“We come for the place, not for Franco: El Valle de los Caídos, a tourist site almost like the others.”
“The wind blows surprisingly strong Wednesday, June 5, in the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama, fifty kilometers northwest of Madrid. A group of lively Spanish retirees laughed out loud, their hair disheveled by unwanted gusts of wind. They pose proudly in front of the huge stone cross that is emerging behind them. “We come here to have a good time with girlfriends!” For them, the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen”) seems to be a tourist site like any other.
On their holiday photos, however, it is the largest ossuary in Spain that will serve as sordid decor. In the huge basilica overlooking the small group 33,847 bodies of veterans of the civil war, nationalist and republican, are equally divided. Their remains are close to that of Francisco Franco, buried since 1975 in this colossal monument, dug out of the rock. Bouquets of fresh flowers continue to be deposited each day on the plate of the Spanish dictator.”
“But the nostalgic Caudillo may soon have to gather elsewhere. The grave of Franco could indeed be moved soon, to reach a more discreet place. His exhumation is at the center of a stubborn court battle between the government and the dictator’s descendants. The latter refuse the transfer of the body and have just won the case with the Spanish Supreme Court, which suspended his exhumation, Tuesday, June 4, time to consider the recourse of the family.
More than forty years after the death of Franco, the Valle de los Caídos has become the symbol of the division of the Spaniards on the question of the memory of the dictatorship.
“I have the impression that Franco saw himself as a pharaoh”
It was one of the first promises of the Socialist Pedro Sanchez when he came to power on June 1, 2018: to transfer Francisco Franco’s body as soon as possible to the Pardo public cemetery, north of Madrid, next to his wife. “No democracy can afford to maintain monuments that extol dictatorship,” said the head of government.
On the spot, some approve. Like Rosa Maria, a tourist from the Dominican Republic, who stands a little stunned by the huge basilica: “It was important for me to see this place that has a story so sad and horrible. saw as a pharaoh who had his tomb built by his slaves “.
Commissioned by Franco in 1940, this huge complex was built in particularly harsh conditions. Some 20,000 political prisoners were requisitioned to build the site, stone after stone, in exchange for reduced sentences. It took them nineteen years to build the imposing esplanade, its stairs and the Benedictine abbey, located on the other side of the mountain. Dozens of convicts perished to dig underground the 282-meter-long underground basilica inside the mountain.
On April 1, 1959, Franco inaugurated the place as a symbol of “reconciliation” among all Spaniards, twenty years after the end of the bloody civil war (1936-1939). He has brought the bodies of more than 10,000 Republican opponents, transferred from mass graves, without the consent of their relatives.
When Franco died on November 20, 1975, after a month of agony, no one dared to ask him where he wanted to be buried. “King Juan Carlos decides to bury him in the emergency in the basilica, in front of Primo de Rivera, his former right arm and founder of the fascist ideology in the country”, tells to Franceinfo the historian Benoit Pellistrandi, specialist of contemporary Spain.
Since then, the 1,340-hectare site attracts around 300,000 tourists every year, making it the fifth most visited national heritage monument. And since the announcement of the upcoming exhumation of the Caudillo, attendance has surged: nearly 37,000 people just for the month of April, an increase of 52% over the same period last year.
This Wednesday, at the end of the morning, it is however not the crowd of the big days. On the esplanade of the basilica, a journalist sent by Telemadrid has trouble feeding her direct. “The day after the suspension of the exhumation by the Supreme Court, visitors no longer look so eager to come to meet the Caudillo,” she describes on air.
Around noon, a few cars finally start arriving, followed by tourist buses, one of which takes place every day from the Plaza de España, in the heart of Madrid.
A group of Texan tourists breaks the solemnity of the place. At the run, they go back to the tail in the building and come out just fifteen minutes later. Their guide wants to do this step with the groups he accompanies, essentially, he says, because he finds the view magnificent. And when asked about the historical interest of the place, he concedes: “Yes, it is sure that the whole forms a beautiful example of architecture of the national-catholicism”. But the history of the place is not the main motivation for this group visit.
