Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

At the open grave: dealing with the legacy of Franco’s terror in today’s Spain

“As I write this (September 15) the Spanish government has issued a draft bill: the Valle will undergo a process of 'resignification'.”

Liam Jackson Abellán
8 December 2020, 10.28am
Panoramic view of the Valley of the Fallen, Madrid.
Flickr/Jose Javier Martín Espartosa. Some rights reserved.

A tightly tangled mass of bones appears from out of a hollow in the ground. It is an unmarked mass grave. The colour of the soil may vary; dusty yellow-grey or deep russet, as if the blood had dyed the soil. The skeletons are so closely packed together they may as well be a bundle of twigs, or some primeval, fossilised undergrowth. Now that the flesh has long since decomposed, the individual remains are indistinguishable from one another. The bodies were tossed into their makeshift grave barely hours after they were shot, sometimes with their hands still bound. One on top of the other, to save as much space (and time) as possible. That is what makes the exhumations of mass graves so immediately startling – they are surprisingly shallow.

Perhaps we are spoiled by the spectacular of archaeological digs, and we forget just how close to the surface the dead really are. Fraternal persecution makes for hasty burial. The sites are always banal non-places, on the side of country roads or by the whitewashed wall of the local cemetery, knowledge of which has been discreetly passed down the generations. The dead are never too far off – never far enough. Coins, buttons, rings, belts and shoe soles made of old tyres are also found; whatever few possessions they had on them when they faced the firing squad. Without the safe distance of a museum’s glass case the bones are shocking in their starkness. Ribs and pelvises filled with earth, jaws biting into the soil. The verses of Miguel Hernández, a militant poet of peasant origin who died in the prison of Alicante in 1942, are brought to mind:

“Earth in the mouth, and in the soul, and in all./ Earth which I eat, Earth which shall in the end swallow me whole.” Tierra: Tierra en la boca, y en el alma, y en todo./ Tierra que voy comiendo, que al fin ha de tragarme.


Spain has 2,382 mass graves, dating to the years of the Civil War and Francoist repression (well into the 1950s), containing an estimated 45,000 remains, of which fewer than four hundred have been completely exhumed. The number of enforced disappearances totals 114,226. Furthermore, 30,960 children were abducted from Republican families and either orphaned or given to families more politically amenable to Franco’s regime. These numbers are listed in Act No. 52/2007 drafted by Spain’s Ministry of Justice, an act popularly known as the Ley de Memoria Histórica (Act of Historical Memory – a seemingly paradoxical expression), and ratified by independent UN rapporteurs in July 2014. All state contributions for the act’s implementation, which included funds for the exhumation of mass graves as well as for the elimination of monuments celebrating Francoist victory and other vestiges of the regime, were cut short in 2011 as the conservative Partido Popular (PP) ousted the incumbent social democrats. However, the work of remembrance has been kept alive by several charitable organisations and, most importantly, by individuals.

After the war, Franco ordered the transferral of over 33,000 anonymous remains to be interred in the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen – the fallen for God and for Spain, that is), the abbey-cum-mausoleum complex conceived in commemoration of the “blessed Spanish Crusade”. Built by Republican POWs throughout the 1940s and inaugurated in 1958, the monument is perhaps the most heinous symbol of Franco’s regime. Shrewdly enough, a year before its inauguration, the monument was rededicated to honour the ‘spirit of unity and fraternity amongst the Spanish people’. The Valle itself is sited at the heart of mythic Spain, in the Guadarrama mountains north of Madrid, and less than 6 miles from the Monastery of El Escorial, commissioned by Philip II to mark a victory against the French, and henceforth housing the Spanish royal pantheon. Most notably, Guadarrama was one of the last Republican fronts to be defeated, in March 1939, having withstood one of the earliest offences only days after the coup was declared on July 18, 1936.

The Valle is reached via a winding road shrouded by dark pine groves, and opens up to a vast esplanade flanked by a circular arcade, in the manner of St Peter’s. Rising from a craggy outcrop of rosy-gray granite is the humungous cross, 150 metres tall. On cloudy days, the sky seems to be fastened to it like the canopy of some macabre tent. The monument thrusts itself out of its rocky surroundings with such force that it might have grown out of them, pushing its way out of the mountain like an infected excrescence. For that reason, it is easy to imagine nature reclaiming it – falling into ruin and disrepair, sturdy pines and oaks breaking through the ashlar, mountain goats and wildcats prowling the dreary corridors of the church; there is a cruel irony in leaving it to the same obscurity to which the nameless dead had been left.

Directly below the cross, in the heart of the mount, lies the church where, until October last year, the remains of Franco himself were sited, interred next to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, ideologue and founder of the Falange Española, the fascist groupuscule which Franco absorbed into his self-styled national-catholicism, a particularly Spanish blend of diplomat-friendly authoritarianism and festive-religious legitimation. Executed in November 1936 by the Republican government (in the same Alicante prison where Miguel Hernández was to die six years later), Primo de Rivera became an early martyr of the so-called Crusade. Needless to say, he remains buried in the Valle. As I write this (September 15) the Spanish government has issued a draft bill for the recuperation of the Act of Historical Memory. According to the Minister of Interior, the Valle will undergo a process of “resignification”.


