People at a demonstration against plans to remove the remains of fascist dictator Francisco Franco from his state-funded mausoleum outside Madrid, Spain, July 2018
Javier Barbancho/REUTERS

“Our top story tonight: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” Chevy Chase’s running gag on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s remains curiously relevant four decades on. Franco, Spain’s longtime military dictator, is still dead—and he continues to be a top story, as a dispute over his final resting place unearths old fissures in Spain’s national consciousness.

Upon his death in 1975, Franco was buried in a monumental tomb in the so-called Valley of the Fallen, a war memorial about an hour’s drive from Madrid. There, the dictator lies below a towering 450-foot stone cross, in a subterranean basilica hewn almost 900 feet into a mountainside. The monument is an unsettlingly bombastic reminder of Spain’s troubled past and a pilgrimage site for Franco’s admirers to this day.

Hoping to change this, the Spanish parliament voted in September to exhume Franco’s remains from the Valley. Franco’s family, the government assumed, would rebury him in a more private location. But the family decided otherwise and announced that it would inter the Generalissimo with military honors in a crypt in Madrid’s largest cathedral. This plan has sparked widespread protest, as it would defeat the government’s purpose of removing the body from public space, but it’s unclear whether the government can do anything to prevent it. 

The vote to exhume Franco passed with support from Spain’s progressive parties and the Catalan and Basque nationalists. The two main conservative parties, the Partido Popular (PP) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), abstained, but their disdain for the measure is clear. Conservative commentators have railed against what they perceive as a gratuitous affront to a leader whom many on the Spanish right continue to see in a positive light. (In the most recent nationwide poll on the topic, from 2008, more than a third of Spaniards agreed that Franco’s decades-long strongman rule had maintained peace, order, and national unity.) Others, such as former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, are careful not to praise Franco but still warn that revisiting Spain’s violent past is unnecessary and divisive, tantamount to “opening old wounds.” 

Still, the controversy surrounding Franco has fanned the flames of a militant Spanish nationalism that first reemerged last year, following Catalonia’s attempt to declare independence and split from Spain. Although not all Spanish nationalists are nostalgic for Franco, the right’s radical core is. In July, the far-right “Movement for Spain” organized a “pilgrimage” to Franco’s grave to protest the government’s plans. “Half of Spain is opposed to the exhumation of Franco and the profanation and pillaging of the Valley of the Fallen,” the movement’s leaders warned. Images from the gathering show groups carrying Francoist flags, their hands raised in the fascist salute. 

The Spanish legal code, in contrast to those of many other European countries, does not prohibit extolling fascist ideologies.

Events like this have even EU leaders in Brussels worried. In late October, the European Parliament passed a motion against the rise of neofascist violence in Europe that included several incidents in Spain. Among other things, the motion condemned Spain’s Francisco Franco Foundation as “an entity that glorifies a dictatorship and its crimes.” The foundation, dedicated to “spreading and promoting” knowledge of the dictator and his accomplishments, is not only legal in Spain but until 2004 received state subsidies. The Spanish legal code, in contrast to those of many other European countries, does not prohibit extolling fascist ideologies. 

Franco rose to power in 1939, after emerging victorious from three years of bloody civil war. The war had started when Franco helped lead a coup attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of Spain’s Second Republic, pitting his forces against an alliance of republicans, socialists, and anarchists. Franco prevailed thanks to extensive military support from Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy. From the outset, his crusade against the republic—and its secularism—also enjoyed the full backing of the Vatican. 

Once in power, Franco ruthlessly persecuted his political enemies. In the 1940s, according to the historians Paul Preston and Javier Rodrigo, his regime executed more than 20,000 prisoners. Half a million Spaniards passed through concentration camps, while more than 200,000 went into permanent exile. In addition, Franco allowed the Germans to deport close to 10,000 Spanish exiles from occupied France to Nazi death camps. 

After World War II Franco refashioned himself as “the sentinel of the West” and quickly became a Cold War ally of the United States. At home, the regime continued to persecute dissidents.

