The exhumation of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen is far from uncontested. But his tomb was a symbol of anti-democracy that should have long ago been removed, says DW's Cristina Burack.
It is only now, 44 years after his death, that long-time Spanish ruler Francisco Franco is finally getting the type of national recognition he deserves: that of a military general who was responsible for the first deliberate air attack on civilians at Guernica (with help from his pal Hitler's Luftwaffe) during a brutal and bloody civil war from 1936-39; that of an executioner who systematically executed hundreds of thousands of his opponents in what the prominent Spain historian Paul Preston has termed the "Spanish Holocaust"; that of a dictator who crushed democracy in Spain during his 36-year rule.
The exhumation of Franco is long overdue in a country that has never openly reckoned with its authoritarian past. Quite frankly, it is shameful that it has taken this long to remove his remains from the giant cross-topped mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, which looms over the hills outside Madrid.
Built at his wish, in large part with forced laborers, to supposedly honor those who fell during the civil war, the site has long been a gathering place for supporters of fascism and the far right. It is in no way a place of national reconciliation, as Franco proclaimed it would be — and as some conservative politicians today still argue it is. It has only been a painful insult to Spaniards whose family members (including some of my own) were persecuted for thinking differently, speaking freely and fighting against Franco's authoritarian national-Catholic forces, backed by Spain's fascist party. In many cases, these opponents were summarily shot and dumped anonymously in mass graves. Tens of thousands were later dug up and reburied at the monument.
A dictator's controversial exhumation
Yet Franco's exhumation has been highly controversial. A poll conducted by Spanish paper El Mundo found that one in three Spaniards opposed moving his remains. Franco's descendants repeatedly attempted to stall the removal in the courts, and conservative politicians say that unburying the past will only open new wounds. That argument is a legacy of Spain's transition to democracy after Franco's death in 1975. His supporters and opponents agreed on the so-called Pact of Forgetting, which included a general political amnesty to those who committed mass crimes. It was an attempt to look toward the future.
While Spain's transition to democracy was praised around the world, the pact's long-term result was to entrench deep social division that made authoritarian sympathy acceptable. For too long, democratic Spain has been a place where the fascist Falange arrow crest can still be seen on facades, where people unabashedly fly the Francoist national flag from their balconies, where streets are named "Calle del Generalisimo" — "street of the great general" — and where a foundation exists to honor his memory and alleged accomplishments. Such public acceptance of authoritarian displays is unimaginable in Germany, but Spanish society has never truly agreed to denounce Franco's dictatorship.
Closing a chapter on glorification
While a previous Socialist government in 2007 passed a measure officially recognizing victims of Franco and condemning his dictatorship, the mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen is Spain's greatest symbol of, at best, ambivalence toward anti-democratic rule and, at worst, adoration of a dictator. Franco's exhumation does more than just open his tomb and transfer his remains to a discreet, private resting place. It closes a chapter on his glorification and marks a historic turning point in Spain's national historic memory.
Of course, the move will not immediately make democrats out of dictator supporters. The planned — and subsequently banned — protests at the removal process testify to that. But the exhumation finally brings Spain as a state to a point where it officially, entirely rejects Franco's legacy, fundamentally changing the country's historical framework and providing a starting point for social divisions to start to heal.
It won't be a pretty process — building historical consensus on dark eras of division and loss never is. But it is a necessary process, and one that Spain has needed for far too long. Franco's time has finally run out.