Interview Protocol Archive of the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist Repression


The following pages are the result of a process of reflection regarding our experiences compiling audiovisual testimonies of the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. As such they necessarily represent a degree of abstraction and a metalanguage that attempt to define in the best possible manner what occurs during the concrete encounter between the one who gives the testimony and the one who listens. If any of the interviewees read these words we hope that they understand that our aim is not to dissect every one of their gestures and words, but rather to break with the traditional anthropological vision that situates us in the rigid position of objects or subjects of knowledge. We do not intend to “speak for anyone”, on the contrary we seek to question the authority of those whom without recognizing it grant themselves authority to speak for the witnesses, the survivors and the militants of that collective catastrophe that was the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. Convinced, then, that anti-intellectualism is highly unproductive in use, we aim to epistemologically and affectively arm ourselves with the best tools to be able to listen in the best manner to what others have not been able to register socially during too many years. We seek more than anything to help tell this collective history so that it can be heard as high and clear as possible.

The objective of the interviews carried out in the last years is to create a digital archive with testimonies of the victims of the Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. The function of this audiovisual archive is triple:

  1. First, the archive aims to create a safe institutional space so that the republican memory can be preserved for posterity and listened to in an active manner. We understand republican memory in a broad sense as the collective voices of all of those who suffered the consequences of the war and the Francoist repression for defending their ideas or simply for being who they were. This function is extremely important because in Spain the amnesty law of 1977 explicitly prohibited opening legal processes for human rights violations. Furthermore, truth commissions were also not created as they had been in other countries until the approval of the “Law of Historical Memory” (2007), nor was there an explicit acknowledgement of the victims on behalf of the Spanish State. Thus, the archive aims to contribute to the open process of recovery of the historical memory by giving prominence to the voices of the Spanish men and women whose voices were silenced throughout more that sixty years.
  2. Second, the archive proposes to recuperate the oral history of the victims, witnesses, survivors and militants of the Civil War and the dictatorship so that researchers of this period, students and the general public can get to learn about these historical events from the perspective of their protagonists. This oral record not only supplements written archives and history books, it also constitutes itself as an epistemology and a historical discourse in itself and through its own right. Given that the archives of the Francoist repression were, in many cases, physically destroyed, these voices are the only source that we have to reconstruct certain episodes of the Civil War and the dictatorship and, therefore, the only way that we have to document the magnitude and the brutality of the Francoist repression. However, the affective and political dimension of the testimonies is presented, as will be described ahead in more detail, as a different way of knowing history that cannot be discarded simply as “subjective” or “not very scientific”.
  3. Finally, the archive adds a visual dimension that is essential to understand the affective dimension of these traumatic events (body language, silences, and pauses in speech are all significant marks of this affective dimension). The histories that this archive compiles –the Civil War and the dictatorship–, presuppose a failure of “political reason”. This does not mean that the political dimensions of the conflict are not important or that what happened during the Civil War and the dictatorship cannot be verbalized, but rather that reason, language and politics collapse and that their collapse must also be documented to understand these histories. This process is complex and its nonverbal dimensions are a crucial element to understand history.

It is necessary to clarify to whom we are referring when we speak of the protagonists of the interviews, who are the people that give testimony in these oral histories? For many, the subject of these testimonies are the victims of the Civil War and the dictatorship, that is to say, the subjects of the historical trauma generated by the Civil War and the systematic repression that took place during and after the war. Others place more emphasis on political militancy, the desire to transform the social reality expressed by many of the interviewees. In any case, the answer to this question is not an easy one. In a schematic way it must be said, first, that our objective is not to impose labels over anyone, but rather to let the people that give testimony decide what they will tell and how they will do so without imposing an epistemological map a priori. For this reason, we believe there is no one term that can capture the richness and heterogeneity of the histories that are part of this archive. Those who give testimony, then, are victims, survivors, witnesses and militants, even if none of those terms exhausts completely the complexity of the stories they relate. Victims because neither death nor suffering can be trivialized and because the asymmetries of power between the Francoist army, which possessed the most modern war machinery in Europe (with the support of the Nazis and fascists), and the victims of that violence is insurmountable. Militants because their experience cannot be reduced to an abstract defense of life, the fact that they fought for a more just society and paid a high price for it cannot be put in parenthesis. Survivors because they faced an excessive intimacy with death and are conscious that “upon returning from death” they speak for themselves and for all of those that were not able to return from this limit experience. Witnesses, not only because they witnessed acts of violence and political mobilization, but also because their histories confront all of the epistemological difficulties of testimony as a genre (to give testimony means, to confront, among other things an impossibility that has to contend with the relations of power between the interviewer and the interviewee).

