Spain prepares to lay bare its darkest era

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Seventy years on from the start of the Spanish Civil War, Madrid is trying to come to terms with its past by rescuing - and making public - millions of documents from around the world that help shed light on one of the darkest periods in its history.

As the country prepares to remember the beginning of the war next week, the government has published an array of diplomatic reports, personal letters, documentary films and secret police files held in 12 countries including Britain, Russia, France, Mexico and the United States which will reveal much that has remained unknown for decades.

Already, researchers have discovered a Russian documentary showing Pablo Picasso digging a trench in a Madrid park, and they have found French secret police reports on Republican exiles and British diplomatic reports on General Francisco Franco before he came to power. The documents will be stored at a new Centre for Memory in Salamanca.

They are a symbol of an increasing desire in Spain to talk more openly about what happened during the war. Before, a pacto de olvido (or "collective pact of forgetting") was adopted to ensure the country could move on after Franco's death in 1975.

Ten million documents held in Russian military archives could provide clues to how much military aid Stalin gave to the Republican government. New light may also be cast on one of the most intriguing and controversial episodes of the war - the fate of 400 tons of Spanish gold that was shipped to Moscow to pay for arms, but which exiles claimed had been stolen by Stalin.

The historian Enrique Moradiellos told the Spanish daily El Pais: "What we want to see are the files of Marshall Voroshilov on Operation X, the Soviet plan to aid the Republic. If you want to know about Russia's influence, you have to go there." The Russian archives also contain information about the International Brigades, which included British volunteers such as George Orwell and detailed accounts of the defence of Madrid.

Ramon Cruz, the culture ministry's deputy director of archives, said: "They aren't just films about fighting, a lot of it is about ordinary people, recording how they lived during the war."

Apart from the surprising footage of Picasso, researchers found film of a Communist hero, Dolores Ibarruri, known as "La Pasionaria", who rallied Republican troops.

Files held in Britain include personal correspondence from the Duke of Alba, Franco's ambassador in London during the war, and the verdict of British diplomats in Spain on Franco.

Mr Moradiellos said: "The British diplomatic service was the best in the world at that time, the most extensive and best trained.

"They produced an annual report on the country which included a section called 'living personalities' giving an idea of what they thought of Franco in 1935."

Secret police reports from France detailed the political activities of Republicans who fled after the war. They include information on exile associations, inside 30 boxes from the Spanish Federation of Deportees and Political Prisoners.

Rogelio Blanco, another historian, said: "There are files on all the survivors, their pension details, photographs and publications, even the German concentration camps they were sent to." The account of passengers on the ship Winipeg, chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to take 2,000 refugees to his native Chile in 1939, is also to be given to Spain.