At the center of the debate is the Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen, a site tucked into the mountains outside of Madrid, where the remains of some 33,000 people are located. It serves as one of the last physical reminders of the civil war, which began as a coup in 1936. An alliance of Nationalists, some Catholics, conservatives and the fascist Falange party ousted the left-leaning Spanish Second Republic in 1936. Franco was chosen as general at the start of the war and, upon the Nationalists’ 1939 victory, consolidated the right-wing parties into an authoritarian government.
The regime’s early years saw the mass imprisonment, execution and exile of those who supported the republic.
In 1940, the Valley of the Fallen was proposed as a memorial to honor the dead on both sides of the civil war, but it was actually built by political prisoners over 18 years, undermining that goal. As historian and journalist Giles Tremlett has detailed, it was one site in a much larger prison network that harnessed the labor of political prisoners — more than 2 percent of the male population in the decades between the war and the early 1950s.
During the 1960s, the Franco government disinterred some 30,000 to 40,000 of the war dead from mass graves around the country, both Republicans and Nationalists, as a gesture of respect for both sides and to help the country heal and move forward. They were buried anonymously, and without family permission, in the basilica’s crypt. Only two graves in the basilica would be marked: those of Franco, who died in 1975, and Falange founder José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Keeping Franco’s remains at this public site erased any hint that the valley could serve to heal the civil war’s wounds.
Succeeding Franco after his death was King Juan Carlos, his handpicked heir. But the king ushered the nation into a constitutional monarchy with free elections. Juan Carlos, despite public promises to the contrary, had been secretly meeting with pro-democracy leaders before Franco’s death.
Spaniards wanted democracy, but a national desire to avoid further conflict was paramount in ensuring the transition. This began a process of public forgetting, as Spain embraced democracy. Symbols of Franco like statues were removed from public spaces. Street names were changed. The valley, with Franco’s grave, stood as one of the few physical reminders of the Franco era. While erasing monuments lionizing or heroizing brutal leaders like Franco can have merit, the erasure of Francoism had less constructive aims: Spaniards simply wanted to forget their painful past.
Though demonstrations for the release of political prisoners immediately followed Franco’s death, it was not until 1977 that the newly elected parliament granted general amnesty to remaining political prisoners. The amnesty exonerated not only those imprisoned under Franco but also agents of Franco’s regime. The law codified the pacto del olvido, an informal agreement between Spain’s left- and right-wing parties to forget atrocities committed during and after the war. For the country to move forward, both sides would need to forget what the other had done.
Starting anew meant embracing an uncharacteristic silence about Spain’s recent history. In the valley’s gift shop, most traces of Franco were eliminated. Even now, there is just one permanent exhibition in Spain on its civil war, located in the Historical Memory Documentary Center in Salamanca.
Activists are trying to remember, however. Since 2000, Emilio Silva’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has recovered more than 9,000 bodies from mass graves across Spain, a project it has made public in an effort to mourn the bloodshed of the civil war and its aftermath. The pact of forgetting has left generations of Spaniards with little knowledge of the war or Franco’s reign. Silva and other activists hope these exhumations will catalyze educational initiatives and state accountability by shining light on Franco’s victims.
In 2007, Spain passed a Historical Memory Law, which formally denounced Franco’s regime, ended political celebrations at the valley and offered support for the continued recovery of remains, though this has largely been symbolic. While the law regulated the exhumation and identification of Franco’s victims, it still omits names of guilty parties.
Exhumations have allowed many Spaniards to grieve their lost family members and reconcile personal histories. But debates surrounding exhumation are still contentious: Many on the right believe they reopen old wounds. The basilica’s abbot has vehemently opposed exhumation at the valley; it wasn’t until a 2016 court ruling that remains in the crypt could be disinterred and returned to families.
Today, moving Franco’s remains has provoked intense debate. Spain’s resurgent right, including leader Santiago Abascal of the far-right Vox party, has condemned the decision to move the remains. The family initially requested he be buried in the family crypt in Madrid’s La Almudena Cathedral, a central, accessible site. But he has instead been relocated next to his wife Carmen Polo in the Mingorrubio cemetery in El Pardo, just outside of the city.
Vox would prefer to avoid a public reckoning with Franco’s legacy and contested the exhumation. It emerged as a far-right split from the conservative People’s Party during the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that invigorated far-right parties across Europe before the 2014 European Union elections. The party’s strong nationalist platform echoed Francoism in its pledge to quell separatist movements in Catalonia and restore Spain’s sovereignty. Many saw Vox as a minor threat, believing Spain’s recent return to democracy had inoculated it against Europe’s populist fever. But in December 2018, Vox secured 12 regional assembly seats in Andalusia, the first time a nationalist party had won more than a single seat since Franco.
And while interring Franco in a more central location would seem in Vox’s favor, party leaders view this as “kicking him off his pedestal” in the valley. The move may also unearth the most extremist adherents on the right, making explicit the connection between Vox today and Franco’s regime.
Once the dust settles on the question of remains, a second question arises of what the Valley of the Fallen itself will become. Some, like former prisoner Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz, want the government to cut funding and let nature devour the site. Others, like Vox, want it left as is. Both erosion and maintenance are permitted under the pacto del olvido.
But many are tired of forgetting and prefer a third path: deconsecration of the basilica, which would allow it to be turned into the first formal museum for the Spanish Civil War. They want to remember and educate the country about the civil war — without lionizing it.
And remembering may require courage. Spaniards will need to confront the ways that present-day institutions, like the Civil Guard, the country’s national police force, operated under Francoism. They will need to ask questions of their families’ histories, breaking the decades-old pact of forgetting, which has allowed both the political resurgence of the far right and the continued erasure of Franco’s victims. Franco’s exhumation is not the end of a chapter but the beginning of a difficult — perhaps boisterous — national conversation.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to reflect the location of Franco’s remains. A previous version of the story stated that his remains were relocated to Madrid’s La Almudena Cathedral, but he has instead been relocated to the Mingorrubio cemetery in El Pardo.