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Frontal view of the Valle de los Caídos and Santa Cruz basílica. El Escorial, Madrid, Spain (image by Neticola Sny)

Political corruption is so commonplace in the Spanish government that the average Catalonian will cite it existence as a principle reason for the wealthy, autonomous region’s perennial bid for secession. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has ruled the country for virtually half of its forty-three years of existence. Despite a right-wing strain of populism that has swept across Europe, threatening socialist democracies from France to the United Kingdom, Spain’s coalition has remained solid.

Yet the government’s efforts to rally around liberal causes has also been a smokescreen for manipulation and malfeasance. Rocked with corruption scandals, President Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People’s Party ultimately faced a vote of no confidence on May 31, 2018. The next day, PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez was announced the country’s new leader.

As president, Sánchez has renewed the PSOE’s political agenda in Spain, reigniting fierce debates over the legacy of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that lasted 40 years, from 1939 until his death in 1979. One of the last laws that the PSOE introduced before losing power to the People’s Party in 2007 was the Historical Memory Law, which aims to recognize the victims on both sides of the Spanish Civil War while prohibiting political events in the Valley of the Fallen where Franco is buried. The law also encouraged the removal of Francoist symbols across the country while granting a right of return to any former Spanish citizens who fled from the dictator’s regime.

Returning to the PSOE’s agenda, the Sánchez government has ordered the exhumation of Franco’s body from the Valley of the Fallen through an amendment to the 2007 law. Similar to how the Historical Memory Law faced bipartisan criticism for summoning the fascist Franco bogeyman for political points seven decades after the Civil War ended, the PSOE’s latest decision has some critics accusing the government of brazen propaganda meant to consolidate its constituencies on the left.

It is important to note that the valley is a cemetery home to both Franco and some 34,000 victims on both sides of the Civil War. The government also estimates that there were approximately 114,000 more casualties hidden by Franco in unmarked mass graves. (Overall, more than 500,000 people are thought to have been killed during the war.) For some visiting the Valley of the Fallen, the dictator’s presence contradicts the site’s purpose as a spot for mourning the loss of life in fascist Spain.

In a statement to reporters, deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo said that “having Franco’s tomb [at the complex] shows a lack of respect … for the victims buried there.” She also noted that a visiting U.N. delegation said four years ago that “democracy is incompatible with a tomb that honors the memory of Franco.”

A grandson of Franco described the exhumation plans as “barbaric,” telling the television channel Antena 3 in an interview that descendants would assess their legal options for halting it. The government has given the dictator’s descendants 15 days to decide where his remains will go once removed.

Sánchez’ administration has fast-tracked its decision to remove Franco from his mausoleum, which is owned and operated by the public-funded cultural heritage agency, and will outline its plan for the exhumation at its August 31 Cabinet meeting.

Why the expediency? Many Spaniards still have fond memories of Franco’s rule despite its bloodshed and treachery. A study conducted in 2006 revealed that one in three Spaniards still believe Franco was right in overthrowing the former republic in the 1930s. The Valley of the Fallen complex includes a 500-foot-tall cross that can be seen from afar. Both the mausoleum and basilica, adorned in a neoclassical style, are popular pilgrimage sites for Franco’s unflagging supporters. The dictator is buried in a tomb beneath the basilica’s central nave.

A view of the Valley of the Fallen, where Franco is buried, from across the field. (photo courtesy Katie Bordner’s Flickstream)

Still, there is little evidence to presume that Franco’s removal from his resting place of four-decades can ameliorate current socio-political tensions deriving from topics like corruption, Catalonian independence, and the enduring migrant crisis. (The country has received a surge of refugees even as numbers in the rest of Europe have fallen.) In fact, a poll by Antena 3 found that 71.7% of Spaniards do not see Franco’s exhumation as a priority, with a majority of respondents saying that they would prefer to see the Valley of the Fallen remain as it is.

In the United States, critics of public monuments honoring Confederate generals have noted many European laws, like Spain’s Historical Memory Law, that strike a balance between preserving the historical record while removing painful icons of authoritarianism and death from everyday life. Yet the Sánchez government’s expedited initiative to remove Franco’s body from public view goes much further than the discourse of American politicians would dare. (Although the circumstances here are admittedly different — the historical legacies of confederacy and fascism are different beasts — you don’t see anyone arguing to removed Jefferson Davis from his gravesite in Richmond, Virginia. And unlike Franco, Davis’ body is marked far more modestly with a single gravestone in a cemetery. Although some have tried to exhume the body of Confederate General and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest from his resting place.)

Superstition compels many to believe that exhuming the dead from their tombs will inevitably lead to controversy and bad luck. The political motivations of the Sánchez government to remove Franco’s body at this time appear less-inclined toward goodwill toward the Spanish people than to finishing a decades-old PSOE agenda item that will shape the historical memory of Francoist Spain for years to come.

Before the plan continues, though, Sánchez will need approval from a parliament where he holds only a quarter of the seats. Nevertheless, the government believes that it has the votes necessary to win.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

3 replies on “Is Spain’s Decision to Exhume Franco’s Body a Goodwill Gesture or a Politically Motivated Ploy?”

  1. A fine article, but you neglect to mention that the road to the monument , the excavation of the mountainside to create the basilica and gravesite, the 500 foot cross and the plaza (large enough to assemble thousands of troops) were built by political prisoner/slave labor during Franco’s lifetime. It’s a very good idea to remove Franco to a simple grave somewhere where it can be ignored and ultimately forgotten. He was an evil man and deserves to be shunned in death.

    1. I would also add that it doesn’t really matter if it is a goodwill gesture or a politically motivated ploy. It needs to be done, plain and simple. It’s time to get past this narrative and also to start healing some of the wounds. This is only a first step of many that need to come, among which the return of the looted goods the Franco family still has in its possession.

      I personally wouldn’t say Franco needs to be forgotten; I think he needs to be remembered so an atrocity like this never happens again. Also, we are the only country which would host the family of a dictator in TV shows ranting about a historical memory restoration move. It’s embarrassing.

      1. Yes. Revering Franco is embarrassing. But imagine how embarrassed a majority of Americans feel with tRump as our president. I think he would have been Franco’s friend.

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