A year after the Spanish Civil War ended, in 1940, General Francisco Franco decreed that, to honor those who had died fighting for the nationalist cause, he would build a mausoleum possessed of “the grandeur of the monuments of old, which defy time and forgetfulness.” The announcement was made before a distinguished audience, which included military officials and the German Ambassador to Spain, at the site where Franco had chosen to build: a valley of pines in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, on the outskirts of Madrid. The Valley of the Fallen, as it came to be known, was neither the first nor the last memorial to the victory of Franco’s forces, but none compared to its scale: a neoclassical basilica built of granite, adorned with statues, mosaics, and tapestries depicting heroes and martyrs, and Fascist emblems, set eight hundred feet into the mountainside, where it could remain forever.
Franco died in 1975, and until this week his body lay in the mausoleum, beneath a three-thousand-pound slab of granite. There are no written records attesting to his wish to be interred there, but it became an issue after democracy returned to Spain—and was an oddity in Western Europe, where wartime Fascist leaders had been defeated and died in disgrace. When Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, took office, last summer, he pledged to move Franco’s remains, arguing that “no democracy can allow for monuments to exalt a dictatorship.” The exhumation was approved by the Supreme Court last month, after a yearlong legal battle. On Thursday, members of Franco’s family and their lawyer carried his coffin out, and a helicopter flew it to a cemetery thirty miles west, where he was buried among the tombs of his wife, several of his ministers, and the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
The controversy surrounding the Valley of the Fallen, however, has as much to do with its past as with its present. For a country in the aftermath of war, the construction of the monument was an enormous task. Franco wanted it built in a year, but it took nearly two decades to complete. Over time, it cost more than two hundred and fifty million dollars, financed first with public donations and later through a national lottery. Some forty thousand laborers, many of them former Republican sympathizers serving prison sentences, carved the basilica out of the rock, built a three-hundred-thousand-square-foot esplanade in front of it, and raised a five-hundred-foot stone cross above it. Diseases such as silicosis were common among the workers, and some died handling the stone blocks or the dynamite used to blast open the mountain.
As the construction neared completion, the government signed a contract with a Benedictine order, granting the monks the right to maintain the monument as an abbey. The authorities also decreed that it would be a resting place for the dead from both sides of the war. One theory for this change of plan has to do with status. “The Vatican, which had to bestow the title of basilica, pressured Franco’s regime against inaugurating a monument extolling its victory,” Paloma Aguilar, an expert on the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship at the Open University in Madrid (UNED), said. The Minister of the Interior ordered local authorities to help locate the graves of all Catholics who died in the war, but a number of issues arose along the way.
“Families of Nationalists didn’t want to move their relatives, who, for the most part, had already been interred with honors,” Francisco Ferrándiz, a cultural anthropologist working with the Spanish Nationalist Research Center, explained. Some families did give permission to relocate their relatives’ remains; and mass graves where Republicans had been buried were unearthed, and the bodies hastily removed, without their families’ knowledge. “Operation Fallen” was carried out over several years—thousands of bones were dug up, boxed, and driven by truck to the Valley of the Fallen. An official registry lists the remains of 33,847 people, though a former abbot estimated that twice as many were taken to the mausoleum. When Franco died, his body was embalmed and placed in a marked tomb, to the east of the basilica’s altar, beneath a large figure of Christ on a juniper cross. The remains of the others were stored in wooden containers placed in eight adjacent crypts, where they were inaccessible to visitors.
As Spain transitioned to democracy, successive governments refused to engage with Franco’s legacy. “We all are heirs to histories with lights and shadows,” Aguilar said. “But in Spain we’ve excelled at omitting the most controversial subjects.” The right has refused to address the transgressions of the past, and efforts on the left to do so were largely limited to banning Fascist displays, and appointing a special commission, in 2011, to consider what should be done with the monument. The commission, which included historians and archeologists, issued a report that made numerous recommendations, including Franco’s exhumation. The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who took office shortly after the report came out, decided to ignore it. Meanwhile, the Benedictines still have jurisdiction over the Valley of the Fallen. They run a school for choirboys and offer a Mass every year on the anniversary of Franco’s death, while overseeing millions of dollars in state funds spent on upkeep and restoration. The current prior, who joined a Fascist party in his youth, has repeatedly defied the government’s attempts to exert authority, including by blocking the exhumation.
When Prime Minister Sánchez announced his plan, Franco’s relatives rushed to convey their objections to the prior. They later announced that the only other place they would consider moving his body was to the family crypt, in Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral. But moving the body to such a symbolic place of veneration was unacceptable to the government, which appealed directly to the Vatican. The Supreme Court ruled that the cemetery would be the final resting place, after numerous appeals from, among others, Franco’s relatives, the Benedictines, and Vox, the first far-right party to enter the parliament in thirty-seven years. Even then, the prior declared that he would refuse to let government authorities into the Valley without the family’s consent. The family ultimately conceded, although not without first petitioning for military honors and a Mass at the basilica. The government granted neither.
