From the Battlefield to the Labour Camp: Archaeology of Civil War and Dictatorship in Spain

By Gonzalez-Ruibal, Alfredo | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

From the Battlefield to the Labour Camp: Archaeology of Civil War and Dictatorship in Spain


Gonzalez-Ruibal, Alfredo, Antiquity


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Introduction

Modern wars transform entire landscapes: from the trenches in the frontline to the internment camps and weapon factories in the rearguard, no place is spared (Saunders 2001; Schofield 2005: 19-20, 43-51). The material effects outlast the conflicts themselves and shape daily experiences and memories for decades. In the case of totalitarian regimes, spaces of internment often follow the end of hostilities and continue the politics of war in times of peace. Modern conflicts are messy. They blur the distinction between war and peace, combatant and non-combatant, producing hybrid sites: bombed civilian settlements, clandestine detention centres and guerrilla bases.

One of the most promising lines of enquiry in the archaeology of modern conflict addresses the complexities of entire landscapes altered by war (Saunders 2001; Schofield 2005; Saunders & Faulkner 2010). By studying landscapes and processes, instead of particular sites in isolation or categories of material culture, we are in a better position to grasp the logic and repercussions of twentieth- and twenty-first-century wars. "War in this period", Schofield (2005: 25) reminds us, "typically extended beyond the confines of a discrete battlefield, first to take in (and ultimately to take out) the entire landscape ... extending to a global scale...and impacting on everybody, however far from the front-line they may be". Following this perspective, my colleagues and I have been working since 2006 in different scenarios of the Civil War and post-war period in Spain. Recent exhumations of victims of political violence have once again highlighted repression in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) (cf. Ferrandiz 2006; Renshaw 2011), which claimed as many as 200 000 lives (75 per cent of whom were Republicans). However, mass graves are only part of the picture. To fully understand the experience of the war and the logic of political violence, we must look beyond graves and examine battlefields, buildings, memorials and spaces of punishment: the entire geography of conflict that shaped the nation after the war began in July 1936.

The objectives of the research project on which this article is based were threefold: to create an archaeological account of the period, that is, to write history from things; to demonstrate the relevance of materiality in modern conflict; and to deconstruct a geography largely shaped by the subsequent politics of the victors' regime (1936-1975). In this article I will lead you through three archaeological landscapes that exemplify the cycle of conflict: a history of violence that starts with the siege of Madrid in November 1936 and ends in the same place with the closure of the forced labour camps 15 years later.

The battle for Madrid

In November 1936, only three months after their attempted military coup that provoked the Civil War, the Nationalist army arrived at the gates of Madrid. For the first time, the Republicans were able to stop the advance of Franco's Army of Africa, marching from the south (Reverte 2004). One of the neighbourhoods where this happened was the university campus. The Battle of Madrid began on 8 November 1936 and ended two weeks later with the Nationalist army deeply entrenched inside the campus but unable to proceed any further. For the rest of the war, the University was part of the frontline and a large part of it was devastated. After the war, a new landscape of commemoration began to be erected over the ruins, obliterating or concealing most traces of the war. The new architectural setting openly celebrated the triumph of the Francoist armies and mourned the Francoist dead. The Battle of Madrid itself (actually a fiasco for the Nationalists) was largely forgotten. This overtly totalitarian landscape was gradually accepted as normal by the citizens of the capital (Figure 1).

In November 2008, we began to research the once-forgotten traces of the war, which, surprisingly, proved to be plentiful and ubiquitous (Gonzalez-Ruibal et al.

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