When Manuel Boehm, a young German student, emerges from the basilica at El Valle de los Caídos, he has no doubts about the ideology of the authoritarian head of state who was buried inside it in 1975.
“You can tell that it’s built by a dictator,” he says. “You can tell that it’s fascist, because as a single person you feel pretty small.”
Boehm is here with a group of fellow Germans, drawn by the reputation of El Valle de los Caídos – the Valley of the Fallen – as one of Spain’s most remarkable, albeit sinister, sites to visit.
It's hardly surprising that what strikes him most is the sheer scale of the place, 60 miles northwest of Madrid. The basilica is 260 metres long, drilled into the side of a mountain. At the far end of its interior lie the remains of Francisco Franco. Outside, a vast stone esplanade looks out over a wooded valley where 30,000 victims of both sides of the 1936-39 civil war lie in unmarked graves. And rising above it all is a 150-metre-tall stone cross, the largest in the world.
“Germany is lucky – we don’t have such a monument to Hitler,” says Boehm.
Recently, more and more people have been asking whether Spain should maintain this site, the most divisive reminder of the Franco dictatorship.
Today, April 1st, marks the 75th anniversary of Franco’s order for work to begin on the site, which was built by Republican political prisoners. November will see the 40th anniversary of the death of Franco, whose 1936 rebellion against a leftist Republican government unleashed the civil war. Franco ruled the country for 36 years after that conflict ended.
“We all know the true significance of the Valley of the Fallen,” says Odón Elorza, a Socialist member of Congress. “We need to give this place the democratic dignity and values which it has never had.”
Elorza wants the Valley of the Fallen to be transformed from a dictator’s mausoleum into a place of historical understanding, with information for visitors on how and why it was built. He also wants Franco’s body to be moved elsewhere.
When Elorza presented these proposals to Congress last autumn, the governing Popular Party, which has a parliamentary majority, rejected them.
Also last year, Pablo de Greiff, the UN special rapporteur, urged Spain to move Franco’s body, among other measures related to the country’s historical memory. Again, the government has taken no action.
The Popular Party of prime minister Mariano Rajoy says such actions would needlessly reopen old divisions that were created by the civil war. When in opposition, the party unsuccessfully opposed a 2007 Historical Memory Law, introduced by the then-Socialist government. It called for the removal of symbols of the dictatorship, such as statues of Franco and street signs bearing his name.
That law was widely seen as weak, and the Valley of the Fallen, the biggest symbol of all, remains. For relatives of Franco’s victims, its existence is symptomatic of Spain’s ongoing inability to digest its violent past.
“It’s difficult to understand in a democratic country that there is a big monument funded by public money dedicated to a dictator,” says Emilio Silva, whose grandfather was killed by Francoist forces during the civil war.
“The Valley of the Fallen has to tell the story of who built the monument and why and how,” he adds. “My father died two years ago. During 38 years of democracy he had to fund with his taxes a monument glorifying the dictatorship which destroyed his life.”
Search and exhume
Silva is president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, an organisation that campaigns for the search for and exhumation of unmarked graves of Franco’s tens of thousands of victims.
Silva and other critics of Spain’s timidity with regard to its historical memory point out that it’s not just the Popular Party that is reluctant to tackle Franco’s more awkward legacies.
Elorza admits there are factions of his own Socialist party who “treat these issues with excessive prudence”. This is due to a cross-party pact after Franco’s death that the past would not be used as a political weapon in the new democracy.
However, a new generation of politicians is emerging, many of them disdainful of the way their predecessors have tiptoed so carefully around the nation’s historical memory.
The leaders of Podemos and Ciudadanos, the two major new arrivals in Spanish politics, were born after Franco’s death. With the country’s electoral map expected to change radically in the coming months with local and general elections, it’s possible that the Valley of the Fallen might also be transformed.