The reburial of the remains of the dictator Francisco Franco should become a prestigious gain for the cabinet of the socialist Pedro Sánchez, a sign that a minority government, too, can make a difference in Spain. To date, the Caudillo, which died in 1975, rests in what is known as the “Valley of the Fallen”, a national Catholic sanctuary sixty kilometers northwest of Madrid, alongside more than thirty thousand civilian deaths. However, since the new Spanish prime minister boldly announced the move on 25 August, that ghost lives once more: what to do with the dictator’s remains? And what to do with the “Valley of the Fallen”, with the basilica carved into the rock, with the 150-meter-high cross, which overlooks the gigantic complex with its fascist-neoclassical pomp and is still visible from thirty kilometers away? Should it be blown up, as some demand? Or, instead, should it become a documentation center telling the story of the regime’s victims?
The deeper you go into the debated topic, the more entangled it gets. Not much has been concretely developed yet, much less done, and social consensus is nowhere to be found. Right-wing circles, Franco-nostalgics and friends of the Catholic Church are protesting against exhumation. But the other side is stirring. Thousands of people were moving through central Madrid, demonstrating against the body of the dictator being transferred to the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena and becoming part of Madrid’s old town. But since the Church decides who is to lie in the Almudena, the protest could be fruitless. Even the daughter of the dictator and her husband are already there in the private family grave of Franco.
The flare-up of the Spanish history debate over dictatorship and memory politics coincided with a visit by a group of about 20 experts invited by the Berlin think tank Hybrid Space Lab. The workshop “Deep Space: Re-signifying Valle de los Caídos” organized by professors Elizabeth Sikiaridi and Frans Vogelaar brought together historians, sociologists, anthropologists, artists, designers and museum professionals in Madrid for the controversial memorial site, for fresh meanings and alternative concepts, all expressly private, without the support of Spanish institutions, as it turned out, not a single official body wanted to have anything to do with the toxic workshop anyway.
At the beginning of the workshop, on a bright sunny day, the site visit takes place. Not many attend the morning mass in the basilica at eleven o’clock, but it is an event and undoubtedly part of the statement made by the monument “Valle de los Caídos” since its opening in 1959. This is because the Church – and especially the Benedictine order, that has been taking care of it for more than half a century – plays a crucial role here. The 1936-1939 civil war had already religious symbolic charge, as a sort of “crusade”, a struggle of the powers of light against the kingdom of darkness. The religious sculptures are solemn and monumental, from the four evangelists at the foot of the cross to the great pietà above the entrance gate.
The Mass itself is celebrated by an old priest with a voice so croaky that one imagines themselves in the cinema or on a stage where the role of “old priest” is given: a dozen churchgoers spread out across the benches of the huge room, and we experts from five or six countries, presumably instantly recognizable as intruders, but something is wrong with the acoustics: the speaker sound of the voice rolls over, forming echoes, producing a constant roar that causes headaches; then, the light goes out during the transubstantiation, and only the cross above the altar is lit. The five clergymen in green scurry around like shadows.
It is the only sublime moment of the morning, a successful staging, a moment for a brief shudder at the grip of the divine hand into the wheel of history, if one wants to believe in such things. And at last, every true believer will once again realize who lies behind the altar under the grave plate and to whom the whole magic applies: Francisco Franco, the Generalísimo, the savior of Spain from communism. Across the altar, in order to complete the symbolic father-son relationship: José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of a dictator from the twenties and charismatic founder of the fascist “Falange”. Franco did not think about swapping José Antonio, who had been captured by the enemy in 1936, and waited until the Republicans shot him dead, thus creating a martyr who could no longer get in his way. Today the two belong together, useful neighbors, witnesses of one and the same spirit. Every day, the Benedictines adorn the graves of the two men with fresh flowers. Believers step on the floor in front of the slabs, dumbly mute, bow and make the sign of the cross.
Sociologist Francisco Ferrándiz, a member of a commission of experts for the Valley of the Fallen in 2011 and our tour guide for the day, calls the monument “totalitarian” and “stone-made national Catholicism” and as such unredeemed, but it should not be destroyed, rather “Accompany his decline” by creating digital counter images. “The pixels,” says Ferrándiz, “could break the stone.”
The following day, the workshop produces rewarding ideas. A group deals with the spatial coverage of the monument and its surroundings in the picturesque mountains of the Sierra Guadarrama, studying maps and topography. Underground waterways already flow around the basilica in the middle of the mountain, from the ceilings, water drips into buckets, which are no longer a makeshift, but normalcy; at some point, it is suspected, the stone, the water and the harsh outdoor climate will have completed the demolition even of this intimidating architecture. Another working group is projecting itself into the year 2068 and considering the possible use of the site in fifty years: as a research center, as an event venue and global peace center.
In one, everyone agrees that the church, as a stooge of dictatorship, has no place in this site. As a participant reports and notes, against the Church one can certainly enforce no change; whether you should not try it together with the Church? For example, by winning the believers themselves? But it will be difficult either way. Because the central justification of the Franco apologists that the “Valley of the Fallen” is a monument of national reconciliation, is not only wrong, this is also not accepted by any representative of the victims’ associations not only because Franco inaugurated the plant on April 1, 1959, exactly twenty years after the “Day of Victory” in 1939. But also because the dead of the republican opposite side were later transferred to the Valle, rather as an alibi, without names, without identity – a mockery of the left wing forced laborers who helped to build the monstrous memorial site.
The conflict over the “Valley of the Fallen” is, unfortunately, not a nostalgic event, not a fight for lost posts. It addresses attitudes to present day Spanish democracy. In this respect, one must understand the dispute as a statement about the binding power of liberal values. One scary thing about this finding: even in the fifth decade after his demise, the aura of the dictator is still to be felt.