Without Franco, what to do with the colossal Valle de los Caídos?
Or how to make this monument cease to be a place of pilgrimage for the nostalgic of fascism.
24 October 2019
The largest Catholic cross in the world, 30,000 bodies of combatants and the tomb of one of the most recent dictators of Europe … the monumental Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) experiences a revolution this Thursday, October 24th. Its very first revolution since its inauguration by Franco on April 1, 1959, the 30th anniversary of the victory of the Nationalists over the Republicans and the establishment of the dictatorship.
After many twists, the Spanish justice has indeed authorized the exhumation of the body of the dictator Franco. Promised by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, it took place at the end of this morning.
The embalmed remains of the dictator came out of the imposing basilica carved in the rock of the mausoleum. The coffin was worn by eight members of his family including his great-grandson Louis de Bourbon, a distant cousin of the Spanish king Felipe VI and considered by the Legitimists (French royalists) as the pretender to the throne of France.
The remains of the former military man who ruled Spain for 40 years will then be transferred to the small Mingorrubio cemetery, 15km from Madrid, where the dictator’s wife rests.
Without him, what will happen to this Valle de los Caídos? Will it stop being the place of pilgrimage of the far-right and of Franco’s nostalgics? Can it become the real monument of the reconciliation of the country? Would such a transformation be desirable?
Like the rest of the country, historians, politicians and other observers oppose the issue. 150 meters high, the gigantic cross desired by Franco is not only visible for tens of miles away but it continues to deeply divide society. The Valle de los Caídos is an “attack on freedom and democracy”, Carlos Jiménez Villarejo indignantly said in an article published in 2017.
The former anti-corruption judge, an ephemeral MEP from the Podemos party, believes that no change to this place “with a clear fascist identity” could pay homage to all the fighters of the civil war.
But for others, on the contrary, this site that has become very touristy can undergo transformations to meet its initial promise. “To make it a memorial would be expensive for the Spanish State, which does not really need more expenses, but we can imagine at least a didactic tour to commemorate and explain what happened during the war”, says the historian Christophe Barret to HuffPost.
But it is far from being the first time that the future of Valle de los Caídos is in suspense. In 2011, a commission of experts mandated by the Zapatero government recommended to “resignify” the site by adding a permanent exhibition on its history, that of the victims who are buried there and of the political prisoners who participated in its construction.
But the Socialists were expelled from power at the end of 2011 and their successors of the Popular Party (PP), who consider that to tackle the remnants of Francoism is to reopen the wounds of the past, have chosen to ignore this report.
“This is one of the great mistakes of the right,” says Christophe Barret author of the book The War of Catalonia (Cerf editions), for whom the region’s separatists use this memory to try to secede. Back in business in 2018, with Pedro Sanchez at their head, the Socialists had made the exhumation of the dictator a priority indicating to want to give a new meaning to the mausoleum so that it is no longer a place of praise for Francoism, but without giving more details.
Several hypotheses are now advanced. In addition to a possible permanent exhibition and information boards throughout the visit, some believe that the best way to make this valley a monument of reconciliation of the people would be to remove the totalitarian aspects. Starting with the gigantic cross of 200 tons or the walls adorned with menacing statues of archangels and scenes inspired by the Biblical Apocalypse. “Quite an icy style,” says Christophe Barret.
An independent think tank, composed of experts and architects from around the world, proposed last spring to “rethink” the site in a federating spirit. “There is no information on the forced labor by prisoners of war or on the fallen from the Republican side who have been transferred from the mass graves without the consent of their families,” urban planner Elizabeth Sikiaridi, initiator of the Deep Space think tank project, told Franceinfo.
While the Deep Space collective has not received state funding until now, it advocated the introduction of “innovative digital tools” to connect visitors to the history of the place and of those who fell during the war.
Because what many deplore, above all, is that the monument is today as imagined and dreamed by the dictator Franco. “Nothing has changed, so it’s actually a monument to the glory of ‘Crusade'”, as designated by the dictator. Built by political prisoners of the Caudillo, among others, this monument first welcomed fallen Nationalist soldiers before Franco decided to integrate also the remains of Republicans.
Only the two camps are not equally treated at the Valle de los Caídos. “The Nationalists are buried there with the honors and especially the agreement of their families. The remains of the Republicans have been recovered from mass graves without anyone obviously asking for the consent of anyone” explains Christophe Barret to HuffPost. What to do, then, with these buried bodies that see thousands of nostalgics of the Franco regime go by each year?
This is one of the many questions to which the new reconciliation commission set up by Pedro Sanchez will have to answer. Meanwhile, fascist activists and other tourists are not allowed to visit the controversial monument. And this for an indefinite period after the exhumation of the body of Franco.
They can nevertheless console themselves with the Escurial located a few kilometers away. Much less megalomaniac and monumental than the Valle de los Caídos, this monument of the Renaissance classified Unesco World Cultural Heritage houses the tomb of Charles V, the sovereign to the empire on which the sun never set.