Spain's Valley of the Fallen, where Franco is buriedSergio Perez / Reuters

MADRID—At General Francisco Franco’s graveside, discussion is lively. Around the tombstone of the Spanish dictator, laden with floral offerings and gazing up into the granite arches of the Valley of the Fallen’s vast basilica, visitors hold forth over the fate of the man who has been buried there for more than 40 years.

“They should not remove him,” one middle-aged woman protested to me recently, puncturing the air with a sharp finger, referring to the government’s recent decision to exhume Franco from the monument he himself dedicated and rebury him in a less exalted location. “He was good and he was bad. But he was our history, and I am Spanish,” another insisted.

A businessman in his 70s was visiting with his grandson, the first time he had been to the site in more than four decades. Proudly declaring “Our family is Franquista, and we don’t hide it,” he said he wanted the child to see Franco’s resting place before what he described as “this nonsense” takes place. “I have nothing bad to say about Franco,” he added, asking to remain anonymous for fear such views might spark a backlash against his business.

The many Spaniards who revile Franco tend to stay far away from the Valley of the Fallen, the vast, surreal monument outside Madrid where thousands of those killed in the Spanish Civil War are interred along with its victor. Its 150-meter-high cross is visible from miles away, looming starkly over what is often referred to as Spain’s largest mass grave. The remains of more than 33,000 people who fought on both sides in the 1936–39 conflict are buried here, transported—many without permission—from other sites after the valley was finished in 1958. Their graves, unlike Franco’s, are unmarked, and the identities of more than a third remain unknown.

To many families of the fallen, the presence of Franco—who was buried here after his death in 1975 on the orders of the then-King Juan Carlos I—is a final insult, converting what was conceived of as a monument to the war dead into the pharaonic tomb of a fascist dictator. Up to 1 million people died in the three-year conflict, which Franco helped spark by leading a military revolt against Spain’s elected government, then run by the left-wing Republicans. Thousands more died during the purges that followed Franco’s victory and the imposition of a dictatorship that lasted until his death. That period remains burned into the memory of many in Spain, which unlike countries such as Germany or Argentina has never undergone a process of reconciliation. The lack of such a process, some argue, has left the wounds of the era seeping into politics and society four decades on.

Earlier this year, a visiting delegation from the European Parliament described the valley’s existence as an outrage, likening it to maintaining a memorial to Adolf Hitler outside Berlin.

It is also the most visible symbol of the historical-memory drive announced by Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, a mere two weeks after he unseated his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, in a no-confidence vote in June. Originally conceived a decade ago by the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the relaunched project, which Rajoy had frozen, aims to grapple with a history Spain once tried to avoid. In a bid to speed the transition to democracy that followed Franco’s death, political parties agreed to amnesty laws under the so-called Pact of Forgetting, preventing investigation and prosecutions of dictatorship-era crimes. Now, in addition to exhuming Franco, the government also plans to open up the thousands of mass graves across Spain, which according to human-rights groups contain the remains of well over 100,000 people—more than in any other country apart from Cambodia. A truth commission is planned; criminal trials could follow.

The move has been lauded by victims’ families and left-wing parties, which for years have been tearing at the veil of silence over this painful historical chapter. One such relative is Purificación Lapeña Garrido, the granddaughter and great-niece, respectively, of Manuel Lapeña, a leftist union leader, and his blacksmith brother, Antonio, who were executed by Franco’s troops in the early days of the civil war. Dumped in a mass grave in northern Spain, their remains were removed decades later without the family’s knowledge and reburied in the basilica. Following an eight-year fight, the Lapeñas finally received the go-ahead for their relatives’ exhumations in April, but must now wait for the results of technical studies to learn whether extracting them from the vast ossuary will be possible.

To Lapeña, Franco is nothing but a “genocidal murderer and a criminal, like Hitler and other fascist leaders.” As a child, she remembers how her father, now 94, would remark every time Franco appeared on television: “That is the man that killed your grandfather.” In an interview, she described the valley as akin to a “Nazi monument”—“very cold, very dark,” with an aura of tragedy that had chilled her when she visited to observe the studies.

