On the 24th of October, 2019, the remains of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco were exhumed from their resting place at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive monument inspired by fascist aesthetics and built by the National Catholic regime in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid. The monument took eighteen years to build, using the conscripted labor of political prisoners. Construction of the monument started in 1940, only a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Franco’s nationalists and fascist allies over the Spanish Republican government. The site also serves as the final resting place for approximately 40,000 combatants from the civil war, many of whom were simply dug up and interred without thorough verification of the faction for which they fought and died. This has been a bone of contention for many of the families of the dead.
The exhumation of the former dictator’s body from its grave has been a contentious issue in Spain beginning with the country’s uneven transition to democracy, which took place from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Following the dictator’s death and the ebbing of political power away from the inheritors of Franquismo that followed the establishment of a constitutional representative democracy, the question of the regime’s legacy remained both urgently relevant and surprisingly static. The result was a “Pact of Forgetting” that was formally codified by the 1977 Amnesty Law, an agreement between conservative and leftist parties to avoid the prosecution of crimes committed by members of the regime in favor of a smooth transition to democracy. The Pact has increasingly come under fire, and not just from groups in Spain. The United Nations urged Spain to reconsider the law in 2013, and in recent years there have been other official steps taken to move away from its legacy. The most recent of these gestures is Franco’s exhumation and removal from the Valley of the Fallen.
While the Amnesty Law was seen as necessary step by the political elites of the time, as well as a precondition for securing the agreement of the far-right Franquistas to democratic reform, it also weakened the transition, robbing it of any chance of prosecuting the perpetrators of decades of violent repression, torture, and persecution. The law also failed to acknowledge the suffering of countless exiles who were forced to flee Spain following the Nationalist victory to places like France, Mexico, the Caribbean, North Africa, and Australia.
It is also noteworthy to mention that the law failed to secure a transition devoid of problems and complications, its supposed reason for being. For years the threat of another pronunciamiento—a declaration of a military coup by officers—was a very real one. This fear turned very real on the 23rd of February, 1981, with an attempted coup by reactionary members of the military and the Guardia Civil. Recent literary and academic publications, from Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and Anatomía de un Instante (Anatomy of a Moment) to Sophie Baby’s “Le mythe de la transition pacifique: Violence et politique en Espagne (1975-1982)” (“Myth of the Peaceful Transition: Violence and Politics in Spain (1975-1982)”), to name just a few examples, have taken the official narrative to task for insisting on a peaceful transition that did not take place and therefore failing to address tensions and unanswered questions that have only increased in relevance.
Rather than forgetting, the pact led to the festering of open wounds and the survival of far-right elements in Spanish society and politics which have only grown more toxic. Some traditions dating back to the dictatorship can still be seen in the military, and these phantoms of totalitarian traditions are seen by some as a dangerous sword of Damocles precariously aimed at the country’s democratic institutions.
To many in Spain, the legacy of Franquismo has not been forgetting, but has instead served to kindle a passion towards preserving memory and rescuing the past. The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, founded in 2000, was at the forefront of this effort. The Historical Memory Law, ratified in 2007, was an attempt at bringing legal tools to find mass graves and identify the bodies of those buried there, but later conservative administrations of the right-wing Partido Popular have actively sought to hamper these efforts.
The biggest point of contention regarding both forgetting and remembering in recent years became the resting place of the dictator himself. When Franco died he was given a full state funeral, an act that raised eyebrows even then. Franco was considered by many to be Europe’s last fascist dictator, and his dictatorship was certainly predicated on fascistic elements like extreme nationalism, conservatism, and militarism, as well as aspects of vertical syndicalism borrowed from Italian and French fascists. Franco combined these components with a reactionary form of Catholicism to fuse Church and State into a unified entity that served him and his rule as caudillo, or leader, of Spain. In this way his burial site, the Valley of the Fallen, became a physical embodiment of Francisco Franco’s regime in its scale, its symbolism, and its cruelty.
Like the giant cross that hauntingly stands on top of the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s legacy has cast a deep shadow over contemporary Spain. The legacy of Franquismo still find echoes in the far-right politics of Spanish parties like VOX that deploy the same xenophobic and reactionary rhetoric that has made inroads in other parts of Europe with the rise of radicalized far-right populism. VOX mobilizes the far right with a ethno-nationalist rhetoric that is similar to Trumpism in the United States, railing against Catalonian independence movements while exalting the sanctity of Spanish nationalism. Its virtues are Franco’s virtues. Additionally, some very real remnants of Franco’s legacy in the country still endure: many of Spain’s judges were trained in Francoist institutions, the conservative Partido Popular is populated by the sons and daughters of members of the Francoist regime, and its armed forces are still populated by officers trained in the Franco era.
Most of all, the dictator’s body was a very real, physical obstacle to addressing the wounds of the past in new ways. Franco’s tomb represented a tangible anchor to the past for a country that only now seems to be willing to openly confront its history and to entertain the notion of abandoning the self-imposed cage forged by the Pact of Forgetting. While the late dictator’s family insists that Franco did not wish to be buried in the Valley of the Fallen, his followers recognized that the monument was a lasting legacy of the principles of National Catholicism: By giving their caudillo a state funeral there, they would forever wed Spain to the dictator’s memory. Perhaps with the removal of the dictator’s bones from the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s shadow can truly begin to fade from Spain and a different kind of memory can begin to take hold. The path to a lasting resolution to the wounds of history cannot be travelled without stepping out from under the shadow of Europe’s last fascist dictator once and for all.