By Claire Cullen
El Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen) is a monument 50 km outside Madrid, featuring an incredibly tall stone cross, mass graves filled with the bodies of Civil War victims, and the presence of genuine Franco supporters who attend mass there weekly. Before, it was almost a scene from Antiquity- with the autocrat surrounded by the graves of prisoners of war, forced to build the monument to their own destruction. Many of those who worked on the construction were buried there against the wishes of their families.
No longer is there the grave of the dictator who commissioned it. Francisco Franco was disinterred and reburied after a Supreme Court ruling last month. Within two controlled, private ceremonies, the meaning of the monument changed.
The Spanish Civil War is romanticized - picture Orwell and Hemingway sitting on rugged hillsides, romantically smoking and ruminating on the nature of death and democracy- despite the war being one of horrendous brutality. Both sides committed atrocities, although as Paul Preston shows in The Spanish Holocaust, in most regions the republicans suffered more causalities. Torture of dissidents continued up to the very end of the regime, especially in the Basque country.
After Franco died in 1975, the possibility for Spanish democracy was real, but seen by many as remote. Franco had impoverished the country, which was left with an under-educated population and serious economic problems. The government had been run by ministers with personal connections to the higher echelons of power, many of whom were also implicated in crimes. Separatist movements were beginning to become violent.
El Pacto del Olvido (the Pact of forgetting), an amnesty law, was created and enforced in order to assure a smooth transition to democracy. There were no convictions or denunciations. In many ways, it worked- despite a few hiccups, Spanish society was transformed, and artistic and societal innovation followed. However, el Pacto del Olvido created a narrative about the Civil War that was inaccurate and favoured the Francoists at the expense of historical accuracy.
This happened in France after the Second World War, when de Gaulle encouraged the growth of a myth focusing on the heroes of the Resistance. Suggestion of French collaboration was limited to aberrant individuals, who were punished, either in vigilante attacks or anemically by the justice system. After that, the French moved on with the conversation, glorifying the returning political deportees and not engaging with the French Jewish population who came back on the same trains, from the same camps.
This carried on until it could not anymore; the façade was always bound to break. The aftermath of the student protests in May 1968 coincided with the repositioning of the Holocaust as the major consequence of Nazism, and the re-examination of Vichy France’s role in the genocide. Documentaries such as Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) showing French gendarmes at transitional camps were shown. Revelations of complicity in deportations in Vichy France led to public outrage and new trials. Politically, Vichy was nuclear and ever-present.
In the 90s, then-President Jacques Chirac admitted and apologized for the complicity of the French state in the genocide of Jewish refugees and Jewish French citizens. This statement has been re-iterated by every President since then. It is uncontroversial. For the most part, France has dealt with its past. Visitors can learn about French state complicity at old camps, such as in Camp des Milles in Aix-en-Provence. It is a shameful part of the country's history for sure, but no longer a hidden one.
Visiting another city that wears its history on its sleeve is also possible- namely Berlin. Memorials to those killed and driven out by the Nazis are everywhere. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is huge, imposing, and in the city centre. The museum next to it is heartbreaking. Chancellor Willy Brandt went to the site of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 and knelt down in a gesture of humility at the scale of the crime. The Berlin Wall is visible and an important monument to the troubled history of the country. In doing this, Berlin achieves what the philosopher Habermas set as a goal: it presents itself as culpable, but not guilty.
So what has this to do with the Spanish Civil War?
Despite numerous attempts, the government has not dealt with the toxic legacy of the Civil War and the years of repression that followed. The mass graves that litter the countryside have not all been exhumed. The body of the gay poet, Frederico García Lorca, an early victim of fascism, has never been found. An investigation by Judge Balthazar Garzón into the mass graves in 2007 proved highly controversial. The controversial Ley de Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory law) had clauses about building a museum, along with the excavation of the graves and the removal of all street names and monuments to Franco and his allies. But after the conservative Partido Popular was elected, they gutted funding to the bill. Many of the provisions have still not been enacted. Indeed, in the city of Melilla, there is still a statue of Franco standing. Although the vast majority of similar monuments have been torn down, this did not happen until the mid-2000s.
Despite numerous attempts, the government has not dealt with the toxic legacy of the Civil War and the years of repression that followed.
Imagine if a small city in Germany still had a monument to Hitler. Imagine if, driving through a French village, you saw a street that said “Rue de Pétain”. Imagine if your grandmother lost her father and still did not know where his body was dumped, and the government was too afraid of losing the votes of his murderers to actually look for him.
Franco was fiercely opposed to regionalism- to him, Spain was Spain, and not Catalonia, or the Basque Country. Traditions and languages were nearly lost. Even since the transition, the Guardia Civil have not been soft with their policing of these areas. The legacy of the Civil War colours all that it touches, especially separatism. Although there are efforts to take this into account by the government, they are simply not doing enough to reckon with the past. It is time to start talking about the Civil War. Exhumations are a beginning. It may be that Madrid does not like the answers it gets when it starts to ask questions; but in this case, looking back is the only way to move forward.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.