The Times of Israel recently ran a feature article exploring the mysterious circumstances of Hitler’s death and what was done with his remains. The Soviets claimed to have found his body and destroyed most of it, while keeping a fragment of a skull and a set of teeth in a top-secret archive for decades. Reporter J. P. O’Malley quotes one of the investigators as saying, “If the remains of Hitler within Germany became known, neo-Nazi groups might start a place of worship and use it as a temple. Just like the way the Soviet Union has a temple in the Lenin Mausoleum in the center of Moscow.”
And just like Valle de los Caídos.
There was another cruel fascist dictator who we tend to hear a lot less about: Francisco Franco. It’s not because there is less to tell. Unlike Hitler, he won his war, and proceeded to oppress, persecute, and terrorize the citizens of Spain for 36 years before dying peacefully in his bed. His body was interred in Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a grandiose basilica Franco had built over the burial site of more than 33,000 victims of the Spanish Civil War, ostensibly to honor them. His tomb can be found behind the main altar, and to this day, the Valley of the Fallen serves as a place of pilgrimage for the people who still venerate him and lay flowers on his grave.
That may not be true for long.
The Spanish Cabinet recently approved a decree to exhume Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen. Current prime minister Pedro Sánchez needed the support of more liberal, left-wing parties to overthrow the previous prime minister, and removing Franco’s grave from the site was one of the promises he made to them. The move would be a symbolic of a trend that’s been quietly growing in Spain in the last decade: a slow push for a public reckoning regarding the war.
I never learned about the Spanish Civil War in school. I guess the Israeli Ministry of Education felt that its consequences were not relevant enough to our own local history to merit a mention in our matriculation exams. After all, no Jews were allowed to live in Spain from 1492 until 1868, and we were not allowed to practice Judaism as a community there until 1968 when the Alhambra Decree was finally revoked. Its civil war was largely overshadowed by World War II, which had much greater significance for us as a nation. What I did learn about it was picked up in bits and pieces from popular culture — and it wasn’t much. I knew even less about Franco’s regime.
I’ve been following the news from Catalonia closely during the past year, though, and it’s impossible to understand what’s happening in Catalonia now without understanding what happened during the Franco years. Catalan nationalism has its roots much further back in history, but the oppression and persecution Catalans suffered under Franco, and their struggle for the freedom to express their cultural identity throughout his rule, are central to the current unrest.
Let me demonstrate the extent of Franco’s power even over you, right now: when someone mentions Spain, what are the first two cultural traditions that come to mind? Bullfighting and flamenco, right? It was Franco’s 1950’s tourism campaign that put that in your head. The Iberian peninsula is home to a wealth of other cultural traditions that vary from region to region. Franco pushed the narrative that Spain is one country with one national identity, while in truth, the country we currently call Spain was once a handful of different kingdoms, each with its own language and traditions.
Have you ever wondered why the time zone map in Europe looks like this?
Why do the borders of GMT+1 bulge toward the west like that south of the UK? Well, truth is, Spain used to be on GMT, but now it’s not. What happened? I’ll tell you what happened: Franco decided to turn the clocks an hour forward in solidarity with Hitler. That’s where his loyalties lay. That’s who inspired his political philosophies. In fact, the Nazis and Italians helped him win the civil war by using the Basque Country and Barcelona as target practice while gearing up for World War II. Franco was a legit fascist, just like his pals Hitler and Mussolini.
So why do we hear so little about how terrible he was? The answer, at least in part, seems to be related to the way the country transitioned to democracy after his death. Then-Crown-Prince Juan Carlos was left in charge, and he granted amnesty to Franco’s political enemies and supporters alike, while allowing individuals from the Franco government to stay in power. This avoided the eruption of another violent conflict, but it also meant that those responsible for the crimes of Franco’s regime were never brought to justice, and that those who still believed in fascism were allowed to continue in their positions of influence. And it appears that Franco’s narrative about his own role in Spain’s history, and his ideas about what it means to be Spanish, were believed and perpetuated even after the transition. The clocks in Spain are still set by Franco’s love for fascism.
It was only 11 years ago, in 2007, that a law was enacted declaring the Franco government illegitimate: the Historical Memory Law, which also called for removing public monuments to Franco from public view unless they have historical significance. Franco’s grave is the most conspicuous remaining monument, and removing it from the Valley of the Fallen will be an important symbolic act of stepping away from his legacy.
However, not all Spaniards are on board. There are still those who vehemently oppose the exhumation and have been protesting, while right-wing parties Ciudadanos and PP have announced that they will abstain when the vote is put to congress. Though a study conducted by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research in 2008 showed that the vast majority of Spaniards acknowledged that the dictatorship was bad, it also showed that 58.8% of the population believed that Franco did “both good and bad things.” Many Spaniards still believe that Franco helped strengthen the country and boost the economy, and initiated important social programs. It is only recently that the younger generation is starting to question that narrative.
It’s not just a matter of contending with and correctly understanding the past, either. When I watched how Spain handled the Catalonia crisis–albeit from the admittedly subjective and biased perspective of a concerned friend–I had to ask myself: does a government that truly believes in democracy send its national police in full riot gear to beat unarmed voters in the streets? Does the police employed by a government that truly believes in free speech confiscate yellow T-shirts from fans at a soccer game because the color yellow has become associated with the pro-independence movement? To me, these look like symptoms of a government that still sees brute force as the only way to resolve political conflicts, and censure as the only way to restrain dissent.
In other words, a government where Franco’s fascist ideas about how to run a country still hold sway.
Pedro Sánchez may be using more conciliatory language and shaking hands with Catalan politicians, but he still refuses to even discuss the concept of Catalan independence–as though the will of the Catalan people, as expressed democratically both in the referendum and in the subsequent elections, does not merit an iota of his attention. Nine Catalan political leaders have been sitting in jail pending trial for almost a year for their role in the independence bid; Sánchez’s rise to power may have paved the way to move them closer to their families, but he has still done nothing to facilitate their release, claiming that it’s a judicial matter that has nothing to do with him. (If only separation of powers in Spain were quite that robust, Mr. Sánchez.) Seven additional Catalan politicians remain in exile, including the man Catalan voters chose as their president last December: Carles Puigdemont, who was unable to assume the post because the Spanish courts ruled out a remote investiture and he justifiably feared facing an unfair trial if he returned to Spain. Sánchez has done nothing to address the abject absurdity of this situation and what it means about Spanish democracy.
Removing a shrine to Francoism in the heart of Spain is a step in the right direction: a step further along the path of accountability, justice, and real healing from a dark past. But especially as we approach the one-year anniversary of Spain’s brutal and authoritarian response to the Catalan independence referendum, I can’t help but wonder if Spain is really prepared to build a freer, more democratic and progressive future. Will Spain exhume Franco not only from the Valley of the Fallen, but also–as current Catalan president Quim Torra recently urged–from its institutions?
That remains to be seen.