Lest We Forget | In The Valley of the Fallen, Spain’s Enduring Monument to Fascism
Spain became a democracy 40 years ago today. Yet the battle over the nation’s collective memory - and Franco’s body - still looms large
Photo: Ian Mackinnon
It's easy to forget, when you think of the tourist frenzy of Barcelona's Barri Gòtic, or the cluttered apartment blocks of the Costa del Sol, but Spain has 20 million fewer people than the UK, despite being more than twice the size. And with this space, comes silences.
When you fly into Madrid, the scratchy polka-dot pattern of the olive groves give the landscape a military uniformity: buttoned-down green splodges laid out in rows, stretching out over undulating hills.
Ghosts lurk in among these regiments. 114,000 missing bodies are thought to be buried in thousands of unmarked mass graves across Spain. They’re victims of the 1936-39 civil war, and the brutal 'victors' justice' that followed: the summary executions by fascists that followed the defeat of the democratically-elected government. The last two decades have seen the country divided again, over the possibility of a long-overdue reckoning with this past.
“114,000 missing bodies are thought to be buried in thousands of unmarked mass graves across Spain”
Spain is torn over whether - and how - to replace silence with education, omission with catharsis, and the miserable humiliation of the unmarked graves with a mass exhumation and reburial project. The pain is vast, and all too recent. Spain’s dictator General Francisco Franco’s rule only ended when he died in 1975, and democracy in its current form is only 40 years old this week.
While statues of Franco have been slowly pulled down and street names changed, one monstrous physical legacy of his rule remains. 40 miles outside the Spanish capital, in the middle of a forest in the Guadarrama mountains, stands a monument of truly totalitarian proportions.
The Valley of the Fallen was commissioned by Franco the year after the civil war ended, and built in part by 20,000 Republican prisoners - several of whom died or were seriously injured in its construction. Work started in 1941, and it was finally inaugurated in 1959.
Towering over the valley on the mountain top, 3,000 feet above sea level, stands the largest stone cross in the world – it is 152 metres high, and on a clear day can be seen from 20 miles away. At its base, drilled into the mountainside, there’s an equally grandiose basilica, longer than St Peter's in Rome – and at its end, in pride of place, lies the mausoleum of General Franco, along with the founder of the fascist Falange party, José Antonio Primo de Rivera.
When work on the Valley of the Fallen began, Franco declared that it would “defy time and forgetfulness”. He was right, in a sense, in that his gargantuan monument remains untouched. But wilful and selective forgetfulness abounds everywhere else. Following Franco’s death, there were no investigations, no trials, no days of reckoning for regime members. Instead, the politicians shepherding Spain's delicate return to democracy decided it was easier to agree to an official ‘pact of forgetting’, which was given legal grounding in 1977. And so over 100,000 of Franco’s slain countrymen have been denied the same basic respect accorded to him in the most extravagant fashion: to be remembered.
“In Spain, Franco is freely commemorated in a way Mussolini or Hitler never could be in Italy or Germany”
The memorialisation of Franco doesn’t stop with the Valley of the Fallen either. In today’s Spain, he is freely commemorated in a way Mussolini or Hitler never could be in Italy or Germany. There is a Francisco Franco Foundation, with charitable status, which has received sizable government grants, and actively defends the dictator’s legacy. On 20 November every year, the anniversary of Franco's death, his mausoleum becomes a site of fascist pilgrimage: supporters gather to honour his memory, largely unhindered by law enforcement - sieg heiling, waving fascist flags, singing the anthem of the Falange, Cara al Sol.
This summer, Spain's new left-leaning government announced plans to finally move Franco's body and rebury it elsewhere. The idea is to turn the Valley of the Fallen into a non-partisan site of national mourning and remembrance - a move that might not sound controversial, but provoked outrage when it was announced in June. “The wounds have been open for many years, too many, and the time has come to close them,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. “Our democracy will have symbols that unite citizens.”
A three-mile hike up a well-kept asphalt road is not the most physically strenuous of expeditions, and nor does it seem a popular idea, on a rainy, overcast Thursday afternoon in October. Looking at the Valley’s TripAdvisor page, in among the tense reviews (“grim”, “depressing”, or “sinister”, say some, while others implore readers to “visit while it lasts!”, before the government’s “active attempts to destroy it” are complete) it seems everybody drives or comes as part of an organised groups.
