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Spain’s plan to exhume Franco revives memories of an unsettled past

The remains of Francisco Franco may soon be moved from the Valley of the Fallen. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

SAN LORENZO DE EL ESCORIAL, Spain — On the jagged edge of a mountain outside the Spanish capital, a dictator lies in eternal repose, guarded by statues of militant angels beneath a soaring granite cross. But soon Francisco Franco may be roused from his slumber and his posthumous reign may end.

Spain’s new minority government, headed by Pedro Sánchez, a 46-year-old Socialist who was 3 when Franco died, has ordered the exhumation of the dictator’s bones. Some Spaniards see the move as long overdue, others as post facto revenge. Either way, the Sánchez government risks reviving divisions in a nation that, while generally untroubled by nostalgia for its ­authoritarian past, has never achieved consensus about its bloody civil war and decades of dictatorship.

The government is adamant that removing Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, a sprawling state-funded monument, is essential to dignify Spanish democracy.

“In a democratic society, there cannot be a dictator who is the subject of homages, or whose tomb is a site of fascist pilgrimage, or who has a monument in his honor,” said Fernando Martínez, the first Justice Ministry official assigned to handle historical memory issues.

But in some ways, after Franco died in 1975, Spain’s transition to democracy relied on a decision to leave the past alone. An amnesty law passed in 1977 forbid the prosecution of any war criminals or Francoist officials.

“There is no one-size-fits-all for democratic transitions, and nor is there a consensus on what coming to terms with the past entails,” said William Chislett of the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank. “Spain took a pragmatic approach, and it worked.” This, he said, is the ultimate rejoinder to Franco.

Even as Spain began to assess its history — passing a “Historical Memory Law” in 2007 that condemned the Franco regime and called for the removal of Francoist symbols — the Valley of the Fallen largely remained outside the reappraisal.

And the government’s latest plan to dig up the past is fairly unpopular.

In a July poll conducted by Sigma Dos for the Spanish daily El Mundo, only 41 percent of Spaniards agreed with moving Franco’s remains. Separately, 54 percent said that now was not the right time to address the issue.

Parliament approved the exhumation plan last month with 172 votes in favor — but with 164 abstentions from Spain’s two ­center-right parties, which do not see it as a priority. Many Spaniards have mixed feelings about Franco — they credit him with saving Spain from communism and steering the country through postwar poverty and division.

For some on the right, the Valley of the Fallen is a monument to national unity, where 33,700 people from both sides of the Spanish Civil War are interred. The war, waged between 1936 and 1939, saw the country divided between Republicans, a leftist democratic faction, and Nationalists, the right-wing aristocratic contingent headed by Franco that ultimately prevailed.

“The Valle de los Caídos was built by Franco as a reconciliation after the civil war,” said Juan Chicharro Ortega, 68, a former army general and now head of the Francisco Franco National Foundation.

But the monument is not neutral. It was built in part by political prisoners Franco took from the ranks of his Republican enemies. And at least 12,410 Republican corpses were moved from mass graves elsewhere in Spain and buried there “without the consent or awareness of the families,” Martínez said. Their anonymity stands in marked contrast to the veneration bestowed upon Franco and, alongside him in the basilica, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Falange party that formed a core part of Franco’s coalition during the civil war.

“It’s a place of remembrance that needs to be explained,” Martínez said. “How was it built? Who built it?”

Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz, 92, knows how. The son of a prominent Republican leader, he was a 20-year-old student activist when he was captured and forced into construction of the mountain road leading to the monument, which he remembers working on in stultifying summer heat.

From his apartment on the top floor of a Madrid high-rise, it’s possible to make out the hills where the ascent to Franco’s mausoleum begins. But Sánchez-
Albornoz said he has refused to return to the site since his escape from the labor camp there on July 8, 1945.

“The exhumation is only one part of the question,” he said, when asked about the government’s plans. He noted that many private properties requisitioned by the Francoists — including those belonging to his own family — were never returned, and no one involved in the regime was ever brought to justice. “Unfortunately, I think it’s too late, because all the people who should have been brought to trial are dead.”