These four terms –victim, militant, survivor, witness– do not form a puzzle that is complete and without fissures of the subject of the interview, but rather they are the ungraspable extremes of an incommensurable experience that is necessarily unique and unrepeatable. That is to say, if we combine the four terms to which we are referring we do not obtain a coherent and complete subject, because we are dealing with directional axes that do not exhaust the experience of testimony, but that rather simply situate us as interviewers to be able to better listen and understand. For that reason, often times some of the people interviewed speak more from their position as militants and political leaders, while others speak as victims or survivors. Most of the time many of these factors arise simultaneously, that is to say, the subject changes position throughout the interview, emphasizing one aspect more than another, or refuses to be reduced to one of these categories. In any case and as we will try to explain next, each interview is a world and, therefore, there are no unique recipes when the time comes to learn to listen actively.


The methodology of this archive is based on the principles of psychoanalysis and on oral history (informed by some of the most significant findings of subaltern studies). We turn to psychoanalysis, because we understand that the torture, the massive and indiscriminate murders and the systematic repression implemented by the Francoist forces during the Civil War and the dictatorship constitute a historical trauma whose traces are still present in Spanish society. A psychoanalytic methodology implies in the first place that the interviews have a format that is radically open and that it is the interviewee who possesses the power, the knowledge, and the protagonism in the interview and not the interviewer. For this reason, some interviews can last an hour and others five, depending on what the victim has to tell and can tell.

From this perspective, the interviewer must be an active listener who facilitates the process of the production of a testimony. It is essential to listen actively because one of the effects of a historical trauma is precisely the destruction of the dimension of otherness that guarantees the dialogical function of language and the construction of a communal space for social exchanges. In this respect, the subjects of these interviews “know” very well what has happened to them and to their families, but, in many cases, they have not found someone who will listen to their histories. This is one of the reasons that explain why so many victims do not want to speak at the beginning or why they refer to the events of the Civil War and the dictatorship as “old people’s business” or as matters of a past that does not hold anyone’s interest. The doubts, the reservations or the refusal to speak are the ways in which these victims try to communicate their anxiety and concerns: before speaking they want to know if there will in fact be someone who will want to listen to them. The function of the interviewer is, then, to be there for the victims, to reconstruct the dimension of otherness that was destroyed by the trauma so that the victims can be the subjects of their own histories. Another frequent and paradoxical manifestation of the destruction of the social bond as an effect of trauma is the excess of verbalization on the part of the interviewee. Some people literally “cannot or do not want to keep quiet”, because they have waited too long to be able to recount their history. In these cases the interviewer must have in mind that the excess of language is also a trace of trauma and, therefore, must not allow her/himself to be overtaken by the interviewee (not react, nor introduce questions that will break the account).

For there to be communication, testimony and a transmission of knowledge, the interviewer must not abandon the interviewee during her/his monologues nor silences, but rather must insist to reintroduce a dialogical dimension that breaks with the isolation and solitude of the one who speaks. This process requires the active participation of the interviewer. As Davoine and Gaudillere explain, the interviewer must accompany the interviewee to the “danger zone” that constitutes the nucleus of trauma. An incident that caused so much pain cannot be relived in solitude and, for that reason, the interviewer has to be present without being an obstacle for the production of testimony. To listen to the wound, to accompany the subject to the traumatic nucleus implies an excessive intimacy with the presence of death that often generates in the interviewer an affective and intellectual disconnection with respect to the history that is being recounted. However, for testimony to take place, the interviewer must become involved emotionally without allowing her/himself to be overcome by her/his own emotions to the point of substituting the victim or occupying the victim’s position. The experiences of the witness are irreplaceable, but that does not mean that we should listen from a secure distance that does not involve us in the process of reconstruction of the social bond that was destroyed by the coup d’état. Dori Laub explains some of the most frequent ways of distancing oneself from the suffering of the victim, all of these reactions are ways of not being “actively present” in the interview. Laub’s list includes the following reactions of establishing distance:

