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Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities
Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities

 Global Studies

in the Arts and Humanities

Michigan State University

2019 Global Perspective Series

  Contexts for “Breaking the Silence:

Can the Spanish Genocide Speak?”

500,000+ refugees

130,199 summary executions

114,226 cases of enforced disappearance

30,960 cases of stolen children

2,382 mass graves

180 concentration camps

Systematic torture, rape and imprisonment

Property theft

Slave labor

Work discrimination


This is not the typical image of Spain, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, famous for its tapas, beaches and bullfighting. It is, however, the gruesome reality of the fascist violence that established the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who led a coup against the Second Spanish Republic that resulted in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

For nearly three years, the world watched as the combined forces of European fascism and international antifascist resistance came head-to-head in Spain, attracting the interest of such notable figures as Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Emma Goldman, Andre Malraux, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wright and Paul Robeson. More than 3,000 volunteers from the United States joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism in Spain, many of whom dropped out of college to risk their lives in solidarity with the “the good fight” being waged halfway across the globe. One of them, Oliver Law, became the first African American to lead an integrated military force in U.S. history while fighting on the outskirts of Madrid. Like many of the volunteers, Law died in battle. Those who survived were denounced as “premature anti-fascists” and persecuted by the U.S. government while it turned a blind eye to Texaco providing Franco with an endless supply of gasoline to power the tanks provided by Hitler and Mussolini. The Spanish Civil War officially ended on April 1, 1939, although the “purification” of Spain and the destruction of los rojos continued through state terrorism and legalized repression throughout the Francoist dictatorship (1939-1975).

After Franco’s death, a “pact of silence” surrounding the historical trauma produced by such massive violence played a central role in Spain’s so-called transition to democracy (1975-1982). The 1977 Amnesty Law was the legal expression of this pact, which was negotiated by political and cultural elites, many of whom had direct ties to the dictatorship.

The law permitted the release of thousands of political prisoners – who were still behind bars two years after Franco’s death – on the condition that no one could be prosecuted for the countless number of crimes against humanity committed during the war and under the dictatorship. The law ensured that the “new democratic Spain” would become a state of impunity without trials or truth commissions. There would be no attempt to heal the open wounds festering in Spanish society. And no digging up the prostrate remains of the past.

Such official silence resulted in an enforced forgetting that lasted until 2000. That year, Emilio Silva oversaw the first public exhumation of a mass grave in Priaranza del Bierzo, a small village in northern Spain, which broke decades of silence and launched the historical memory movement, a citizen’s movement made up of many organizations that have worked tirelessly to recover the memory and remains of the 114,226 disappeared lying in Spain’s mass graves, second in number only to Cambodia. In 2007, their efforts resulted the Law of Historical Memory, which acknowledged Francoist repression, but did almost nothing to change the situation of victims or address impunity. A year later, the law was put to the test when Spanish Judge Balthasar Garzón opened the first criminal investigation of the Francoist dictatorship under the international law principle of universal jurisdiction. He was forced to close the case a few weeks later and was suspended from the Spanish judiciary for the perversion of justice. This was ironic since Garzón was suspended by the same judicial body that had supported his role in the historic arrest and attempt to prosecute Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet a decade earlier. In 2010, victims of the Francoist dictatorship filed a lawsuit in Argentina and four years later Argentine Judge María Servini de Cubría issued nineteen arrest warrants for crimes against humanity. Spain has blocked the extradition of the accused and intervened to prevent the case from moving forward.

The 2019 Global Studies in the Arts & Humanities Program’s Global Perspectives Series, “Breaking the Silence: Can the Spanish Genocide Speak?” addresses the legacy of fascist violence and Francoist repression in Spain today through the framework of genocide. The series interrogates the applicability of the concept of genocide in the Spanish case, as well as the relative invisibility of the Spanish case within genocide studies and the global imaginary. To that end, the series brings a dynamic combination of activists, filmmakers and scholars of both contemporary Spain and genocide studies to Michigan State University during fall 2019.

Emilio Silva, the Founder/President of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) and the person responsible for the historic mass grave exhumation in 2000, which contained the remains of his grandfather, Emilio Silva Faba. His talk  on October 8th in Wells Hall B342 from 4-5:30pm on “Historical Memory in Spain: The Never-Ending Dictatorship” reflects on his experiences over the past 20 years and assesses the state of historical memory in Spain today. The ARMH has carried out the exhumation of hundreds of mass graves, often relying on international volunteers and donations and has played a key role in changing the course of 21st century Spanish politics and culture.

The symposium, “Can the Spanish Genocide Speak?” that will take place at the MSU College of Law Castle Board Room on November 15th from 10am-1:30pm begins witha talk on genocide by John Cox, Associate Professor of History & Global Studies and the Director of the Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies at UNC Charlotte. Cox's presentation will be followed by the presentation of Scott Boehm, Assistant Professor of Spanish & Global Studies at Michigan State University, the Director of the MSU Latinx Film Festival, and the Founding Member of the Spanish Civil War Memory Project at UC San Diego. Boehm is also the organizer of the 2019 Global Perspectives Series. The symposium will conclude with a roundtable discussion featuring Cristina Morerias-Menor, Professor of Peninsular Studies at the University of Michigan, Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, and Almudena Carracedo, an award-winning Spanish filmmaker, in conversation with John Cox and moderated by Scott Boehm.

The final event is a special screening of The Silence of Others, an extraordinary documentary on the struggle to break the silence that this global perspective series explores. The screening will take place on November 15th from 7-9:30pm in Wells Hall B122, following the symposium that morning. The film was shortlisted for the 2018 Oscar for Best Documentary, won the Goya Award for Best Documentary (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars), as well as many of the top honors at several of the most important documentary film festivals in the world. The Silence of Others is also a rather significant cultural phenomenon, having become the documentary film with the longest theatrical run in Spanish cinema history due to overwhelming popular support that resulted in spontaneous promotion of it on social media to keep it in Spanish theaters for months. Executive produced by Pedro Almodóvar, Spain’s most distinguished film director, the film begins in 2010 and follows the Argentine lawsuit, paying particular attention to the issue of child theft. The screening will be followed by a conversation with Almudena Carrecedo, the film’s co-director, led by Sebastiaan Faber and Cristina Moreiras-Menor.

Scott Boehm

Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities Program

Department of Romance and Classical Studies

Michigan State University