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Flowers at the Tomb of a Fascist

Antonio Maestre
Eoghan Gilmartin

The remains of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco lie in a monument built for him by Republican prisoners of war. At last, the government is trying to rectify that.

Valle de los Caídos, 'The Valley of the Fallen,' where Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is buried.

It’s Thursday, 11 AM at the Valley of the Fallen. A gaunt middle-aged man with a yellow t-shirt and black fanny pack waits for the staff to allow visitors to approach the tomb of Francisco Franco. The rosary has just finished with the words “for Spain, its youth, and its families.” As the mass continues, the abbot evokes the martyrs of which he and his fellow Benedictian monks are the custodians. The humidity, which makes the walls sweat, gets into our bones as we wait behind the cordon for the service to end. In the vaults of the crypt below there are more than 20,000 victims of Francoism interred in the same dampness. The chants of the monks and the strong smell of incense add to the oppressive atmosphere. At last the mass finishes and we are ushered in to pay our respects to the dictator.

Spanish history can be grasped through the funeral rites of its protagonists. The great Spanish writer Federico García Lorca was left to rot in an unmarked pit in the hills outside Granada after his assassination by Falangists. Meanwhile, the man responsible for his murder, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, rests in a mausoleum fit for an Egyptian pharaoh. This is a fate quite distinct from the glory afforded other fascist dictators in Europe. Mussolini was strung up outside an Esso gas station near Milan, while the body of Adolf Hitler was burnt with that of Eva Braun in a crater that is now the sandpit of a Berlin playground. But Franco lies in an abbey built by Republican slaves and maintained by public money. And it is no accident. Spain was a fascist anomaly in postwar Europe, which built its democratic order with a strong antifascist component.

A Morbid Symbol

Work on the Valley of the Fallen began in 1940, a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War, when Franco issued two decrees stating the need to honor those who had given their lives in the “glorious national crusade.” Built deep within a mountainside in the Sierra de Guadarrama, sixty kilometers from Madrid, the massive complex houses the bodies not only of soldiers from the fascist army but thousands of republicans who were interred there without their families’ permission. Its 150-meter cross, which sits atop a mountain peak, is visible throughout a long stretch of the A Coruña motorway, one of the country’s busiest roads.

The dictator chose the site during a hike in the Sierra with General Juan Moscardó. Its proximity to El Escorial monastery, the historic resting place of Spanish kings, was no accident. Franco had hoped that work on the project would be finished by April 1, 1941, the anniversary of his victory in the civil war, but the paid labor provided by construction companies San Román, Huarte (now OHL), and Banús could not complete it in time. As a solution, the “Redemption through Labour” scheme deployed republican prisoners as slaves on the construction project. With their involvement the complex was finally finished in 1958, after a more than seventeen-year delay.

Now Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is seeking to end the basilica being used as an apologia for the Spanish genocide. His Socialist Party (PSOE) government has promised to remove both the remains of Franco and those of the 1930s Falangist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera before the end of the summer. The idea is turn the complex into a site of historical memory and reconciliation. Since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s, the PSOE has spent more than twenty years in power without daring to pull down this symbol of the fascist triumph. The speed of their announcement has surprised many, coming less than a month after taking office, but it seems designed to take advantage of the current weakness of the right-wing Popular Party (PP) after the fall of Mariano Rajoy. Founded by seven Francoist ministers, the PP are the political heirs to the dictatorial regime and have repeatedly obstructed attempts to gain justice for victims of his regime.

For the more than 250,000 (predominantly foreign) tourists who visit the Valley of the Fallen each year, it can be difficult to understand why the remains of Hitler’s only ally to survive the Second World War rest in such a grand memorial. It would be easy to come away with the impression that someone whose grave receives daily flowers paid for with public funds must not have been so terrible. Yet to understand the degree of democratic aberration that results from the preservation of such a monument, you only have to look at the close collaboration between the Francoist dictatorship and the Nazi regime.

Transition and Continuity

On May 11, 1941, an event was held in El Escorial to pay homage to José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The Falange led a solemn ceremony in front of his grave at the Valley of the Fallen, which was attended by the entire staff of the Nazi Party in Spain, including its highest representative Hans Thomsen, and the head of the Gestapo in Spain, Paul Winzer. This close relationship lasted until the end of the Second World War and included a 1938 agreement between Heinrich Himmler and the Minister of Public Order Severiano Martínez Anido. Under its terms, captured German Jews and communists who had fought for the International Brigades would be handed over to the Gestapo for interrogation and deportation to the camps and in exchange Paul Winzer would train the Francoist secret police (known as the Political-Social Brigade) in torture techniques.

The role of the Franco regime in supporting Nazism might make it difficult to understand the existence of the Valley of the Fallen but unlike in Germany, Spain has never gone through a process of historical revision or truth and reconciliation to come to terms with its past. Indeed, the location of the remains of over 114,000 republicans killed either during or in the aftermath of the civil war still remain unknown. The most important factor in securing a narrative of continued legitimacy for Spanish fascism after Franco was the role played by leading figures in the regime in the transition to democracy. In contrast to Germany or Italy, where fascist regimes were defeated, Adolfo Suárez, the first democratic prime minister of Spain, had previously been a Francoist minister.

Led and directed by the pro-fascist oligarchs, the transition of 1978 ensured that democratization took place within a framework which did not endanger their network of power and patronage. These narrow parameters were evident in the 1977 Political Reform Law which provided for the gradual concession of political freedoms while, at the same time, providing continuity for the structures of the regime. Above all, the Francoist army remained a decisive political force, with Spanish democracy developing always under the threat of its intervention. The existing judiciary was also left predominantly untouched and it took decades for the police forces to undergo anything resembling a process of democratic reform. At the same time, the Spanish right, under the leadership of Manuel Fraga, promised to ensure that the historical and cultural heritage of the dictatorship would not be betrayed.

As I approach Franco’s tomb an assemblage of fresh flowers lies on top. Those nostalgic for the days of fascism crowd around the grave, mixing with the tourists. A Japanese group visiting the abbey concentrate on the frescos in the cupula, ignoring the vigil at the grave of a dictator. But then an older man beside Franco’s marble tablet breaks the mirage, giving a military heel followed by a fascist salute. It encourages another man, who kneels and begins to pray beside the grave, then stands up and raises his hand to the sky. He remains standing for a few seconds, then bends to kiss Franco’s name carved in stone. Throughout this scene, the volunteer responsible simply repeats to the visitors that no photographs are allowed. I sit down on the ground in a corner, trying to gather my thoughts and write a few lines. The volunteer rebukes me, “Have some respect,” and tells me I can’t write here. Everything in this aberration is a metaphor for Spain.