Why some of Spain’s Civil War survivors are still waiting to recover lost relatives

In a new radio documentary for BBC Radio 4, Madrid-based reporter Lucas Laursen meets families still struggling to find the remains of relatives killed by Franco's forces, and to say goodbye on their own terms.

Why some of Spain’s Civil War survivors are still waiting to recover lost relatives
A member ARMH exhumes the remains of victims executed by Franco's security forces during Spain's civil war, Archive p

Francisco De Llera and Pedro Gallardo had a lot in common. They were both community leaders in their small, rural Spanish towns who dabbled in politics before the regime of Francisco Franco executed them after the Spanish Civil War.

They spent most of the next eight decades in mass graves, as Spain endured almost four decades of dictatorship, followed by the first shaky years of democracy.

In 2016, their stories began to diverge, when a Spanish civil society group, the Asociacón para la Recuperación de la Memoría Histórica (ARMH), got permission to exhume a mass grave in Guadalajara that contained victims of Franco’s regime.

De Llera was one of the 50 people the association recovered. Remarkably, three of his daughters are still alive, all survivors of the Spanish Civil War and the dark, hungry years that followed.

For a radio documentary I reported and presented for Overtone Productions that aired March 19th 2019 on BBC Radio 4, I joined one of De Llera’s daughters, Concha, as she and three generations of her family remembered and reburied Francisco De Llera in a family plot.

“They took my father from us,” Concha De Llera told me, “They left us in the street, they took everything…They insulted us, they called us Reds, they told us 'Your dad is a criminal.'”

Now, the De Llera family has had a chance to say goodbye on their own terms, and they can visit and remember him on their own terms, too, unlike the descendants of the more than 114,000 Spaniards still buried in mass graves, such as Pedro Gallardo.

Gallardo’s granddaughter, Puri Gallardo, began searching for her grandfather’s remains after encountering his name in a history book. She discovered from Spain’s military archives that he was buried in a mass grave in a cemetery in Badajoz.

“When I told my father, ‘Dad, we found grandfather. I know where he is now,’ I saw him cry for the first time,” Gallardo told me.

She visited the cemetery and asked officials to point her to the site of the mass grave listed in the military records. There, she erected a small informal memorial, before requesting an exhumation.

That’s when Gallardo encountered resistance from Badajoz officials, who said that her grandfather is actually buried in another location, affected by subsequent construction works, and that exhuming him is too difficult. 

“If I give up, it’s like burying them again,” she said, “it’s forgetting them again and it’s unthinkable.”

In the documentary, I asked Spain’s general director of historical memory, Francisco Martínez, what the minority Socialist government is doing to solve these problems.

While the government has attracted a lot of attention for its proposal to exhume the dictator Francisco Franco’s remains from the Valle de Los Caídos, it failed to get its budget through Spain’s parliament, so funding for exhuming mass graves is still where the previous Popular Party government set it: zero.

That leaves everyone in Spain, including the Gallardo family, waiting until this April’s elections to learn what the next steps will be for Spain’s incomplete recovery from the Civil War.

Lucas Laursen, a journalist based in Madrid, is the presenter of BBC Radio 4's Spain's Lost Generations; Franco's disappeared. The first episode aired on March 18th and can be heard HERE. For more of his reporting follow Lucas on Twitter.

READ MORE: Franco will be exhumed in June despite family opposition

Member comments

  1. I doubt that even 50% of British “ex-pats” who have chosen to move to Spain, know much or even anything about the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era, which didn’t end until Franco’s death in 1975. Maybe the BBC or other British TV channels could produce more programmes on the subject and maybe do something to educate the average British “ex-pat” as to what a nightmare it was for the Spanish population. Never knowing if they or their families would be dragged out of bed during the night and shot and buried in a pit in the forest or tortured by those in power. Maybe a few TV documentaries or even dramatisations regarding this period of history, might stop those people who move to Spain and consider the “locals” as some sort of inferior beings with a mañana attitude to life, in a different light. People are still searching for the bodies of their loved-ones and may never, ever find them. It’s an era that would be nice to forget but never, ever can be. It is also a warning to people who allow a dictator to take over the country – something that appears to be happening right now in the UK!

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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner