Spain's "Stolen Children" Come To Light After 80 Years. Sort Of.

It's only in the past decade that Spain's "stolen children" - taken from their mothers and given to Fascist families - have come to light. The problem? Nor everyone wants to talk about it.

Today's NPR takes on a decades-long secret. Following the Spanish Civil War, the Fascist regime, apparently alarmed by the extent to which women had become politically liberated during the brief Republican government, accepted a state psychiatrist's theory that "politically active women were by definition morally degenerate, and should not be allowed to raise children." During the years of 1936-1939, they used this policy to remove between 30,000 and 40,000 children from their families and place them in orphanages or with families sympathetic to the regime, ensuring they'd be brought up according to the dictates of fascism and the Franco regime's archconservative Catholicism.

Many of these children were told that they'd been abandoned by their mothers, and grew up hating them. That the majority of these women, if living, had been jailed and prevented from finding their children makes it all the more tragic. While many children experienced relatively normal upbringings, others suffered under the policy. Ushenu Ablana, now 79, was raised in a series of orphanages after his father went into hiding and his mother was tortured to death. He contracted TB, and says he and others like him were starved and sexually abused by the priests who ran the orphanages.

For decades, discussing the chaos of the Civil War years has been verboten among many Spaniards, particularly in the post-war years. As the Times of London describes it,

These were the early years of Franco's dictatorship, when loose talk, false allegations, petty grievances and grudges between neighbours and within families often fuelled the blood-letting that continued long after the civil war had finished. In addition to the estimated 500,000 men, women and children who died during the civil war - a curtain-raiser for the global war between fascism and communism that followed - a further 60,000 to 100,000 republicans were estimated to have been killed or died in prison in the post-war period.

In later years, Spaniards were granted an amnesty ensuring that no one on either side one would be prosecuted for any crimes committed during the Civil War. Even when, more recently, some called for an investigation into the 100,000 "forced disappearances" that took place under Franco, the government claimed it had no jurisdiction in the matter. But more even than policy, the silence was tacit, and was maintained until very recently, when the discovery of mass graves and a growing awareness of similar "stolen child" recovery efforts in other countries have made denial impossible.

Several people have started relatives' associations to try to discover families' whereabouts, and politicians have begun to address the issue. A recent "historical memory" law was drafted to gain access to records which in turn might help discover the whereabouts of more bodies, and there are motions afoot to posthumously exonerate many victims of the regime (although financial compensation has not been mentioned.) A historian who was himself a victim of the policy is pushing to make the story of the "stolen children" a priority - and as each year passes and the population ages, the need to find them becomes more acute. He's asked the government to help expedite the process by releasing files and establishing a genetic database to help families searching for lost members. But it's a controversial issue. Quite simply, people don't want to to dredge up a past that divided the country so bitterly. While helping reunite families may seem unilaterally positive, many see it as a slippery slope, and are deeply ambivalent, especially about the prosecution of war crimes. Says one conservative politician to the Times,

Why try to drag all this through the courts now. Who are they going to put on trial after all this time? Ninety-year-olds who are beyond penal age?..Those at the top of the hierarchy of the Franco regime are all dead. Let history be their judge.

Thousands Of Children Stolen During Franco Rule [NPR]
Spain's Stolen Children [Times UK]