The skulls of the exhumed, with their bared flashing teeth, bear an expression that seems to swing between a mockingly anxious smile and a mute scream – a scream that pierces the earth and echoes through time. The void of the locked mouth mirrors the pit from which it has been freed. The dead cannot be silent; they never were. Village mayors, schoolteachers, bricklayers, farmhands are also to be found among the milicianos. Those who weren’t soldiers had been executed for being anti-Spanish, reds (rojos), or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

These bodily remains, lifted from anonymity by the strange meeting of modern science (DNA tests) and ancestral memory, are history congealed into nature.

The families of the victims kneel before their newfound relative, as if in solemn greeting; one of them holds a photograph of the victim, perhaps the only one taken in his life. The dead and the living, side by side – a secular recreation of those medieval dances of death, with the warning of universal mortality replaced by stories of reunions which take place always too late. These bodily remains, lifted from anonymity by the strange meeting of modern science (DNA tests) and ancestral memory, are history congealed into nature, they inhabit an uncanny threshold between these two disjunctive realms. They are a reminder that history is not some ghostly emanation of our acts, but occurs within and through our own fragile, natural bodies. “Our life”, writes philosopher Walter Benjamin, “is a muscle powerful enough to contract the whole of historical time”. The shock that the exhumed graves give us is that of a total temporal collapse – the past is abruptly rewound and made concrete, material, unavoidable. But such a contraction goes both ways; it gives back the individuality of each life to the empty course of History, which in its relentless trajectory had destroyed them. “Happiness for us is thinkable only in the air that we have breathed, among the people who have lived with us”. For Benjamin, to be faithful to history means, ultimately, nothing else than the attempt to rescue the happiness that has been so painfully taken away. “This happiness is founded on the very despair and desolation which were ours.” The promise of our personal happiness is intimately bound with the restoration of past injustice.

In between their excavation and the final burial by their families, the skeletal remains are exposed (to the sky, to the sun) for a few days as they are dutifully catalogued. In this brief period, they see the light, almost literally, were it not for the hollowed eye-sockets: time seems suspended, hovering between the darkness of oblivion and the closure of properly mourned entombment.

800px-Spanish_Civil_War_-_Mas s_grave_-_Estépar,_Burgos.jpg
Mass grave at Estépar, Burgos, dated July-August 1936, and containing the bodies of twenty six victims. | Wikicommons/Mario Modesto Mata. Some rights reserved.


With considerable media fanfare, Franco’s body was exhumed and moved to the private family mausoleum last October, in a symbolic act of memorial recommencement carried out by the government of president Pedro Sánchez – though also something of an impotently stubborn banging of the proverbial fist on the political table, after four years of hung parliaments and unsuccessful coalitions (and as many elections, two of which were held only last year). Odious comparisons with Taliban iconoclasm have come thick and fast from the country’s Right ever since. In May 2010, the Valle was closed to the public, ostensibly on the pretext of conservation works, but in reality to delay, indefinitely, the discomfiting moment of confrontation with the horror of the past. Nevertheless, it reopened barely a couple of years later under the new right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy.

It is this same right that makes the loudest calls for historical preservation, all the while riling against those who seek to confront the legacy of the dictatorship – or who simply want to give proper burial to their families. Charges of Cainitism and civil-war-ism are among the favourite, most uniquely Spanish accusations bandied around by the all-forgiving, all-forgetting right, who see in the persistence of memory nothing but political opportunism.

This wrangling brings echoes of the folkloristic, mythologised image of Spain as an inherently divided country – las dos Españas, the two Spains: right and left, rich and poor, religion and reason, tradition and rebellion… It’s the duel to the death of Goya’s Black Paintings, locked in perpetual struggle and trapped to our knees in sand. “Spanish cruelty” goes back on itself and punishes its own people. The Civil War is thus elevated from fraternal conflict into transcendental struggle; it becomes a mere expression, one among many, of a defining, eternalised condition of being which only seeks to mystify and conceal its entirely societal, historical determination – this was a war waged by Spain’s oldest elites in reaction to the threat of the 2nd Republic’s progressive reform.

No wonder the PP and other newcomers to the right, including Vox (a party in the style of Salvini’s Lega Nord), would rather forget. They are, after all, the direct result of Franco carefully securing survival of his own inheritance. After having diluted its totalitarian image for the approving eyes of the Cold-War Anglosphere, and giving itself to international tourism, the government secured the throne for Juan Carlos of Bourbon with Franco’s blessing. Two years after his death, the infamous Pact of Forgetting passed an amnesty law that rendered the perpetrators of the regime’s crimes legally immune, in exchange for relinquishing official recognition of the dictatorship’s symbols.