Like many, she believes the valley should be deconsecrated, its cross torn down and a museum placed there to put it in proper historical context. “All we want is that the history of Spain is known, [the history] that they have hidden or tried to erase,” she said.

Defenders of Franco—who some on both the left and right claim represent up to half the country, though there’s no good data and the true proportion is likely much smaller—reject comparisons with Hitler. They say Italy’s Mussolini is a fairer analogy, and accuse the “losers” of the civil war of trying to rewrite history. At the Francisco Franco Foundation in Madrid—an organization many would like to see shuttered—its president, retired General Juan Chicharro, painted the historical-memory drive as an attempt by the people he characterized as “socio-communists” now in power to bring back the republic defeated in 1939. “They are not trying to reconcile; they are trying to win a war they lost 80 years ago,” he told me.

Certainly, the rhetoric flying between Spain’s political foes is often startlingly reminiscent of the 1930s. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the Catalan independence crisis, where the specter of Franco figures large in the public discourse. Opponents exchange barbs like “traitor” and “fascist,” and the contention that the Spanish right—and by extension, until recently, the state—has never disavowed Francoist ideology features heavily in the Catalan separatist narrative. In turn, the Catalan question has also energized Spanish nationalists and the far right, giving new life to the rivalries of old and highlighting the gulf that still lingers between the so-called two Spains even now.

Argelia Queralt Jiménez, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona, said the exhumation of Franco and the historical-memory drive would help defuse the perception among Catalan separatists of Spain as “Francoland,” a country that had not fully abandoned dictatorship for democracy. In an interview, she said that perception had little basis in reality, but explained that the failure of the Spanish right to discuss the civil war and the subsequent regime had effectively “normalized” and justified that assault on the democratic order. Meanwhile, the story of one side—of the defeated—had been “silenced” and victims treated with “disdain,” Queralt said.

“Until the Spanish right accepts this, and that Franco was the rupture of the legitimate order, we will not advance, because there will always [be] this doubt about whether the right is really trying to turn the page in order to not open wounds—or if it doesn’t want to put a part of its electorate and actors in front of the mirror,” she said.

The history of the valley itself—to which visits have soared since the exhumation was announced—is also highly disputed. Some say it was built largely with the forced labor of political prisoners, many of whom died in the process. But others—including the Spanish historian Alberto Barcena, who conducted a seven-year study of the archives on the valley— reject that claim, insisting most workers were either civilians or common convicts who signed up in exchange for reduced sentences. Pablo Linares, the head of the Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Fallen, said his grandfather Antonio Clemente had been eager to work on the monument and spoke fondly of his time there, despite being a former republican fighter who remained a committed leftist until his death. He insisted the monument was being wrongly interpreted as honoring the victory of Franco when it was intended as a memorial to both sides, a symbol of “peace and reconciliation.”

Rosa Gil Martinez, who is also bidding to exhume her grandfather’s remains from valley, roundly rejected that view, saying it had clearly become a memorial to the dictator. For Gil, this is not about military rivalry—her grandfather had been drafted into Franco’s nationalist side. But she believed the unresolved pain of those years was still filtering into Spanish society; addressing it “helps us to heal the wounds, to reconcile,” she said.

A number of historians and academics have questioned where the historical-memory drive might lead. In March, more than 200 such figures signed a manifesto warning that the “Soviet-style” plan was seeking to impose a “single historical narrative” and would “only serve to reopen old wounds.”

In an interview, one of the signatories, Andrés Trapiello, a prominent Spanish writer and historical-memory expert, said he agreed that Franco should be removed from the valley, but that Spain had more urgent things to worry about than “using the mummy of Franco for political spectacle.”

“Things are complex in Spain, and the people don’t want to hear this complexity,” Trapiello maintained. “Whether it’s the separatists in Catalonia or the populists in Madrid, they are, in the end, discourses of fiction, trying to impose fictions, and fictions are dangerous.”

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