SOCIETY / SPAIN
Farewell To Franco
Thirty years after Spain's right-wing dictator died, Spaniards are finally getting ready to lay him to rest
By LISA ABEND AND GEOFF PINGREE / MADRID
Sunday, Nov. 13, 2005
Unlike his allies Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco survived World War II, retaining his dictatorial grip on Spain for another 30 years. Even when he died, he avoided the fate of his fellow despots. Hitler's body was likely incinerated outside his bunker; Mussolini's corpse swung from a gas-station awning in Milan; but Franco still lies in a grand tomb funded and carefully maintained by the country he subjugated. On Sunday, the 30th anniversary of his death, several thousand Franco supporters will make their annual journey to the Valley of the Fallen, some 50 km northwest of Madrid, where a colossal basilica is carved into the craggy Guadarrama Mountains. There, they will lay wreaths and offer fascist salutes, as they do every year. But this time, their pilgrimage will take place in a country that is ready to confront the dark chapter of its dictatorship — and perhaps finally put to rest the legacy of Francisco Franco.
After igniting a civil war in 1936 when he led a coup against Spain's democratically elected government, Franco and his Nationalist forces — aided by Germany and Italy — finally prevailed in 1939. For the next 36 years, Franco ruled the country; he sent political prisoners to concentration camps and homosexuals to mental asylums, and women were not allowed to work without the permission of their husbands or fathers. Speaking out — for democracy or against the regime — was hazardous to your health.
Even after Franco's death in 1975, parties across the political spectrum maintained a "pact of silence" about the Civil War and decades of dictatorship to ensure, they said, a peaceful transition to representative government. But after watching their democracy survive tests ranging from the legalization of divorce to the Madrid bombings, Spaniards are ready to break that silence. And the Valley of the Fallen is one of the places where their voices echo loudest. "The 'pact of silence' was necessary for the transition to democracy," says José María Pedreño, president of Forum for Memory, an organization dedicated to identifying killed or missing opponents of Franco. "But it meant that our democracy was fundamentally flawed, resting on the impunity of Franco's regime. It had to change."
Commissioned by and with design input from Franco, the Valley of the Fallen was built at least in part through the forced labor of political prisoners. Soldiers from both sides of Spain's Civil War — Franco's Nationalists and the defeated Republicans — are interred there, but only Francoists treat the site as a shrine. Last November, the Catalan Green party (icv) suggested that the basilica be transformed into a "center for interpretation" to inform visitors about the repression and suffering inflicted by Franco's regime. "It's not normal for a democratic society to have failed to resolve this issue," says icv vice president Jaume Bosch. "Auschwitz has been converted into a learning center; Argentina has turned its torture chambers into places for explanation. Too many years have passed for us simply to leave the Valley as the Franco regime left it." Since the icv floated the idea, more than 30 human-rights groups have expressed support for it.
But the Civil War and Francoism Commission, which among other tasks will advise the government on whether and how it should alter the Valley of the Fallen, has so far been silent. The Commission was set up by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in July 2004 to consider appropriate ways to remember victims of both the Civil War and Franco's dictatorship. It has twice postponed releasing its recommendations. "In the course of the Commission's work, more and more questions have arisen," says Ana Salado, spokeswoman for Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, who heads the Commission. "More than anything, the delay is due to the complexity of the issue." But to some, the delays raise suspicions that the Commission may balk at suggestions from the icv that Franco's body be moved to a private plot. If the Commission hasn't announced its recommendations by mid-November, the icv pledges to present a bill on the future of the basilica directly to Congress. "We're going to dampen the festivities at least," says Bosch.
Whatever happens, Spain has already begun to dismantle the remnants of Franco's legacy. Mass graves of Republican sympathizers are now being excavated by volunteer organizations like Forum for Memory; just last month a related organization, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, unearthed in Cantabria the shared grave of two young men who, fleeing advancing Nationalist troops in 1937, were caught and shot in the head. In addition to setting up the Civil War and Francoism Commission, Zapatero's Council of Ministers authorized in January an increase in the pensions Spain pays to the now elderly children of Republicans who were sent to Russia and Latin America for their safety during the Civil War. "A country dignifies itself ... when it remembers those who have suffered, like those Spaniards who so unjustly had to leave Spain," the Prime Minister said in May. His government has also backed other efforts: to rename streets named after Franco, and to remove statues that honor him.
Spain's Minister of Culture, Carmen Calvo, believes that this new engagement with the past is a sign that her country has grown up. "After 30 years, Spanish society is mature enough to engage in a conversation about what really happened," she says. Political-science professor Paloma Aguilar, 40, adds that demographics also play a role, because people of her age are driving the memorial efforts. Indeed, political life in Spain is largely governed these days by people too young to remember much about Franco: only 3% of the country's political representatives are over 64, and Zapatero himself is just 45. "We are the first generation to approach the past without fear or trauma," Aguilar says.
Elderly Francoists still turn out on the anniversary of the dictator's death to mourn the passing of authoritarian Spain, while young and old members of the Falange — the far-right party that supported Franco — meet regularly to hear speakers disparage socialists, freemasons and Jews. But it's not just extremists who feel nostalgic for Franco. "Spain's view of the Franco regime is ambivalent," says Aguilar. "Many still see [him] as a benevolent figure whose tactics were necessary at the time." Leaders of the opposition Popular Party (PP) have denounced efforts to address the dictator's legacy. When the government removed the last remaining statue of Franco in Madrid in March, PP leader Mariano Rajoy accused Zapatero of "breaking the spirit of the transition [to democracy]."
The men at the Francisco Franco Foundation say they aren't worried about the Generalissimo's fate because they believe the plans to remake the Valley will founder in political disagreements. Even icv vice president Bosch admits that the government may not be ready to move the dictator's remains to a private grave. But whatever happens, it seems likely that in the near future, visitors to the Valley of the Fallen will encounter something different — a monument that, after decades undisturbed, at last recognizes the whole country's past.