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Spain’s Push to Remove Franco’s Remains From the Valley of the Fallen

Congress approved the government decree to move the fascist dictator from his spot in the civil war mausoleum, but obstacles remain

The Valley of the Fallen (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

General Francisco Franco’s body has been cold in the ground for more than 40 years, however, the specter of the former Fascist dictator of Spain has never left the Iberian Peninsula. Since his death in 1975, his tomb has remained in a place of honor in the towering state-run mountaintop monument called the Valley of the Fallen. But, as James McAuley and Pamela Rolfe at The Washington Post report, in a move to reckon with Franco’s legacy, Spain’s new minority government may soon exhume his remains and move them to a new location.

“Spain can’t allow symbols that divide Spaniards. Something that is unimaginable in Germany or Italy, countries that also suffered fascist dictatorships, should not be imaginable in our country,” Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez said in June, putting momentum behind the push to relocate Franco’s final resting place.

As Alex Palmer at Smithsonian explains, Franco ordered the creation of the Valley of the Fallen, which included a basilica, a 500-foot cross and civil war memorial, be built atop a mountain outside Madrid in 1940. It was supposed to honor those who died in the war that brought him to power and serve as “a national act of atonement.” However, after nearly two decades of work, the bulk of which was done by republican political prisoners, the finished product made it clear there were only two memorials on the site that mattered: a mausoleum for José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Franco's far-right Falange party, and a tomb intended for the dictator himself.

The remains of both fascist and republican forces killed during the civil war that had previously been placed in mass graves were also entombed on the site, by order of Franco. An estimated 33,847 bodies were dug up and transferred in secret, without the consent of family members.

Little has changed since the massive memorial’s completion in 1959, and it remains complicatedly enmeshed as a site of mourning and remembrance, but also a reminder of the nation’s bloody civil war and fractured past. Once a year, it is also the pilgrimage site of far-right supporters, who visit in December for Franco’s birthday.

The government has stated that removing Franco’s remains from the monument is necessary to legitimize Spanish democracy. “In 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,” Fernando Martínez, Spain's director-general for historical memory, tells The Washington Post.

For all of Franco’s crimes against humanity, his legacy remains a sensitive topic in Spain. Even after four decades of democracy, many in the nation still see Franco as a type of nationalist savior who protected the country from communism and pulled them out of poverty. While Spain's congress voted last month in favor of the government decree evicting Franco, center-right legislatures abstained from the vote in protest. Polls over the summer showed that only 41 percent of people agreed with moving the remains.

One reason Spain has such a hard time wrestling with its fascist history is because during its transition to democracy, which began in 1975, the nation passed a law called the Pact of Forgetting, which gave amnesty to all who participated in Franco-era abuses. As Lucia Benavides at NPR explains, essentially, the law was intended to wipe the slate clean to allow Spain to begin anew. But that decision meant that many of those historical issues have been left to simmer under the surface of the nation for decades. The decision to move Franco is dredging up those memories.

Palmer of Smithsonian reports that Franco’s isn’t the only body that may be moved from the Valley of the Fallen. A lawsuit concluded in 2016 gave permission for one family to use DNA to search the tens of thousands of bodies stacked up in the basilica walls to identify family members, opening the door for others to petition the same. After several delaying actions, earlier this year technicians began to examine the decomposing bodies in the vaults, though it’s not clear if or how quickly the process will move forward.

“What the Spanish case shows globally is you cannot sweep these things under the rug,” anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz, co-author of a 2011 government report that recommended moving Franco’s remains, tells The Washington Post. “If we want to improve the quality of our democracy, this is key. We 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.”

It’s not clear where the dictator’s remains will end up. Some want him placed with his wife in the El Prado cemetery, though his family wishes to place him in a cathedral in downtown Madrid where his daughter is buried. Critics say this would just create another pilgrimage site for the far right, one much more accessible than the remote Valley of the Fallen, as Benavides of NPR points out. According to Natalia Junquera at El Pais, the government is asking the Vatican to prevent Franco’s burial in the cathedral. If the situation is not settled soon, however, the exhumation may not happen at all, since the government promised to resolve the situation by the end of the year, and the time to act is ticking fast.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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