After World War II—in which Spain officially stayed neutral, although a contingent of Spanish soldiers fought with the Nazis on the eastern front—Franco refashioned himself as “the sentinel of the West” who had valiantly fought the forces of communism. Spain joined the United Nations in 1955 and quickly became a Cold War ally of the United States. At home, the regime continued to persecute dissidents. As late as 1975, it executed five political prisoners. (Surviving torture victims in search of justice have had to resort to an Argentine court, which has investigated Francoist repression under the umbrella of universal jurisdiction since 2010.) 

After several years of declining health, during which he gradually withdrew from his government duties, Franco died on November 20, 1975, at the age of 82. “Despite Franco’s death and expected burial tomorrow,” Chevy Chase remarked on November 22, “doctors say the dictator’s health has taken a turn for the worse.” 

The Valley of the Fallen monument built by Franco, where the dictator is buried alongside over 30,000 fighters from Spain's civil war
Paul Hanna/REUTERS

Like most good jokes, Chase’s quips contained a kernel of genuine anxiety. Would Franco continue to rule Spain from the grave? As a soldier and politician, he had been the ultimate survivor. And he’d made careful arrangements for his legacy to continue after his death. In 1969, he announced in his annual Christmas message that he’d leave “everything solidly nailed down.

A few days after his death, following Franco’s express wishes, Juan Carlos I, the grandson of the country’s last monarch, was proclaimed king. Under Juan Carlos’ oversight, Spain went through a quick and relatively peaceful transition to democracy, brokered between representatives of the regime and the opposition. Political parties were legalized, a general amnesty declared, and a new constitution adopted. Emerging onto the world stage as a young constitutional monarchy, Spain was finally ready to be a part of modern Europe. 

Or was it? Beneath the apparent break with 40 years of authoritarianism was a great deal of continuity. Thanks to the general amnesty, those who had broken the law fighting Franco went free, but so did every member of the regime. In fact, most Francoists in the government, police, army, and judiciary simply held on to their posts. Even the king had been appointed by Franco.

To be sure, the country adopted a modern constitution and instituted free elections. It reorganized itself into 17 “autonomous communities,” a semifederal makeup that allowed the Basques, Catalans, and Galicians a measure of self-government that Franco, an obsessive centralist, would never have stood for. In 1982, the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) came into power in a landslide win; it would govern the country for the next 14 years. Spain underwent a rapid process of cultural and economic modernization. The crowning achievement came in 1992, when Madrid was Europe’s cultural capital, Seville hosted the World’s Fair, and Barcelona held the Olympic Games.

For decades, traces of Francoism remained at every corner.

All this time, however, traces of Francoism remained at every corner. Thousands of street names continued to commemorate the dictator and his generals; hundreds of plaques, memorials, and statues celebrating his rule dotted the country. And the Valley of the Fallen, where the dictator lay buried alongside José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spain’s fascist party, remained exactly as Franco himself had designed it in 1939: a 330,000-square-foot esplanade leading up to the subterranean basilica, a giant monument to Franco and his Civil War victory, built in part by political prisoners. 

A first attempt to grapple with this unprocessed legacy came in 2004, when the socialists returned to government. Starting in 2000, grass-roots groups had begun locating and exhuming mass graves holding the remains of the tens of thousands of Spaniards summarily executed during and after the war. Denouncing the “pact of silence” that had accompanied the transition to democracy, these groups called instead for “the recovery of historical memory.” 

In 2004, the government responded to growing pressure from civil society and began working on what would become known as the Law of Historical Memory. Finally adopted in 2007—despite the opposition from the Partido Popular—the law subsidized the exhumations and ordered the removal from public spaces of any symbols extolling Francoism. It also forbade the annual celebration of Franco at the Valley of the Fallen. Yet when the PP returned to power in 2011, it refused to assign a budget for the law’s provisions. In 2015, Prime Minister Rajoy proudly declared that his government had spent “zero euros” on it.

When Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the PSOE, unexpectedly replaced Rajoy as prime minister this June, he announced ambitious plans to update the 2007 law, immediately sparking widespread controversy. In addition to exhuming Franco and reforming the Valley into an educational or commemorative space, Sánchez has mentioned the possibility of a truth commission on the Civil War and Francoism—a recommendation that the United Nations has been making for years—and promised that the administration will take charge of the exhumation of the remaining mass graves. 