But choosing to walk up from the nearest bus stop, with two friends from Madrid, provides ample thinking time; an opportunity to brace ourselves for the monument - buoyed by a ‘bota’ wineskin of Spanish red.
In fact, despite what the internet says, the government has no intention of “destroying” the monument, or the basilica, or its vast, five square mile site - only of moving one body. And there is more to this macabre monument than that. It’s a bewildering thought, but buried in the ground beneath the Holy Cross lie the remains of 33,700 people killed in the civil war.
Most are soldiers from Franco’s side, although eventually, some republican dead were also buried there too (on the condition they were Catholics). Like the republican dead in the mass graves scattered around the country, many of the victims’ names were never recorded.
During the 90-minute hike, not a single person passes us on foot in either direction. The road is a pretty, winding channel through an autumn woodland idyll, but creepy in its silence - the freshly-painted signposts suggest that a greater procession of visitors is expected, or desired, than just us three, and the occasional car.
Overhead, there is a brooding monochrome. The slate-grey sky is narrowed by the gauntlet of trees, leaving us in a tunnel of mist and gentle rain – and then, unexpectedly, the road bends, and the forest falls away to reveal a high bridge, and we are out in the open, standing tall above the valley floor, above a dense expanse of green tree-tops: and over to the right, still more than a mile away, looming over its forest subjects, is the Holy Cross.
Even that far away, even with its hard edges dimmed by the mist, it is grotesque in its size and unsettling - a sinister magic-realist presence, imposed from above. It was meant to be a gargantuan testament to the greatness of Falangist Spain, and that ideology’s supposed harmony with the natural landscape.
“Spanish fascists - like their German equivalents - have long dallied with a quasi-religious mysticism"
Spanish fascists - like their German equivalents - have long dallied with a quasi-religious mysticism, a fixation on ancient myths and legends, grounded in pagan stories of their natural right to the land. Yet the cross only succeeds - in its alien disjunction from the ancient and unspoilt forest below - in revealing the dark intentions of those who designed it.
From high on this bridge the valley looks muted, unmoving, and beautiful; only wisps of mist float up from the bright green trees below - sparse patches of fog that could almost be woodsmoke from small campfires.
These prompt thoughts of the maquis, the isolated bands of guerrilla fighters (familiar to anyone who has seen Pan's Labyrinth) who kept trying to sabotage the victorious fascists well after the civil war had been lost. Spain’s hills and forests contain not just bodies, but the memories of this lingering, doomed, fight for freedom.
The weather turns as we continue onwards, and shafts of sunlight catch the raindrops, giving everything a gentler, less sinister aspect. The cross disappears again, for 20, 30 minutes at a time. And then suddenly, it’s there again, peering through the trees, so much closer, so much larger than before. It's like a horror movie, says my friend Ian: You don’t see the scary bad guy for a while, but you know that eventually he's going to jump at you out of nowhere, more terrifying than ever.
The first thing we see when we reach the monument is a new-looking Coca Cola vending machine. There’s also a yellow post box, a substantial car park, and a cafeteria-bar. Clearly, this was meant to welcome a lot of tourists, but it is all incredibly quiet: one coach and barely 10 cars, in a space that could take 100.
Up a few flights of steps, on the sodden concrete of the esplanade, the sheer scale of the site is suddenly clear. This is the kind of space that military parades were made for. But between the endless, untrodden paving stones, which fall away into the distance like a grim, grey infinity pool, there is moss creeping.
The monument is totalitarian not just in size, but in temperament. The basilica, the Holy Cross, and the esplanade were all designed to humble not just the defeated side in the civil war, but a defeated nation at large. Classical in form, imperial in function, it is an architectural rendering of Franco’s ideology: the triumph of his idealised Spain - Christian, warlike and traditional - over the insidious, messy array of godless Bolsheviks, Jews, freemasons, democrats, regionalists, liberals, and homosexuals who sought to despoil its greatness.
In July, following the Spanish PM’s announcement that Franco’s remains were to be moved, hundreds of supporters of the late dictator gathered on this same esplanade to protest his removal. They did what they always do here: sieg heiling, waving fascist flags, singing Cara al Sol. This time however, they threw in some other topical bigotries: chanting “Spaniards yes, refugees no,” and “Catalonia is Spain, they’re not fooling us”.
You could not ask for clearer proof that the battle for historical memory is really a battle over the present: not just whose lives are remembered, but whose lives are valued - and whose are not.