Hence, to listen implies an equilibrium between the affective demands of the people who are interviewed and our own emotions upon hearing the atrocities that the subject and/or her/his family have suffered. The interviewer must be conscious at all times of her/his emotional reactions without losing sight of the fact that her/his function is to help the interviewee relate her/his history. With regard to the historical dimension of the testimonies, it is worth mentioning that the function of the interviewer is to facilitate the oral narration of a history. For that, it is necessary in the first place to distance oneself from the hegemonic discourses of human rights. The concept of “human rights” frequently transforms the victims into abstract entities, into subjects whose only value is life as a biological occurrence without other attributes and without history. To avoid this abstraction (the human being) it is necessary to pay special attention to the identity of the subject (class, gender, sexuality, regional origin, race, etc.) as well as to her/his political affiliation (from the distinct versions of anarchy, to communism, passing through those who were mere sympathizers of the Republic). The people we interview were and are men and women with history, desires, political projects and opinions about the present and the past. To pay attention only to the wounds caused by the Francoist repression is a way of continuing to disappear them, of continuing to ignore their ideas and the projects for which they fought and for which they lost their lives or suffered the violence of the Francoist State.

Our mission as interviewers is to help them defeat the fear, to create a secure environment so that the victims can speak about who they are, about their ideas and projects. To pay attention to the diversity of voices of history breaks with the myth of the two Spains and its ideological reductionisms. However, to listen to the different voices of these subjects does not entail placing them all in the same plane, but rather returning them to history with its conflicts and antagonisms. In this way, the interviewer must be a listener who is informed about the history of Spain and the political ideologies of the diverse groups that comprised the republican band, but must not judge the validity of those political presuppositions, for that is a task that corresponds to those who use the archive, not to those who construct it. Nonetheless, the interviewer must not present her/himself as an empty and neutral subject, it is recommended, especially in the pre-interview, to show who we are, what our political position is, why we are there, clarifying always that we are interested in helping tell a history in the best possible manner.

In sum, our interview methodology entails an equilibrium and a tension between the affective dimension and the historical dimension. In other words, our aim is not to reduce all of the experience of these subjects to a collection of political positions that will explain what occurred nor to listen only to the emotional dimension of trauma. We seek to listen to the discourse of history as well as to its limits, the places where language and the possibility of knowing history can only speak through a silence that, nonetheless, also produces meaning.

Before the Interview

Prior to recording the testimony it is necessary to contact the person and carry out a brief telephone interview. The purpose of this initial interview is, on the one hand, to inform the interviewee of our project and, on the other, to gather basic information about her/his identity and history in order to be able to better prepare ourselves before recording the testimony. Some of the basic questions than can be asked are:

  1. Where did you reside at the start of the Civil War and/or during the dictatorship? How long did your family reside there?
  2. What was your profession during the war? What level of formal education did you attain, if any?
  3. What did your family do for work? How many siblings do you have?
  4. Where you a member of a political party or union during the Civil War and/or the dictatorship?
  5. Did any of your family members belong to a political party or union during the Civil War and/or the dictatorship?
  6. Did you spend time in jail or in a concentration camp during the Civil War and/or the dictatorship?
  7. Did you witness acts of repression and violence during the Civil War and/or the dictatorship?
  8. Did you or any of your family members or acquaintances suffer acts of repression (such as physical violence) as a consequence of your political militancy or for any other reason?
  9. Did you lose any property (farms, homes), employment or administrative post during the Civil War and/or the dictatorship?
  10. Since the arrival of democracy have you received any type of economic or symbolic compensation as retribution for the damages caused by the Civil War and the dictatorship?

These questions are presented only as examples, obviously each particular case will require its own specific questions, since not all of the above listed questions can be applied in all cases. The answers to these initial questions do not need to be very elaborate; the purpose is not to make a complete interview by phone, but to have a general idea an outline of the contents that might come up in the interview in order to be informed recipients. The interviewer must have an in depth and detailed knowledge of the events and particularities of the history of the interviewee. For example, if the person was held at a concentration camp or a Francoist jail, the interview team must research these detention sites. If the person was a member of the National Confederation of Labor or the Communist Party, the interviewers must know the history of that labor union or political party. This aspect of preparation is crucial, if the interviewee senses that we are not aware of their history she/he will feel abandoned in some way; to accompany people to the “danger zone” of trauma entails being a historically informed listener.

