Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Future of the Valley of the Fallen

El Valle de los Caídos is a huge mausoleum and basilica church carved into solid granite and topped off with an enormous cross in the Cuelgamuros Valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama, near Madrid. It was built, on the orders of Franco, between 1940 and 1959 with money from the National Lottery. The work was done by as many as 200,000 Republican prisoners of war according to some sources and as few as 2,470 according to others. The prisoners were able to gain remission on their sentences by working on the construction. Some sources suggest the workers were reasonably paid whilst others charge slave labour. The supposed number who died during the building of the the complex varies from 14 to 27,000, depending on whether the source is pro Franco or pro Republican. The monument was consecrated by Pope John XXIII in 1960 with care being taken to build a curtain wall within the basilica to ensure that not all of the space was consecrated. By this device the church was kept smaller than Saint Peter's in Rome. Over the main entrance an inscription reads "Fallen for God and Spain!"

The altar of the basilica is directly beneath the tallest cross in the World, all 150 metres of it. On one side of the altar, under a one and a half ton granite slab, lies Franco, el Caudillo, whilst on the other side is José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange, the Spanish fascist party. More than 33,832 other victims of the Spanish Civil War keep them company. At least 491 bodies were transferred there illegally, to fill up spare tomb space, from some of the more than 2,000 mass graves dotted the length and breadth of Spain. The monument is easily the largest mass grave in the country. Most of the others are much less grand - roadside ditches and shallow graves usually dug and filled in the dead of night.

When Franco finally died in 1975, after nearly 40 years in power, there was a tacit agreement amongst politicians and society in general to forget the past. No settling of old scores, no mass trials, no national blood-letting. Then in October 2007 the Zapatero Government introduced the Historical Memory Law which recognised and extended the rights of those who suffered persecution or violence because of the Civil War and the dictatorship that followed.

The law directly condemns the Francoist regime, recognises certain rights for victims on either side during and after the war, prohibits political events in the Valley of the Fallen, legislates for the removal of all Francoist symbols from public areas, provides state aid in tracing, identifying and possibly exhuming victims buried in mass graves, annuls laws and some trial court rulings carried out during the dictatorship, grants Spanish nationality to anyone who fought in the International Brigades and gives the right of return to exiles and their descendants.

This law is a bit of a problem for the Valley of the Fallen. How can this monument, built as a symbol of the victory of National Catholicism, be turned into something that doesn't glorify Franco's reign? It's a particularly thorny problem for the Benedictines who live in the Santa Cruz Abbey within the valley and who are technically responsible for the monument. Under the new law they are supposed to ensure that the monument restores the balance between victors and vanquished though they don't seem to have knuckled down to the job so far. Another difficult question is to decide what happens to Franco's body, the only person in the whole complex who isn't a casualty of war. Everyone else, down to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who was executed by firing squad in Alicante during November 1936, died a victim.

The Government's answer has been to appoint a commission to work it all out. There were similar failed attempts under the Governments of Adolfo Suárez and Felipe González. The Commission's job is to decide how to tackle the problem of the status of the monument in relation to the new law. They have already had to disappoint Republican family members, who wanted to exhume and re-bury their forebears in places far away from their executioner. Government forensic scientists found that it was impossible to determine who was who in the jumbled and deteriorated piles of bodies.

Views vary as to what the commission will finally decide but the clever money seems to be on Franco's remains being removed from the Valley maybe to rest alongside his wife. Other options include moving Primo de Rivera as well, turning the place into a non religious museum or even converting it into a monument to the victims. There was even talk of dynamiting the giant cross which some have compared to an enormous swastika.

In true Spanish style the monument was suddenly closed in November 2009 for "urgent safety work." A pragmatic if short term solution. The commission is due to report late in 2011 and it looks likely that the safety work will be completed shortly afterwards.

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