The pact could only have been successful with the full implication of the recently legalised social-democratic party (PSOE). The crypt was firmly closed, never to be reopened under threat of national collapse. That same year, Franco’s former Minister of Tourism, Manuel Fraga, founded the party that was to become the PP. As Benjamin warns us, “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he is victorious – and he has not ceased to be victorious”. The enemy Benjamin refers to is not only the fascism he and many others were fleeing from, but the system that engendered it in the first place.

The Spanish Right is perfectly aware of the violence inherent in remembrance, a violence whose force may end up overthrowing them for good.

The Right’s voluntary amnesia is ultimately an attempt at self-preservation – the pre-emptive rejection of and severing from the painful (or, for them, simply embarrassing) heritage of Franco serves only to safeguard their remaining power against the true possibility of losing it altogether. It is the false forgiveness of the vanquisher. The Spanish Right is perfectly aware of the violence inherent in remembrance, a violence whose force may end up overthrowing them for good. After all, forgetting is the most natural action of the human psyche; hence the strange contradiction of the phrase ‘to condemn something to oblivion’ – to give something up to the passing of time, while seemingly as easy as letting go of someone’s hand, requires a cold-hearted decisiveness that is absent from the involuntary recollections of individual memory. Such enforced amnesia is a second death for the victims of the war. To those who have lost so much, fidelity to the dead who remain unnamed and lost provides the sole source of reconciliation.


When philosopher Miguel de Unamuno proclaimed his famous Venceréis, pero no convenceréis (You may win, but you will never convince), in answer to the attacks proffered by the Falangist general Millán-Astray, he could never have imagined how wrong his prediction would prove to be. They did convince. Francoism made use of both brutal repression to instil fear in a poverty-stricken population, and exploited the tropes of national identity (The Reconquista, Catholicism, The Spanish Empire…) to firmly take root in the country’s collective psyche. Muera la inteligencia! Death to intelligence!, was Millán-Astray’s final rebuke. Millán-Astray himself was the living image of the fascist death cult: gaunt, one-eyed, one-armed, toothless. Unamuno reportedly struck back with an ominous remark: “the war-crippled general” that is, the victim of his own actions, “can only find solace thanks to the growing number of mutilations”.

Once again, the unsolvable duality of Spain: the (elitist) intellectual, the (proudly ignorant) man of war; force and persuasion. As representative of the war as it has become, the argument’s own legendary status overpowers its historical accuracy. Unamuno himself was a complex figure. In the wake of the coup, he penned a “manifesto” in defence of Franco, in whose person was entrusted the survival of the whole of Christian, European culture, while actively dismissing his more explicitly fascist allies. After the clash with Millán Astray, Unamuno was stripped of his rectorship of the University of Salamanca and put under house arrest. He died within three months, in December 1936. “You may win, but you will not convince” now sounds more like an attitude of Stoic resignation, a tacit acceptance of the (miserable) state of things as unchangeable.

Perhaps it might be better to remember an earlier moment of Unamuno’s thought. His On the Tragic Sense of Life (1913) attempts to reconcile us with the inevitability of human finitude, not through forgetting or through cynical disregard, but through wholehearted embrace – the embrace of life’s pain and tragedy. “It is never enough to only cure one’s malady,” writes Don Miguel, “we must also learn to weep for it. Yes, we must learn to weep for it! And perhaps this is the supreme wisdom”. Our happiness cannot be experienced in all its fullness if we don’t properly mourn our deepest grievances as well.

And isn’t this, too, the lesson of Sophocle’s Antigone, its enduring significance? If you remember: Antigone’s two brothers fought and died on opposite sides of the city of Thebes’ civil war; in retaliation, the corpse of her losing brother was left to rot outside the city gates, and Antigone’s only wish is to give him a proper burial, an act that would threaten the fragile peace just won. She manages to carry out the last rites, only to be immediately punished by King Creon. She is immured; buried alive, effectively. But Creon’s victory is pyrrhic: his son, Antigone’s betrothed, kills himself in her wake, and so does his mother. Justice towards historical wrongs cannot take the form of punishment, or it risks entrenching the conflict even deeper – the cycle of vengeance spirals out of control.

At one point, Antigone cries out, in response to Creon’s exasperation, that she “was made for love, not war”. She does not wish to give into the circle of destruction. She acts only out of a simple (yet earth-shattering) fidelity. For Antigone, her desire to remain faithful to her slain brother is bound to the city’s own wish for peace, and such a peace cannot by truly reached until she, herself, can carry out her simple deed. The peace of one is the peace of all.

The justice that follows Antigone’s declamation can only take the form of a forgiveness and a reconciliation that prevents collective forgetting, which can look into the past’s accusing eyes without turning away. But such a forgiveness remains so alien to our way of thinking as to be unrecognisable. Again, the verses of Miguel Hernández ring close by: “A kiss which reached so deep that it moved the dead… A kiss that wished to dig up the dead and plant the living.” This is love’s justice: it frees the dead so that the living can tread more lightly. We carry the dead within ourselves so that they may not feel the weight of the earth.

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