Protesters hold a banner with pictures of missing people during the Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Photo: PA

Exhuming Franco and the digging up of the present

Spain’s decision to exhume the body of General Franco threatens to disturb more than his bones
November 14, 2018

On 13th September, 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 Generalissimo 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.

Seven years had passed since a government-appointed Commission of Experts recommended de-glorifying the dictator by way of exhumation. Suddenly it looked like the new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was going to make it happen.

The following Saturday morning, thousands went to pay respects while they still could. Francoists, nostalgists, day-trippers and rubberneckers formed a traffic jam of pilgrims along the A6 motorway and up the winding access road to the colossal, surreal mausoleum carved into a mountain outside Madrid, where a towering granite cross rises more than 150 metres straight out of the rock.

A motorcycle rider and his passenger stopped to one side, looked towards 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 couple who were being married by one of the resident Benedictine monks. The atmosphere within 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 altar-side graves of the Generalissimo and his acolyte José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder and leader of the ultra-nationalist Falange party.

De Rivera was executed by firing squad on 20th November 1936 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 venerable age of 82.

The argument against his interral at this site began with the fact that he was not among the “fallen” of the civil war. Unlike Nazi Germany—which had propped him up during that conflict and effectively ringfenced his new garrison state against the world war that followed—there was never any reckoning for Franco’s Spain. Undefeated, undisgraced, his dominion lasted as long as he lived. In the 36 years after the end of the Civil War, the triumphant fascist regime built the roads, reservoirs, hydroelectric dams and high-rise, high-density 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, which allowed Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy? It was all settled more than 40 years ago: no tribunals, no truth commissions, no official record of who did what to whom during the war, no questions asked about institutional repression or extrajudicial execution by Franco’s enforcers.

To remove his body now, as proposed by the present leftist government, would be a literal violation of that mutual agreement to bury the past. For the Spanish right, the exhumation could only open old wounds, summon up ghosts, unearth 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?


Two Spains, two histories

The Valley of the Fallen—Valle de los Caídos—covers 13 square kilometres in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama range. It was commissioned by Franco in 1940 as what he called “a national act of atonement.” “Attrition” might be the more apt term for what he had in mind, given that its construction took 19 years and relied on the forced labour of political prisoners. The estimated 34,000 bodies lying under the Basilica of the Holy Cross include Franco’s 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, dumped in pits and ditches across the provinces, then removed much later to be re-interred here, invariably without their families’ knowledge.

“The immense cross represents reconciliation between the two Spains,” said the General’s great-grandson Luis Alfonso de Borbón in a suitably Franconian address, given beneath the monument 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 Civil War’s winning side.

Its losers 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 told me on a busy Sunday afternoon in Puerta del Sol. We were outside the Royal House of the Post Office, which once housed Franco’s security directorate. “It was a torture chamber,” said Cros, who wants a plaque put outside to that effect.

Such a marker is unlikely to appear, she knows, in the Autonomous Community of Madrid, a regional administration that leans heavily to the right. In October 2017, Cristina Cifuentes, the community’s then-president, draped a Spanish flag from the building in response to the independence referendum in Catalonia, where 92 per cent of ballots were cast in favour of separation. The Spanish government declared the vote illegal, prompting Cifuentes and like-minded patriots to festoon Madrid in red and yellow. But that, said Gros, “emboldened the fascists. You could hear them all over the place, singing the [Falangist anthem] ‘Cara al Sol.’” A year on, those flags are still out, and the Catalan question remains urgent and unsolved. The jobs market is still struggling. Unemployment remains well over 15 per cent, and the Bank of Spain has reduced its growth forecasts for this year and the next two.

A modern EU member state beset by internal fractures and saddled with external debts cannot afford to waste time and money on a divisive, retrospective exercise in “memory politics.” Or so goes the right-wing side of the debate. The other side counters, as Cros does, by citing the 2014 UN report which recommended that Spain should “provide access to justice for victims” and properly investigate alleged atrocities dating 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 photos taken in Puerta del Sol in April 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 in support of Franco’s siege of Madrid. Her grandparents’ home in nearby Lavapies was destroyed in one of those 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.” She does not dispute that they committed their own atrocities. Republicans shot thousands of priests and nuns in 1936 and 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.”


