Fighting Franco’s Ghosts

Fighting Franco’s Ghosts

Exhuming the dictator’s remains was intended to boost the ruling Socialists’ electoral chances. Instead, the move backfired.

Francisco Franco's former tomb in the Valley of the Fallen (Emilio Naranjo – Pool/Getty Images)

In the Valley of the Fallen, below a towering cross and the cold granite arches of the Basílica de la Santa Cruz, lie the bones of more than 30,000 casualties of the Spanish Civil War. The crypt, just an hour north of Madrid, holds both Francoist and Republican remains, including those exhumed from mass graves. They were then reburied in the valley until the tomb’s completion in 1959—a monument to the victory of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Franco’s tomb—he died in 1975—emerges from the hilly landscape with the violent grandiosity that defined his decades-long rule. But last month, what was meant to be Franco’s final resting place was exhumed as part of the ongoing effort to tear down the Falangist legacy, which looks poised for a comeback after years of lingering support in Spanish society’s darker corners.

On November 10, Spain went to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections in which the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the left-populist Unidas Podemos party saw their numbers shrink by a handful of seats. The Socialist Party won 120 of the 350 seats, three fewer than in the previous elections, while Podemos won thirty-five, down from forty-two in April. Pedro Sánchez—leader of the PSOE and current prime minister—previously had rejected the possibility of PSOE forming a government with Unidas Podemos, but has now agreed to enter a preliminary coalition deal. Forming a government, however, will require the support of Spain’s smaller parties, including Basque and Catalan nationalists.

The election was the fourth in as many years—a sign of the old, post-dictatorship parties’ waning strength and the rise of the far-right across Europe. Vox, the resurgent Francoist party that gained significant momentum after last year’s regional elections, doubled its number of seats on Sunday, from twenty-four to fifty-two, becoming the third largest party in parliament. The pro-market, centrist Ciudadanos party all but collapsed, down from fifty-seven to ten seats. Meanwhile, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) increased its reach by a third, picking up twenty-three seats to recoup lost ground.

In recent months, Sánchez has come under fire from both the center and the far right for moving Franco’s remains. Having won the previous election after casting himself as a bulwark against Vox, Sánchez has been criticized for defiling a grave and exploiting painful memories of the Francoist era for political gain.

If the exhumation of Franco was meant as an electoral ploy by the Socialists, the move appears to have backfired. Instead of weakening the fascist right, the exhumation created a spectacle—and a perceived injustice—around which the fascist right could rally. This, combined with frustration over the separtist protests in Catalonia, contributed to Vox’s strong electoral showing. On the far right, fascist salutes and the Falangist anthem once again echo in the Valley of the Fallen.

The exhumation raises larger questions about the role governments play in shaping historical narratives—especially in countries with histories of dictatorship—and about the way the European left should respond to the mobilization of fascist histories by the contemporary far right.

Between the end of Franco’s regime in the mid-1970s and the PSOE’s electoral victory in 2004, the so-called “Pact of Forgettingserved as the legal basis for a precarious mediation between Republicans and Francoists during the post-regime era. Codified in 1977, the pact provided immunity for Francoist officials who oversaw crimes against humanity, while simultaneously releasing hundreds of political prisoners jailed by those very same leaders. 

Unlike the fall of Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, in Spain democratic reform arose painfully from within. Attacks by Francoist terror cells and an attempted coup by Franco loyalists in 1981 reflected the fragility of the then-nascent republic. The symbols, ideologies, and cruelty of the Franco regime were thinly veiled but never abandoned, resurfacing in the PP’s attacks on regional autonomy and their warnings of a looming communist menace. (Conservatives both in Spain and abroad often framed the Franco years as preferable to an imagined left-wing dictatorship.)

In 2007, the Socialist government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero finally passed the Historical Memory Law, which officially condemned the Franco regime’s atrocities, offered resources and support to the families of those killed by the regime, removed Francoist symbols from public spaces—though public displays of support for fascism and celebrating Franco remain legal—and rejected the verdicts of illegitimate military trials that resulted in the execution of political opponents. 

The exhumation, then, can be seen as an extension of the 2007 law, another shift away from the half-century of silence about the Franco years. But, as many have pointed out, a national reckoning with the legacies of Franco’s authoritarian rule will take more than moving around the dictator’s bones.

A friend living in a small village in Andalusia reinforced this point to me before the election. On the major roadway into his town looms one of the many Osborne bulls that dot the Spanish landscape, massive black silhouettes once used for roadside advertising that now serve as national landmarks. On the eve of last year’s elections, in the dead of night, local fascists painted the bull in the colors of the Francoist flag. In response, left wingers marched to the bull and added the purple stripe of the Second Republic, which lasted from 1931 to 1939. The bull was then painted with the original black, by order of the town’s centrist mayor.

Painting over deep divides, however, does little to fix the root of the problem. The far-right parties of Europe are not simply aberrations that can be easily stamped out. As Clara Zetkin, friend and comrade of Rosa Luxemburg, wrote, “We can combat fascism only if we grasp that it rouses and sweeps along broad social masses who have lost the earlier security of their existence and with it, often, their belief in social order.” Achieving a final triumph over the ghosts of Franco and his generals, which continue to haunt Spanish society, will require not only formal denunciation of historical atrocities but also strong economic policies that eliminate the material conditions that allow fascism to flourish.

The left has recently stumbled on this front. Podemos has lost much of the momentum with which it was founded, its leadership weighed down by micro-scandals and personal feuds. (Iñigo Errejon, one of the party’s leaders, broke with Podemos to lead his own, new party, Más País.) In any coalition government led by the PSOE, the left-populist party is unlikely to wield much power, even if Sánchez, faced with an emboldened right, realizes that he must make concessions to the left. And while Spain has recovered modestly from the global economic crisis, unemployment continues to hover around 14 percent. Recent polls show that unemployment and public services remain among the most important issues to voters, ahead of the Catalan crisis. 

A potential PSOE-Podemos coalition government will have to work hard to address these voters’ concerns through concrete policy proposals, not just symbolic, though important, gestures. Doing so is imperative. With the far right on the rise, the cost of failure is simply too high.

Daniel Boguslaw is a writer and researcher living in New York City.