Forty-four years have passed since his death in 1975 finally brought one of Europe’s longest modern-day dictatorships to an end, but as a general election looms, General Franco is once again a hot political topic in Spain.
The reason is the long-awaited, imminent exhumation of Franco from his current resting place in the Valley of the Fallen – in Spanish, El Valle de los Caidos – a vast Catholic basilica capped by a 150-metre-high cross, built outside Madrid on the Generalisimo’s orders in the 1950s.
Last Friday, Spain’s Socialist Workers’ government announced that Franco’s remains will soon be moved, from what is effectively the last monument to a dictator in western Europe to the much more discreet setting in El Pardo cemetery.
Once the 1,500kg marble slab on top of his tomb has been removed, media reports say Franco’s remains could be transported by helicopter to avoid possible road-based blockades by right-wing extremists. The Valley has been closed to the public since Friday, and an attempt to break in by a small number of Franco supporters to hear morning Mass on Saturday was foiled by a line of police.
The government’s keenness to avoid direct clashes with the small, but persistent, hard-right groups of Franco supporters is palpable and it claims the aim of exhuming Franco’s remains by 25 October is to ensure it does not overlap with the upcoming election campaign.
However, the political impact of what a report in the influential El Pais newspaper termed “the toughest and most symbolically charged project” of the Pedro Sanchez government is proving impossible to avoid.
The main opposition parties, the conservative Partido Popular and centre-right Ciudadanos Party have insisted they will respect the law – and with that, the exhumation – but some of their top figures have nonetheless strongly accused the prime minister of “dividing the country” by carrying it out.
Meanwhile, Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, tweeted that “The Socialists’ campaign begins: desecrating tombs and digging up hatred.”
“It’s an excuse to rewrite history,” Abascal recently told 12,000 supporters in a meeting in a Madrid bullring.
As for Spain’s left, Pedro Jose Chacon, a political history university professor in the Universidad del Pais Vasco, believes that, “Despite all their divisions, any party who could support a Sanchez government from 10 November onwards is united on the subject of getting Franco out of the Valle de los Caidos.”
“It means that Franco is no longer something permanent, it kicks him off his pedestal,” he added. “For them, it’s a victory.”
While Sanchez himself insists Franco’s exhumation is “a triumph for democracy”, his removal satisfies a longstanding demand by Spain’s Recuperacion de la Memoria Historica associations – the Recovery of the Historic Memory movement.
Among the Memoria Historica’s other goals are the exhumation and proper burial of the tens of thousands of anti-Francoists murdered and left in mass graves by the General’s death squads. The biggest is the Valley of the Fallen itself, which contains the bodies of some 33,000 Republicans taken from unmarked sites on Franco’s orders, and then reburied alongside the man indirectly responsible for their execution.
“Franco’s exhumation is an important step, particularly given the enormous difficulties it’s faced since parliament voted for it,” Arturo Peinado, president of the Federations of Foro por la Memoria, says, citing opposition “from Franco’s family, as well as some judges and part of the Church. It’s been a fight between democracy and what’s left of Franco and fascism in this country.”
Yet another strand of the Valley of the Fallen story is tourism. Even on Saturday morning, Madrid travel agents still had pictures and leaflets offering coach trips to the site on display – despite then informing customers the Valley was closed.
One US tourist disappointed at having her Valley visit abruptly cancelled was Judith from Cincinnati. “I’m trying to understand the Spanish Civil War and I thought it would have given me an insight,” she said.
One Spanish Valley guide in her 20s did not think that Franco’s exhumation would affect the tourist trade “but a lot will depend on what happens afterwards”.
There is talk of making the Valley a civil war museum, but she also points out that it’s likely Falangistas – supporters of Spain’s Fascist Party – will still gather there “because Primo de Rivera, their founder, is buried in front of the main altar. Everybody talks about Franco but nobody mentions that.”
Franco’s headline status will doubtless be overshadowed this coming week, though, by the politically explosive news of the verdict from the trial of the Catalan separatist leaders. But the exhumation, once it happens, will surely be writ large in Spain’s current political agenda once more.
“It’s not so strange that it should form part of this general election campaign; for the last four years, we’ve been more or less constantly in pre-or-post electoral situations,” Peinado points out. “At some point the exhumation had to happen, and it’s happening now.”