In the hills outside Madrid, 37 miles away from the crowded city centre of the capital, a 500-foot cross stands over a Catholic basilica known as The Valley of the Fallen. The vast monument, built between 1940 and 1958 to honour the dead from the victorious Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War, is the resting place of thousands of victims from both sides of the conflict.
Much more controversially, it is the burial place of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled the country for 36 years.
This memorial has recently become the epicentre of a political row thanks to the government’s plans to exhume and transfer Franco’s remains out of the basilica in the coming months. Once the remains are removed, his family will then decide where to have the body buried. Should they want nothing to do with it, it will be up to ministers to decide what to do with it.
The roots of the controversy date back to 2007, when Congress passed the so-called Historical Memory Law, aimed at addressing and repairing the damage caused to the victims of Franco’s dictatorship. Among other things, the legislation stipulates that the Valley of the Fallen must be dedicated to “honouring and rehabilitating the memory of everyone who died during the Civil War and the political repression that followed”. Although the law says nothing about moving Franco’s remains out of the basilica, removing his body does not seem out of keeping with the spirit of the law.
At the time it was going through Spain’s parliament, the People’s Party opposed the law, arguing that it only sought to reopen old wounds from the Civil War that they thought had been healed during the transition period to democracy. In effect, in the aftermath of Franco’s death, the political heirs of both sides of the conflict worked together to move the country forward and establish a new democratic regime, putting aside political differences. Current opposition leader Pablo Casado has employed exactly the same argument to criticise Franco’s exhumation.
His is not the only critique. The government has been also accused of undertaking the exhumation for electoral reasons, making use of a legislative instrument (an executive order) that, according to Spain’s legal system, should only be employed in emergency cases.
Whatever the rationale for digging up Franco’s remains, one thing is clear: having a contemporary dictator buried in a public monument that receives thousands of visits every year is an anomaly in the context of consolidated liberal democracies in Europe. However, the real issue isn’t so much that the dictator is buried in a memorial open to the public, but the fact that his mortal remains rest on a monument owned by the Spanish state. That seems to convey a clear political message to the outside world, namely that Franco is worthy of respect and credit.
In a sense, this controversy bears some resemblance to what happened in the US last year with Confederate monuments in public spaces. After the Charleston church shooting, some municipalities started to remove statues and other monuments related to the Confederacy. Many of them had been erected during two specific periods of American history (the beginning of the Jim Crow Era and the rise of the Civil Rights movement), not as a way of remembering the past, but to reaffirm the ideas of white supremacy against the rights of African-Americans.
Similar debates have taken place in other countries. For instance, the first post-apartheid government in South Africa removed statues directly linked to the most recent periods of repression, leaving intact some controversial monuments from the more distant past. However, other memorials were built near the old ones to celebrate the end of apartheid and the onset of a new political era.
It would be senseless to try to eliminate all references to Franco’s dictatorship from public life. After all, he ruled the country for almost 40 years. Doing away with anything that recalls this long period in Spanish contemporary history would be an absurd waste of resources that Spain’s taxpayers cannot and should not have to afford. Nonetheless, the decision to move Franco’s body to a private burial place seems justified.
The idea of a 20th-century dictator buried in a public memorial represents an offence to the millions of people killed in Europe by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the last 100 years. Very few people would understand if Mussolini or Milosevic were buried in state-owned monuments visited by thousands of people every year. Why should Franco be any different?