Day 6

Exhuming Franco: Why Europe's last monument to fascism is so hard to get rid of

Spain's socialist government wants to exhume the body of former fascist dictator Francisco Franco, which is buried in a mausoleum that serves as a shrine to his rule. The plan has sparked fierce opposition.

Spanish civil war expert says exhuming the body of fascist dictator Francisco Franco 'should be a no-brainer'

Protestors demonstrate against Spain's socialist government's plans to remove the remains of fascist dictator Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid on July 15, 2018. (Javier Barbancho/Reuters)

Written by Brent Bambury

The dead usually don't miss deadlines, but time may be running out for the remains of Francisco Franco.

Spain's government voted last fall to open Franco's tomb and exhume his bones. His corpse, though, is surprisingly hard to move.

The dead body of Spain's fascist leader still exerts power over a country that has never fully reckoned with his crimes.

For now, Franco lies in The Valley of the Fallen, a massive, dramatic enclave that includes a monastery, a basilica and a giant cross that soars 150 metres above the Sierra de Guadarrama.

Flowers lie on the tomb of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco at The Valley of the Fallen. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

It's also a mass grave. Tens of thousands of civil war dead lie here, both Republican and Francoists, but Franco is the main attraction.

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On the anniversary of his death, his supporters flock to the site, and some raise their arms in a fascist salute.

"Technically, it is illegal," Luis Martin-Cabrera told Day 6. "The so-called Law of Historical Memory of 2007 prohibited ... fascist salutes anywhere, you know, in public."

Martin-Cabrera leads the Spanish Civil War Memory Project at the University of California, San Diego, which documents the repression of the Franco era.

Luis Martin-Cabrera, professor of Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies and Coordinator of the Spanish Civil War Memory Project at the University of California in San Diego, Calif. (Carol Arcos)

Martin-Cabrera wants the body moved.

"It should be a no-brainer," Martin-Cabrera said. "This is the last fascist monument in Europe."

Many others disagree. Pablo Linares, head of the Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Fallen, told Day 6 that Spain "should not be opening up old wounds with the exhumation of the former head of state — there's no reason for it."

The Pact of Forgetting

When Spain's lawmakers voted to remove Franco's body, the decision was far from unanimous.

176 members voted to exhume, but 165 abstained and two voted against. The lack of consensus reflects Spain's long-standing determination to move beyond the Franco era without acknowledging his atrocities.

An unwritten agreement called The Pact of Forgetting led to an amnesty law that gave cover to Franco's murderers and thugs.

"Spain is that really strange case," Martin-Cabrera said. "Unlike other dictatorial regimes … say like Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, there has never been a commission of truth let alone trials or any kind of ... public policies of memory."

That's changed with Spain's new government.

Last summer, the government said it would investigate the crimes that led to 140,000 disappeared and executed people during and after the civil war. Some of those bodies are among the 30,000 buried near Franco in The Valley of the Fallen.

Demonstrators protest to remove the remains of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on Nov. 18, 2018. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

"This was a concentration camp," Martin-Cabrera said. "The Valle de los Caídos was built by political prisoners that were taken there, so many of them also died, you know, building this huge cross excavated in the middle of granite rock."

Other bodies of the civil war dead were moved to the site from various mass graves around the country. 

"What the Francoist officials did is to go through several mass graves of Republicans — people who were fighting against fascism — and they took the human remains of those who were fighting Franco and took them, without communicating that to the families, to the mausoleum of the Valley of the Fallen," Martin-Cabrera said.

He believes opening Franco's grave and exhuming his body may result in other remains in The Valley of the Fallen being returned to their families.

But removing Franco could be like extracting the Jenga piece that makes the entire edifice unstable.

Where would Franco go?

The Benedictine monks who control the abbey rely on the hundreds of thousands of euros the government spends maintaining the site. They don't want Franco moved.

"The father of the order refuses to let the ... archaeologists of the government to enter and perform the exhumation of the body," Martin-Cabrera said.

The Catholic Church, which supported the fascists during the civil war, has approved the exhumation but won't overrule the monks, whose leaders have political associations.

El Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen) is a mausoleum holding the remains of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, outside Madrid, Spain. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

"This man is well-known for being a Francoist supporter," Martin-Cabrera said. "He refuses to allow the exhumation of Franco, so the government went back to the Vatican to ask for help with this and they said that they had nothing else to say on the topic right now." 

"I think this is a testimony of the fact that the government is still very weak, you know, in relation to the former Franco supporters and in relation to the Catholic Church."

If he is removed, it's not clear where Franco will go next.

His family wanted his remains interred in Madrid's Cathedral de La Almudena but the government objected. Now talks seem to have ended with no plan for where to put Franco's bones.

Time to ask questions

The question facing Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is how to proceed without dividing the country.

But for Martin-Cabrera, opening Franco's grave complements the inquiry into the Francoist murders of Spanish citizens.

The remains of bodies shot in 1936 by dictator Francisco Franco's forces are seen during the exhumation of a mass grave in Spain, Nov. 27, 2018. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

He says there are thousands of people in Spanish families like his whose lives were shattered by those atrocities.

"I grew up [in Spain] in a house where my grandmother on the maternal side never celebrated New Year's Eve," Martin-Cabrera said.

"I ended up finding out that she didn't celebrate New Year's Eve because on that day, the fascist forces executed her brother, her uncle and a cousin," he said.

As a boy, he was warned not to ask any questions. It's why he documents the Franco era in his academic work at UCSD.

"I was personally invested in giving voice to people like my grandmother who never had the opportunity to tell their side of the story," Martin-Cabrera said.

To hear Brent Bambury's full interview with Luis Martin-Cabrera, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.