Spain has been struggling for years with something that the United States is now addressing, namely what do you do with monuments of leaders whose values are troubling. For Spain, the issue revolves chiefly around General Franco, who lead the Nationalists in the civil war against the Republicans from 1936-1939. Franco later ruled Spain until his death in 1975.
He was a dictator. Many people still admire what he did for Spain, even though it’s clear that he was an extremely repressive figure. He called upon Hitler and Mussolini to help him win the civil war. He masterminded the civilian bombing of a market town made famous by Picasso called “Guernica” with Hitler’s help. Yet, Franco developed the Spanish infrastructure.
Streets named for Franco and his generals had had their names changed. Plaques dedicated to Franco must be removed from every building. Bishop Carlos Lopez, however, showed us a plaque to Franco still on a university wall in Salamanca.
I walked in the mountains of the Sierras de la Guadarrama with Ricardo, my friend Javi’s father, and two of Ricardo’s friends, Jemma and Pedro. It was like returning to the Camino. We walked about 15 kilometers, a refreshing but not overtaxing walk.
Along the way, Ricardo pointed out to me stone walls constructed by Nationalist troops under Franco to stop the Republicans in Madrid from breaking out of the nation’s capital. I stood by the walls, realizing their history and significance.
Finally, we came to our destination – a stone outcropping overlooking the Valley of the Fallen or “El Valle de los Caedos.” It is a combination mass burial place for 30 Nationalist and Republican troops and a Benedictine monastery. Inside, the monastery chapel General Franco and Primo de Rivera, who founded the fascist party (Falagalists) in Spain lie buried.
They lie at opposite sides of the chapel with only an altar separating them. Only in Spain do they mix religion, politics and the military in such a strange brew. El Valle de los Caedos is a creepy place. Imagine a Hitleresque figure buried in a Roman Catholic monastery chapel. A feeling of revulsion came over me when I saw it.
The Episcopal Bishop of Spain took our middle daughter, Marguerite, and me to visit it on our way to see El Escorial. I asked Bishop Don Carlos and his wife, Anna, to pose for a picture in front of the monument. They declined. I soon realized why.
El Valle de los Caedos is constructed on a mountaintop. The largest cross in the world rises over it. Franco thought that it was a fitting monument to the war. Extreme-right leaning Spaniards still hold rallies here each year. Most of Spain would prefer to forget that it exists.
The new socialist government led by Pedro Sanchez has voted to exhume Franco’s body from El Valle de los Caedos. If this occurs, Franco’s family wants his body placed inside the Almudena, Madrid’s cathedral next to El Palacio Real, where the King of Spain holds royal affairs.
Can we remove or rewrite history? How do we address the dark side of our past? What works and what doesn’t help?
As we looked down from our stone outcropping on El Valle de los Caedos, Jemma said, “My grandfather was forced to work as a prisoner building that for nine years. He would never talk about the experience. It was awful.” Many Republican prisoners who served as forced laborers died while building it. It was a stalag. The question is now what to do with it?
With love and prayers from Spain,