Those of my readers who are at least somewhat familiar with the recent history of Spain know that following the 1936-1938 Civil War, the country was ruled by General Francisco Franco until his death in 1975. Franco is a highly polemic figure for Spaniards, demonized in some quarters and lionized in others, but overall he proved a highly complex figure in the history of that country. Now his final resting place is coming under greater scrutiny and, as reported in the Spanish press this morning, a commission has recommended that his remains be removed from the monument outside of Madrid where they have lain for the past several decades, and returned to his family for reburial elsewhere.
The purpose of this post is not to get into a re-hash of the very complex issues surrounding the Civil War and General Franco, other than to say that both the left and the right have exaggerations that each of them make with respect to that period of Spanish history, and regarding Franco himself. Instead, I want to draw the reader’s attention to the question of the future of the Valle de los Caídos, the “Valley of the Fallen”, where Franco and many others are buried. Located not far from El Escorial, for centuries the seat and final resting place of the Kings and Queens of Spain, the Valley of the Fallen is a combination of monument, monastery, and church carved into the side of a mountain. The church was raised to the level of a Minor Basilica by Pope John XXIII.
There are dead on both sides of the conflict buried at the site, but only two tombs are located inside the actual church: that of General Franco himself, and that of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange, Spain’s fascist party, who had been executed by the leftist government in Madrid in 1936. Interestingly enough Franco did not want to be buried in the Valley of the Fallen, but rather in Madrid, with his own monument. He and José Antonio were never friendly, and Franco distanced himself from the Falange after he consolidated his rule, prosecuting and imprisoning many of his former allies once he got the top job. To be associated with José Antonio for eternity was something Franco would not have wanted, but that is what he got.
With the passage of the “Law of Historical Memory” under the leftist government of outgoing Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose obsessive quest to try to re-write the past I have explored previously, the remaining public recognitions left over from the days of Franco were removed just about everywhere throughout Spain. While many of the street names and so forth had long reverted to their original, pre-Franquist names after the dictator’s death, it is remarkable how much managed to stick around – including a massive equestrian statue of the little general – decades after Franco had died and Spain had transitioned to a representative democracy. However the question of what to do with the Valley of the Fallen, massive thing that it is, and with Franco in particular, has remained a sticking point.
A commission of experts hand-picked by Rodriguez Zapatero to tackle the issue of what to do about the Valley of the Fallen issued several recommendations today. First among these recommendations was that the remains of Franco be removed from the basilica, to a place designated by his family or, in the alternative, moved to a location that is “dignified and more appropriate.” The commission also recommends that the remains of José Antonio be left in the basilica, as he was a victim of the Civil War, but removed from the central location which his grave presently occupies, to be interred alongside others buried at the site. In both cases, the commission feels it important to pass an act through the Spanish parliament authorizing these two recommendations, and to negotiate with the Catholic Church so that this can be accomplished with as little fuss and muss as possible. Both of these recommendations seem very sensible, from my point of view, in that neither side is going to be completely happy with them, and that is usually the best outcome to any negotiation.
Another recommendation by the commission is somewhat disingenuous. The group feels that the Valley of the Fallen needs to be converted into a memorial site for all of the victims of the Spanish Civil War. The problem here is that is what it already is – dead from both sides in the conflict are buried there. What I suspect the commission really means is that the site, because it was built by the victors in the war, is too God-and-country, rather than Marx-and-proletariat, for their taste. That being said, any Civil War as bloody as Spain’s, where half of the population of the country was killed, is going to take a long time to heal, and an effort to try to come to some sort of accommodation on both sides with respect to the use of this site is perhaps the best way to preserve it, overall.
A final recommendation of the commission, however, that a non-religious “meditation center” be built on the grounds of the Valley of the Fallen for those who have no religious faith is simply silly. I am not sure what one would come to do in a secular mediation center, which seems oxymoronic – perhaps whatever it is that atheists do while the rest of us are praying. If one truly does not believe in God, or in an afterlife, or that life has any real meaning, then what is there to meditate about? People who died seventy or eighty years ago and who did not go to heaven or hell, because neither exists? Why not build a good tapas bar instead, where at least you can get plastered on sangría while imagining your forthcoming non-existence?
The single most important recommendation of the commission for Spaniards, I believe, is that Franco’s body be removed from the monument, and this is something that seems a good idea. El Generalíssimo is still dead, fortunately, but having him around in such a prominent setting is almost as if, in some ways, he is still alive. Placing him on his family’s estate or inside a private mausoleum would seem to be much more prudent than allowing his remains to continue to rest in a place which he himself never wanted to rest in, and which makes him a sort of omnipresent figure for Spaniards and tourists alike when they go to visit the Valley of the Fallen. With him out of the picture, perhaps the Valley of the Fallen can become more of what it ought to be, a way to try to reconcile the two halves of Spain in a better fashion than has been achieved to date.