Forgotten Darlings of Spain

Screams of pain echoed throughout the expansive passages of a female prison in Saturrarán, Gipuzkoa, Spain. The women inside were not undergoing their regular beatings, instead they were experiencing the agony of losing a child. Having been working in a separate area of the prison, they had been forced to leave their young babies with custodial staff. Upon returning, their children had vanished. The 100 or so babies were sent to religious orphanages and branded as the offspring of ‘reds.’ Francisco Franco had come to power in 1938, victorious in the Spanish Civil War he had defeated the Republicans with assistance from fascists in both Germany and Italy. He quickly unified the right and made the country a one-party state. Franco, inspired by Nazi theories, believed communism and support for left wing politics was based on mental capacity and health. Believing a stronger environment would benefit the children of republican parents, Franco passed a set of laws in 1940. These regulations restricted the contact between republicans and their offspring, leading to the kidnap and re-homing of several thousand children.

An intense fear of the left led to a witch-hunt. Fanatical military police boasted about abducting children as well as ousting communists. A witness of the administration’s actions, Ms Julia Manzanal lost a 10-month-old child due to disease in one of the country’s prisons. She said in 2003 “They would rip babies out of their [prisoners] arms… I saw children die of hunger and thirst.” Ms Manzanal later describes in detail how a baby named Lenin was picked up by the legs and had its head smashed against a wall. Even after the Second World War, when every other major fascist regime in Europe had disintegrated, Franco’s popularity remained consistent. Adoption policies continued with further intensity, with the establishment even going so far as to track down children of civil war exiles outside the country, and bring them back for reforming. After experiencing time in orphanages and institutions, the stolen children were later handed over to military and Francoist families, indoctrinated in the fascist messages of hate, nationalism and totalitarianism. Most children knew nothing of their true origins and many grew enthusiastic with the regime. Parents on the other hand were unsure as to whether their children were being imprisoned or were dead.

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Daughters of republicans sit outside orphanage, unsure as to whether they will ever see their families again.

The orphanages where many children found themselves were often mismanaged and ran by the church. Without food and with many of the buildings in disrepair, funding was aimed towards education rather than comfort. The buildings bled the regimes practices. Children were told to be loyal to El Generalísimo and forced to acknowledge the fight against other races and nations. The younglings did so enthusiastically to take advantage of the limited food. Franco viewed left wing politics as the ideas of a lesser race and enjoyed correcting these inferiorities at a young age. Severe violence was often applied to the children and as part of recent international investigations regarding the catholic church it has emerged many of the priests running the orphanages were in fact paedophiles, committing sexual assaults on a consistent basis. Corruption was rife, one girl was told to fake a pregnancy by the local doctor, so she and the orphanage could receive a child from the local clinic. Local undertakers would then quickly bury an empty coffin of a child reportedly dying soon after birth, forcing parents to grieve hysterically without the chance to see the body while their child was secretly transported to a state-run orphanage. Conveniently many birth and death records from the period have disappeared. Once many of the children had left or been rehomed to right-wing families, many felt they couldn’t speak out due to wholesomely positive image that Franco had create of himself. After all, under Franco, Spain grew to become the eighth most industrialised country in the world.

Civil war women
Female Republican soldiers of the civil war. If captured they could be separated from any children they may have.

Towards the end of the regime, kidnapping children had become somewhat of a business, with wealthy families paying the regime handsomely for the most desirable orphans. After Franco’s death in 1975, with many members of the regime still holding office in the newly formed government a black market for kidnapped children was still alive. Only in the 80’s was the truth beginning to filter through into society. Although it appears that society did not want to listen. After the dictator’s death, there was a ‘pact of forgetting’ agreed upon mutually by both sides of the political spectrum. This was to aid in driving politics in Spain towards the same destination, a democratic Spain. This appeared to implement itself into ex-supporters of the regime and society with many complaining it had been too many years and to leave the past behind. For the progressive youth of Spain who had not witnessed the horrors first hand, it was important to highlight their nations mistakes as to prevent history from repeating itself as it does all too often. With an increase in cases being brought to the media’s attention, several investigations were launched. However, a stirring debate over the honesty of many individuals began, with many claiming they just wanted to claim huge compensation fees. The first full report released over the orphans of Franco’s Spain was in 2008, far too late to bring any of the key figures to trial. Soon after, the report was dropped. In 2011, the government devoted an area of the Ministry of Justice to compile a list and investigate cases of missing infants. Despite the study being merely administrative, it is hoped that it will over the next five years bring closure to many suffering families and victims of the regime. Pressure has also led hundreds of hospitals to investigate ill-practice and the disappearance of files under the years of Franco’s rule.

As of 2017, it is estimated that 300,000 children were seized from their families and sent to state run orphanages. Huge numbers were also victims of illegal adoption and child trafficking as well as enduring violence, emotional trauma and sexual assault. The Council of Europe in 2006 was the first international organisation to recognise the existence of a state-run child abduction policy in Spain. Jurist Baltasar Garzón is a leading figure of the investigations, claiming them to be a “crime against humanity.” Spain itself however is still divided. Within the autonomous communities of Catalunya, Galicia, Valencia and the Basque Country a hatred of Franco is clear. His rule feeding the emotion and drive to fight for independence from a unified Spain. Lets not forget, more than 150 streets, squares and plazas in Madrid alone are named after figures from the dictatorship. His banning of languages and cultures as well as the slaughter of his own people led terrorist groups to rise to prominence. Even as late as 1996, sons and grandsons of Franco were elected into power as members of the political party ‘PP.’ Perhaps the continuation of his blood in power is an explanation for the delay into proceedings concerning the missing children of Spain. A study in 2008 revealed 1 in 3 Spaniards still back the policies of Franco.

Supporters of Spain's late dictator Francisco Franco raise their arms in a fascist salute during a gathering in Madrid
Franco supporters, circa 2015

The reasons for continued support of fascist policies remain unclear and complex, however many enjoyed the extreme patriotism, upper class security and international fame of life under a dictator. Franco currently lies in a huge memorial covering 13.6 square kilometres of woodland, carved from white granite he continues to survive as an extravagant dictator. Tourists arrive every morning, some choosing to salute and lay flowers. They have made a pilgrimage to worship their deity. Here, outside of Madrid can you truly comprehend that Spain is more willing to acknowledge and forget their missing infants instead of repairing the heart-breaking memories of abduction. A mother being stolen of her ability to care and watch her child grow old, a fragile infant never experiencing love or protection. Some things cannot be forgotten.

FRanco memorial
Franco’s place of rest, Valle de los Caidos
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