University of Chicago doctoral student Jonah Rubin, supervised by Dr. Jean Comaroff, will undertake research on reformulations of a nation's collective memory in transitions from non-democratic to democratic forms of government. The importance of forging a common narrative about the newly democratic country's past is widely recognized, but the actual process of rewriting national histories is often marred with controversies. One reason for this is the lack of understanding of precisely how and why memory is important to creating liberal citizens and states. This research will fill this gap through a field investigation of the production and transmission of historical memories.

The research will be conducted in Spain. Over the past decade, the issue of how to remember the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and ensuing Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) have concerned legislators, educators, and everyday citizens throughout Spain. Using a wide variety of qualitative methodologies, including interviews and participant observation, Rubin will carry out research at and near exhumation sites, in schools, and with organizations dedicated to creating historical memory. The researcher will assess: (1) the practices by which historical memories are formed in exhumations and other forensic encounters; (2) the ways this historical memory is articulated and transmitted to the next generation in school curricula; and (3) how the creation and transmission of historical memories reconfigure the understandings of citizenship in contemporary Spain.

The research will contribute to social science theories of processes of marked political transitions. Findings may be of interest to those involved in transitional justice policy making and the implementation of democratic transitions the world over. Funding this research also supports the education of a graduate student.

Project Report

This NSF-funded research project consisted of an ethnographic study of the Spanish memory movements, a loose conglomeration of NGOs, academics, and individuals dedicated to locating, exhuming, and honoring Republican and civilian victims of the Spanish Civil War. From 1936-1939, Spain was embroiled in a bloody Civil War that pitted the democratically elected Second Republic against fascist forces led by Gen. Francisco Franco. The Civil War inaugurated a horrifying new form of warfare that would reach its climax in World War II. Over the course of the war, more than 400,000 Spaniards were killed, including many civilians. Many were buried in unmarked common graves throughout the country. Thousands more would be killed and hundreds of thousands imprisoned in the years following the war, as Spain’s new dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, violently consolidated his power. The dead, however, were not treated equally. Whereas the Franco dictatorship provided full honors to the "Fallen for God and for Spain," as plaques in every town referred to those who were killed in the service of the new regime, families of Republicans were forced to leave their loved ones in unmarked mass graves and forbidden from publicly mourning what the dictatorship referred to as "anti-Spanish elements." This situation persisted even after the return of democracy in 1978, as Spain’s "Pact of Oblivion" demanded silence in the public sphere about the nation’s conflictive past. Seventy-five years after the Civil War and three decades after the return of democracy to Spain, victims’ living relatives, civil society organizations, and academics have set out to correct this historical imbalance. Inspired by similar exhumations conducted in the context of democratic transitions in Argentina, Bosnia, Guatemala, and Germany, these "historical memory movements" lead exhumations, education programs, and lobby the government. However, whereas exhumations in these other contexts have all been part of state- or UN-directed Transitional Justice programs, the Spanish adaptation of such practices is entirely confined to Civil Society; the Spanish state has largely reacted to these efforts with indifference. The Co-PI conducted ethnographic research using a wide variety of social scientific methodology at a number of key sites throughout the memory movements. These include participating in 8 exhumations, conducted by three different organizations associated with the memory movements; observing a number of reburial ceremonies; attending to relatives of victims at the Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory’s offices in Madrid; participating in the weekly protest of the Platform Against Impunity for the Crimes of Franco; traveling with Amical de Mauthausen on their yearly pilgrimage to their namesake’s concentration camp; direct observation in two Madrid high-schools; and a series of semi-formal and informal interviews with relatives of victims, memory movement activists, and passersby at events. This research has yielded significant contributions to the fields of anthropology, memory studies, as well as towards public policy. Anthropologists have long been interested in the relationship between the living and the dead, including practices of mourning and reburial. This study demonstrates that such preoccupations must apply no less to large-scale liberal societies than it does to rural and tribal ones. The dead continue to play an active role in the political life of Spain. This is so not only through their re-presentation in the efforts of the memory movements and through mass media, but also in the ways their status as dead citizens of Spain continues to make ethical and at time legal demands upon living citizens and their political communities. The interdisciplinary field of memory studies has likewise been interested in the way memories of the past in general, and particularly of the traumatic past of national wars, dictatorships, and human rights abuses constitute political community. This study contributes to that field by sketching out the ways that individual memories of the past are shaped, presented, and refigured in their presentation to different audiences. Certain of these testimonies can be easily incorporated into larger narrations of the past while others simply do not fit neatly into the collective memory, either because they draw upon incompatible tropes or because they are simply not coherent enough. This research on the different scales of memory practices is particularly valuable in Spain, where the lack of a collective, state-driven narrative of the past allows for direct study of grassroots memory productions. In the course of this research project, special effort was made to engage and participate in the local communities. These included writing ethnographic exhumation reports for the archaeologists, forensic scientists, and geographers who comprise the exhumation team; conducting taped interviews to several archives of Civil War and post-war memories; being interviewed in documentaries being produced by local filmmakers; participating in local research collectives organized by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas; and speaking to a high-school audience of roughly 100 students about the practice of socio-cultural anthropology.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Deborah Winslow
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University of Chicago
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