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Moment that mattered: Spain’s supreme court approves the exhumation of Franco


| Interview: Rob Orchard |

In late 2018 the socialist government of Spain under Pedro Sanchez set in motion a plan to disinter Francisco Franco, the country’s dictator for 36 years, from his monumental resting place in the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid. The tomb was built by thousands of Republican prisoners after the civil war which brought Franco and his Falangist party to power in 1939, destroying the country’s nascent democracy. It is a vast underground vault cut into a mountainside containing the bodies of 40,000 war dead from both sides, and is crowned with a 500-foot memorial cross, the largest in the world.

“Spain has deep problems which echo the kinds of issues of the 1930s that led to the outbreak of the civil war”

“The government sees it as a national embarrassment that there is this huge state-built, state-maintained mausoleum for a dictator,” says Jason Webster, author of Violencia, a new history of Spain. “As they see it, to be a modern democracy and to still have this monument is wrong.” Franco’s body will be given to his family so they can bury him next to his wife Carmen in the El Pardo cemetery in Madrid. Franco’s family brought legal challenges against the plan, but on 24th September 2019 the supreme court ruled it should go ahead.

“The timing of this is terrible, because we’ve got all kinds of problems in Spain at the moment,” says Webster, who has lived in the country for years. “Deep, fundamental problems, which echo the kinds of issues of the 1930s that led to the outbreak of the civil war. You’ve got forces in Catalonia trying to create an independent state. You’ve got a new far right party, Vox, that’s doing surprisingly well. And digging up Franco is just grist to the mill for the far right in Spain. It’s the sort of thing that they absolutely love, a real rallying cry for them.”

Sure enough, the supreme court decision led to angry protests. On 10th October, hundreds demonstrated in front of the socialist party headquarters in Madrid, chanting “Franco!” and “Pedro Sanchez, son of a bitch!”, their arms outstretched in fascist salutes. One brandished a porcelain figurine of Franco, another a placard proclaiming that the former dictator’s exhumation represented a “war against European Christianity.” The crowd was addressed by political activist and self-declared Falangist Martín Saenz de Ynestrillas. “There’s only one way to stop this,” he screamed. “We need to put ourselves in front, to be visible, to stop being scared, to be ready to say we can resist, we can rise up!”

The divisions over Franco have not always been on such clear display. After his death in 1975, a “pact of forgetting” (pacto de olvido) about the years of dictatorship took hold in Spain. The hundreds of thousands of killings carried out under Franco were swept under the carpet, Francoist laws stayed on the statute books and many of the regime’s senior personnel remained in place. While the Franco-approved words to the national anthem were removed, no new ones took their place: to this day Spain is one of only four countries with a wordless anthem. It was not until 2005 that a statue of Franco astride a horse was finally removed from the San Juan de la Cruz square in Madrid – in the middle of the night, and under the guise of roadworks – and that the government started removing Francoist symbols from many public spaces and buildings.

“Whenever a centralising authoritarian force is removed, Spain eventually breaks apart”

“It was a pragmatic decision not to rake over the past,” says Webster of the pact of forgetting. “There were still lots of Francoists around. They were dangerous. The pact aimed to avoid stirring them up, so the country could move into a democratic future, in what became known as ‘the Transition’. And it sort of worked, but eventually you can’t just keep pretending that the past didn’t happen. It will come and bite you on the bum. Right now, that’s what’s happening in Spain.”

The pact of forgetting, says Webster, has fractured. The Historic Memory movement and relatives of people murdered by Franco’s death squads have demanded the opening of mass graves and the identification of bodies and moves have been made to claw back some of the wealth and properties amassed by the Franco family during the dictatorship. A faultline is opening up in Spanish society between those nostalgic for an ordered, right-wing past and those who believe the country to be little more than a pseudo-democracy until it faces up to its history.

Webster sees the current evaporation of consensus as just the latest example of an ancient tendency. “The fundamental patterns of Spanish history haven’t gone away,” he says. “Franco is just the most recent manifestation of a certain character who appears in Spanish history every so often and pulls the country together through force and violence, in order to keep it unified. He effectively snuffs out the opposing vision of Spain, which is more liberal and free thinking. But whenever a centralising authoritarian force is removed, the country eventually breaks apart. Spain will never be able to move on from the Franco years because it’s not just about Franco, it’s about a pattern that goes way back well over a thousand years.”

“Once Spain became a democracy in 1978, based on its history, the clock was ticking on national unity,” continues Webster. “I think we saw the beginning of this breakup, two years ago, with the Catalan independence referendum. So what is the Spanish response going to be? They can either continue to be a democracy, in which case according to the patterns of their history, the country will break apart. Or they can revert to authoritarianism. That’s the fundamental choice facing Spain right now.”

Catalonia lost its autonomy under the Franco regime, and its language and culture were suppressed. When an illegal referendum on independence was staged on 1st October 2017, it was met with violence. “The authorities were very heavy handed,” says Webster. “They sent in the riot police with their batons raised. Deploying the riot police against people who are essentially trying to vote is a very powerful statement.”

In late September 2019, the Spanish police announced that they had arrested nine people on terrorism charges in Catalonia, whom they suspected of plotting to mount violent attacks to mark the two year anniversary of the referendum. On 14th October, nine political ringleaders of the referendum were given sentences of up to 13 years for charges including the crime of ‘sedition’ – incitement to rebellion against the state – leading to mass protests and violent stand-offs with the Guardia Civil across Catalonia. Barricades were erected and set on fire on the streets of Barcelona, rubber bullets were fired into crowds by police and the airport was blockaded. “Most people outside of Spain don’t understand how deep passions are over this issue,” says Webster. “Marriages and friendships are breaking up over it. It’s becoming unbelievably divisive.”

According to Webster, this backdrop of growing division is what makes the Franco exhumation so risky. “It’s a very unstable time, and things can flare up very quickly in Spain,” he says. “Everything can appear to be trundling along, and then in a matter of seconds something can happen that can trigger a huge response and a very violent reaction. And I think we’re in that danger zone right now.”

Tensions may be heightened, but surely democratic Spain could never see a repeat of the civil war? “We talk about the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s as if there has only ever been one,” says Webster. “But every century in Spanish history has at least one major civil conflict. In the 19th century there were an endless number of civil wars. They had three of them taking place simultaneously in 1873 alone. Civil war is what the Spanish do, what they have always done. Maybe there is a chance here for Spain to really break the patterns of the past. But the country needs to become aware of itself in a way that it hasn’t previously, in order to try to go down a different route. Sadly I think it’s unlikely that there won’t be some form of civil conflict in Spain in the 21st century. Spain has only ever been forged through violence.”

In this context, the eventual exhumation of Francisco Franco, which took place on 24th October, feels like a misstep. “There’s a law of unintended consequences and I fear the timing of this is absolutely wrong,” says Webster. “It’s almost like a fairy tale, it’s like there’s a sleeping dragon in those mountains outside Madrid and you’d be best to let him sleep rather than prodding him and waking him up.”

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