During this preliminary interview it is also advisable to ask the interviewee to have, if she/he wishes, some objects that will help her/him relate her/his account and recall the past (letters, photographs, military sentences, newspaper articles, etc.). Some of these materials can be scanned and annexed to the testimony of the victim, as long as the interviewee agrees.

In addition, it is essential to not commit to interview a person if we are not fully certain that we can carry out the interview. To ask a person to participate in the recording of a traumatic testimony and then not show up is inadmissible. Given the advanced age of many of these people it is also essential for the interview team to adapt to the schedules and necessities of the interviewees and to be punctual.

During the Interview

Most of the interviews will take place at the interviewee’s home or at a place that will be favorable for the activation of the connections of memory (for example, the headquarters of a union, a place of memory, a grave, etc.). Upon arrival at the place of the interview it is essential to try to establish a relationship with the person. One cannot arrive and then instantly begin to speak about the legal and technical aspects of the interview. The people being interviewed have to perceive that we genuinely care about what they have to say, that it is not simply about transforming their testimony into merchandise or a museum object. On the other hand, the person that sets up the camera must be respectful of the interviewee’s space (for example, one must ask permission if it is necessary to move furniture or to transform the space for the recording). While one of the team members sets up the camera and selects an opportune place for the recording, the other member must establish a relationship of trust and mutual respect with the interviewee (in this case, it is best to address the interviewees formally, unless they indicate otherwise).

Once this initial environment of respect and mutual trust has been established, the interviewer must explain to the interviewee her/his rights exactly as they appear in the general authorization to participate in the study and in the authorization for visual recording. The interviewer must explain (not simply read) the content of these two legal documents and respond to all of the questions made by the interviewee. It is necessary, in particular, to communicate to the subject of the interview the possibility that this process might provoke anxiety, depression and other symptoms. These reactions must not be exaggerated nor minimized. The interviewer will hand the subject of the interview a list of the medical centers where help can be sought in case any of these problems persist.

After explaining these legal proceedings and carrying out the pertinent light and sound checks the interview can begin. The interviewer must state her/his name at the start of the recording. It is always convenient to utilize open-ended questions that cannot simply be answered with yes or no. For example, a typical question or invitation to dialogue can be “tell us about where you lived before the war, what was your town like, what did your family do…” These first moments of the interview are crucial, because what is taking place is a negotiation in which both the interviewee and the interviewer are attempting to establish their positions. As such, the process is very similar to the process of “transference” as it occurs in the practice of psychoanalysis. The subject will try to guess what parts of her/his history appear to be relevant to the researcher/interviewer (the “subject supposed to know” according to Lacan); the interviewer must, in a subtle manner, emphasize once and again that the keys, the knowledge and the power of the testimony are in the hands of the interviewee. If the person senses that we are only interested in certain things, but not in others, she/he could avoid certain aspects of her/his past and as we have previously stated it is not up to us to decide and arrange the historical experience of these subjects.

In most of the testimonies after these initial moments of negotiation the interviewee generally will take control of the interview and transform it into the oral narrative of her/his past (storytelling mode). This does not mean that the interviewer can then disconnect from the narrative, it is necessary to convey support with body language, to nod and show the interviewee that we are present, that the dialogue is open. This is also the moment to utilize historical information so that the interviewee understands that we are well-informed of the particularities of her/his experience and that we are not judging her/his political positions but rather that we value them as part of the process of the reconstruction of memory.

