Ghost of Francisco Franco Haunts Spain as it Finally Exhumes His Body
A contentious battle to remove Francisco Franco’s body from one of Spain’s most esteemed monuments parallels Spain’s struggle to confront growing fascist sympathy and far-right movements within its borders.
The long and contentious struggle to exhume controversial former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), the massive monument dedicated to his cult of personality and fascist Spain, has finally come to an end.
On Oct. 24 Franco was finally moved from his mausoleum within the monumental complex to the El Pardo-Mingorrubio Cemetery, where many members of Franco’s family and other political figures from the dictatorship are buried. However, his descendants and far-right political supporters were not about to let Franco be removed from the monument without a fight.
Certain sectors of Spanish society still wholeheartedly support the ideas and policies of Franco’s dictatorship, and as the center-left government of Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has repeatedly tried to move Francisco Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos they have been met with strong opposition from Franco supporters.
For some Franco is an authoritarian fascist who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of political dissidents and complicit in the Axis crimes of World War II through his support of Axis governments. For others, Franco is a hero and champion of Spain’s values who kept the country neutral and uninvaded during World War II.
Fascism and the Battle For Francisco Francos’ Body
Carmen Gonzalez Varela, a high school math teacher from Northern Spain, explained the roots to Citizen Truth of the growing sympathy toward fascism in certain sectors of Spanish society.
“The support of Franco’s fascist ideology has increased in recent years, mostly as a result of disenchantment with the democratic system run by the same political dynasties that fail to resolve people’s day-to day-problems such as crime, corruption, unemployment, exploitation of workers, uncontrolled immigration and a slow and unpopular legal system,” Gonzalez Varela told Citizen Truth.
Spain’s political situation is similar to that of the United States and other countries in Europe, where far-right pundits have stoked the fears of extremists to gain political power. The removal of Francisco Franco’s body also has striking parallels to the movement to remove Confederate monuments in the U.S.
Like the battles that waged over Confederate monuments, the supporters of Franco’s horrific legacy were not about to let him be moved without a fight. The process of exhuming the dictator dragged on for years of legal challenges, protests and scuffles with law enforcement that continue even after Franco was finally interred in the El Pardo-Mingorrubio Cemetery.
Spanish authorities banned the presence of all recording devices during the process of transferring Franco’s body to its new home to prevent fascist sympathizers from documenting and fetishizing the event, but members of Franco’s family attempted to record the event using cell phones and other devices. His grandson even attempted to employ a camera hidden inside a pen to record the events of the afternoon. In the ensuing scuffle, Franco’s family members shouted cries such as “this is a dictatorship…after everything they’ve done to us!” which came across as more than slightly ironic given Franco’s political tendencies.
Franco’s family has engaged in numerous drawn-out legal battles in an effort to prevent his body from being removed from the Valle de los Caídos. After the Spanish government stated its intention of planning to transfer Franco’s body to a new location, Franco’s family began the process of attempting to stop the removal of his corpse by any means possible.
The Catholic Church’s Stance
When it became clear that the exhumation and relocation of Francisco Franco’s body would almost certainly occur, the family began to demand that his body be moved to Madrid’s main cathedral, la Almudena.
Eventually, church authorities in Spain, such as the archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Osoro, intervened, stating that the Catholic Church did not want Franco’s remains to be interred in the cathedral. Nonetheless, the events demonstrated the large scope of the influence the Catholic church has over all the proceedings related to the decision to remove Francisco Franco’s body from the basilica at the Valle de las Caídos. One of the main tenets of Spanish fascism and the Falangist movement was support of the traditional, conservative wing of the Spanish Catholic Church and the troubling relationship between these two entities continues to persist in Spain to this day.
Antonio Cuenca, a photographer and father of four from Alicante, in southern Spain, told Citizen Truth, “The relation between the church and state has always been a major part of the social and political reality of Spain. With the arrival of the Second Republic this began to change, and the Spanish Catholic Church began to feel threatened by a modern leftist movement that didn’t place as much importance on religious matters and wanted to limit the power of the church. This led the church to form an alliance with right-wing forces which had very strong Catholic tendencies. Franco was one of the biggest defenders of the Catholic church and the church in Spain is as powerful as it is today thanks to the dictator.”
Cries of ‘Desecration’ After Removal of Francisco Franco’s Body
After his body was finally interred in its new resting place, Franco’s family published a declaration in which they claimed that the actions of the Spanish government resulted in “the desecration of the tomb of our grandfather Francisco Franco with a serious violation of our fundamental rights.”
