Spain's plan to exhume Franco revives memories of an unsettled past
The remains of Francisco Franco may soon be moved from the Valley of the Fallen. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images) October 19 at 1:44 PM
On the jagged edge of a mountain outside the Spanish capital, a dictator lies in eternal repose, guarded by statues of militant angels beneath a soaring granite cross. But soon Francisco Franco may be roused from his slumber and his posthumous reign may end.
Spainâs new minority government, headed by Pedro SÃ¡nchez, a 46-year-old Socialist who was 3 when Franco died, has ordered the exhumation of the dictatorâs bones. Some Spaniards see the move as long overdue, others as post facto revenge. Either way, the SÃ¡nchez government risks reviving divisions in a nation that, while generally untroubled by nostalgia for its Âauthoritarian past, has never achieved consensus about its bloody civil war and decades of dictatorship.
The government is adamant that removing Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, a sprawling state-funded monument, is essential to dignify Spanish democracy.
âIn a democratic society, there cannot be a dictator who is the subject of homages, or whose tomb is a site of fascist pilgrimage, or who has a monument in his honor,â said Fernando Martinez, the first Justice Ministry official assigned to handle historical memory issues.
But in some ways, after Franco died in 1975, Spainâs transition to democracy relied on a decision to leave the past alone. An amnesty law passed in 1977 forbid the prosecution of any war criminals or Francoist officials.
âThere is no one-size-fits-all for democratic transitions, and nor is there a consensus on what coming to terms with the past entails,â said William Chislett of the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank. âSpain took a pragmatic approach, and it worked.â This, he said, is the ultimate rejoinder to Franco.
Even as Spain began to assess its history â" passing a âHistorical Memory Lawâ in 2007 that condemned the Franco regime and called for the removal of Francoist symbols â" the Valley of the Fallen largely remained outside the reappraisal.
And the governmentâs latest plan to dig up the past is fairly unpopular.
In a July poll conducted by Sigma Dos for the Spanish daily El Mundo, only 41 percent of Spaniards agreed with moving Francoâs remains. Separately, 54 percent said now was not the right time to address the issue.
Parliament approved the exhumation plan last month with 172 votes in favor â" but with 164 abstentions from Spainâs two Âcenter-right parties, which do not see it as a priority. Many Spaniards have mixed feeling about Franco â" they credit him with saving Spain from communism and steering the country through postwar poverty and division.
In Madrid in August, a protester displays pictures of people who went missing during Francisco Francoâs reign. (Pacific Press/LightRocket /Getty Images)
People opposed to moving Francoâs remains rally at the Valley of the Fallen in July and perform fascist salutes. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)
For some on the right, the Valley of the Fallen is a monument to national unity, where 33,700 people from both sides of the Spanish Civil War are interred. The war, waged between 1936 and 1939, saw the country divided between Republicans, a leftist democratic faction, and Nationalists, the right-wing aris tocratic contingent headed by Franco that ultimately prevailed.
âThe Valle de los Caidos was built by Franco as a reconciliation after the civil war,â said Juan Chicharro Ortega, 68, a former army general and now head of the Francisco Franco National Foundation.
Francisco Franco is seen second from left in this photograph from 1936. (AP)
But the monument is not neutral. It was built in part by political prisoners Franco took from the ranks of his Republican enemies. And at least 12,410 Republican corpses were moved from mass graves elsewhere in Spain and buried there âwithout the consent or awareness of the families,â Martinez said. Their anonymity stands in marked contrast to the veneration bestowed upon Franco and, alongside him in the basilica, JosÃ© Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Falange party that f ormed a core part of Francoâs coalition during the civil war.
âItâs a place of remembrance that needs to be explained,â Martinez said. âHow was it built? Who built it?â
NicolÃ¡s SÃ¡nchez-Albornoz, 92, knows how. The son of a prominent Republican leader, he was a 20-year-old student activist when he was captured and forced into construction of the mountain road leading to the monument, which he remembers working on in stultifying summer heat.
From his apartment on the top floor of a Madrid high-rise, itâs possible to make out the hills where the ascent to Francoâs mausoleum begins. But SÃ¡nchez-Albornoz said he has refused to return to the site since his escape from the labor camp there on July 8, 1945.
âThe exhumation is only one part of the question,â he said, when asked about the governmentâs plans. He noted that many private properties requisitioned by the Francoists â" including those belonging to his own family â" were never r eturned, and no one involved in the regime was ever brought to justice. âUnfortunately, I think itâs too late, because all the people who should have been brought to trial are dead.â
âBut yes,â he said, chuckling. âLetâs start with the symbols.â
Beyond moving Franco â" to a site yet to be disclosed, although the Franco family has pushed for the Madrid cathedral â" the government aspires to locate and honor those buried in unmarked graves throughout Spain.