Don’t look back

Another 40 years have passed since Spain became a parliamentary monarchy, and 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 tends to start an argument. In 2007, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) accused the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) of breaching the terms of the transition agreement when its then-Prime Minister José Zapatero passed the Historical Memory Law. This 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, that party’s leader Mariano Rajoy was ousted after being mired in a spectacular cluster of corruption scandals. His PSOE successor, Pedro Sánchez, announced almost immediately that he wanted Franco out of the Valley of the Fallen. It was a bold move for the leader  of a minority government. Even so, he got the bill through. The right abstained en masserather than vote against.

I went to meet Emilio Silva outside his local bar in the working-class Madrid suburb of Pinar del Rey. Now a widely recognised figure in the Spanish media, Silva is the founder and face of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARHM), Silva told me he could see the political sense behind the exhumation. “It will probably win the PSOE a lot of votes,” he said. It also looked like plenty of people around here would vote the other way. He gestured at the national flags that cloaked the balconies of surrounding tenements. These were built as a form of social housing during the dictatorship, creating an abiding debt of gratitude among many residents that Silva calls “sociological Francoism.”

“Some of my neighbours don’t like me,” he said.

The organisation he runs began in 2000, at the site of a mass grave outside the village of Priaranza del Bierzo in the northern province of León, where Silva found the remains of his grandfather.

It’s a long story but he’s practised at telling it. His father’s father, also named Emilio Silva, was a pro-Republican shopkeeper, taken from his home one night in October 1936 by a Falangist death squad. They briefly held him at the town hall, from where he smuggled out the gold ring that his grandson and namesake still wears: he showed it to me while he spoke. 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, the current Emilio Silva 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 that was confirmed by excavation and DNA testing. In the 18 years since then, Silva has helped locate some 4,000 similar burial sites containing almost 9,000 bodies.

“A mass grave is like a mouth,” he said. “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 complicit in forfeiting justice for the sake of stability. He holds the constitution in the same contempt once expressed by novelist Rafael Chirbes, who wrote of it as a promissory offer to swap “the past for the future, ideology for well-being, truth for money… and the country accepted.”

The financial crisis of 2008 marked a sort of breach in that contract, which had sustained the country for 30 years. The anti-austerity marches through Madrid made Silva think of that earlier mass radical gathering in 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 less cautious or more committed than previous Socialist Prime Ministers. The decision to exhume Franco seems to Silva like a good start, but the real proof of his progressivism 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 small, independent victims’ associations, funded mostly by donations and partly by local authorities whose level of investment often depends on their political sympathies.

Francisco Ferrándiz, a social anthropologist for the Spanish National Research Council, has worked with these small groups for 16 years. He sets up tents beside exhumation sites on the outskirts of tiny villages, and solicits anecdotal evidence 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, 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.”

As that generation passes away, said Ferrándiz, 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 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.

“Coffins are paraded through streets so that everyone can see,” Ferrándiz said. “Some are draped in Republican flags, and mourners sing Republican anthems. Or the ceremony might be completely apolitical.”

Ferrándiz is wary of therapeutic rhetoric when it comes to historical memory. On a national level, he believes this work connects Spain to a global human rights culture that has exposed injustice through the opening of mass graves from Bosnia to Chile. But 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 proposed remodelling the site as something more akin to German, French or Polish war museums and memorials. First among their suggestions was that Franco had to go, and 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 mooted Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral, which Ferrándiz thinks would cause “a lot of the same problems” as leaving him in the Basilica of the Holy Cross.

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.”


Life after death

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 expression of the country’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.”

Alternative political parties have emerged to break up the binary system formed 40 years ago—Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos on the right—while the PP’s new leader Pablo Casado tries to reclaim the centre by declaring himself “liberal on economics and conservative on territorial issues.” At this point, though, the Catalan crisis has already ruptured the state’s post-Franco arrangement into semi-devolved “autonomous communities.” The younger generation, after a decade of austerity, are asking if the sacrifices and compromises of their elders were worth the present-day results. And the question of historical memory seems to doubt that Spain can 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.