Coming from Lorraine and Brittany in motorhome, two couples of retired friends arrive on the scene with just as little meditation. “You realize, she got cancer by drinking milk!” Eliane sputters on a whole different subject as she crosses the entrance to the basilica. All four are delighted to have found such a beautiful place for their lunch break, ideal stop on their way to Valladolid. “We typed on Google ‘to see on the way’ and we saw that we had to come here We come for the site, not for Franco Dictator or no dictator, we do not care a bit: everyone’s past ! “says Eliane.
For foreign tourists, the Valle de los Caídos seems to be only one more step of their Castilian crossing. Most visitors come mainly to discover the monastery of Escurial, a few kilometers further down. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, this Renaissance monument houses the tomb of Charles V.
On the sites of the tour operators, the two places are often presented as part of a single visit. The official portal of tourism in Spain describes a “grandiose funeral monument built between 1940 and 1956 in memory of the victims of the civil war of 1936”. It is just mentioned, in the last line, that “the crypt houses the tombs of José Antonio Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco, among others”.
If the fate of Franco does not seem to fascinate foreign visitors, the Spaniards are more decided on the issue. Most of those we met are categorically opposed to the exhumation of the dictator. “Pedro Sanchez is an idiot!” Jorge, fifty years old, in the awkward eyes of his daughter. She seems to regret that it was launched on this thorny subject.
Why would we move Franco’s body? The past is the past. The story can be beautiful or very ugly, it’s like that.
Jorge, a Spanish tourist at franceinfo
“It’s a desecration to exhume a corpse,” annoyed Antonio on purpose from Malaga with his girlfriend Isabel, five hours away. “Our trip is a militant gesture: we will fight for Franco to stay here,” he explains nervously. “Pedro Sanchez wants to attack a symbol to talk about that and not the rest … In the meantime, it’s not this stupid controversy that will find us work”, regrets Isabel, part time waitress in a restaurant from the Costa del Sol.
These epidermal reactions illustrate the strong dissensions that remain on the question of the Francoist legacy. For Emilio Silva Barrera, founder of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, “those who are against the exhumation are often Franco’s disguised”. This activist, grandson of a Republican fighter assassinated during the Franco period, strongly condemns the decision of the Supreme Court to suspend the transfer of the dictator.
Parliament, the voice of the people, voted in favor of exhumation, but the lobbying of Franco’s descendants is taking precedence over the general interest.
The fate of Franco’s remains appears as a symptom of the division of the country around the memory issue. It is necessary to believe that the law of historical memory, passed in 2007 under the mandate of the socialist Jose Luis Zapatero, was not enough to palliate the trauma of thirty-six years of Francoism. However, according to Benoît Pellistrandi, “this law is fair and balanced, technically, from a historian’s point of view, it creates the conditions for consensus,” the historian tells franceinfo. The text imposes the withdrawal of “ecus, insignia, plaques and other objects or commemorative commendations extolling the military uprising, the civil war or the repression of the dictatorship” public buildings.
“The problem is primarily political.The left instrumentalizes the memory of the Francoism to mobilize public opinion while the right is trapped, because some of its representatives have a dynastic continuity with families who have cracked under the period Francoist, “he explains.
To try to appease the debate around El Valle de los Caídos, an independent think tank, composed of experts from all over the world, proposes to “rethink” the site and “erase its totalitarian aspect”. The goal: to imagine a way to better connect the place to its historical dimension. They reported their findings on Wednesday, June 5, at the Goethe Institute in Madrid.
“There is no information on prisoners of war victims of forced labor, nor on the fallen Republican side transferred mass graves without the consent of their families,” says the urbanist Elizabeth Sikiaridi, instigator of the project. The main proposal of this group of experts would therefore be to better inform visitors through “innovative digital tools”. In particular, visitors could have access to a 3D view of the site to better understand how space is organized under their feet.
For now, the group has not obtained funding to implement these proposals but hopes to get official support from the state. In the meantime, other twists should take place in the legal struggle between the government and the Franco family. His exhumation remains hypothetical for the moment. While waiting for justice, tourist buses continue to flow to Valle de los Caidos.”