âAs far as possible, we want to be able to exhume and hand over the remains to the families for a dignified burial,â Martinez said.
An volunteer works on mass grave No. 112 at the cemetery of Paterna, Spain, where local authorities say 2,238 victims of Francisco Franco's regime were buried after being executed. (David Ramos/Getty Images)
For the thousands of Spanish families who have sought to reclaim the remains of relatives, the process has often required a combination of luck and persistence.
in 2000, Emilio Silva was visiting family in Priaranza de Bierzo, not far from where his grandfather was killed in 1936, when an elderly acquaintance said, cryptically: âI know where your grandfather is buried.â They drove down a country road to a spot about a half-hour outside of town. Then the acquaintance stopped the car and pointed to a copse in the distance.
Nearly three years later, after a privately funded excavation, DNA evidence confirmed that Silvaâs grandfather was among the bodies discarded there.
Silva, a former journalist, now helps others locate missing relatives. His Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has recovered the remains of about 8,000 people and documented an additional 114,226 missing person cases. All were victims of the Nationalists during the Civil War or of the Franco regime in the years that followed.
âOur state created a big machine during the transition to manufacture ignorance,â Silva said. His goal is to remove that void.
Although Silva regularly equates his cause with Germanyâs postwar campaign to critically engage with the extent of Nazi atrocities, there is a key difference. The Spanish Civil War, after all, was a civil war, and Silva and his allies do not have an absolute monopoly on victimhood, nor on the narrative of the past.
A detachment of Francisco Franco's Nationalist soldiers pause for a meal after a battle in the suburbs of Madrid in 1936. (AP)
Roughly 500,000 people were killed in the conflict. Historians estimate that outside of combat, the Nationalists killed 150,000 of their opponents extrajudicially or under flimsy legal circumstances bet ween 1936 and 1939, and Francoâs regime executed another 20,000 people after coming to power. But the Republicans also committed their share of atrocities, killing about 49,000 people.
âThey say they want to restore the dignity of those who died on the Republican side. I canât be against that,â said Chicharro of the Franco Foundation. âBut, for instance, myself, I donât know where my grandfather is. Or three brothers of my father. But we have forgotten and forgiven.â
Chicharroâs family, like many others, included people on both sides of the war. His grandfather was a captain in Francoâs army. But he also had a Catalonian great-grandfather who fought for the Republicans and spent the rest of his life in exile in Mexico. âHe was an honest man who defended his ideas,â Chicharro said, noting that they met only once, in Mexico, when he was 12.
Critics have questioned why Spainâs government is seeking to dig up the past now.
People in Barcelona form a human chain to remove rubble during efforts to rescue the living and recover bodies after a Nationalist air raid in 1938. (AP)
With the possible exception of Nov. 20, the day of Francoâs death, the Valley of the Fallen is not a site that attracts far-right gatherings. In fact, there is no powerful far-right faction in Spain that comes close to mirroring those in Italy, France or Germany, let alone Poland or Hungary. Even in the face of a staggeringly high unemployment rate â" 16 percent â" and a recent uptick in migrant arrivals, Spain seems strangely immune from populist rancor. In short, Franco is not a rallying cry, and there is no real nostalgia for the political order he built.
Younger generations are especially indifferent on the question of historical memory.
âThe majority wouldnât know how to situa te the civil war chronologically â" in what years,â said Luis Montes, who teaches high school history in Madrid. Franco, he said, does not loom large in their imaginations. âItâs a name that gets lost.â
Some political analysts worry that exhuming a dead dictator will suggest that Spainâs democratic transition was less successful than it has been.
Others say making amends with the past would help address enduring fragmentation in Spain, which last year experienced a political crisis over Cataloniaâs independence referendum and which is now governed by a shaky coalition of four political parties.
A memorial at the cemetery in Paterna, Spain, pays tribute to people executed by the Franco regime. (David Ramos/Getty Images)
âWhat the Spanish case shows globally is you cannot sweep these things under the rug,â said Francisco FerrÃ¡ndiz, an anthropologist who helped draft a report that advocated moving Francoâs remains in 2011, during a previous Socialist government.
âIf we want to improve the quality of our democracy, this is key,â FerrÃ¡ndiz said. âWe have to recover these abandoned bodies and these abandoned stories and these humiliated people. And bring them back. Give them space to speak. Give them legitimacy for their suffering.â
The current government agrees.
âIn this country, the right says, you have to turn the page,â said Martinez, the Justice Ministry official. âBut before you turn the page, you have to read it.â
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