Catalonia’s independence referendum in 2017, declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court, sparked arguably one of the biggest political crises in the country since a failed coup d’état in 1981.

The sentencing by the Spanish Supreme Court last month of nine separatist leaders to years in prison for sedition has seen violent clashes and protests erupt in Catalonia. For some, the excessive use of force by Spanish police against separatists and the self-imposed exile of Catalan politicians in 2017 in the wake of the symbolic declaration of independence was a reminder of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939–75), during which Catalonia’s autonomy had been revoked and Catalan culture and language suppressed.

Graffiti was daubed on Socialist memorials and protests from the right and the left were further sparked by Franco’s exhumation on 24 October, 44 years after his burial at a prominent spot behind the main altar of the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid – the second largest basilica in size after St Peter’s in Rome.

The Valley of the Fallen has been at the centre of heated debates about historical memory in Spain for years. The huge mausoleum was conceived by Franco and built between 1940 and 1958 as a burial site and memorial to the Francoist fallen. It was constructed with the forced labour of thousands of Republican political prisoners, many of whom suffered serious injuries or death.

Only in 1959 did authorities decree the Valley to be a resting place for the dead from both sides of the war, which led, between 1959 and 1983, to thousands of Republican remains being clandestinely exhumed from mass graves elsewhere in Spain and anonymously interred at the Valley (something that only came to light in 2003).

It is estimated almost 34,000 are buried in the Valley, with only two named graves: that of the founder of the Spanish Fascist organisation Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and Franco’s.

The historical memory movement initiated in 2000 by the grandchildren of the defeated of the Civil War (1936–39) has stimulated public debate about the past amid a wave of exhumations of mass graves throughout Spain, in which an estimated 100,000 bodies are still buried. It has also precipitated some institutional involvement, such as the passing of the Historical Memory Law by the Socialist government in 2007.

Even though the law prohibited exaltation of Francoism and political acts at the Valley, and initiated removal of Francoist symbols throughout Spain, it neither legislated removal of Franco’s remains nor provided public funding for exhumation of the bodies of Republican victims whose families wanted to bury them elsewhere. Only an addendum to the law last year (initiated by the Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez), which stated that the Valley was to be exclusively for victims of the Civil War, made the exhumations possible.

A commission of experts set up by an earlier Socialist government to decide the future of the Valley had recommended in 2011 removal of Franco’s remains and conversion of the Valley into a site of memory for victims of the Civil War. However, the incoming centre-right People’s Party ignored these recommendations.

Franco’s coffin on a Spanish helicopter during the journey to reburial. Photo: Getty Images

Only in 2017 did Spain’s congress finally approve a non-binding resolution put forward by the Socialist Party to exhume Franco’s remains. With Sánchez taking office in June 2018, a legal battle between the government and the Franco family ensued, which delayed the exhumation numerous times over the following 16 months.

Just a week after the previously fixed reburial date of 10 June this year, I visited the Valley, and, as in previous years, noted the Francoist escutcheons engraved on wooden benches inside the Basilica, a cannon with Falangist and Carlist flags depicted on the stone mosaic on the cupola, and the huge Francoist escutcheons engraved outside. It will be an enormous undertaking turning the Francoist monument into a place of memory and reconciliation, especially considering the wishes of many families to recover the remains of their relatives. This is itself fraught with difficulties, including the compromised condition of the remains.

Amid shouts of “Viva Franco! Viva España!” by Franco’s family, his body was transferred to a private crypt in the family mausoleum at the small cemetery of Mingorrubio on the outskirts of Madrid, which will only be able to be visited with prior permission.

On the day of the reburial, a large group of Franco supporters gathered with banners and pre-constitutional flags at the cemetery. Among them was Antonio Tejero, the former Civil Guard lieutenant-colonel who led the failed military coup in 1981, and his grandson, a Catholic priest who officiated at the reburial mass. To avoid turning the reburial into a public tribute to the late dictator, filming was prohibited.

Critics suggest the exhumation formed part of a Socialist electoral strategy, and some argue it might have backfired. The election results will have a decisive impact on the ways in which the future of the Valley of the Fallen and other historical memory and justice issues will be addressed in Spain.

The important symbolic exhumation of Franco might be what is needed to redress the legal silence still prevailing in Spain due to the 1977 Amnesty Law, which prevents investigation and prosecution of Francoist human rights violations in Spain. Since 2010, a growing number of victims have turned to an Argentinian court in search of justice for their family members, a process that is ongoing.

The new Spanish government will have to deal with many pressing issues: the Catalan situation, historical memory and justice, including the Valley of the Fallen, as well as a slowing economy and high unemployment. It will be of international interest to see how the government approaches the pressing need to come to terms with the past.

Dr Andrea Hepworth is a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

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