Memory in 2007 broached the ‘pact of silence’ imposed by the Amnesty Law (1977). This Law and its effects, including the right wing reaction to Judge Baltazar Garzon’s plan to investigate mass grave sites, has put the story of the Republican victims and survivors of the civil war on the national political agenda. This new book provides a detailed ethnography of the exhumation of mass graves of Republican victims of the civil war and makes an excellent contribution to Spanish civil war memory literature. In Spain, Franco and the Nationalist victors loudly commemorated their dead as heroes while the defeated Republicans were publicly expunged from national memory. This study is about postmemory, the recovery of memory by a generation who have either no, or only fragmentary, intimate knowledge of the victims. The study is based on extensive fieldwork in rural villages of Villavieja and Las Campanas in Castile-Léon, the strongly nationalist and pro-Franco region during the civil war.

The exhumation process in Spain was initiated by families of victims. These became politically significant in 2000 after Emilio Silva a journalist who went in search of his grandfather’s grave found and identified his remains. As a result he became an activist and founded the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH). The ARMH sought to recover the memory of the past by connecting the living families members with the dead. This book provides a detailed account of families’ experience of the exhumation process and the nature of post-memory in the context of the atomized communities of shared memory produced by Franco’s deliberate quest for total victory and enduring domination of his enemies. The study examines the pre- and post-exhumation memory of the past by examining the culture of Republican memory produced by Franco’s long dictatorship and then the new memory produced through exhumation and the connection of the living to the remains.

Through extensive interviews with survivors, especially widows, Renshaw provides us with a fascinating insight into the production of Republican communities of memory that are socially constituted by memory and narrative practices, things they share but are not yet conscious of themselves. These are held as idiomatic forms of memory which circulate as individualised memories of the past but actually constitute (unrecognized) collective practices. The trope of ‘envidias’ to explain the death of family member during the civil war provides a fascinating insight into how the memory of murders has been de-politicised. Envidias is not equivalent to the English emotion of envy. Rather it refers to an explanatory ‘principle of evil’ (106). To explain the murder of a family member as the result of envidia represents submission to the silencing of Republican memory leaving unchallenged the Nationalist historical narrative of the past. But exhumations reveal what the individualized death by envidia conceals. When the family member is identified in a mass grave alongside other remains of men who all belonged to the same party executed together at the same time the individualized death becomes historically and collectively contextualised.

Consequently, Renshaw argues, Republican memory is not available to be ‘recovered’, it has yet to be crystalised after having been ‘inherently conditioned by the Francoist discourse of the past’ (101). The Republican memory cannot be recovered if ‘investigations recover a history of thousands of Spaniards dying for envidias’ (102). The ethnography provides very interesting insights into the process of atomising Republican memory through repression. The process of degrading and humiliating the widows of executed Republican men by leaving them completely unprotected, forced to earn an income working outside the home, often alienated by betrayal from the church and dependent upon charity. The cultural implications in the village of being made the object of the repressive gaze were reinforced by selfcensorship.

Post-memory confronts particular dilemmas in the Spanish exhumations around affective connection between the living and the material and cultural traces of the dead. The combination of politically repressed family memory and their generational distance from the living meant exhumations were not occasions for intimacy with the remains of ‘loved ones’ but the recalling of physically distinctive memories or stories about them. In this sense the exhumations were more forensic, objects for scientific identification to identify remains. Families often experienced exhumation not as a moment of intimacy and recollection but as deference to the expert forensic archeologist and feelings of shame because of their inadequate knowledge about the deceased. The shame also arose from the understanding that forgetting was itself a form of violence against the dead. At these moments of exhumation, photographs, usually a strong source of cultural transmission of biography and family intimacies, were of limited use. Photos of disappeared members displayed in homes had long been shrouded in silence and were seen as a source of legitimacy of patrimony, and not to evoke intimate recollections. They existed as muted objects. Exhumation as a strategy for the recovery of memory was strongly gendered: focused on male death rather than female survival. Ironically the recovery of identity through forensic means was a limited memory when compared with the women survivors who were a traumatic source to the events surrounding their death. As Renshaw points out, if the recovery of Republican memory was the goal, then the richest source of that memory has been there all along, in the women left grieving many of whom are now dead.

Exhumations are conducted to provide evidence to produce an official version of the past by courts and tribunals, for family members to find closure in mourning and to forge an affective bond of collective identity with the dead based on family, ethnicity, nationality or ideology. In Spain the role of the exhumation of the ‘disappeared’ from civil war and repression from the 1930s remains highly problematic. The ‘disappeared’ are not, as the truth and reconciliation movement proposes, a source of unification either nationally or among Republicans. The two main Republican associations championing exhumations – the ARMH and the FORO (Forum for Memory), linked to the Communist Party are divided over the purpose of recovery of the memory of the Republican victims. The former seeks to connect the living with the dead through family connections and the latter has the objective of recovering the political project of the left defeated in the civil war. This division echoes the postdictatorship split over the role of memory in the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina around depoliticization by individualizing mourning or maintaining solidarity by rejecting the ‘bones’ and compensation payments to families of the disappeared (Bosco 2004).

This book provides an excellent ethnographic investigation into the official production of memory, the marginalization of counter memory, the distortions of survivor memories and the unconscious collective memory carried in Republican families. It highlights the complexity and multilayered character of memory and the need for careful forensic investigation of the living and the dead.


Bosco, Fernando J. “Human rights politics and scaled performances of memory: conflicts among the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina.” Social & Cultural Geography 5, No. 3 (2004): 381-402.

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