ON September 13, Spain’s Congress of Deputies voted to expel the bones of General Francisco Franco from his Catholic-pharaonic tomb at the Valley of the Fallen. Not much longer would the great dictator be allowed to repose inside a vast basilica with black marble floors, flanked by chapels dedicated to the patron saints of his army, navy and air force, beneath a simple plate that bears his name but not his rank.
The following Saturday morning, thousands went to pay respects while they still could. Francoists, nostalgists, day-trippers and rubberneckers formed a pilgrim traffic jam along the A6 motorway and up the winding access road to that colossal, surreal mausoleum carved into a mountain outside Madrid, where a towering granite cross rises over 150 metres straight out of the rock. A motorcycle rider and his passenger stopped to one side, facing the monument, and raised their right arms in a fascist salute.
Crowds of paying customers flowed into the basilica, past the armed security guards and apocalyptic tapestries, merging with the guests of a happy couple who were being married by one of the resident Benedictine monks. The atmosphere within duly flickered between wedding, funeral, theme park and far-right rally. Older visitors blinked back tears and younger ones took selfies, breaking church rules to pose for photos by the altarside graves of the Generalissimo and his former acolyte José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder and leader of the ultra-nationalist Falange party.
De Rivera was executed by firing squad on November 20, 1936, a few months into the Spanish Civil War, for the capital crimes of military insurrection and conspiracy against the Republic. Franco himself died in his bed on the same date in 1975, having vanquished that Republic, proclaimed himself El Caudillo—head of church and state—and ruled as a strongman to the grand old age of 82. In the intervening decades, his regime built the roads, reservoirs, hydroelectric dams and high-rise, high-density urban housing that effectively created modern Spain.
“If you’re going to dig up Franco, why not rip all that out too?” ask those who insist on letting El Caudillo rest in peace. Why not shred the constitution itself, they say, a document derived from the 1977 amnesty law and so-called “Pact of Forgetting” that allowed Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy? It was all settled by right and left more than 40 years ago: no tribunals, no truth commissions, no official record of who did what to whom during the civil war, no questions asked about institutional repression or extrajudicial assassination under Franco’s regime. To exhume his body now, as proposed by the present socialist government, would be a literal violation of that mutual agreement to bury the past.
It could only open old wounds, summon up demons, unearth dormant memories and subterranean fears in a country that already has plenty to worry about, not least its long-suffering economy and capricious political order. How does it help the living population to take a dead dictator from his crypt? And if he still holds power, as a symbol, or a spectre, then what is to be gained by disturbing him? The Valley of the Fallen is only the most resonant of these, commissioned by Franco as what he called “a national act of atonement.”
“Attrition” might be the more apt martial and theological term for what he had in mind, given that its construction relied on the forced labour of Republican prisoners, and its crypts were partly filled with Republican remains. The estimated 34,000 bodies lying under the Basilica of the Holy Cross include Franco’s own rebel soldiers and Rivera’s Falangist paramilitaries, but also an unknown number of their enemies. Some were killed in combat, others shot in the back of the head in the middle of the night, dumped in pits and ditches across the provinces, then removed much later to be re-interred here, invariably without their families’ knowledge.
“Reconciliation” is the word most often used for this by the General’s disciples and defenders. “The immense cross represents reconciliation between the two Spains,” said the General’s great-grandson Luis Alfonso de Borbón in a suitably Franconian address beneath the monument back in July. “But resentment is once again stirring rancid fratricidal hatreds. History will condemn those who dishonour this grand temple.” De Borbón’s view, common enough among aristocrats, assumes that history will take the side of one Spain over the other. Which is to say, the winning side.
The losers of the civil war have their staunchest living advocates in the likes of Almudena Cros. A professor of art history who is also an activist, archivist and self-described (though half-joking) “rabid communist”, Cros runs a “non-neutral” Spanish Civil War walking tour across central Madrid. The itinerary does not include the Valley of the Fallen because she considers it the moral equivalent of a memorial to Hitler. And also because it’s too far out of town.
“Taking Franco out of there can only strengthen and enlighten Spain,” she says on a busy Sunday afternoon in Puerta del Sol. We were standing outside the Royal House of the Post Office that housed Franco’s security directorate during the regime. “It was a torture chamber,” said Cros, who wants a plaque put outside to that effect. “But it’s not going to happen.” Such a marker is unlikely to appear, she knows, in the Autonomous Community of Madrid, a political entity that still leans heavily to the right. A year ago, on October 1, 2017, Cristina Cifuentes, then President of that administration, hung a Spanish flag from the building (an act usually reserved for national holidays).
She did this in direct response to that day’s independence referendum in Catalonia, where 92 per cent of ballots were cast in favour of separation. The Spanish government declared the vote itself illegal, prompting Cifuentes and like-minded patriots to festoon the city in red and yellow, “which emboldened the fascists,” said Cros. “You could hear them all over the place, singing [Falangist anthem] Cara Al Sol’.”
