By Alyssa McMurtry
A Spanish court made public a historic ruling this week which could see the exhumations of bodies at a giant mausoleum built by the country's former dictator, Francisco Franco.
In 1936, two brothers – a veterinarian and blacksmith by trade – fighting alongside anarchist forces in the Spanish Civil War were arrested by Fascist forces in the northeastern city of Zaragoza.
Both were executed and thrown into mass graves, according to their family. Yet more than 20 years later their remains were brought to the province of Madrid, to become part of one of Franco’s most important monuments—a giant memorial and mass grave consisting of more than 30,000 corpses.
Now, they may be moving again. A court has ordered their remains be exhumed, identified and given back to their family who brought forward the case. This case is the first in which a judge has ordered opening the crypt.
This ruling has already been challenged by the Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Fallen.
Pablo Linares, president of the association, told Anadolu Agency he had presented an official complaint to the state body responsible for the monument.
“To find and identify those bodies, which are not neatly packed or identified, you will have to disturb the rest of the other bodies,” Linares said.
The Valley of the Fallen, El Valle de los Caidos in Spanish, may be the most symbolic monument of the Franco era and Fascist civil war victory.
Located near the picturesque town of El Escorial, located 45 kilometers [28 miles] north of Madrid, it boasts the world’s largest cross, towering at 150 meters — nearly three times as high as the
Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Below the giant cross lie thousands of corpses in a huge, granite mausoleum. Most are identified and the vast majority of those fought with Franco, but around 12,000 are unknown and their families were not advised of their relocation – nameless victims of war or the following years under Franco’s rule.
The bones are stacked stories high and surround the remains of Franco himself, who is buried near the front part of the basilica, on one side of the transept.
Fresh flowers can usually be seen near Franco’s tomb and daily Masses are still celebrated in the basilica where the dictator’s remains are located.
The creation of the huge monument was Franco’s idea, “so that future generations pay tribute to those who made a better Spain… the heroes and martyrs of the Crusade,” reads a decree from April, 1940. It was completed 19 years later and inaugurated in 1959. Upon his death in 1975, Franco’s body joined the others.
Francisco Ferrandiz, an anthropologist at Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) told Anadolu Agency: “It’s as if the bodies are protecting Franco, and for those who fought against Franco, families may think of it like an eternal, funerary jail.”
Ferrandiz said the Spanish public was not aware of the presence of Franco’s enemies’ remains in the monument until 2003. In that year, he said, Fausto Canales was looking for his father’s remains in a mass grave and realized most of it had been removed. His research found that Franco also ordered Republicans be buried there.
“When the monument was about to be inaugurated the Fascists realized they didn’t have enough bodies to fill it up,” said Ferrandiz.
The Spanish Civil War caused the death of an estimated 500,000 people on all sides between 1936 and 1939 – slightly more than the latest estimate of the death toll in Syria’s civil war, which by Feb. 2016 had taken the lives of 470,000 people, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research.
In Spain the war ended with a Fascist dictatorship which lasted until Franco’s death in 1975. During his rule, historian Paul Preston estimates that 20,000 enemies of the state were killed.
After the transition to democracy, an amnesty freed political prisoners and provided immunity to government officials responsible for crimes. Along with that, said Ferrandiz, came a policy to ignore the past.
“Some are still very uncomfortable about this, and a lot of people, especially on the right, are relatives or somehow benefited from Franco’s regime and they don’t want their family members to be called criminals. Still, historical justice starts with telling the truth,” Ferrandiz told Anadolu Agency.
Over the years, the question of what to do about mass graves and the giant Franco memorial has been mixed with politics. In 2007, Spain’s previous Socialist government passed a Historical Memory Law that allowed relatives to exhume the thousands of bodies resting in mass graves throughout Spain and gave public funding to help cover the cost. When the Popular Party came into power in 2011, funding for that came to a halt.
In 2011, a committee of experts to determine what to do with the Valley of the Fallen was also appointed by the Socialists. Among other recommendations, they said in order to depoliticize it and make it a space for both sides to remember the war, Franco’s remains should be removed. Although this sparked heated public debates, the recommendations were not enforced by the following government.
“Obviously now Spain is a democracy, but what we see today is a lot of fighting and in politics you can still see the tension,” said Ferrandiz, who sat on the committee of experts.
Since Spain’s December national elections, no government has been formed and fresh elections have been called for June. The country is also facing a growing likelihood of Catalonia declaring independence from Spain. During the Spanish Civil War, the northeastern region fiercely opposed Franco and became a major stronghold against his forces.