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Spain exhumes fascist leader in drive to tackle legacy of civil war

Falange party founder José Antonio Primo de Rivera was executed in 1936

The remains of a Spanish fascist leader who became a far-right icon after his death at the start of the country’s civil war have been exhumed from a mausoleum.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera was the leader and co-founder of the Falange party. He was shot by a firing squad at the start of the civil war in 1936 after he was accused of having abetted the coup d’état that triggered the conflict.

The Falangists went on to become the main political support for rebel leader Francisco Franco during the war and his four-decade dictatorship that ensued.

Primo de Rivera, meanwhile, has remained a revered figure for some on the far right.


His body had been buried since 1959 at the Valley of the Fallen, a vast monument built by Franco in the mountains north of Madrid. The site has been known officially since last year as Valley of Cuelgamuros, in a bid to remove all public veneration of his dictatorship.

The exhumation was part of efforts by the left-wing government of Pedro Sánchez to change the significance of the site, which is seen as a tribute to Franco’s national-Catholic ideology. The government plans to convert the complex into a memorial to the 500,000 people killed during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war.

“It will never again be that place where a figure or ideology evoking the dictatorship could be glorified,” said Pilar Alegría, minister of education and spokeswoman for the governing Socialist Party.

Deputy prime minister and labour minister Yolanda Díaz said the move brings to an end “a historical anomaly” which, she said, “would not exist in any other European country”.

The remains of Franco were exhumed from the same monument in 2019 and transferred to a cemetery in Madrid.

This time the process was more intimate, starting in the early hours of the morning with the media not allowed to enter the area. Primo de Rivera’s coffin was removed from the ground next to the main altar in the site’s basilica and taken to a waiting hearse, where it was driven to San Isidro cemetery in Madrid for reinterment.

Several dozen supporters of Primo de Rivera did fascist salutes and chanted his name outside the cemetery. Some of the supporters got into scuffles with police, leading to three arrests.

The exhumation was facilitated by the coalition government’s historical memory law, approved by parliament last October, which seeks to tackle the legacy of the civil conflict and the Franco dictatorship.

The family of Primo de Rivera was prompted to agree to the exhumation because the mausoleum, which contains the remains of about 34,000 victims of the civil war from both sides in its crypts, is due to be converted into a civic cemetery. The family turned down the government’s offer to move Primo de Rivera’s remains to a more discreet location in Cuelgamuros, instead choosing to move them to San Isidro, a Catholic cemetery and the resting place for several other members of his family.

The decision to move Primo de Rivera drew criticism from the opposition, which accused the government of using the exhumation as a political tool in advance of local elections in May.

“They moved Franco, today they moved Primo de Rivera, but the things that [also] move are mortgage rates, the cost of housing, food prices,” said Borja Semper, spokesman for the conservative Popular Party. “This government is obsessed with distracting attention from Spaniards’ problems.”

Jorge Buxadé, of the far-right Vox party, said that the government was “digging up hatred, resentment and rancour among Spaniards”.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain