In 1975, on a satirical newscast on the American television show Saturday Night Live, mock reporter Chevy Chase announced Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s death for the better part of a year, reminding audiences that the dictator was ‘still dead’. As I describe in my book, to announce Franco’s death, Chase ‘read a quote from the soon-to-be-disgraced US President Richard Nixon proclaiming “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States. He earned worldwide respect for Spain through firmness and fairness”’. In juxtaposition to those words, a photo of Franco marching alongside Adolf Hitler flashed behind Chase to stilted laughter. On Thursday, 24 October, Francisco Franco’s body was exhumed—and not simply to find out if the dictator is still dead.
Next year marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Franco, the Nationalist-Catholic fascist dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 until 1975. In preparation for that anniversary, Franco’s body was disinterred from its current location at the so-called ‘Valley of the Fallen’ and moved to the El Pardo-Mingorrubio cemetery—where his wife, Carmen Polo, is buried. The Valley and Franco’s body are at the centre of a decades-long polemic that has both fascist groups and conservatives decrying the current Spanish government’s fight to both contextualize and change the meaning of Franco’s gravesite. Thousands travelled to the dictator’s tomb as government officials prepared to exhume his body, and hundreds showed up to the services on Thursday, including Antonio Tejero, the former lieutenant-colonel who led a failed coup d’état against the young Spanish democracy in 1981.
The Valley of the Fallen, a soaring 150-metre-high (500 ft) monument and basilica located just outside Madrid, was inaugurated on 1 April 1959—constructed over almost two decades by enslaved political prisoners. Built on the mass graves of tens of thousands of unidentified victims of the Spanish Civil War, the Valley was meant to honor those who died fighting for the nationalists during the war. When Franco died, his body was interred there near José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spain’s fascist party, the Falange. The official website of the Valley even calls visitors there ‘pilgrims’—a title typically reserved for those who embark to visit religious holy sites instead of a monument celebrating the destruction of a democratic republic by fascists.
After the fall of Nazi Germany, a de-Nazification process began that systematically removed monuments to the regime. In Italy, a similar process occurred. Franco, however, remained in power for nearly forty years and was given an emperor’s funeral. After his death, those elites that surrounded Franco jockeyed for power whilst the government transitioned to a constitutional monarchy, led by Franco’s chosen successor, Juan Carlos I. A ‘pact of forgetting’ was also agreed upon, which gave amnesty to would-be war criminals and imprisoned antifascists alike.
The pact of forgetting also resulted in many such monuments being left alone. However, in some cases, local officials restored streets to their pre-Francoist names. Most famously, Madrid returned the ‘Avenida de José Antonio’ to its original name, ‘Gran Vía’. Whilst the monument was no longer used for official ceremonies, it continued to receive pilgrims who wanted to visit Franco.
It is only natural that those whose families and loved ones were harmed and oppressed under fascism would want to see monuments like these taken down. Yet still, some moderates defend keeping the Francoist monuments, preferring to recontextualize the memorials to turn them into tools for teaching about fascism. There is fear that destroying those monuments, or removing them from the public eye, will lead people to forget about what fascism was. And then, there are those who do not want to see those monuments go because they actually defend the dictator’s legacy.
Resuscitating the reputation of a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, even sending Spanish leftists to Hitler’s camps, should seemingly be impossible. However, there is a large contingent of right-wing Spanish politicians and supporters who fight to keep Franco’s memory alive by twisting it into something else.
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the President of the Community of Madrid, argues, ‘Those who lived in that period decided to turn the page. How can someone say they know better?’ She goes on to ask, ‘What’s next? The cross in the valley? All of the valley? Neighbourhood churches?’
Díaz Ayuso forgets the decision to leave Franco in his personal shrine was never up for public debate at the time. The transition gave amnesty to Francoist bureaucrats, police officers, and soldiers who committed acts of violence against civilians without any public debate.
Recently, on 12 October, ADÑ, a coalition of Spanish fascist and radical right groups, protested the removal of Franco’s body. This event coincided with the annual ‘Día de la Hispanidad’—the national day of Spain. While ADÑ has historically had minimal election turnouts, Vox, the more successful Spanish ethno-nationalist populist party, not only receives considerable donations from the ‘Fundación Francisco Franco’—an NGO intended to protect Franco’s legacy—, but it also has come out against the relocation of Franco’s body.
Sites of horror, like the Valley of the Fallen, can be converted into places where people learn about past atrocities. For an example of this, one need not look further than the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland or the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama—a memorial and museum dedicated to the history of lynching in the US.
But what about other more ordinary public statues and monuments? Both in Spain and the US civil war memorials are intensely contested. Some say removing smaller monuments dedicated to fascists and confederates is erasing history. Some of those who protect those monuments protect them out of allegiance to a ‘lost cause’ and others defend their use as a teachable tool. Yet still, others say that the everyday exposure to such memorials is harmful—an open wound that needs to be removed in order for healing to occur. Some want to place all the statues in museums for safe keeping.
Of course, any curator will argue museums are not attics, and not all things are of equal historical value. Humans destroy historic sites constantly in the name of pipelines and progress. Just because something is old, doesn’t always guarantee its right to continue to exist—as Native American activists unfortunately know too well. Indeed, monuments say more about a contemporary moment than what the monuments were meant to represent.
The Valley itself should be reframed as a site of horror that can be used for teaching about the Spanish Civil War. It is important for people to understand what fascism was, but there is no need to have a site that lauds fascism. Removing the body of Franco and placing it out of public reach removes that potential. Perhaps, each person in those mass graves should be given an individual, proper resting place. Maybe José Antonio Primo de Rivera should be removed from his place of honor at the Valley and placed amongst a sea of graves for which he is partially responsible. Maybe he, too, should be removed from the site.
Some smaller monuments could certainly be turned into teachable sites; however, we do not need to keep all, or even most, of them. We certainly should not leave them on literal pedestals. People can, and should, remember the past without putrid wounds being left open in the public sphere.
Curators and historians make decisions all the time about what is important to include and exclude from a recorded history or an exhibition. In a moment when the radical right has made its return globally, we need these types of conversations more than ever. The lines we draw when having these discussions, when conservatives find themselves protesting in unison with fascists, tell us more about ourselves than the past itself. Those who defend statues meant to assert dominance have yet to learn the lessons of the past, perhaps indicating to us that as it stands those statues are serving their original purpose to intimidate and hurt more than to instruct. Maybe for that reason alone we should try something else. History doesn’t live in statues, it is represented by statues. How we choose to represent history is up to us, not the past.