By Robyn Banks

Content warning: fascism, mass state violence

Last week the Spanish government approved the exhumation of the body of General Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled over Spain for most of the 20th century. Whilst this may not seem like a huge deal on the face of it, it is massive news in Spain and to those with an awareness of Spanish politics. Franco’s ‘legacy’ has been hanging over Spain since his death in 1975. This decision marks a major point of departure for the country.

Francisco Franco rose to prominence during the Spanish Civil War, leading the fascists to a slow but destructive victory to control the whole of Spain. Despite being supported by Hitler during the civil war, he chose to remain neutral during the second world war, in a move that is still praised by his supporters. In the Cold War period Franco was regularly praised by Churchill for his support of Europe and his slow liberalisation of the Spanish economy in order to avoid its collapse. During this period he also continued to oppress the people of Spain, running concentration camps for those who opposed him and, most infamously, murdering Catalonian Anarchists and leaving their bodies in mass graves. This continued up until his death in 1975, when Franco reinstated the Spanish monarchy. That moment marked the beginning of the transition towards democracy in Spain, but it remains a huge point of contention for many in Spain, especially those who suffered under Franco. His decision to appoint the monarchy as his successor is seen by many as a mark of his continued impact upon the function of Spanish democracy and the future of the country from beyond the grave.

The violence and arrest of political leaders that followed the referendum in 2017 opened many old wounds

Whilst Spain has moved towards being a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy, this transition took years, with many different parties and kings looking to influence the process. And until recently, with the arguable exception of the socialist governments of 1982-90, they were all still working in the shadow of what Franco left behind.

The dictator left Spain torn into the regions he supported, most notably Naverre and Álava, and those which he heavily oppressed, such as Catalonia and the Basque region. Those he oppressed continued to rebel in different ways long after his death. Euskadi Ta Askatasuna continued to fight for the independence of the Basque Country, committing numerous violent acts for the liberationist cause, until they disbanded in April of this year. The struggles of the Catalonian movement for independence from Spain are now well-known following its high profile referendum in 2017. Whilst pro-independence feeling had been widespread in both these regions since long before Franco, it was his actions and his legacy that has motivated the Catalonian struggle to reach the head that it did last year. The violence and arrest of political leaders that followed the referendum in 2017 opened many old wounds in the region. The sight of protestors being beaten by the police was something people often saw under the Franco regime. The continuation of state violence in Spain speaks to many of how comfortable the current establishment is to exist in the dictator’s shadow


The Mausoleum at Valle de los Caídos, where Franco’s body has lain since his death in 1975. Credit: Pablo Forcén Soler

Although some of Franco’s supporters have described the exhumation as ‘petty and vengeful‘, it has potential to be a significant step in resolving the deep divides in modern Spain. Franco’s body currently resides in Valle de los Caídos. Despite his claim it was built to reconcile the country and honour those who died in the civil war, the mausoleum acts as a symbol of the decadence he kept for himself and his supporters whilst depriving and oppressing so many of his detractors. For many of those detractors, the tomb is little more than a tourist site for the supporters of fascism, where they can visit the grave of the last dictator in Western Europe. Its uniqueness in the fact that his tomb is accessible makes him stand alone compared to his counterparts, and glorifies his actions despite the cruelty that lay behind them.

Whilst the removal of Franco’s body won’t instantly make Spain a better, more connected society, it will go a long way to healing the wounds that he has left deep within the country. Nowhere else in Europe are fascist dictators’ graves marked and celebrated in the same way as Franco’s is. With this simple gesture, Spain is not only changing the way it will remember and confront its past, but also building a better present and future for its people.

Featured image credit: Lauren Tucker

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