Ghosts of a Restless Past
Ben Mannings explores why the exhumation of former Dictator Francisco Franco is looming over the Spanish elections.
April 22, 2019
Towering 150 metres into the eerie sky of Cuelgamuros, the imposing granite cross of the Valle de los Caídos will watch over Spain this Sunday as the country goes to the ballot boxes.
The Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) is the current and controversial resting place of Spain’s former dictator Francisco Franco. His proposed exhumation has been hotly debated in the build-up to the elections which will take place on the 28th April. Although a date for Franco’s disinterment has already been set by the incumbent PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), for June 10th, the exhumation is by no means a fait-accompli with Franco’s family and connected organisations having lodged appeals to the Supreme Court to prevent the move.
Both the left and the right have been using Franco’s exhumation for political capital, with Vox, the rising far-right populist party, saying that they will try to stop the action, and the PSOE claiming that if elected they will ensure it is carried out.
The Valle de los Caídos was inaugurated by Franco in 1959, nominally, as an act of national reconciliation to honour the remains of 33,847 victims that it houses, from both sides of the Spanish Civil War. This interpretation of reconciliation, however, was conceived in the minds of the victors and not the vanquished, and the monument was constructed using the labour of Republican prisoners of war, a number of whom died during its construction.
Upon Franco’s death, he too was interred inside the basilica, and this was the final nail in the coffin for any reconciliatory aspirations the mausoleum may have pretended to. Ever since it has become a place of pilgrimage for fascists, and the host to a number of neo-fascist rallies.
Usually, totalitarian dictatorships like Franco’s end when they are overthrown, and afterwards, their crimes and illiberalism are condemned. The fall of Franco was not like this, and it did not come from a catharsis of popular discontent, but rather with his death, from natural causes. Before he died, Franco had nominated the Bourbon king Juan Carlos I as his successor and following Juan Carlos’ coronation, the new king ushered in a constitutional monarchy. With this, Spain passed from dictatorship to democracy without revolution. However, the transition process was not straightforward and was as delicate as it was difficult.
The shared collective memory of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, and the fear of reigniting a similar conflict, as well as the continued role of many of Franco’s former ministers in high government positions, meant that instead of an open denunciation of Franco and his regime, Spain agreed to a Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting.) In the place of condemnation, Spain adopted a form of national amnesia and in 1977 The Pact of Forgetting was compounded by an Amnesty Law which ensured there would be no prosecutions for crimes committed during the War and Dictatorship. In this way, the whitewashing of history that had occurred under Franco, continued under the democratically elected governments which succeeded him. The mass-murders of the Civil War were ignored, repression was left uncriticised and the unmarked graves of Republican victims were left unidentified.
In recent years the tide of historical memory has begun to turn and Spain has taken some positive steps towards reclaiming its history. In 2007 Spanish parliament passed the Historical Memory Law designed to establish measures to ‘recognise and broaden the rights in favour of those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the Dictatorship.’ Although a step in the right direction, the Law has still not gone far enough and has often been ineffective or stifled at municipal level. Franco’s continued presence at the Valle de los Caídos exemplifies this. Apart from Cambodia, Spain has more mass graves than any other country in the world. Eighty years on from the end of the Civil War, many families still have no idea what happened to their relatives.
If the plans to exhume Franco are successful, he will most likely be removed to the Pardo cemetery in Madrid where his wife is buried. The Valle de los Caídos, is expected to be turned into what it should have been in the first place – a monument for reconciliation. It is hoped that the names of its 33,847 dead will be listed for public display and that it will include a museum to the Civil War.
For Spain and its politics to move forward the country has to do more to swap taboo for transparency, exhuming Franco is a big symbolic step towards this. Spain needs open debate, open investigations, graves need to be identified and the crimes of Franco, his regime, and both sides of the Civil War need to be unanimously condemned.
When the country goes to the ballot box next Sunday it must remember to not turn a blind eye to Franco’s legacy. A failure to come to terms with its history once more will mean the spectres of Spain’s restless past will continue to haunt its future.