When the process of negotiation and transference does not finish consolidating itself, when the interview is stuck, the interviewer must intervene and “guide” the interviewee, but without imposing or forcing the topics. For example if the subject has elaborated very superficially an anecdote relating to life within a concentration camp, the interviewer can in an oblique manner ask the name of the camp and another detail. For example, instead of asking, “what is the name of the labor camp where you were held”, it is better to ask “and you wouldn’t happen to remember the name of the camp you mentioned earlier”. In any case, one must not force those interviewed to speak about certain events, but rather try to help in the task of reconstructing communication and the social bond. The impossibility or the inability to speak about certain events must be respected because these are also significant (as a guideline it can be said that one must not insist more than 2 or at a maximum 3 times). In this case, the interviewer must pay special attention to the silences and not become uncomfortable if the victim comes to a silence. These silences are in many cases indicators that point toward the persistence of a traumatic affect and, therefore, the interviewer must be able to sustain them and give the victim the time that she/he needs to cope with the emergence of the traumatic past in the present.

The organization of the interview can begin with a lineal and progressive structure (before the war—the war—the postwar), but it must be noted that this causal sequence will transform itself into a spiral or rhizomatic movement that intermittently besieges the multiple nuclei of trauma. This is the case because memory does not respond to a cause and effect logic, but rather to a process of free associations. Moreover, in the case of traumatic events, the proximity to death makes the events that took place during the Civil War and the dictatorship not really be experienced when they occurred but rather in successive repetitions and deferred acts similar to those that the interview seeks to recreate. In practical terms, what this means is that it is not necessary to continually interrupt the interview with questions nor assume that the narration of a traumatic event can only be taken up once during the interview. In fact, it is very possible that the first time a delicate matter is approached (for example, the death of a loved one) the subject will not elaborate many details, while in subsequent occasions and as the person feels more comfortable and more accompanied in the process of remembering the details and the information will be more specific. Therefore, the construction of memory follows a logic that is disorganized and anti-causal in appearance and that the interviewer must not resist but accept and develop. This does not mean obviously that there will not be moments in which the interviewer will have to help lead the narrative process, but it must be done without trying to subject the memory process into a fixed narrative structure or to the accumulation of a series of details that are of interest to the interviewer.

In case the interviewee sinks into her/his traumatic experiences (for example, if the interviewee begins to cry), the interviewer must provide support to the person without sinking with her/him into the black hole of her/his past. This implies transmitting to the vperson our absolute solidarity with what she/he is experiencing without exploiting easy sentimentalism or the emotions of the person. In grave cases and as long as the interviewee agrees, the recording can be stopped and resumed when the person is ready to continue speaking about her/his past.

The End of the Interview

Our interviews have an open format because, as Giorgio Agamben has intelligently explained, giving testimony is always the product of an impossibility. A pure witness according to Agamben would be someone who returned from death or from the extermination camps to tell the “complete” experience of those historical events. Testimony confronts death and, hence, it also faces the very impossibility of communicating that experience, but this distance between the act of giving testimony and its impossibility is what constitutes the very potentiality of testimony.

These brief reflections are a mode of explaining that the testimony of these events can never have finality nor can it aspire to be a complete discourse about what occurred. The survivors know this better than anyone else for they always carry with them the guilt and the shame of having to speak for those who are no longer present, for the dead. In this respect, the interview gives them back the possibility to exorcise that guilt and regain the dignity lost, but testimony is not nor does it pretend to be a substitute for the psychoanalytic cure, it is a space of potentialities that has an end but it is not a definitive suture. This end must be, however, selected carefully so that the victim does not feel abandoned, generally that moment takes place when both the interviewer and the interviewee perceive that they have arrived at a point in which, for the time being, they cannot continue excavating into the past.

It is convenient to not leave the place of the interview automatically giving off the sensation that it is a purely utilitarian process. These interviews are an intense process and both the interviewer and the victim must give themselves time to “close” well the relationship. Similarly, it is possible that the interviewer will feel the opposite temptation to develop more fully the relationship with the interviewee and not leave the place of the interview. In these cases, one must be aware that this reality can be the result of the intimacy constructed during the interview and one must think well about the extent to which that desire to stay has far-fetched connotations that can de detrimental to the interviewee. This does not mean, however, that one cannot have contact again with the interviewee after the interview. In fact, it is recommended to return after the interview to gather supplementary materials or to socialize in a more relaxed environment and be able to close the interview in an adequate manner. Nonetheless, it is necessary to keep in mind the artificiality of a situation that implies large doses of intimacy in a short amount of time in order to not create false expectations for oneself nor for others.

Luis Martín-Cabrera. University of California, San Diego. (Translated by Gabriela Santizo)


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