Online Editor Ellie Cook delves into the deeply problematic issues surrounding the Valley of the Fallen and discusses what Franco’s exhumation means for Spain’s future.
Valle de los Caídos, or the imposing Valley of the Fallen carved into the countryside just outside of the Spanish capital city, has been a controversial monument ever since the first chisel hit the rock of the Sierra de Guadarrama. Taking almost two decades to complete during the height of Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship, popular sentiment in Spain has never agreed on what the towering cross and abbey signify: a veneration of a fascist ideology and an exaltation of a repressive regime, or a symbol of memory and reconciliation.
Thursday, 24th of October 2019 was a day of international headlines in the polemical history of Valle de los Caídos. A Franco-commissioned project, it was partially built through the forced labour of an estimated 20,000 political prisoners during the consolidation of the fascist regime. In excess of 33,000 bodies are contained within the monument’s confines, the remains belonging to fighters from both Francoist and Republican forces that were placed there without consultation with the victims’ families nor their consent.
However, when General Franco died in November 1975, he was interred alongside the thousands of bodies for whose deaths he was, to varying degrees, responsible. Valle de los Caídos has taken on a significance that is not necessarily a homage to the victims of the Civil War of 1936-9; rather, it has become notorious as a site of right-wing pilgrimage for Francoist supporters. I saw this for myself when I visited the Valley in the spring of this year. It has an eerie quality of tourism blended with the visitors clearly travelling to revere a dictator who many argue still maintains a legacy in the Spanish collective consciousness.
This month, however, has seen a watershed moment with respect to what the Valley can be seen to represent since Franco’s burial some forty-four years ago. Between a protracted legal battle between Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and PSOE with the Franco family, and voracious opposition from right-wing and conservative elements, Franco’s body has been reburied in Madrid’s El Pardo-Mingorrubio cemetery. Crucially, his remains no longer lie in the Valley of the Fallen.
This exhumation has become a crucial episode in the political career of PSOE’s leader; inevitably entrenched in political discourse
The move has infuriated the living descendants of Franco, who had previously stated that they wished the Almudena Cathedral, minutes from the iconic landmarks of the Madrid city centre, to be the reburial site for one of the longest-ruling dictators of modern Europe. The dictator’s family, numbering twenty-two relatives present at the exhumation, were among the few permitted attendances. This included General Franco’s grandson Francis Franco, who travelled in helicopter with Franco’s embalmed corpse. Members of the media were not granted access to what was a highly secured and monitored undertaking.
Pedro Sánchez, the incumbent Prime Minister, has made the process of Franco’s exhumation a public and publicized mission. Between a protracted legal battle with the Franco family and voracious opposition from right-wing and conservative elements, this exhumation has become a crucial episode in the political career of PSOE’s leader. It was always inevitable that it would be a move entrenched in political discourse; from the far right, Vox’s Santiago Abascal characteristically took to Twitter to condemn the ‘Socialists’ campaign’ of ‘desecrating tombs and digging up hatred’, whilst the conservative voice of Pablo Casado walked a finer line of disagreement with his statement that he “would like to speak about the Spain of my children rather than that of my grandparents.” Casado foregrounds, whether intentionally or not, one of the most debated controversies of the post-Franco era: the so-called ‘pacto del olvido’, or the ‘pact of forgetting’ that came to define much of the transition to recognizable democracy. In an effort to hasten the healing from the dictatorship, a kind of social amnesia was enacted, and it is with this in mind that Sánchez justified the exhumation with his belief that “modern Spain is the product of forgiveness, but it can’t be the product of forgetfulness.” The government hails the exhumation as a triumph over an “an insult to Spanish democracy”, yet between accusations of tactical electoral ploys ahead of the Spanish general elections and the visible protests despite the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, which criminalized political activity at the monument and officially condemned the dictatorial regime under the ‘Caudillo’, an El Mundo poll put public opposition to the exhumation at 32.5%. Contextualized with rising and vocal nationalism in Spain, it is difficult to draw any concrete conclusion as to how Franco’s exhumation will impact political trends, looking forward to the November elections.
The consequential political trends may be somewhat unpredictable, but now that Franco no longer rests in the Valley of the Fallen, will there be any social repercussions for a society and nation historically divided over Valle de los Caídos? How much significance does this exhumation truly hold? After all, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Party – which Franco led to establish his fascist military dictatorship – is still interred in the Valley of the Fallen. And, even without considering Primo de Rivera and the fascist legacy still tied to his resting place, what can a monument with a history such as that of Valle de los Caídos be repurposed as? This question is yet to be answered, but regardless of what comes to pass, Franco is still a figure who, decades after his death, has maintained a grip on the society he dominated and scarred.