Spain seeks to identify the victims of the civil war while taking the fascist past


Carmen Calvo, the deputy prime minister who took over Spain’s fascist past, still remembers the first time she saw the monumental complex erected by the late dictator Francisco Franco.

“I saw a place built with forced labor for the glory of a dictator,” he said of that visit four decades ago in the Valley of the Fallen, the divisive site containing the remains of at least 33,000 of those who died in the fall. 1930s civil war that brought Franco to power. “It gave me a sense of helplessness,” he recalled.

Now Calvo wants more action, four and a half decades after Franco died in office.

The Socialist minister defended legislation that, among other reforms, would intensify the exhumation of tens of thousands of bodies that Franco’s troops had dumped in pits across the country, establish an authoritarian register of casualties, and change the Valley itself. The center of the site located 50 km north of Madrid is a huge basilica carved into the mountain under a 150-meter cross with a domed mosaic with an interpretation of the fascist Falange flag.

A person holds a Spanish flag from the Franco era in the valley of the Fallen memorial north of Madrid © EPA-EFE

Spanish moves come when countries around the world face an account with their stories, with the UK discussing how to deal with their slave trade past and the United States struggling with centuries of racial injustice.

Critics say Spain’s left-wing administration has sown more divisions in a polarized society, although Calvo, who sees the civil war as part of the wider struggle against fascism, has insisted that the plans they are no more than the country should be.

“What do we tell families?” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “We don’t have the right to forget, we have the obligation to remember. . . We are more extinct than Chile and Argentina together. “

Government officials highlight estimates from historians that the Franco regime killed about 140,000-150,000 people in military tribunals and extrajudicial killings between 1936 and about 1947. They say 20,000-25,000 could still be recovered from and were common over the next four to five years.

Although the newly defeated Republican side was also guilty of war crimes they were not on the same scale. “Repression from [Franco’s] he was a rebel [in terms of deaths] about three times larger than what happened in the Republican zone, ”historian Sir Paul Preston wrote in his book The Spanish Holocaust.

Carmen Calvo, Deputy Prime Minister
Carmen Calvo, Deputy Prime Minister, supports reforms that include the exhumation of thousands of bodies abandoned by Franco’s forces © Chema Moya / EPA-EFE

The Spanish government hopes to finalize a bill in the coming weeks, after which it will be sent to parliament for approval.

But this week the first Spanish judges registered concerns for some of them proposals, in particular the impact on the right to assembly and freedom of expression, given the government plans to close a foundation dedicated to Franco’s memory. Judges also expressed concern that the measures could be “asymmetrical,” in favor of Republican victims.

In a recent FT interview, Pablo Casado, leader of the center-right opposition People’s Party, represented government concerns out of sync with contemporary primaries.

“Shall I talk about Franco?” He asked. “I’m talking about the cultural war here and now, and the cultural war now is not what happened 80 years ago.”

The bill is the third major move by a socialist-led government this century to address Franco’s legacy. A 2007 law authorized state funding for the exhumation of mass burial sites and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez ordered the removal of Franco’s corpse from the Valley in 2019.

Franco's coffin has moved from the Valley of the Fallen
The sarcophagus of Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco has been moved from the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum in 2019 © Juan Carlos Hidalgo / Getty Images

But the latter measure goes much further than its predecessors.

In particular, it makes the recovery of bodies from mass graves not only the right of families but the obligation of the state.

The government has already increased the pace of disinterests, which stopped largely in 2013, when the Spanish PP administration passed the 2007 law, which it considered divided.

This year, the government is funding the exhumation of 114 sites across Spain. In general, officials estimate that there are up to 600 common graves left.

Some sites are small, others huge. Excavators have discovered the bodies of more than 450 people shot by Franco’s troops at a site in Seville; could succeed in the end 1,000. Officials say another site in the province of Cordoba may contain up to 5,000 bodies.

Human remains in a mass grave in Seville
Human remains in a mass grave in Seville, where about 1,103 people were executed during the civil war in the late 1930s © Julio Munoz / EPA-EFE

The law also establishes a national database of victims ’DNA and provides for updating the teaching of the civil war period in schools.

Officials acknowledge that this is one of the most explosive issues of all. “The State has an obligation that these truths should be part of the education of the people,” Calvo said. “How can anyone make the political case so people don’t know it?”

For now, the government has no plans to exhume all the estimated 12,000 Republican dead taken from mass graves by the Franco regime and taken back to the valley with its former enemies. But the legislation recognizes the right of families to retrieve bodies from the site. There are already some 60 applications.

More than 33,000 graves behind the chapel of the basilica will be converted into a civil cemetery and the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Fascist Phalange, will be moved from its privileged location in front of the altar.

One recent day in June, many visitors to the Valley complained about the government’s plans. “It’s better to leave things as they are than reopen the wounds,” said Diego, a security guard who refused to give his last name.

Others have thought well that Spain will face the most scarring period of its history. “Our ancestors suffered in the civil war. . . they thought that then there was a real peace, but now things seem different, ”said Sol De Mosteyrín Hernández, teacher.

“We need a deep reconciliation process in this country – and this is only just beginning.”

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