“But yes,” he said, chuckling. “Let’s start with the symbols.”

Beyond moving Franco — to a site yet to be disclosed, although the Franco family has pushed for the Madrid cathedral — the government aspires to locate and honor those buried in unmarked graves throughout Spain.

“As far as possible, we want to be able to exhume and hand over the remains to the families for a dignified burial,” Martínez said.

For the thousands of Spanish families who have sought to reclaim the remains of relatives, the process has often required a combination of luck and persistence.

In 2000, Emilio Silva was visiting family in Priaranza de Bierzo, not far from where his grandfather was killed in 1936, when an elderly acquaintance said, cryptically: “I know where your grandfather is buried.” They drove down a country road to a spot about a half-hour outside town. Then the acquaintance stopped the car and pointed to a copse in the distance.

Nearly three years later, after a privately funded excavation, DNA evidence confirmed that Silva’s grandfather was among the bodies discarded there.

Silva, a former journalist, now helps others locate missing relatives. His Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has recovered the remains of about 8,000 people and documented an additional 114,226 missing-person cases. All were victims of the Nationalists during the civil war or of the Franco regime in the years that followed.

“Our state created a big machine during the transition to manufacture ignorance,” Silva said. His goal is to remove that void.

Although Silva regularly equates his cause with Germany’s postwar campaign to critically engage with the extent of Nazi atrocities, there is a key difference. The Spanish Civil War, after all, was a civil war, and Silva and his allies do not have an absolute monopoly on victimhood, nor on the narrative of the past.

Roughly 500,000 people were killed in the conflict. Historians estimate that outside of combat, the Nationalists killed 150,000 of their opponents extrajudicially or under flimsy legal circumstances between 1936 and 1939, and Franco’s regime executed an additional 20,000 people after coming to power. But the Republicans also committed their share of atrocities, killing about 49,000 people.

“They say they want to restore the dignity of those who died on the Republican side. I can’t be against that,” said Chicharro, of the Franco Foundation. “But, for instance, myself, I don’t know where my grandfather is. Or three brothers of my father. But we have forgotten and forgiven.”

Chicharro’s family, like many others, included people on both sides of the war. His grandfather was a captain in Franco’s army. But he also had a Catalan great-grandfather who fought for the Republicans and spent the rest of his life in exile in Mexico. “He was an honest man who defended his ideas,” Chicharro said, noting that they met only once, in Mexico, when he was 12.

Critics have questioned why Spain’s government is seeking to dig up the past now.

With the possible exception of Nov. 20, the day of Franco’s death, the Valley of the Fallen is not a site that attracts far-right gatherings. In fact, there is no powerful far-right faction in Spain that comes close to mirroring those in Italy, France or Germany, let alone Poland or Hungary. Even in the face of a staggeringly high unemployment rate — 16 percent — and a recent uptick in migrant arrivals, Spain seems strangely immune to populist rancor. In short, Franco is not a rallying cry, and there is no real nostalgia for the political order he built.

Younger generations are especially indifferent on the question of historical memory.

“The majority wouldn’t know how to situate the civil war chronologically — in what years,” said Luis Montes, who teaches high school history in Madrid. Franco, he said, does not loom large in their imaginations. “It’s a name that gets lost.”

Some political analysts worry that exhuming a dead dictator will suggest that Spain’s democratic transition was less successful than it has been.

Others say making amends with the past would help address enduring fragmentation in Spain, which last year experienced a political crisis over Catalonia’s independence referendum and which is now governed by a shaky coalition of four political parties.

“What the Spanish case shows globally is you cannot sweep these things under the rug,” said Francisco Ferrándiz, an anthropologist who helped draft a report that advocated moving Franco’s remains in 2011, during a previous Socialist government.

“If we want to improve the quality of our democracy, this is key,” Ferrándiz said. “We have to recover these abandoned bodies and these abandoned stories and these humiliated people. And bring them back. Give them space to speak. Give them legitimacy for their suffering.”

The current government agrees.

“In this country, the right says, you have to turn the page,” said Martínez, the Justice Ministry official. “But before you turn the page, you have to read it.”

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