Spain’s Historical Reckoning

By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer

Flying west out of Madrid Barajas Airport a year ago, one object stood out clearly to me in the distance as our plane ascended: a massive granite cross. Perched in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range, this 500-foot (150-meter) cross sits atop a basilica hewn directly into the mountain face, and overlooks a stately benedictine abbey. The casual observer could hardly hope to find a more idyllic and impressive setting. And yet, this monument hides a more sinister history. Known as El Valle de Caídos, or Valley of the Fallen, the Basilica complex in the mountains is the final resting place of Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain until 1975.

Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Courtesy Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa/Wikimedia

A participant in the Nationalist military rebellion against the duly-elected government of the Spanish Republic in the late 1930s, Franco managed to seize and retain power despite the broader defeat of fascists elsewhere after World World II. And whereas other authoritarian regimes often eschewed organized religion, Franco justified his coup precisely as a means to reestablish Roman Catholicism as the main pillar of Spanish society (as if the 500-foot cross wasn’t already a clue to that effect). Indeed, for Franco and his forces, the Spanish Civil War was a holy crusade.

The monument complex at the Valley of the Fallen was constructed from 1940 to 1958, and was supposed to represent reconciliation after the tragedy of war (and many contend that that is still the case). After all, some 30,000 dead from both sides of the Civil War are interred in its grounds. The fact that many of the laborers who worked on the monument were political prisoners quickly reminds us, however, that Franco may have been less worried about forgetting the past than avenging the past: those on the wrong side of history would have to atone for their sins. Many, in this case, did so by building a monument to the victors. In a conversation with Journalist Giles Tremlett, author of the important text on historical memory Ghosts of Spain, a man who had worked at the Valley commented that the cross profanes the land it stands on, and is a monument to cruelty.

Protestors Seeking Justice, Courtesy of Shutterstock

The Valley of the Fallen is perhaps so unique because it is really the only remaining physical reminder of the Franco period for many Spaniards. After the return to democracy in the late 1970s, streets named after Franco were changed, and monuments to the dictator were removed quickly from town squares. But a national conversation on how to seek justice was prevented by the Spanish Amnesty Law of 1977, which barred prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations during the Civil War and the ensuing Franco rule. For many readers, this arrangement must seem to be a gross miscarriage of justice. But for politicians of all ideological persuasions, a “pact of silence” was the only way to ensure the fledgling Spanish democracy’s success. Even so, new generations that have only known a democratic Spain, and did not live under fear of repression, are openly challenging this tacit agreement.

In recent years, especially as mass graves of the Civil War dead continue to be uncovered, Spain has been forced to reckon with its past. On September 13, the Spanish Parliament voted in favor of exhuming Franco’s body, thanks in part to the recent return to power of the Spanish Socialist party. A coalition of left-leaning parties voted 176 in favor of the measure, while the remaining legislators abstained (two no votes were later said to have been cast in error). Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Partido Popular, reasoned that the Socialists were simply using the controversial issue of the Valley in order to distract from their “inability to govern.” Clearly though, his party did not want to be viewed as actually opposing the measure on its merits.

Interestingly, perhaps the staunchest resistance to exhumation has actually come from the religious leaders at the abbey of the Valley of the Fallen. One of these leaders, Santiago Cantera, contends that any attempts to remove Franco would be prohibited insomuch as the very act would violate the sacred space of the Valley Basilica. But why would a group of seemingly innocuous monks react in such a forceful way? Franco’s sympathizers would quickly point out, and perhaps rightfully so, that during the years prior to the Civil War’s outbreak, anticlerical mobs burned churches and murdered Catholic priests and nuns. While horrific, it is difficult to compare these unsanctioned, spontaneous tragedies with the institutional reprisals that Franco’s regime unleashed against political dissidents. But for the Spanish Catholic leadership during the 1930s, support for Franco’s Nationalists, even if untenable, was the only means for institutional survival. That mutually-beneficial alliance between Church and State has not been forgotten by the Valley’s caretakers.

Protesting Franco’s Exhumation, Courtesy of Reuters

Despite resistance, momentum is on the side of eventual exhumation. However, writing for the periodical El País, Manuel Vicent suggests that the problem isn’t really about removing Franco’s body, but rather in removing his memory, and his appeal, from the consciousness of a sizeable swath of Spaniards. And as popular right-wing movements multiply across Europe (though the trend does not seem to have taken root in Spain as of yet), and Spain grapples with inflows of migrants similar to other mediterranean nations, renewed Spanish nationalism is a real possibility. Many of Franco’s sympathizers argue that Spain modernized and improved economically during his rule. Spain, like many European nations, has been scarred in recent years by chronically high youth unemployment, and if the benefits of globalization and economic integration cannot be passed on viably to broader segments of society, then the inward nationalism of the past will continue to hold its appeal. Even after Franco’s body is removed, and the Valley hopefully repurposed, the fight against Franco’s ghost will no doubt continue.

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