VALLEY OF THE FALLEN, Spain (CN) – The morning Mass and its chants, priest’s invocations, organ music and prayers end. For a moment, the basilica’s colossal interior goes quiet.
The quiet is quickly replaced by a hubbub of echoing voices and footsteps as a crowd of foreign tourists and reverent Spaniards is free to move now that the Mass is over.
They’re drawn by a strange historical force to the place behind the altar they’ve come to see: The tomb of Francisco Franco, Spain’s brutal fascist military ruler.
There’s not that much to see, really. On the floor behind the altar, there’s a simple tombstone with Franco’s name on it. Garlands are arranged around the tomb. An association dedicated to upholding Franco’s legacy brings the flowers – they are red and yellow, the colors of Spain’s national flag.
Franco was buried inside this massive basilica shortly after he died in 1975, but the presence of his tomb at the heart of this massive monument outside Madrid honoring victims of the Spanish Civil War is the subject of one of this country’s most acrimonious political dramas. It’s a drama pitting the political left against the right.
Removing the tomb is a long-running goal of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Since it took power little more than a year ago, it’s taken steps to do just that.
“Democracy is not compatible with a tomb that honors the memory of Franco,” said Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo a year ago in announcing the Socialist government’s plans to remove the dictator’s remains. One proposal is to remove the dictator’s body to the El Pardo cemetery outside Madrid where his wife was buried.
But it’s far from certain the Socialists will get their way.
That’s because Franco’s descendants, the Catholic Church, right-wing political parties and much of the Spanish public want Franco’s tomb to stay right where it is. Spain’s Supreme Court is reviewing appeals to stop the government’s plans.
Spaniards visiting the Valley of the Fallen told a Courthouse News reporter that the monument is a historical shrine that needs to be left alone.
“Ask them where he is?” said Maite Del Olmo, a 44-year-old woman from Valencia. “He’s dead.” She said it “makes no sense” to remove the remains of a dead person, regardless if he was a dictator. She called efforts to remove the tomb a political move.
Ruberto Mercado Galdon, a 67-year-old from Jaén in Andalucía, was critical too.
He said the debate around Franco’s body was a distraction from Spain’s more pressing problems, such as dealing with the independence drives in Catalonia and the Basque country.
“We’re talking about this instead of issues that are more important,” he said. “He was a dictator of an era that is gone. Forty years have passed.”
He said the Socialist government “wants to win a battle that it lost in 1939.” He was referring to the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1939 with the defeat of the republicans, who were largely made up of socialists, communists and anarchists.
Although this is a public monument built ostensibly to honor the victims from both sides of the Spanish Civil War, it’s plainly a monument to Franco and his dictatorship, which defeated the republicans in large part with the military support of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The republicans were supported by the Soviet Union.
The Valley of the Fallen was built upon Franco’s orders in the 1940s and 1950s and its gargantuan aspirations ooze with his fascist and national-Catholic symbolism. Today, the Valley of the Fallen is considered Europe’s only remaining public monument to fascism.
The basilica, dug inside a granite ridge, rivals in size St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Above the basilica, rising from the granite outcrop, looms a 500-foot-tall stone cross visible from miles away.
There are sweeping staircases befitting ancient Rome; gigantic statues of angels holding swords; and tributes to Franco’s victory in the Civil War. Near to Franco’s tomb lies another tomb containing the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spain’s fascist movement, the Falangists.
Imagery of Franco isn’t for sale in the gift shop, but there are plenty of booklets and trinkets about the royal family to purchase and children can be fitted with pretend knights’ vests. All of this speaks, in veiled tones, of Franco’s old Spain where Catholic and monarchic symbolism ruled.
All of this makes the Valley of the Fallen feels like a monument to Franco, fascism and the military coup d’etat that brought down a fledgling democratically elected republic. There are no monuments to republicans here; their slogans aren’t emblazoned on the basilica’s walls; their side of history is untold.
Indeed, republican prisoners were used to construct the massive monument and descendants of republicans buried here are seeking to retrieve their loved ones and bury them elsewhere. About 34,000 dead from both sides of the Civil War were interred in the basilica in what Franco said was an act of reconciliation. The names of many of those dead, whose bodies were dug up in the 1950s and placed in the basilica, are unknown.
Still, it’s easy to imagine little will change in a place that seems frozen in the past. It’s easy to imagine Franco’s tomb will remain right where it is.
In the shade of a covered walkway of the Benedictine Abbey of the Holy Cross, a sprawling royal monastery built behind the granite ridge and towering cross, sat Francisco Hernandez, a 49-year-old lawyer from Madrid. He said he was a friend of the monks.
“This is an artificial trouble,” he said about the controversy of Franco’s tomb. He argued that Spain needed to move on and not re-fight the ideological battles of the Spanish Civil War.
“The success of the transition was to forgive,” he said, referring to Spain’s transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy. “Both sides forgave.”
He said the war divided Spain and split families. “Brother against brother fought against each other.” Instead of fighting over the legacy of the war and Franco, Spaniards need to work together, he said. “We could be again a great nation.”
As for Franco’s tomb, he predicted it would remain right where it is because he said the high court likely would rule in favor of upholding the wishes of Franco’s family.
“I think the Supreme Court will recognize the rights of families,” he said. “I don’t see any other possibility.”
He also said the court may block the exhumation because the prior of the Benedictine abbey is opposed to it. The prior was not available to speak to a Courthouse News reporter, the monastery said.
Hernandez said that under the law the Catholic Church and the Benedictine abbey are viewed as custodians of the dead buried in the monument, making it necessary for the church to agree to the exhumations.
“I’m no Franco fan,” he said. “I’m a democratic person. But this is history. We can’t change history now.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)