Let the dead lie in peace? Not in Spain

Recently the Socialist interim government of Pedro Sánchez succeeded in what other leftists had been incapable of doing: exhuming the remains of Generalíssimo Francisco Franco from his grave of 44 years and reburying him next to his wife in an ordinary cemetery in Madrid.

Franco ruled Spain from the end of the civil war in 1939 to his peaceful death in November 1975. His chosen burial place was the Valle de Los Caídos – the Valley of the Fallen, just outside Madrid, a memorial to the victims of a brutal civil war. A simple stone slab bore his name as he was laid to rest on the ground next to the altar. There he lay until October 24.

In the interests of Socialist-inspired justice and with the approval of parliament, Sánchez ordered the transfer. It took place in the presence of Franco family members, and under the watchful eye of interim Justice Minister Dolores Delgado.

The legacy of Francisco Franco

In 1936 Franco and other generals rose up against the Republican government, a duly elected but communist centered coalition that quickly implemented an atheist agenda. It persecuted the Catholic Church, destroyed places of worship , martyred thousands of priests and religious, tore down Catholic schools, and otherwise attempted to remake Spain according to a Soviet model. The severity of this persecution cannot be underestimated. According to Warren Carroll’s book The Last Crusade:

“The total number of Catholic priests and religious martyred in the territory of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War was 6,832…. This total included 4,184 diocesan clergy, 2,365 male regular clergy and religious and 283 nuns….”

Carroll described it as “the greatest clerical bloodletting of all time” which exceeded victims of both the French Revolution and the Communist Russia.

A letter by the Spanish hierarchy as early as 1937 estimated that 20,000 churches and chapels out of a total of 42,000 in the country had been destroyed. In Barcelona alone, 800 religious edifices were completely destroyed. Only 10 remained unscathed in the entire archdiocese. Spain lost a considerable part of its religious and artistic treasures during the three-year war.

General Francisco Franco, who was the chief military officer of Spain, understood the viciousness of the Republican leaders and mustered allies to combat for faith and the fatherland until the enemy was vanquished. The 1936-39 civil war pitted brother against brother and left countless dead. Estimates vary from 500,000 to one million, but no expert could venture a more precise count given the intensity and extent of the violence. Spain’s population in 1930 was estimated at just under 24 million.

The victorious Franco became leader of Spain for the rest of his life. One of the most important things he did was to build a huge monument just outside Madrid in the side of a mountain that became known as the Valley of the Fallen. There an estimated 34,000 bodies, victims of both sides, were buried. Part of the complex was a church, the Basílica de la Santa Cruz. A 150-meter stone cross topped and dominated the spot. Benedictine monks were designated custodians of the church.

There is no similar monument in any country, even the United States, where a civil war occurred. The Valley of the Fallen was built as a symbol of reconciliation – but apparently not viewed as such by the heirs of the Republican ideology, namely today’s Spanish Socialists, who are reviving old wounds.

Were it not for Franco’s victory, the Soviet empire would have leapfrogged across Western Europe endangering countries where Communist parties already were established, such as France and Italy.

Those familiar with the history of the Franco period will recall that he not only restored order and religion but also engineered an economic rebirth with a vast package of measures in 1959 that brought about strong growth and a large measure of prosperity to Spain. Franco’s rule evolved over time and transitioned from what was dubbed as “dictadura’ to “dictablanda” – from hard to soft dictatorship.

The Franco era was not without occasional violence, promoted mostly by Basque separatists. The most extreme occurred in December 1973, when Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco was assassinated. His passing car was blown up by a bomb placed under the street in one of Madrid’s main thoroughfares, not far from the American Embassy. The Basque terrorist organization ETA claimed responsibility.

The post Franco era

Besides his efforts at reconciliation with the Valley of the Fallen monument, unlike most dictators elsewhere, Franco put in place a plan of succession that led to a smooth political transition and the eventual blossoming of a vital democracy after his demise. Franco provided that the monarchy be restored and groomed Juan Carlos de Borbón, the grandson of the last King of Spain (Alfonso XIII), to become head of state. King Juan Carlos I was sworn in on November 22, 1975 – two days after Franco’s death.

A civilian head of government was also planned. Carlos Arias Navarro, who had succeeded the assassinated Carrero Blanco, continued in his post as Prime Minister until 1976. Unable to carry out further political liberalization as the King wished, he was replaced by the much younger Adolfo Suarez. Suarez was instrumental in pursuing a new constitution and allowed the re-establishment of political parties, including the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE) and the Communist Party. He also permitted long-exiled Socialist and Communist leaders to return to Spain.

Suarez cobbled together a centrist coalition to win the first post-Franco elections in 1977 and remained in his post until the next general election in 1982.

In 1982, there was a smooth transition to a victorious opposition with the election of Felipe González of the PSOE who remained Prime Minister until 1996. Perhaps bearing in mind the horrors of civil war times, surprisingly González proved to be more of a moderate social democrat who successfully led Spain to join the European Economic Community, the precursor of today’s European Union, on January 1, 1986 (together with Portugal).

King Juan Carlos I proved his democratic credentials when he opposed an attempted takeover by a few military officers who stormed the Cortes (Parliament) in February 1981 during an interim period when the government had resigned and a new one had not yet been formed. The rebellion was quickly put down under the King’s authority and the fledgling Spanish democracy survived.

Another smooth transition took place in June 2014 when King Juan Carlos I abdicated in favor of his son, who is now King Felipe VI.

What will come next?

While Spain has peacefully evolved into a mainstream European democracy, in recent years splinter parties on the left and right were founded, much as has occurred in other countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden. Like the others, Spain has encountered difficulties in forming a coalition government.

Pedro Sánchez became Prime Minister in June 2018 upon the resignation of right-of-center Mariano Rajoy of the Partido Popular due to a series of scandals. However, the PSOE only controlled a mere 84 out 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies.

In the April 28 elections this year, no party gained a majority. The Socialists received just over 27 percent of votes and won only 122 seats in the Congress of Deputies, far short of 176 needed for a majority. In the weeks and months that followed Sánchez was unable to win over any other party to form a coalition. Hence new elections will be held on November 10.

If Pedro Sánchez emerges victorious from the upcoming elections, will his next move be to take down the massive cross over the Valley of the Fallen?

While Spain too has been affected by the spread of secularism sweeping across Europe, Spaniards of left and right would do well to ponder the significance and importance of reconciliation that their unique monument represents – then look confidently to the future.

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.


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