By ELAINE SCIOLINO
and EMMA DALY
ADRID — Suddenly, if episodically, Spain is waking from the collective amnesia that has paralyzed it for more than a quarter of a century.
It was 1975 when Gen. Francisco Franco died, a monumental event in the country's history that brought to an end nearly four decades of dictatorship and ushered in an era of modern democratic rule.
But only now is the country beginning to confront the terror of the 1936 army uprising and civil war that brought the generalissimo to power. Nearly 40 percent of Spain's 40 million people either were not born when Franco ruled or are too young to remember him.
So in fits and starts, Spaniards are overcoming their fear that something bad will happen if they remember, shattering a conspiracy of silence that may force Spain's center-right government to acknowledge an era it wants to forget.
A flood of books, a major museum exhibition and a television series give stark, eloquent testimony to the silence of the dead. An ambitious project to locate and dig up the mass graves where victims of the regime are buried has begun to offer their families an opportunity to heal. There is a nascent campaign to create a truth commission.
"History was written by the winners," said Dulce Chacón, whose novel "The Sleeping Voice" follows the tortured lives of several women after the Spanish Civil War. "The losers have never had the chance to tell their story. But we've been silent for too long."
Now, she said, "there is a wave of emotion to remember, and we are all being swept away by it."
"Perhaps my generation feels it must tell the story now because if we don't, our children will never hear it, and because those who remain to tell it are getting old and if we don't get their testimony now, we never will."
No one questions the brutality of a leader whose imperial mausoleum built by prisoners of war north of Madrid still attracts his followers and whose statues still stand in some Spanish towns. Hundreds of thousands of Franco's opponents were killed, sent to concentration camps or forced into exile during his rule. But in 1977, after his death, an amnesty was granted to his collaborators. Forgetting was considered crucial for a divided nation to heal and for a transition to democracy to succeed.
By far the most dramatic and poignant aspects of the new era of remembrance are the exhumations of the victims of the Franco era. One was Pilar Espinosa.
On a rainy night in December 1936, the 43-year-old homemaker was taken away from her home in the tiny village of Poyales del Hoyo in a small truck and shot by the roadside. Her body was dumped into a mass grave. Her crime: She was the only woman in the village who knew how to read, and she shared the contents of a left-wing newspaper with her neighbors.
For more than 65 years, her daughter, Obdulia Camacho, who is now 80, had waited for the day she could properly bury the mother she last saw that night. Early this month, in a simple ritual, Ms. Camacho stood silent and dry-eyed as the remains of her mother and two neighbors killed that night by Franco supporters were lowered in coffins into the damp ground.
"I don't know how one survives, seeing all this," Ms. Camacho said quietly as she watched the burial. "I forgive but I will not forget."
For years, villagers like those in Poyales del Hoyo were terrified to acknowledge the existence of the mass graves in their midst for fear of political reprisals. But now that almost all of the Franco-era officials are dead, that fear has lifted.
"The exhumations are a funeral rite that's been suspended for 60 years," said Emilio Silva, who founded the Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory, a group that has begun to dig up some of the hundreds of mass graves scattered around the country. "It's therapeutic for the village because when you open up a grave, things happen. People start to talk about what happened."
It was talk that led Mr. Silva to discover how his own grandfather died at the hands of the Franco regime in the village of Priaranza del Bierzo in the province of León and where he was buried. Mr. Silva's grandmother had never spoken of her husband's death, but Mr. Silva was able to exhume his body and rebury it in a family plot.
His association is trying to create an independent truth commission, and he has asked the United Nations to request that Spain open all its archives to help ordinary Spaniards locate the bodies of family members.
Opposition politicians have criticized the government for giving more than $120,000 in subsidies over three years to a foundation managed by the Franco family, which is accused of restricting the access of historians to some 27,000 public and private documents.
The Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón tried to extradite the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain to face charges relating to crimes committed during his rule, a campaign that caused many people in Chile to question why Spain did not investigate its own crimes.
But the government has not embraced the new era of openness. Perhaps that is not surprising considering that Prime Minister José María Aznar's conservative Popular Party grew partly from Francoist roots and veteran politicians with connections to the Franco era remain close to the government.
Indeed, in the village of Poyales del Hoyo, Mayor Damiana González Vadillo did not take part in the exhumation and reburial ceremony. Her uncle was a feared local Franco commander nicknamed "501" because he had claimed to have killed 501 people, including Pilar Espinosa.
Asked about the failure of the Aznar government to speak out on this issue, one government official said, "This issue has played more abroad than at home, and here it has resonated more in the media than among normal people." But earlier this month, the parliament for the Asturias region voted to support the exhumations and reburials. Mayors from all parties in the province of Segovia have issued a similar call to support investigations.
Those actions follow an even more important show of support in September, when King Juan Carlos officially opened an exhibition in Madrid on the history of those who were forced into exile.
The exhibition includes photographs of families trudging through the snow to flee into France, postcards of refugees in bleak tent cities waiting to be fed, stamps and seals used to create false documents and copies of opposition newspapers printed in places like Chile and Mexico.
The exhibition coincides with a remarkable series of books on various aspects of the Franco era. Last month, "The Lost Children of Franco" was published, documenting how General Franco's social workers snatched children from the families of his left-wing opponents and gave them to his supporters or sent them to be brought up in convents or monasteries.
Although the authors did not discover how many children were stolen, the authors speculate that there were hundreds, if not more.
Another book by the journalist Isaias LaFuente documents how Franco used political prisoners as forced labor after the war.
The broadest encounter with the Franco era for ordinary Spaniards comes from the popular, although rose-colored, television drama "Tell Me How It Happened," which captures everyday life in Spain in the late 1960's. The show focuses on the life of a working-class Madrid family and depicts Spaniards as they once were — timid and uneasy in the waning years of right-wing rule.
In one episode, the widowed grandmother, Herminia, finds her long-lost cousin who had fled a death sentence by spending 30 years in hiding.
Antonio, a government clerk who moonlights in a print shop and survives by keeping a low profile and staying away from the law, recoils when his teenage son is arrested briefly for his political views, fearing the whole family will be punished.
The tone lightens up when the secret police detain a parrot in a bar for uttering two words: "Die, Franco!"