That these measures are controversial shows that modern Spain is in some ways still an anomaly in western Europe. As the historian Tony Judt wrote in his 2005 book, Postwar, Europe’s collective identity after 1945 rested on pride in having collectively fought against fascism. In the 1990s, continental leaders began to embrace the idea that to be European also meant coming to terms with a difficult—even fascist or collaborationist—past. There were official expressions of contrition and regret. States built museums and monuments, took judicial action, and worked to provide financial or moral redress for the victims. As countries such as Turkey and Serbia tried to join the European Union, acknowledgment of responsibility for past crimes—and judicial accountability for the perpetrators of human rights abuses—became a more or less explicit condition for EU membership. 

Yet post-Franco Spain, which joined the European Community in 1986, never tied its national identity to anti-fascism or to a sense of collective responsibility. Although many Spaniards had fought against fascism in the Civil War, Spain’s modern democratic governments never sought to turn this fact into a source of national pride. Nor did they embrace as a European virtue the ability to speak frankly about a violent and shameful past.

These anomalies regularly lead to awkward moments. When Spanish politicians wish to present the country as fully European, they have to go into contortions to whitewash its history. Take Albert Rivera, the young leader of the Citizens party, which has consistently avoided condemning the Franco dictatorship or honoring its victims. During an electoral debate in 2015, Rivera argued that Europe should unite in its fight against Islamist terrorism, just as in World War II, “together we beat the fascists.” In October, Inés Arrimadas, the leader of Rivera’s party in Catalonia, raised eyebrows with a comment about Lluís Companys, Catalan’s president in the 1930s. In 1940, Companys was arrested by the Gestapo in France, then executed by the Franco regime. Yet Arrimadas claimed that he had not been killed by the Spanish state—as if Franco’s dictatorship were somehow different from that state.

When Spanish politicians wish to present the country as fully European, they have to go into contortions to whitewash its history.

This stunted national consciousness is also reflected in the political party landscape. On the face of it, Spain has long lacked a far-right, anti-immigrant party comparable to the Front National (now Rassemblement National) in France, the Alternative for Germany, or Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands. But while it’s true that immigration was long of relatively little concern to Spaniards, far-right sectors nostalgic for the Franco regime have always existed—they simply felt little need to found their own party. Unlike their counterparts in other European countries, they never stopped feeling at home in the mainstream center-right, in this case the Partido Popular.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right party Vox, with supporters at a gathering in Valencia, Spain, October 2018. 
Heino Kalis/REUTERS

The radical right has only recently begun to come out into the open, in part driven by a nationalist backlash against Catalonia’s push for independence last year. Organizations such as Hogar Social, an anti-Islam and anti-immigrant group, and the radical-right party Vox are making inroads into Spanish politics. Vox is still a marginal force, with no seats in parliament, but on October 7, the party gathered 10,000 supporters in Madrid for an exuberant right-wing rally—something the country hadn’t seen since its transition to democracy. The party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, called upon the flag-waving crowd “to make Spain great again” and fight the enemies responsible for Spain’s “division and downfall.” The party, which polls now indicate may win five seats in parliament, has also called for deporting immigrants who are in the country illegally or have otherwise broken the law. 

Vox’s surge has pulled the PP and Citizens further to the right on immigration issues and the Catalonia question. Pro-independence Catalans, meanwhile, cite Spain’s inability to free itself from the Francoist legacy as a major reason for their wish to break with the country. 

It is not clear what exactly will happen to the Valley of the Fallen if Franco’s remains are removed. A 2011 report by a blue-ribbon commission recommended that it be turned into a secular space where the public is taught about Spain’s violent history. The need for such spaces is urgent. In the 2008 poll mentioned earlier, two-thirds of Spaniards said their schoolteachers had paid “little or no” attention to the Civil War and Francoism. The “pact of silence” during Spain’s transition to democracy has allowed Francoist myths to go unchallenged. 

“When Franco died, he left us a magnificent country,” Manuel Fernández-Monzón, a general in reserve, said in a television interview this summer. Fernández-Monzón had just signed a manifesto denouncing the “vile campaign” to tarnish the dictator’s image and the left’s “perverse attempt” to exhume him. “Franco,” the general added, “killed no one.” 

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  • SEBASTIAAN FABER is Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. His most recent book is Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography. 
  • More By Sebastiaan Faber