A year on, those flags are still out, and the Catalan question remains absurdly, existentially vexed. Meanwhile, the job market is still struggling more than a decade after the financial crisis. Unemployment remains well over 15 per cent, and the Bank of Spain has just reduced its growth forecasts for this year and the next two.
A modern EU member state facing severe internal fractures and massive external debts cannot afford to waste time and money on a backward-looking exercise in “memory politics” that only undermines its constitutional consensus. Or so goes that side of the debate, which Cros says her own mother tends to agree with (she calls herself the “red sheep” of her family).
In her view, such a state should feel obliged to act on the 2014 report of United Nations special envoy Pablo de Greiff, who recommended that Spain “provide access to justice for victims” and properly investigate alleged atrocities dating right back to the first shots of Franco’s coup.
“There was never a civil war in this country,” said Cros. “There was a planned genocide against a civilian population, as part of an international conspiracy against a democratically elected Republic.” She opens a portfolio of poster-sized photographs taken in this square on April 14, 1931, of ecstatic crowds witnessing the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic. Pictures taken on the same spot five years later show craters from German bombs dropped by Luftwaffe Junkers supporting Franco’s siege of Madrid. Her grandparents’ home in nearby Lavapies was destroyed in one of those air raids.
“When people talk about this country being relatively new to democracy, I remind them that we had one almost a century ago. Franco rebelled against it, and many died defending it.”
They committed their own atrocities in doing so., and Cros does not deny that her ancestral comrades shot thousands of priests and nuns in 1936, or massacred still-unconfirmed numbers of military and political prisoners at Paracuellos, another site now marked by a huge cross beside Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez Airport.
“I don’t condone those crimes either,” said Cros. “They were terrible. But the fascists were murdering people for 40 years after that, and a lot of their victims are still out there, buried worse than dogs. Or lying at the Valley of the Fallen, beside the man who had them executed.”
Another 40 years have passed since Spain became a parliamentary monarchy, in which the two political parties formed after Franco have essentially taken turns in government. It’s a system predicated on never looking back, so any attempt to address the past will tend to start an argument. In 2007, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) will occasionally accuse the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) of breaching the terms of the transition, as when Prime Minister José Zapatero passed the Historical Memory Law in 2007 – which formally condemned the Francoist regime, recognised the rights of its victims, and compelled local authorities to take down statues and change street names that glorified its key figures.
Having voted against the bill, the PP declined to budget for its enforcement when they returned to power in 2011. Then, last June, their leader Mariano Rajoy became the first Spanish Prime Minister to be ousted by a motion of no-confidence, after a spectacular cluster of corruption scandals resulted in whopping jail sentences for graft among former PP officials. His PSOE successor Pedro Sánchez was the first to be sworn in without the standard totemic bible and crucifix. He announced almost immediately that he wanted Franco out of the Valley of the Fallen.
A bold move for the leader of a party now governing with a shaky minority in parliament, though he got the bill through congress as the right abstained en masse rather than vote against – another sign, perhaps, that something has shifted in Spain. Sánchez’s recent bump in the polls suggests that this particular issue will bring out disaffected leftists, in the same way that the PP’s hard line against Catalan independence seemed to mobilise their base.
Sitting outside his local bar in the working-class Madrid suburb of Pinar del Rey, Emilio Silva told me he could see the electoral sense behind the exhumation. “It will probably win the PSOE a lot of votes,” he said. It also looked like plenty around here would vote the other way. He gestured at the national flags draped from the balconies of surrounding tenements. These were built as a form of social housing during the dictatorship, creating an abiding debt of gratitude among poorer Madrileños that Silva calls “sociological Francoism.”
“Some of my neighbours don’t like me,” he said. Silva is now widely known, even famous, as the founder and face of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARHM). That organisation began in the year 2000, at the site of a mass grave outside the village of Priaranza del Bierzo, in the northern province of Leon, where he found the remains of his grandfather.
It’s a long story but he’s practiced at telling it, proceeding from the night in October 1936 when his father’s father, a pro-Republican shopkeeper, was taken from his home by Falangist gunmen with a death list. They held him for a while at the town hall, from where he smuggled out the gold ring that his grandson and namesake still wears. Then he was loaded into a truck with a dozen other known or suspected reds and effectively “disappeared” – a verb and adjective that has since taken on legal dimensions in the language of international human rights.
“I think about his fear for his family,” said Silva. “His wife and his six children, the youngest eight months old. I think about his last hours, how hard they must have been.” Like many families in that period, they both knew and did not know what had happened to him.
Two generations later, Emilio Silva the third was a journalist researching a novel about the war. He interviewed a former prisoner of Francoist forces who said he knew where his grandfather had been killed and buried – a claim eventually confirmed by careful excavation and DNA testing. In the 18 years since, Silva has helped locate some 4000 similar burial sites acorss the country, containing almost 9,000 more bodies.
“A mass grave is like a mouth,” he said, having also developed the habit of framing personal and national history in somewhat literary terms. “It opens up to speak for the dead and tells us how ‘they broke my bones, they shot me.’ But it is also like a mirror that shows us who we are. And we are the result of those crimes.”
