Thirty miles northwest of Madrid lies one of Europe’s largest mass graves. Inside a massive underground basilica blasted into a mountain, the remains of over 34,000 people who “fell for God and Spain” rest in honor alongside the man largely responsible for putting them there: General Francisco Franco, Spain’s authoritarian ruler of 36 years. On a recent afternoon visit, both international tourists and a few Spaniards marveled at the immense size of the cavernous structure, which revealed signs of neglect through discolored walls and a leaky ceiling. Fresh flowers and roses adorned Franco’s tomb, a gray slab of concrete on the floor ringed by black marble: a tribute to one of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators.
Over four decades after his death, Spain’s infamous leader still generates heated debate and mixed feelings here, the product of a delicate democratic transition that saw post-Franco political leaders on the left and right forge “a pact of forgetting” to wipe the slate clean instead of holding trials to bring human-rights violators to justice. Yet in a country that has renamed streets and removed statues bearing Franco’s name and likeness, the Valley of the Fallen is publicly funded—to the tune of over 12 million euros since 2012—and largely untouched, standing as the most potent reminder of his rule. Now, Spain’s newest prime minister Pedro Sánchez, installed June 2, says Franco’s exhumation to a less controversial cemetery is imminent. “I believe that a mature, European, democracy like ours can’t have symbols that divide Spaniards,” Sánchez told the Spanish newspaper El País.
The Valley of the Fallen commemorates Spain’s bloody Civil War, which killed some 500,000 people between 1936 and 1939. General Franco led the Nationalists to victory over the Republicans, then taking his place as the head of government for the rest of his lifetime until his death in 1975. Designed, as Franco said, to evoke “grandeur of the monuments of old, which defy time and forgetfulness,” the Valley of the Fallen’s mountain basilica is topped by a stone cross almost 500 feet tall, an appropriate symbol of Franco’s “National Catholicism,” a key tenet of his conservative ideology. Many of the defeated, drawn from Franco’s forced labor and concentration camp system, built the site in the 1940s and ’50s. Estimates of how many laborers died during its construction range widely, from just fourteen to thousands of people.
In the months leading up to the site’s inauguration in April 1959, Nationalist and Republican dead were transported from across Spain in Franco’s bid to ostensibly create a space of “national atonement” that would commemorate the dead of both sides of the civil war. Hundreds of Republicans are believed to be buried there, and seven families are currently waging a campaign to bring their relatives home. It’s beginning to achieve results: The remains of four people were exhumed in April after years of legal obstacles.
Hundreds of thousands of people every year visit the state-owned site, which is administered as an abbey by Benedictine monks. Its supporters say that it should be left alone as a memorial to a violent conflict. Critics, however, compare it to the notion of a monument near Berlin glorifying Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The Sánchez administration waded back into the controversy surrounding the monument last month after years of indifference from the previous conservative government, which was forced out after being implicated in a corruption scandal this spring. The conservative administration had ignored the 2011 recommendations of a Valley of the Fallen commission set up by the last left-leaning prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had called for the removal of Franco’s remains. They had also reversed a law of historical memory passed in 2007 aiming to exhume and re-bury in more appropriate locations 100,000 victims of civil war–era repression currently in mass graves throughout the Spanish countryside. Dissenting publicly from the government’s actions at the time—even passing a nonbinding proposal in parliament last year saying the Valley of the Fallen needed to be remade into a space “where the victims of the civil war and the dictatorship are recognized and treated with dignity”—the Socialists are now in a position to do something about it.
The question is whether it’s even possible to turn the Francoist symbol into something other than what it is—to transform a fascist symbol into a site for national reckoning and rapprochement.
Francisco Ferrándiz, a social anthropologist with the Spanish National Research Council who served on the commission, believes that dismantling its fascist symbolism is impossible. “It’s Francoism’s principal emblem and its most powerful expression,” he said. Instead, it should be “an attraction” that explains the perils of “totalitarianism.”
Others have gone further. One prominent Spanish historian said the Valley of the Fallen “will only be a beautiful place when it’s in ruins.” But few Spaniards advocate that, and they are divided on Franco’s exhumation. Around 46 percent support it, while almost 35 percent are opposed, according to a recent poll.
“[Franco’s exhumation] is a minimum reparation, but nowhere near justice,” says Silvia Navarro, the president of the Association of Pro-Exhumation Republican Families, a group that has advocated for the transfer of Republican remains back to their families.
Navarro’s great-uncle, José Antonio Marco Viedma, was 33 years old when he was executed with fifteen others by Franco’s army in the small village of Calatayud in September 1936. Then his body was dumped in a mass grave at the local cemetery—or so his family thought. Navarro and her family learned a decade ago that José Antonio had been dug up and transferred to the Valley of the Fallen a week after it was unveiled. She has campaigned to bring his remains back to Calatayud ever since.
The memorial, she believes, is too deeply connected with Franco’s legacy to serve as a place where Spaniards can come to terms with their country’s past. “How can you make amends with someone who has never offered an apology?” Navarro said. While she says “it wouldn’t be fair” to families of the dead to leave the monument to crumble, Navarro is unsure the Spanish government is capable of transforming the monument’s original meaning.
Eduardo Sánchez, a retiring anthropology professor at the University of León who witnessed Franco’s grand burial out of “a burning curiosity” in 1975, believes it can be done. “It has a very easy solution,” he says. “You remove Franco and turn it into a civil monument that honors the dead on both sides.” He also supports the impending transfer of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera—the leader of the far-right Falange party that backed Franco and is also buried in a place of honor there after being executed by Republicans—to a common grave within the site to further strip its symbolism.
In a maturing democracy that now outlasts Franco’s rule, Spain’s ability to reckon with the past has largely been influenced by who controls the levers of power in Madrid—and what political advantages they can wring from it. The Spanish political left, however, has been more willing to confront the legacy of the country’s fascist past, depending on the politics of the moment. “The commission was used to bolster their electoral support,” said Ferrándiz, referring to Zapatero’s government.
“Historical memory has been turned into a political tool,” says Dr. Queralt Solé, a professor of modern history at the University of Barcelona who has studied the Franco-era monument. The Socialists, she says, are seizing the advantage to isolate political rivals like the right-wing Popular Party and its newer anti-establishment competitors like Ciudadanos. As a young and untested leader, Sanchez needs to bolster his leadership credentials ahead of the next general election in two years—a difficult task given the Socialists control only one-quarter of Parliament.
What remains certain is that Spain’s narrative over its civil war will be contested for many years to come. The lack of a Spanish far-right like the kind that swept into power in Italy and Hungary, and made inroads in Germany, has perhaps eased the pressure to heal wounds of the devastating war. Yet the issue of how to suitably memorialize a conflict that caused so much pain and suffering echoes in the United States as well. The United States has long struggled with the ghosts of its own civil war, and it has seen white nationalists defend memorials and statues honoring the vanquished Confederacy—to dangerous consequences. Historian Eric Foner wrote that historical monuments are “an expression of power, an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.” Whether that power is shared among Spaniards will be key in determining the success of their own democratic experiment, and the extent to which Spain can begin to reckon with its bloody past.