Can exhumation kill Franco once and for all?

In August, the Spanish government issued a decree paving the way to exhume the remains of fascist dictator Francisco Franco from their current place of honour in the Valley of the Fallen, a massively creepy monument north of Madrid.

The dictator’s family members have been given until September 15 to select a new resting place for him; otherwise, the state will decide. The transfer will, theoretically, take place later this year. 

The English-language edition of Spain’s El Pais newspaper quotes Franco’s grandchildren as complaining that the decree constitutes an “act of retrospective revenge without precedent in the civilised world”.

Indeed, it would be most uncivilised to disturb the embalmed body of the man responsible for terrorising Spain for much of the last century. 

Perks of civilisation

After all, only half a million people are estimated to have perished in the civil war of 1936-39 that brought Franco to power, where he remained until his death in 1975. 

On top of that, a mere 114,000 or so were disappeared during the war and ensuing dictatorship, many of them executed by Francoist death squads and deposited in mass graves that have yet to be excavated.

The Valley of the Fallen, incidentally, was itself built by the forced labour of political prisoners held by the fascist regime. It also houses the bones of more than 33,000 unidentified victims of the civil war. 

Other perks of Franco’s enlightened rule included the practice of trafficking in newborns, which continued after the dictator’s death and – according to some observers – resulted in hundreds of thousands of stolen Spanish babies.

But just how much progress does the forcible migration of Franco’s remains signify?

Giles Tremlett, author of Ghosts of Spainargues over at the Guardian that, while Franco should certainly be dug up, the Valley of the Fallen in its present incarnation is still “an obnoxious reminder of his 36-year rule”, the 150-metre cross looming “like a giant finger raised to the families of those assassinated by [Franco’s] regime”, among other victims.

Highlighting the complicity in Franco-era crimes of “a whole tranche of Spanish society”, Tremlett goes on to recall Franco’s bonds with the Spanish monarchy as well as other potentially inconvenient alliances: “The Roman Catholic church … backed and blessed [Franco’s] ‘crusade’ against an elected left-wing government. US support during the cold war then enabled Franco to survive for decades.”


In other words, Franco’s not the only one with blood on his hands – which perhaps more than partially explains Spain’s long-time commitment to a policy of forgetting. A post-Franco amnesty law and pact of silence assisted in promoting official amnesia, but – in Spain, as elsewhere – forgetting is easier said than done when the past is ever-present.

A common Spanish argument against the recuperation of historical memory is that digging up the past only reopens old wounds. But what if those wounds never healed in the first place? In a country saturated with mass graves, what choice is there but to dig up the past in order to move on?

As it turns out, the disingenuous forgive-and-forget mantra is also on heavy display in other locales that have suffered brutal wars and a surplus of disappeared persons.

In Sri Lanka, for example, the population has been discouraged from reflecting too intensely on the government’s recent war with the Tamil Tigers – which, in fact, often amounted to an all-out war on Tamil civilians – because reflection will somehow thwart public reconciliation. Nevermind that the government’s actions themselves have thwarted just that. 

In Lebanon, where there are still some 17,000 disappeared from the bloody civil war of 1975-90, amnesia is particularly politically expedient given that many of the same civil warlords responsible for countless wartime atrocities happen to remain in power to this day.

A postwar Lebanese amnesty law has assisted in the institutionalisation of impunity. The civil war is not taught in Lebanese schools, and the state’s refusal to excavate mass graves means that distraught mothers and other relatives of the missing have not even been able to ascertain the fates of their loved ones and thereby commence the grieving process.

One central component of the Lebanese civil war was, of course, the right-wing Christian Phalangist party – thanks to which the prominent Beirut neighbourhood of Ashrafieh continues to play host to a statue performing a fascist salute. 

‘Passive Francoism’

Meanwhile, back in Spain, the charming business of fascist saluting is taken care of by real live humans, among them the ones who have taken it upon themselves to protest the prospect of removal of Franco’s remains. 

An August Bloomberg article cites a survey conducted the previous month indicating that, while about 41 percent of Spaniards approved the idea of removal and 38.5 percent opposed, 54 percent considered the timing inopportune. 

Beyond the transparent affinity for Franco exhibited by a sector of the Spanish population, there are lingering ties to the dictatorship among members of the political class and other elites. The spirit of Franco has, it seems, infused much of the contemporary domestic panorama – from laws criminalising various forms of protest to the awarding of the country’s top policing medal to the Virgin Mary. 

In an opinion piece for Spain’s El Periodico newspaper, Catalan writer Jordi Puntí contends that Francoism and Neo-Francoism have become a veritable “mental state” for many, despite the common perception that the “ultra-right” commands nothing more than a marginalised presence in Spain.

Proposing a concept of “passive Francoism” – pertaining to Francoists who aren’t cognisant of their identity as such – Punti calls out representatives of various Spanish political parties, including the now-ruling PSOE (the one spearheading the transfer of Franco’s remains) for rejecting a proposed reform to the amnesty law that would have enabled the trials of torturers and other dictatorship-era criminals.

El Pais notes that one of the chants heard at the protests against uprooting Franco from the Valley of the Fallen has been “Spaniards: yes, refugees: no” – in case anyone needed a reminder of how fascist ideologies and rhetoric might apply in the current context of Fortress Europe“. 

The same El Pais article quotes one of the protest organisers as declaring: “Franco isn’t dead. Anyone who dies in Christ is not dead”.  

And, nearly 43 years after his death, Franco’s continued presence is precisely the problem.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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