Six decades on, a ray of light reaches Franco’s resting place

Families want to exhume bodies of loved ones buried next to Spanish dictator

Lawyer Eduardo Ranz, with  family members of Spanish Civil War victims who want their dead relatives exhumed, at the entrance of the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen. Photograph: Juan Medina

Lawyer Eduardo Ranz, with family members of Spanish Civil War victims who want their dead relatives exhumed, at the entrance of the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen. Photograph: Juan Medina

 

The monument known as the Valley of the Fallen, containing the body of the dictator Francisco Franco, has barely been touched since its completion in 1959. But that may be about to change.

Last Monday, a group of relatives of men who were also buried at the site gathered at its entrance amid a swarm of TV cameras and photographers. These people have registered requests for the bodies of their loved ones to be dug up in order to be given a decent burial elsewhere.

A team of experts entered the site and carried out preliminary checks to see if a search for the bodies in question is feasible.

Eduardo Ranz, the young lawyer representing the families, described it as a historic day.

“It’s the biggest mass grave in Spain, ” he told The Irish Times. “This place is outside the bounds of democracy.”

Situated in a wooded area 60km north of Madrid, the Valley of the Fallen is Spain’s biggest and most controversial reminder of its 1936-1939 civil war and the four-decade dictatorship that followed. Its construction began after the war ended and republican prisoners who had fought against Franco were used to build it.

The monument’s centrepiece is a 150m-high stone cross. Beneath it is a basilica, drilled deep into the mountainside at the end of which lies the tomb of Franco, who died in 1975, just a few steps away from the main altar.

On either side of the tomb, the remains of 33,700 people killed in the civil war lie grouped together in boxes in underground crypts, most of them unidentified. It is from these crypts that those gathered on Monday want to find and exhume their relatives.

‘Hope and happiness’

For Rosa Gil, the granddaughter of one of those buried there, the opening-up of the basilica to the team of experts was “a day of hope and happiness”.

Her grandfather, Pedro Gil Calonge, died in 1937 in northern Spain, fighting for Franco. But his remains were exhumed from a cemetery in Zaragoza in the early 1960s and transferred to the Valley of the Fallen without his family being informed, as part of an initiative to make the site a cemetery for victims of the civil war.

Rosa says that when her father, Silvino Gil, who had been a pro-Franco politician, found out the truth a few years ago, he said: “Why should Franco be able to move my father’s body?”

“[Silvino] was a conservative,” she said. “But nobody likes to have their dead messed with.”

The families of eight men whose bodies were moved to the Valley of the Fallen are now hoping to get them exhumed, although initially only four are being searched for. The fact that the eight are from both sides of the civil war – six were leftist republicans and two fought for Franco’s right-wing nationalists – reflects the potentially groundbreaking nature of this case.

It was put in motion in May of 2016, when a court authorised the exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen of two republican brothers, Manuel and Antonio Ramiro Lapeña, at the request of the former’s granddaughter. Other requests followed.

The basilica of the Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), a monument to the combatants who died during the Spanish civil war and Franco’s final resting place just outside Madrid. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty
The basilica of the Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), a monument to the combatants who died during the Spanish civil war and Franco’s final resting place just outside Madrid. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty

However, the prior of the Benedictine monastery at the Valley of the Fallen, Santiago Cantera, refused to open the crypt, blocking the procedure. The families hoping to exhume their relatives filed a legal complaint against Cantera for disobeying a court order. The standoff was resolved last month, when Archbishop Ricardo Blázquez, chairman of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, stepped in.

Valley of the Fallen

“If the legitimate authorities tell the prior of the Valley of the Fallen that here we have these remains and we should [dig them up] to be looked after, he cannot refuse,” the archbishop said at the time.

The legacy of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship has long been a thorny issue. In 2007, the then-Socialist government introduced a historical memory law, which included the removal of public symbols of Franco and his regime. But although statues of the dictator and street signs bearing his name and those of his officials were taken down, many symbols remain and no steps were taken with regard to the Valley of the Fallen, which is today visited by tourists and Franco nostalgists.

The bodies of over 100,000 victims of Franco from the war and its aftermath lie in unmarked graves across Spain and volunteers who identify and exhume them do not receive state funding.

The issue tends to divide Spaniards along political lines, with those on the left more inclined to favour tackling the historical memory issue and those on the right often warning such an approach risks reopening old wounds.

It is still early days and the forensic experts might yet decide that locating the bodies in the Valley of the Fallen will be too difficult. The lawyer, Eduardo Ranz, urged caution, but said he and his clients are prepared to wait.

“The work will be completed when the families can give their loved ones a dignified burial,” he said.

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