On 24 October, Spain watched the historic exhumation of its fascist former dictator, Francisco Franco, from his adorned, shrine-like resting place at el Valle de los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen).
The valley was initially created as a memorial commemorating the civil war and contains victims from both sides of the war. Though it has been controversial since its beginning, as it was built by political prisoners, some of whom died while constructing the basilica.
The exhumation is a polemic issue for Spain with some praising the decision, believing it to be a key step in denouncing Franco, and others thinking it was an expensive waste of time and money.
The debate over moving Franco represents the division that still grips Spain: division both over their past and their future. Not all Spaniards have turned their back on Franco – the existence of the pro-Franco Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco gives that away.
By moving his body, Sánchez is adding fuel to fire. Aggravating those who support Franco and alienating them from any discussions. This may, in turn, boost the very extremism that it was attempting to extinguish.
However, it is an important step. Franco is the only European dictator of the 20th century to have such a tomb. No other European country glorifies its 20th-century dictatorship to the same extent. Germany, for example, has made many efforts to prevent places like the Eagle’s Nest from becoming a meeting site for Hitler supporters.
Germany was forced to confront the horrors of the Third Reich at the Nuremberg trials. Italy confronted its fascism by killing its leader, Mussolini. Similarly, Romania tried and executed its former dictator, Ceausescu.
The Franco regime ended not with his being overthrown, but with his death, and as such, Spain was never forced to confront its past. Moving Franco is, therefore, Spain confronting its past.
The critics of Franco’s exhumation claimed that it was a last-ditch effort from Sánchez, Spain’s acting prime minister, to attempt to gain popularity before their general election on November 10th. Whether or not it was a face-saving action, it was likely for the best.
Sánchez has explicitly condemned Franco and his actions. Regardless of one’s political leaning, Franco ought not to be condoned for his censorship of the press, for his sexual conduct laws, or for outlawing regional languages.
Confronting the past and seeing the dictator for what he was, and removing the man who caused pain to millions, while retaining the monument built by its victims, means that Spain can claim it is becoming more confidently aligned with democracy – and rejecting the rule of the strongman.
Some Spaniards query whether or not this was the best time to exhume Franco, whether it was right to televise the event, and whether it is all just a stunt. And to some, the €63,000 event may appear to be a disingenuous gesture.
Unfortunately for Sánchez, the recent brutality in Catalonia makes this seem all the more like window dressing, and something which has failed to gain the rise in popularity for his party that he expected.
All the while el Partido Popular (the traditional, right-wing party of Spain’s democratic era) and Vox (more socially and fiscally conservative still, with a strong bent towards admiration for the strength of the Spanish state during the Franco era) have made gains.
Even though Sánchez has a plan of how he would like to address the aftermath of the civil war, it seems that now was not the optimal time to move Franco. He ought to have waited until after the elections on 10 November and, if reelected, set in motion his plan then.
If he does not win the election, it is unlikely that any winning party will want to rock the boat further. Sánchez will have been seen as having reopened old wounds and only achieved a superficial gesture.
While the exhumation itself doesn’t change past events, it is important to remember that the valley is a symbol of fascism. Sánchez removed Franco from his symbolic resting place with its Catholic allusion.
The cross remains, the victims of the civil war remain, the symbolism remains – but Franco does not. Sánchez has removed the dictator from his religiously symbolic tomb and tried to send a clear message: fascism and Franco will not be returning.