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What Digging Up Franco Has to Do With Democracy

Spain's transition out of fascism occurred within living memory. And it meant ignoring the dead.

Visitors to the Valley of the Fallen, where Franco is buried, make the fascist salute. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

“Exclusive: Photograph of the remains of Franco,” a Twitter user posted in late August. It was a joke: The accompanying picture showed not the dusty bones of Spain’s former dictator, but a portrait of the current king, Felipe VI. 

Before dying, in 1975, Francisco Franco anointed Felipe’s father, Juan Carlos, to lead the country and keep in place his authoritarian, quasi-fascist “National Catholic” ideology. Instead, the new monarch led Spain into a process of express-speed modernization, helping create a modern parliamentary democracy. Yet four decades on, that transition still feels incomplete to many Spaniards—and nowhere is that more apparent than in the debate over what to do with the former dictator’s remains.

Last Thursday, Spain’s congress approved a motion to move Francisco Franco from his resting place, a war memorial known as the Valley of the Fallen. “Today our democracy is better,” said Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose government had presented the initiative. His deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, said the exhumation should take place for “ethical reasons” and be driven by “democratic values.”

The Valley of the Fallen, a mausoleum built into the side of a mountain under Franco’s aegis to commemorate the dead in the 1936-39 Civil War he won, is one of the world’s biggest mass graves. Over 33,000 remains of war casualties were brought there on the completion of the monument in 1959, often without the consent of their families. The monument’s huge scale, history and panoramic views make it a popular tourist attraction. But its Francoist symbolism also makes it a place of pilgrimage for the far right.

Throughout the four decades of Spanish democracy, the Valley of the Fallen has been the single biggest reminder of the country’s divisive leader—a massive open sore. And that it has taken this long to address points to something Westerners outside of Spain often forget: just how new and fragile Spanish democracy has been in the past few decades. 

The speed and unified nature of Spain’s transition after Franco’s death drew admiration from around the world. Former ministers from the dictatorship joined the new political mainstream, as did the recently legalized Socialist and Communist parties. In 1978, a new constitution was instituted, following an amnesty law protecting both former members of the regime and those on the left who had been living underground. Underpinning all this was an agreement between both sides that the past would not be used as a political weapon.

“The Francoists had the power and the means of repression; the [leftist] opposition had the means to mobilize people in the streets,” said historian José Álvarez Junco. “Both sides were weak and so they were forced to reach an agreement.”

The delicate nature of the new democracy helped ensure that the political class respected that pact. That fragility became apparent one day in February 1981, when a group of civil guard officers, outraged by the country’s betrayal of Franco’s values, attempted a coup d’état by taking the members of congress hostage inside parliament. After several tense hours, the putsch failed but the message was clear: Spain’s leaders had to tread carefully.

Led by young Socialist Felipe González, who shed many of his party’s leftist policies in pursuing economic prosperity for the country, Spain developed a welfare state, joining NATO in 1982, and the European Union in 1986. Spain’s meteoric rise arguably culminated in 1992, with the Barcelona Olympics and World Expo in Seville.

In such a context, there was little appetite for digging up history. As the late novelist Rafael Chirbes put it, Spaniards were asked to “swap the past for the future … ideology for well-being, truth for money. And the country accepted.” 

But by the turn of the millennium, many Spaniards were questioning that bargain.

After Cambodia, Spain possesses the largest number of mass graves in the world, according to Amnesty International. Activists say there are over 100,000 missing people from the Francoist years. And in the early 2000s, children and grandchildren of Franco’s victims started searching for their loved ones in unmarked graves across the country.

With no official nationwide state body to oversee these excavations, unpaid activists carry them out in their spare time. The success of each search and exhumation depends in great part on the willingness of local magistrates and politicians to cooperate. “Human rights can’t be just a matter of chance, or a group of volunteers,” said  Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH). “One weekend we have human rights, then for the next two months we don’t.”

The frustration involved in these searches has prompted more of a reckoning at a national level. The last Socialist administration attempted to tackle Franco’s legacy with a historical memory law in 2007, offering a vaguely worded “moral redress” to victims of the dictatorship, and calling for the removal of statues and street names dedicated to Franco and his generals. But it turned out to be a fudge, riling the political right, who saw it as a provocative attempt to rake over the past, and dissatisfying the left, who felt it did not go far enough. Many Francoist symbols survived the initiative. A street named after the Blue Division, a unit of Spanish soldiers who fought under Hitler’s orders on the Eastern Front, remains in Madrid. Many other streets across Spain bear the name of Franco and his generals.

The new legislation allowing the exhumation of Franco is an addition to the historical memory law of a decade ago. It faces similar political opposition.

In last week’s congressional session, 172 members voted in favor of the removal of the dictator from the Valley of the Fallen, while 164 abstained and two voted against. In an echo of Spain’s longstanding political divisions, left-leaning and regional nationalist parties voted in favor, while the abstentions belonged almost exclusively to the two main right-leaning forces, the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos (the two congressmen who voted against reportedly did so “by accident”).

The PP, which was originally founded as a center-right party by former ministers in the Franco regime, has always resisted efforts to tackle the legacy of Franco and the Civil War. In the past it has accused those discussing Francoist history of attempting to tar the political right with the dictator’s legacy. Ahead of the congressional vote, the PP’s leader Pablo Casado had warned that “reopening old wounds doesn’t lead anywhere.”

His argument was taken up by right-wing commentator Francisco Rosell, who accused prime minister Sánchez of using historical memory as an “ideological weapon that puts in question the Transition and the constitution.”

Yet as Spain struggles with constant political corruption scandals, the Catalonia region’s drive for independence and the eroded credibility of its antiquated judiciary, many in the country have a much less reverent attitude toward the so-called post-Franco “Transition” and the 1978 Magna Carta. 

Digging up Franco—which is expected to take place by the end of the year—only scratches the surface of Spain’s struggle to deal with its past. Not only are there mass graves and street signs to deal with, but also demands that torturers and murderers from the Franco era be brought to justice. In an era when the last surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust are being brought to justice, the inattention to Spain’s own mid-century perpetrators is all the more striking.

Yet if the country is to deal not just with its historical memory but with the broader weaknesses in its democratic system, the Valley of the Fallen is not a bad place to start.