Franco’s exhumation plan reveals unresolved tensions

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José Antonio, a retired mechanic from Granada, in southern Spain, decided this week to say “one last goodbye” to Francisco Franco.

So he drove the five and a half hours to the Basilica of the Valley of the Dead, a giant complex near Madrid that the former dictator ordered to dig into the rock, from where Franco’s remains could soon be moved. .

José Antonio, who, like many other visitors to the enclosure, was reluctant to give his full name, remembers the days “when one could walk safely in the street, even if there was no not so much democracy and freedom ”.

He was far from being alone in his feelings. On the same morning this week, a man from the Rioja region gave the fascist salute at Franco’s grave, which was covered with so many bouquets of fresh flowers that the inscription was barely visible.

Several people placed medallions and watches on the stone slab, as if to imbibe the spirit of the dictator, then grabbed them and hugged them.

Such views may soon become a thing of the past. Spain’s Supreme Court ruled last week that there should be no obstacles to exhuming Franco’s body from the state-owned site, dismissing a lawsuit brought by the dictator’s grandchildren.

“We are closing a dark chapter in our history,” proclaimed Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York shortly after. “No enemy of democracy deserves to lie in a place of worship or institutional respect.”

Francisco Franco speaking in Bilbao in 1939 © AFP

The Valley of the Dead is officially a memorial to the war dead on both sides and contains the remains of 33,000 people – but the only graves marked are those of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Phalange, who was shot down by Spanish Republicans in 1936.

Mr. Sánchez wishes to proceed with the exhumation of Franco, whose 36-year reign did not end until his death in 1975, before the Spanish legislative elections on 10 November.

The dictator is reportedly buried next to his wife, Carmen Polo, in a private family crypt on the outskirts of Madrid, where police are permanently stationed and fascist protests could be difficult to mount.

But the question is whether, rather than closing a chapter, Mr Sánchez’s plans ignite old tensions.

“What’s next? Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who heads the center-right government of the Greater Madrid region, asked Thursday. “Will the parish churches burn down as in [19]36? “

Historian Sir Paul Preston, author of works including a biography of Franco accusing the dictator’s nationalists of planning mass murders during the Civil War of 1936-1939, said he was naive when he noted, Thirty years ago, it was a “matter of the times” before Spain’s divisions over the dictator died down. “Spain has never known the kind of denazification process that Germany and Italy have known,” he said.

The equivalent of the Valley of the Dead, which was largely built by Republican prisoners and is marked by the largest stone cross in the world, “would be a monument to Hitler just outside Berlin,” a- he added.

But, he said, he had the “almost shameful reaction” that although re-burying Franco was “absolutely what should have happened … wouldn’t it have been better to let the sleeping dogs lie?

Instead, Sánchez’s plans sparked backlash.

Protesters shout slogans and carry banners with the photo of Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco during a demonstration outside Madrid's Supreme Court calling on the government to ban the burial of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid, after his exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen, in Madrid, Spain, on September 24, 2019. The banner reads

Anti-Franco demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court in Madrid © Reuters

The Francisco Franco Foundation, which stores 33,000 documents related to the late dictator and sells Francoist merchandise ranging from wine to CDs, called on its supporters to pray “for his soul and all those who have fallen in love with Spain” at the Valley this Saturday.

He also wrote to Pope Francis, asking him not to allow the exhumation team to access the basilica without the consent of the Franco family and the Benedictine monks who run the complex.

Mr Sánchez’s position has also come under attack from the anti-immigration Vox party, which won 10% of Spain’s elections in April, breaking the mold in a country that has been wary of the far right since Franco’s death.

Juan Chicharro, president of the Franco foundation and retired general in the Spanish navies, said Vox was “a hope, a light, for many Spaniards”.

He portrays the far-right party as a true heir to the Francoist tradition, which he describes as anti-communism, attachment to the unity of Spain and respect for the country’s centuries-old Christian traditions.

Madrid, Spain, October 1, 2019. Juan Chicharro Ortega, head of the Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco, poses for a portrait inside the headquarters of the Fundación.

Juan Chicharro considers the far-right Vox party as a true heir to the Francoist tradition © Gianfranco Tripodo / FT

Some commentators suggest that the planned exhumation of Franco’s remains could help Vox in next month’s election, called after Mr Sánchez failed to form a government, while paying dividends for the acting prime minister.

“Sánchez’s political calculation is that if he can really do it before November 10, he will be seen as someone who has made a historic change that the left has long sought,” said Jorge Galindo, political scientist and columnist.

“It may also be practical for Sánchez for Vox not to be too weak: Vox’s fear helped the Socialists in the April elections and the party wants the right-wing vote to be split.

But Mr Galindo added that the Franco controversy would at most halt Vox’s decline, as opinion polls suggest the party will struggle to maintain its April share of the vote.

Indeed, while many people, mostly elderly, visiting the Valley of the Dead shared the Franco Foundation’s anger at Mr. Sánchez’s plans, even here voices dissented.

“The war dead belong here, but not this man, who put thousands of people here,” said Beatriz, who remembered the fear that half a century ago prevented it. to talk about politics when she went to Madrid.

“It was a dictatorship. . . rather he is with his family.

This article has been modified since its publication to correct an earlier reference to Pope Benedict


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