Francoist supporters also committed acts of vandalism and defacement throughout Spain by writing graffiti on monuments such as a bust of Pablo Iglesias, the founder of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), with words like “profanadores” (profaners) and slogans such as “Viva Franco” (Long Live Franco).
As Franco was interred, the mass was officiated by Father Ramón Tejero, the son of Antonio Tejero, a former Guardia civil lieutenant colonel who attempted to lead a military coup to take control of the Spanish Congress Feb. 23, 1981, an event commonly referred to in Spain as 23-F. Tensions between Francoist supporters and government authorities heightened when the former lieutenant colonel arrived at the cemetery and began antagonizing federal officials.
What Will Become of the Valle de los Caídos?
The future of the Valle de los Caídos remains uncertain. Removing Francisco Franco’s body from its esteemed crypt inside the complex was the first step toward transforming what critics perceive as a monument to terror into a memorial to those who died during the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship that followed. But there are still many additional problems that need to be addressed before these wounds can finally heal.
The huge complex, which contains a massive underground basilica whose dimensions are larger than those of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is maintained by a community of Benedictine monks called that Abadía Benedictina de la Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos, or the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, an organization that was created under the auspices of Franco’s regime in 1957.
The brotherhood receives 340,000 euros from the Spanish government every year to carry out its duties, namely protecting and venerating Franco’s grave. Spanish politicians have been in discussions with church officials regarding replacing the brotherhood with a different religious organization or transferring the general duties of the brotherhood to a government agency.
Cuenca told Citizen Truth, “I think that it would be best if the site was used for a purpose reflecting the true meaning of its name. Present it as a memorial to all those who died during the war regardless of which side they were on, showing the world the bloody division that Spain suffered during its civil war.”
He added, “If you’ve visited the Valle de los Caídos, you can’t deny that it’s a monumental and beautiful work of architecture. Add to that its historical significance, and we can say that it has massive importance both in the context of the horrors of the past and the present that it still is alive and present in the hearts of the Spanish people.”
Ramón Jáuregui, a former minister from Sánchez’s PSOE party who has worked for years to have Francisco Franco’s body exhumed from the Valle de los Caídos, stated, “The Benedictines have earned an expulsion from the valley. Their hostility to the transformation of the monument is incompatible with their presence there,” says Jáuregui. “They had a mission, which has to protect Franco’s grave, and that mission has ended.”
The brotherhood has continually butted heads with the Spanish government throughout the exhumation process, with the acting prior Father Santiago Cantera consistently attempting to sabotage the government’s plans by refusing to allow government officials access to Franco’s grave and claiming that actions by these officials were “extremely serious and worthy of judicial reproach.”
Cantera is an avowed fascist and ran for office as a member of Franco’s political party, the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista, commonly known simply as the Falange. Valera explained, “Franco’s regime was almost fanatically religious, and it was impossible to exist even on the less extreme margins of conservative Catholicism during the dictatorship.” This unholy matrimony of Catholic theology and fascist ideology continues to shape modern right-wing movements in Spain such as the extremely conservative party Vox, which emphasizes traditional, Catholic Spanish values a major part of its platform.
Should More Bodies be Moved?
The Valle de los Caídos also houses the grave of the founder of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who was executed by left-wing republican soldiers during the early years of the Spanish Civil War. The government has expressed its intent to remove Primo de Rivera’s grave from the monumental complex as well, but the manner in which this action would be executed remains to be seen.
Also housed within the basilica are the remains of thousands of Republican soldiers and activists who were murdered during the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship. The majority of these individuals’ corpses were transferred to the site without the knowledge or consent of their relatives and consist mostly of unidentified remains buried in mass graves, a situation which presents more complications for the Spanish government as they attempt to transform the site.
Varela agreed that the site is certainly problematic but added, “You shouldn’t control works of civil architecture with historical or artistic value but rather study and observe them as objects of their social and political context. The political authorities should coordinate with church authorities to ensure that the interests of everyone are taken into consideration.”
It would appear that one of the numerous scars Spain bears from the wounds inflicted upon the country during Franco’s dictatorship has at least begun to heal, but this is only the beginning of a process that is sure to be long and difficult. Franco was a true authoritarian dictator, and his presence invaded every aspect of Spanish political and cultural life during his authoritarian rule.
And although his influence will certainly be felt less from the grounds of the El Pardo-Mingorrubio Cemetery, the families he ripped apart are still suffering and the legacy he left behind still lingers like a leering specter in many aspects of Spanish society. Laying Francisco Franco’s body to rest in a cemetery where his tomb cannot serve as an emblematic symbol of the terrible power of Spanish fascism is only the first step in this process of renewal.