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Spain’s Parliament Votes to Exhume a Dead Dictator

Franco’s reign of terror is over—but Spaniards are still making sense of his legacy

Franco's tomb features a 500-foot cross. (Jorge Díaz Bes/Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

For nearly four decades, Francisco Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist, controlling his country, suppressing his critics and silencing Catalan and Basque people. But though it’s been more than 40 years since his death, he does not rest easy in his grave—and his memory is still contentious in Spain. Now, reports Sam Jones for The Guardian, Spain’s parliament has voted to exhume him.

The move is sure to dig up controversy in a country that is still starkly divided on his legacy. After helping spark the Spanish Civil War with a failed coup, “El Caudillo” installed himself as dictator after his victory in 1939. Around 200,000 Spaniards were executed during the Spanish Civil War, and tens of thousands killed at its end. The terror didn’t stop there: Franco established nearly 200 concentration camps that imprisoned half a million people. The Basque and Catalan languages were forbidden and political opponents were repressed and censored. The full extent of the violence may never be known.

When Franco died, he was buried in a tomb in Madrid where Spanish Civil War victims are also interred. As Jones reports, the non-binding vote calls for his removal, a truth and reconciliation commission and a DNA database that can identify the people who disappeared during his regime. As of yet, it’s unclear if the exhumation will actually take place, but the move is a symbolic rejection of the dead dictator.

As Jeannette Neumann reports for The Wall Street Journal, the vote was sponsored by the opposition government and the Prime Minister’s party abstained from voting. Critics claim it will reopen old wounds, but proponents believe it’s a chance to put the focus on Franco’s victims instead of glorifying a tyrant.

The mausoleum where Franco is buried has a long, tortured history. Franco built it, installed a 500-foot stone cross on top of it, and filled it with the bodies of the fallen of both sides of the Spanish Civil War as “an act of atonement” in the 1950s, reports Julian Coman for The Guardian. However, many Spaniards refuse to recognize it as a legitimate memorial despite its ostentatious design.

Spain passed a “law of historical memory” that condemned Franco’s dictatorships in 2007, but the remains of over 100,000 victims who disappeared during his regime have still not been found. Amid confusion about whether the dictator will ever be exhumed, his victims’ fates are still unknown—and Spain’s past is far from settled.

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