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Spanish politicians want dictator's body dug up

May 10, 2017

Spanish politicians are debating whether to exhume the remains of their former dictator Francisco Franco. The largely-reviled general is buried in a controversial memorial to the 500,000 victims of the Spanish Civil War.

Francisco Franco
Image: AP

Spanish parliament debated on Tuesday whether to dig up the body of fascist dictator Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen ("Valle de los Caidos") memorial.

Franco was buried in the massive mausoleum near Madrid in 1975, controversially joining thousands of victims of the civil war.

Spain's socialists have pushed for his exhumation for years, arguing his presence sullies the memory of the fallen and acts as a pilgrimage site for Francoists. He is the only person buried at the site who did not die in the civil war.

Political back-and-forth

Franco ordered the monument's construction after his victory in 1939, ostensibly to honor all of those who died in the in 32-month war. Throughout his dictatorship, the government positioned the monument as symbol of national reconciliation. Franco's burial there was unexpected and against his wishes, but it was hastily ordered by the interim government appointed after his death.

An expert panel, appointed by the then-ruling Socialist Party, called in 2011 for the site to be converted into a politically-neutral memorial for victims of his regime, and for his body to be removed.

Valle de los Caídos
The Valley of the Fallen was partially built using forced laborImage: picture alliance/dpa/B. Marks

But the 2011-elected government of the still-ruling People's Party abandoned the plans, saying it was unnecessary and would stoke divisions in Spain. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy repeated the position several times over the following years.

The lower house was due to vote on the Socialist Party's latest proposal on Thursday, but even if it passes the ruling party would have no obligation to enforce it.

The socialists called for the removal of all Francoist symbols from the site, and for mass graves from the so-called White Terror to be exhumed.

Franco's grave in the Valle de los Caídos basilica
Franco's body lies inside the consecrated Catholic basilica, against his wishesImage: picture alliance/dpa/B. Marks

Various political parties sought to add amendments to the laws - including the annulment of Francoist trials.

The Valley of the Fallen was finished 1958 in the Sierra de Guadarrama, about 60 kilometers northwest of Madrid. It was partly built using forced labor.

In February the Spanish Supreme Court overturned a ruling to exhume and transfer the body of the dictator and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Spanish Phalanx party and a figure venerated by Franco.

Both are buried in a basilica crowned by a 150-meter white cross. Their tombs lie in front of the high altar, a space reserved for popes and bishops, according to Catholic law.

Inside Europe: Digging up the Spanish past

Why is this monument so controversial?

The Valley of the Fallen holds a contoversial place in the contested memory of the Spanish Civil War.

Proponents of the momument argue that Franco intended to honor all of Spain's fallen, both the Republican and the Franco-allied forces. But for its critics, the dictator's construction decree describing the structure as a "temple" to those who "fell on the path to God and Homeland" during "our crusade" glorifies national-catholic ideology and exclusively honors Franco's right-wing fighting forces. 

In addition, many of the Republican fighters buried there were victims of political reprisal. Franco ordered the transfer of their bodies from other locations in Spain without the knowledge or consent of the victims' families. 

Franco cult to end in Madrid