In a landmark decision, the Spanish Supreme Court has ruled that the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco should be exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen and re-interred at the El Pardo cemetery to the north of Madrid.
Franco’s four-decade rule stills casts a long shadow over contemporary Spain, as does the bloody civil war (1936-1939) that propelled him into power. The decision to exhume ‘El Caudillo’ “as soon as possible” will be welcomed by many, particularly those whose family members either died during the war or the subsequent dictatorship, which only ended on Franco’s death in 1975. Others, potentially including the Catholic Church, will be less enthused, and regardless of opinion it draws Spain no closer to getting a collective grip on its history.
The descent of Spain into divisive anarchy began after the 1936 elections, when the Popular Front came to power. A left-leaning conglomerate, the Popular Front’s rhetoric and policies inspired a military uprising in garrison towns across the country, of which Franco was at the forefront. Supported by the Falangists (fascists), conservative elements of the clergy and landowners, Franco’s Nationalists triggered a conflict that would kill some 500,000 Spaniards.
Occurring during a time of political turbulence across Europe, the Spanish Civil War drew in international actors. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany supported the Nationalists, particularly with air-power, most notoriously deployed at Guernica. The Soviet Union sent war materiel to the Republicans, as the ‘leftist’ side in the conflict came to be known. There were also the “International Brigades”, volunteers of liberal idealists, socialists, communists and adventurers, who fought against Franco’s army.
After sealing victory, Franco largely sealed Spain off from the horrors of World War Two (WWII), the country officially neutral despite its fascist sympathies. What is perhaps more remarkable is his regime’s post-WWII survival, persisting at a time when the abominations of fascism had turned most of Europe, if not the world, away from its principles.
But Franco was anti-communist and it was the Cold War; ostracism by the Western powers was limited and Spain’s economy grew. Perhaps this helps to explain his longevity, and the acquiescence of the population to his will. Whereas the rest of Europe turned their back on Europe after WWII, Spain allowed it to linger and the Francoist era has been immune from critical attention since its end. This has undoubtedly been aided by the 1977 Amnesty Law which guarantees impunity for those who committed crimes during the Civil War.
The Caudillo’s exhumation therefore offers a chance to reflect and repent, to grieve and seek closure. Spain remains a severely divided nation, the Catalonia crisis one of many political polarisations and separatist anxieties for the government. Meanwhile the silent, bitter legacy of the Civil War continues to draw lines between classes, religious denominations and age groups, even if few really know why anymore.
It should be noted that Spain is not unfamiliar with controversial exhumations. In 2017 the revered surrealist artist Salvador Dali was exhumed so that a DNA test could prove whether he was the father of a female complainant. He was not.
More significant in an historical sense was the exhumation of a set of bones in Seville who the Spanish argued belonged to Christopher Columbus. The Dominican Republic, where Columbus founded Santo Domingo in the late 15th century, claimed his bones were beneath a lighthouse there. Scientists stated that there was a 95% chance the Seville bones belonged to the famed explorer.
At least for Franco’s family – who are understandably angered by the decision of the Supreme Court – they know that the former dictator’s body will simply be removed from the earth and then plonked into an empty plot next to that of his wife. Better that than the fate that befell the body of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England in the aftermath of that country’s own civil war (1642-1651).
On the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II ordered Cromwell’s exhumation (he had died in 1658). First, the body was hung from the gallows. Next, it was beheaded and Cromwell’s head displayed on a spike. The body was then dumped and the head traveled around for a bit, until it was finally reburied in Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge in 1960.
There are surely some who would request a similar end for Franco. Then again, perhaps if the exhumation provokes just a general reckoning with the past in a bid to confront an uncertain future then it has served Spain a much greater purpose.