After Franco, what next?

Now that he’s got the wheels spinning, Pedro Sánchez had better get cracking. But is he willing to get down to work?

JOAN B. CULLA Historiador i articulista d'anàlisi política

There’s no denying it: Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez has turned out to be skilful and shrewd. Call it footwork, opportunism, a smokescreen, sleight of hand or whatever. Regardless of their position on Catalan independence, what democrat could possibly deny Sánchez the support he needs to move General Franco’s remains from his mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen? Yes, it is urgent to remove the despot’s body from the megalomaniac construction that he had built to his own greater glory and give it a Christian burial —as the Catholic church has advised, ignoring the fact that while Franco’s regime might have been ultra-Catholic, it was radically anti-Christian— in an ordinary cemetery. However, if that is the extent of the whole operation, it will be a joke and a mockery of all the victims of the Franco regime, as well as their descendants.

Parallel to removing the body of the dictator, it is imperative to bring back the 2007 Law of Historic Memory —which the PP administration never found the courage to repeal but was indecent enough to shelve by denying it any funds for seven years straight— and amend its original weaknesses, revoking every sentence handed down by Franco’s courts martial and the regime’s other special courts. I do not mean only the rulings against Lluís Companys, Julián Besteiro or Salvador Puig Antich, but all of them. This is precisely what the Federal Republic of Germany did with a bill “on the overturning of the unjust national-socialist sentences” passed on 25 August 1998.

At the same time, Sánchez’s government and, specifically, Defence Minister Margarita Robles should give a major talking-to to every member of the Spanish armed forces, retired or otherwise, so that they never ever write another public statement like the “Statement of Respect and Amends for General Francisco Franco Bahamonde, a soldier of Spain” published in early August. No public servant in Germany or Italy, even if retired, would dare to endorse a document that publicly justified Hitler or Mussolini; if anything, to avoid any legal trouble. Should service personnel who glorify fascism be allowed to get away with it, in this allegedly exemplary Spain that arose from the political Transition following Franco’s death?

As part of the political debate that we have had in recent weeks apropos of the removal of Franco’s remains, some have also discussed the future use of the Valley of the Fallen and two proposals have been put forward. Culture Minister José Guirao indicated that he personally favoured turning the grounds into a memorial museum, not unlike Auschwitz. A Ciudadanos spokesperson mentioned that it might become a burial ground for national heroes, like Arlington in the US.

Well, in my modest opinion the Valley of the Fallen can be no Auschwitz or Arlington. To begin with, we ought to be more careful about comparing anything to Auschwitz. What happened in the Nazi camps in occupied Poland is of such a singular, specific nature that it cannot be compared lightheartedly to the massacre of a few hundred human beings or any other crime committed by a totalitarian regime. Indeed, tens of thousands of prisoners were used as hard labour in the construction work of the Valley of the Fallen and some even died there, but there were no gas chambers, no crematorium, no gallows nor the intent to exterminate the prisoners as a whole.

Furthermore, the site could not be turned into an Arlington for the simple reason that in the last two centuries the only military victories that Spain’s armies have claimed were almost exclusively against other Spanish combatants in over half a dozen civil wars. Besides having a hard time picturing bones being rushed across Spain towards the Valley in this day and age, who would qualify for “national hero” status? Carlist General Zumalacárregui or his liberal rival, General Espartero, the scourge of Barcelona city? Weyler, the mastermind of the concentration camps in rebel Cuba? Miguel Primo de Rivera, the dictator? Those who staged the 1936 coup or their opponents? Coming to an agreement on that is illusory.

Besides, since it is practically impossible to identify the bodies of the 38,000 people who are buried on site, the only feasible option is to turn the Valley of the Fallen into a Civil War National memorial ossuary, very like the Douaumont ossuary in Verdun, where 130,000 unidentified German and French soldiers were put to rest; or the Sacrario del Montello, in Italy’s Treviso region, where the remains of the dead in the Vittorio Veneto battle were collected. Of course, that would require turning the grounds of the Valley into a museum, outlining how the site was built, disposing of the Francoist symbols that are all over the place and, eventually, moving the Benedictine community that it has housed since Franco ordered them there in 1958.

So now that he’s got the wheels spinning, Pedro Sánchez had better get cracking. But is he willing to get down to work?