Spain Digs Up Its Past

A Controversial Exhumation and a Battle Over National Identity

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

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