The exhumation was televised—but only from outside the basilica. Spaniards watched as Franco’s family took the casket down the ten steps leading to the esplanade, with their lawyer and the prior. The site was empty and silent—a stark contrast to Franco’s burial there, forty-three years ago, which was attended by about a hundred thousand people, including King Juan Carlos, Franco’s chosen successor, and the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. This time, there were no funerary processions, no members of the royal family or the public, no raucous chants, no Fascist salutes. Instead, a government minister and two other officials watched from the steps, as the prior blessed the casket, and joined the family in a farewell chant of “¡Viva España!”
The timing of the exhumation—just two weeks ahead of another general election, convened after Sánchez was unable to assemble a majority coalition—was criticized by Sánchez’s political opponents. Pablo Casado, the leader of the right-wing Popular Party, repeated the argument of his predecessors, saying, “I would like to speak about the Spain of my children rather than that of my grandparents.” Vox naturally chose a harder line, accusing Sánchez of “desecrating graves and digging up hatreds.” The left-wing Unidas Podemos said that Franco’s relocation “is not enough.” In their view, the government should exhume the more than two thousand mass graves of the Republican dead that are scattered across Spain.
The question remains of what to do with the mausoleum. Ideas range from leaving it untouched to blowing up the cross towering above it, or simply letting nature take its course. Many have argued that the only other marked tomb in the monument, that of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange Party, should be exhumed next. Ferrándiz, who was on the special commission, agrees and said that visitors should be given tools to reinterpret the memorial. Reconciliation is hard to achieve in a monument resplendent with Fascist insignia, Ferrándiz said. But this shouldn’t deter the government from offering a counter-narrative. “Technology allows us to penetrate the stone—through a virtual tour, we can juxtapose a democratic reading over an authoritarian one,” he said. Aguilar thinks the basilica should be desacralized and turned into a museum. “A historical legacy as controversial as that of franquismo in Spain needs to be untangled,” she said. “Without the proper context, there is only indoctrination.”
For the relatives of those whose remains were moved to the Valley, Franco’s exhumation is a partial redress. The most important aspect for them is that the government deals with what Fausto Canales, a former agronomist and the son of a Republican buried in one of the chambers, calls the “kidnapping of bones.” In 1936, when Canales was two years old, his father, Valerico, was detained by Francoist vigilantes in Pajares de Adaja, a town in the province of Ávila. His family later learned that he was shot, and his body was dumped in an abandoned well somewhere near his village, along with those of five other men and a woman. Twenty-three years later, while Canales was studying in Madrid, his brother heard from a neighbor that their father’s bones had been dug up from the well, but no one knew where they had been taken. “We were living in a dictatorship,” Canales, now eighty-five, recalled. “All we could do was wait for the right moment to come. Finding my father became a retirement project for me.”
In the early two-thousands, civilian groups started locating mass graves where Republican sympathizers were buried. Canales discovered that the well was eighteen miles north of his home town, and enlisted a team of experts to unearth it. But all they found were a few bones, suggesting that the remains had been among those taken to the Valley. Now that he knew the site of the grave, Canales was able to confirm, through his own investigation of records kept by the government, that, in fact, the remains of not only his father but also those of his uncle, who died fighting with Franco’s forces, had been taken to the Valley and placed in boxes, numbered 198 and 10,672, respectively. In the registry, only his uncle is listed by name; his father appears as “unknown.” Canales exhausted all judicial avenues in Spain to get them out of the Valley, and his case was repeatedly dismissed, based on a 1977 Amnesty Law, which stipulates that crimes—such as forced disappearances—committed during the Civil War and the dictatorship cannot be investigated or judged. When Canales brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights against his own country, it was also dismissed.
Sánchez has pledged to help families retrieve the remains of their loved ones from the Valley. That will require untangling the legal issues, along with other difficulties. There were water leaks in the crypts, and many of the boxes in which the remains were stored have rotted, leaving the bones exposed, and in many cases they have become jumbled. “Everything was done in a such a reckless and anarchic way,” Canales observed. “What I want is for there to be a reparation.” He wants the government to set up a D.N.A. database to identify and “dignify those remains.” For now, he will keep visiting a small cenotaph that he and other families of Republican war dead built fifteen years ago. On it are lines from “Epitaph,” a poem by Gabriel Celaya, which read, “Traveller, who by chance has stopped at my grave, write down my name and my last name, write down my city; tell my friends I am buried here, for if they know, I am surprised no one has come.”