Silva considers the post-Franco transition “a crime in itself”, and regards both left and right as equally complicit in forfeiting justice for the sake of political stability and economic prosperity. He holds the constitution in the same contempt once expressed by novelist Rafael Chirbes, who wrote of it as a promisory offer to swap “the past for the future, ideology for well-being, truth for money … and the country accepted.” In Silva’s view, this pact sustained Spain from the construction boom of the 1980s to the property bubble of the early 21st century.
The financial crisis of 2008 marked the end of the illusion that had sustained the country for 30 years. Or, as Silva put it, “brought us crashing against the limits of our democracy, like the walls of that gigantic TV studio in The Truman Show.” The 15-M anti-austerity marches through Madrid in 2011 made him think of the 14th of April 1931. “Two huge crowds in Puerta del Sol, two dreams of what Spain could be.”
He’s been less impressed since, and has yet to be convinced that Pedro Sánchez is substantively different from his predecessors. The decision to exhume Franco seems to Silva like a good start. The real proof of his commitment would be state-level support of the search for an estimated 114,226 bodies still missing.
“A democratic government should be sensitive to all pain,” Silva told me. “The perpetrator doesn’t matter. Whether you were killed by [Basque separatist group] ETA or by the Franco regime, the consequences of violence should be the same. In terms of those basic rights, Spain is so far behind the rest of Europe.”
In the meantime, the search is carried out by ARHM and small, independent victims’ associations, funded mostly by donations and partly by local authorities whose level of investment often depends on their historical and political sympathies. Francisco Ferrándiz, a social anthropologist for the Spanish National Research Council, has worked with these groups for 16 years. He sets up tents beside exhumation sites on the outskirts of tiny rural villages, and gathers anecdotal information from the oldest residents.
“Many of those we’ve interviewed were so elderly that they have died since speaking to us,” said Ferrándiz. “People of 80 or 90 years of age, who saw and heard terrible things when they were very young, and were talking about these things for the first time in their lives. They couldn’t speak during the dictatorship, and even after the transition they didn’t have a comfort zone for discussing what happened. So these very old people’s memories would often come out in the language of childhood fears, using childlike metaphors. ‘Rivers of blood’ and so on.”
As that generation passes away, said Ferrándiz, more and more of the stories he hears are classified as “post-memory.” Second or third-hand accounts of men and women shot one night long ago beside an onion field or olive grove – “whispers and rumours” that can now be followed up by archaeologists and forensic doctors, and verified by laboratory analysis. At which point, the remains are returned to next of kin. “These moments of homecoming can be very powerful.”
“Coffins are paraded through streets so that everyone can see. Some are draped in Republican flags, and mourners sing Republican anthems. Or the ceremony might be completely apolitical. But usually there is a release of all the tension surrounding the exhumation.”
Ferrándiz wouldn’t call this catharsis. He’s wary of therapeutic rhetoric when it comes to historical memory. On a national level, he believes this work improves the quality of democracy by “adding to the plurality of voices.” More broadly, it connects Spain to a global human rights culture that has exposed injustice through the opening of mass graves from Bosnia to Chile. At the same time, he is not persuaded by ongoing calls for a truth commission in his own country.
“Back in 1978 that would make sense, but 40 years later, what difference would it make? These commissions tend to be less about hearing victims than talking to state representatives and church leaders to make some kind of agreement between elites. They set out to publish the ‘official truth’, and there’s no such thing in Spain.”
Ferrándiz was, however, on the Commission of Experts whose 2011 report on the Valley of the Fallen said that Franco had to go. He’s glad it’s finally happening, though it has not yet been decided where the body will be taken. The General’s former residence at El Pardo palace is considered the obvious choice, given that his wife is buried there. Franco’s family have suggested Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral instead, which Ferrándiz thinks would cause “a lot of the same problems.”
A secular site would be his preference, removed from the trappings of Catholic iconography that make the dictator’s present resting place such a draw for disciples. “It’s just one body,” said Ferrándiz, “but it holds tremendous power. That’s why it absolutely must come out.”
The exhumation, he suggested, would go some way to dispelling that power, a symbolic gesture to set against the occult force of recent Spanish history. It would be another vector of the nation’s changing relationship to its own past – another crack in the edifice built over the General’s grave. The signs are everywhere, said Ferrándiz: “The constitution is falling apart.”
New political parties have emerged to break up the binary system formed 40 years ago (Podemos on the left, and Ciudadanos on the right). The Catalan crisis has ruptured the state’s post-Franco arrangement into semi-devolved “autonomous communities.” The younger generation are asking if the sacrifices and compromises of their elders were really worth the present-day results. And the question of historical memory seems to doubt that Spain can ever take its proper place in the world, until all its dead are buried where they should be.
“It’s not about completing the transition to democracy,” said Ferrándiz. “It’s about doing away with the transition model, and finding a new one.” The hope, in other words, is for an end to “the two Spains”, and for the birth of a third.