Spain's Lost Children

by Peter Anderson

4 Jul 2017

General Franco's regime in Spain removed thousands of children from political opponents, placed them in care homes and brought them up to hold their parents and their values in contempt. The former political prisoner Soledad Real, for instance, recalled in her memoir how a cellmate lost contact with her child. The women's husband had died at the hands of the Francoist police for his role in the armed resistance movement and their daughter had gone into care. From her care home the daughter wrote to her imprisoned mother "I know my father was a criminal. I am going to become a nun. I renounce my mother and father, don't write to me anymore".

During and after the Civil War of 1936-1939, the victorious Francoists removed such children from a wide array of opponents: from political prisoners housed in special nursing prisons; from parents imprisoned or executed and unable to care for their offspring; from parents who had fled into exile to avoid the retribution that claimed at least 130,000 lives and from mothers and fathers impoverished by political discrimination. The concerted efforts to forestall the creation of a documentary record and the continued closure of important archives mean that historians do not know the exact numbers removed from this broad array of 'red' parents.  We know that in 1943, 12,042 children of General Franco's political prisoners were living in regime care homes but some scholars speak of over 30,000 children passing into Francoist care homes.  A good number of these children went into adoption with families loyal to the regime where they were given new identities. Vicenta Flores Ruiz's father, for instance, was executed at the end of the war in Valencia and she was adopted by four different families, in each of which she took on a new name endured the 'shame' of hailing from a 'red' family. In recent years, 'the lost children of Francoism' have taken centre stage in a huge scandal on the removal of children from political enemies.

How can we explain the origins of these removals? Historians have offered up a range of answers that centre on the arrival of Francoism and new ways of understanding child care. General Franco's Fascist-leaning regime promoted a visceral anti-communism incarnated in the work of the leading military psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo-Nágera. In a book published in 1939, Vallejo-Nágera fielded the hypothesis that Marxism attracted 'anti-social psychopaths' and that by separating these 'subjects' from infancy could "free society of this terrible plague". Two years later, Vallejo-Nágera went further and argued that the political beliefs promoted in centre and left-wing families could "intoxicate" children and "damage the mental health of future generations". Scholars have turned to such writings to understand the rationale for the Francoist removal of children from their parents and the efforts to turn the youngsters away from "Marxism".

There has, however, been little effort to show of how these ideas influenced the institutions, personnel and practices of those who removed children from left-wing parents. Moreover, while we know a good deal about those children taken from prison, we understand much less about the removal of children in everyday life after their parents went to jail or fell into deep poverty. Many of these children went into care after intervention by Franco's Youth Court officials. During my British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, I have studied the archival record of this court in order to understand the personnel and practices that removed children in everyday life.

The Youth Courts came into existence in the early 1920s, many years before the arrival in power of General Franco's aggressively anti-Marxist regime. The Youth Courts also emerged from a progressive and Catholic movement driven by a belief that social reform could ease revolutionary tensions.  Ramón Albó, the driving force behind the Barcelona Youth Court, for instance, praised Pope Pius XII because of his belief "in the duty to give the proletariat a dignified life". Members of the movement often saw enduring removal of the child as the weapon of last resort. Instead, they believed that by studying the individual circumstances of each child, social workers would be able to decide on the best form of protection for each child. This intervention ranged from permanent removal, to temporary removal with access arrangements in place for the family to the child remaining with its family under the supervision of Court officials.

The Civil War, however, embittered many of the Court's staff. The head of the Court in Madrid, Ramón Alberola, for instance, was imprisoned for his Francoist sympathies and narrowly escaped execution. In his annual report on the court's working for 1940 he wrote that left-wing parents "have at the centre of their heart the negation of God and their Masonry which prevented his coming into their hearts and so they prepared an entire generation with no idea of either religion or morality". Such outlooks influenced practice and in October 1940 Madrid youth court officials ruled that one left-wing father should lose custody of his child "because of his political background and his opposition to religion he would give bad examples to the child…with an anti-Christian and anti-National upbringing".

Despite the aggressive and new attitude towards political opponents forged in the crucible of war, Youth Court staff continued to implement many of the procedures they had followed since the 1920s. These practices also tempered their hostility towards opponents. One 15-year-old boy whose father and brother were in a Francoist prison was himself considered a die-hard 'red'. But court officials left him with his remaining family and only paid occasional supervisory visits. Instead, court officials normally removed children when they felt a parent with a left-wing background had broken Catholic moral code. One left-wing mother, for instance, lost custody of her daughter because Alberola ruled that she was a cabaret artist and as such "did not have the right to children".

Dr. Peter Anderson is a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow and Associate Professor in Twentieth-Century European History at the University of Leeds. 

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.


Sign up to our email newsletters