Memory and History: Transforming the Narrative of the Spanish Civil War and Francoist Repression

Interviewing Protocol


The following pages are the result of a process of reflection regarding our experiences compiling the audiovisual testimonies of the Spanish Civil War Memory Project. As such they necessarily represent a degree of abstraction and a metalanguage that attempt to define in the best possible manner what occurs during the concrete encounter between the one who gives the testimony and the one who listens. If any of the interviewees read this text we hope that they understand that our aim is not to dissect every one of their gestures and words, but rather to break with the traditional anthropological vision that situates us in the rigid position of objects or subjects of knowledge. We do not intend to “speak for anyone,” on the contrary we seek to question the authority of those whom without recognizing it grant themselves authority to speak for the witnesses, the survivors and the militants of that collective catastrophe that was the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. Convinced, then, that anti-intellectualism is highly unproductive in use, we aim to epistemologically and affectively arm ourselves with the best tools to be able to listen in the best manner to what others have not been able to register socially during too many years. We seek more than anything to help tell this collective history so that it can be heard as high and clear as possible.

The objective of the interviews carried out in the last years is to create a digital archive with testimonies of the victims of the Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. The function of this audiovisual archive is triple:

First, the archive aims to create a safe institutional space so that the republican memory can be preserved for posterity and listened to in an active manner. We understand republican memory in a broad sense as the collective voices of all of those who suffered the consequences of the war and the Francoist repression for defending their ideas or simply for being who they were. This function is extremely important because in Spain the amnesty law of 1977 explicitly prohibited opening legal processes for human rights violations. Furthermore, truth commissions were also not created as they had been in other countries until the approval of the “Law of Historical Memory” (2007), nor was there an explicit acknowledgement of the victims on behalf of the Spanish State. Thus, the archive aims to contribute to the open process of recovery of the historical memory by giving prominence to the voices of the Spanish men and women whose voices were silenced throughout more that sixty years.

Second, the archive proposes to recuperate the oral history of the victims, witnesses, survivors and militants of the Civil War and the dictatorship so that researchers of this period, students and the general public can get to learn about these historical events from the perspective of their protagonists. This oral record not only supplements written archives and history books, it also constitutes itself as an epistemology and a historical discourse in itself and through its own right. Given that the archives of the Francoist repression were, in many cases, physically destroyed, these voices are the only source that we have to reconstruct certain episodes of the Civil War and the dictatorship and, therefore, the only way that we have to document the magnitude and the brutality of the Francoist repression. However, the affective and political dimension of the testimonies is presented, as will be described ahead in more detail, as a different way of knowing history that cannot be discarded simply as “subjective” or “not very scientific.”

Finally, the archive adds a visual dimension that is essential to understand the affective dimension of these traumatic events (body language, silences, and pauses in speech are all significant marks of this affective dimension). The histories that this archive compiles –the Civil War and the dictatorship–, presuppose a failure of “political reason.” This does not mean that the political dimensions of the conflict are not important or that what happened during the Civil War and the dictatorship cannot be verbalized, but rather that reason, language and politics collapse and that their collapse must also be documented to understand these histories. This process is complex and its nonverbal dimensions are a crucial element to understand history.

It is necessary to clarify to whom we are referring when we speak of the protagonists of the interviews, who are the people that give testimony in these oral histories? For many, the subject of these testimonies are the victims of the Civil War and the dictatorship, that is to say, the subjects of the historical trauma generated by the Civil War and the systematic repression that took place during and after the war. Others place more emphasis on political militancy, the desire to transform the social reality expressed by many of the interviewees. In any case, the answer to this question is not an easy one. In a schematic way it must be said, first, that our objective is not to impose labels over anyone, but rather to let the people that give testimony decide what they will tell and how they will do so without imposing an epistemological map a priori. For this reason, we believe there is no one term that can capture the richness and heterogeneity of the histories that are part of this archive. Those who give testimony, then, are victims, survivors, witnesses and militants, even if none of those terms exhausts completely the complexity of the stories they relate. Victims because neither death nor suffering can be trivialized and because the asymmetries of power between the Francoist army, which possessed the most modern war machinery in Europe (with the support of the Nazis and Fascists), and the victims of that violence is insurmountable. Militants because their experience cannot be reduced to an abstract defense of life, the fact that they fought for a more just society and paid a high price for it cannot be put in parenthesis. Survivors because they faced an excessive intimacy with death and are conscious that “upon returning from death” they speak for themselves and for all of those that were not able to return from this liminal experience. Witnesses, not only because they witnessed acts of violence and political mobilization, but also because their histories confront all of the epistemological difficulties of testimony as a genre (to give testimony means, to confront, among other things an impossibility that has to contend with the relations of power between the interviewer and the interviewee).

These four terms –victim, militant, survivor, witness– do not form a puzzle that is complete and without fissures of the subject of the interview, but rather they are the ungraspable extremes of an incommensurable experience that is necessarily unique and unrepeatable. That is to say, if we combine the four terms to which we are referring we do not obtain a coherent and complete subject, because we are dealing with directional axes that do not exhaust the experience of testimony, but that rather simply situate us as interviewers to be able to better listen and understand. For that reason, often times some of the people interviewed speak more from their position as militants and political leaders, while others speak as victims or survivors. Most of the time many of these factors arise simultaneously, that is to say, the subject changes position throughout the interview, emphasizing one aspect more than another, or refuses to be reduced to one of these categories. In any case and as we will try to explain next, each interview is a world and, therefore, there are no unique recipes when the time comes to learn to listen actively.

Luis Martín-Cabrera. University of California, San Diego. (Translated by Gabriela Santizo)


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