Inside the basilica - a 260m-long hallway drilled into the mountainside underneath the Holy Cross - there is more space, and silence. The chapels are sparse, and the space between them shy of much decoration. It is essentially a vast, empty tunnel. Grim, bleak, and imposing.
The entrance is through towering, black iron gates, and even the angels on the light fittings are weirdly fascistic: dressed in long black robes, with severe black fringes, like 1930s cabaret flappers suddenly enraptured by the holy spirit. “Art deco gothic”, is Ian’s verdict.
Along the walls of the nave hang the eight huge Apocalypse Tapestries, each of them almost nine metres long. These 16th century depictions of plagues, famine, pestilence and war seem about right, in the circumstances. At first, a dragon with ten horns and seven heads doesn’t seem to fit with Franco’s conception of a “glorious crusade”, until you get to the final tapestry: the armies of Christ, riding in on white horses, arriving to vanquish the hellish beast.
And then, at the far end, deep into the mountain, beneath a domed ceiling, which glitters with a dazzling gold mosaic of Christ attended by angels, saints and martyrs, you reach the two things everyone has come to see. They are simple grey stones laid into the floor on either side of the transept, about five-by-three feet in size. The first has JOSÉ ANTONIO carved into it, for the founder of the Falange; the second, FRANCISCO FRANCO. And that is all.
While their simplicity is a surprise, that is immediately dwarfed by the shock at seeing each grave strewn with numerous bunches of flowers - ten, in Franco’s case. Pictures are not allowed anywhere in the basilica, but most people discreetly sneak a quick photo of the two graves with their phones anyway, when the (seemingly uninterested) ushers are not looking.
After doing the same, I find myself reading each one of their faces: what’s your motive? Are you a fascist? Are you taking a photo out of macabre interest? Because you loathe what he stands for? Because you long for it? Or just because it’s a tourist attraction - and while the keepers of the Valley are trying their damnedest to pretend otherwise, this is the reason people come here?
After circling around the transept awhile, sitting in the pews gazing up at the mosaic, I notice a Spanish man in his 20s take the same sneaky photo everyone else takes; but this time, the middle-aged female ushers spot his transgression, and - from a distance, without getting up - tick him off. “No photos!”, they call. Instead of shuffling off, scolded, he walks over to them.
“Never mind the rules, the law says no flowers! You're letting people break the law”
“You’re telling me ‘no photos’? Well I’m telling you you’re breaking the law. Why are there flowers here? Under the Historical Memory Law, flowers are not allowed on the dictator’s grave.” They demur, and the trio proceed to argue at cross purposes for five minutes. "The rules are no photos,” says one of the ushers, avoiding the issue. “Never mind the rules, the law says no flowers! You're letting people break the law?” They roll their eyes. Eventually he walks off, still angry, and the women return to their pew.
The 2007 Historical Memory Law was introduced by an earlier centre-left government, and was the controversial legislation that finally formalised the process of removing statues of Franco (though one remains, in Melilla, one of Spain’s Moroccan ‘exclaves’), renaming streets, and giving state support to the epic task of exhuming the tens of thousands of mass graves.
The upset young anti-fascist I saw in the crypt was right: article 16 of the law specifically forbids the exaltation of Francoism, the civil war, or its protagonists in the Valley of the Fallen. “In any normal country,” a Spanish friend wrote to me the next day, “that would cover putting flowers in the dictator's tomb, but this is Spain.”
Meanwhile, in front of José Antonio Primo de Rivera’s grave, a tour guide - non-official, but clearly a semi-regular presence, known to the employees - is explaining in English why Franco’s remains should not be moved. His is not a political position, he tells us with a smile when his spiel is finished; it’s not politics, just common sense. Let sleeping dictators lie.
In the gift shop, you can buy Valley of the Fallen t-shirts in several colours, as well as coasters, mints, boiled sweets, and tote bags, all bearing the image of the Holy Cross. Most revealing of all is the official Valley of the Fallen guidebook.
The glossy, 60-page paperback, available in several languages, contains detailed paragraphs on every one of the basilica's tapestries, chapels, statues, and ornaments, as well as the artists behind them, and the meanings of each piece. It’s a splurge of material that reminds me of a character in a low-budget crime caper gesticulating wildly to a security guard, in the naive hope that it will help deflect attention from the heist going on behind him.
Any hint of controversy is completely omitted; the use of prison labour to build the Holy Cross receives just one sentence; the fact that some prisoners were killed in the process is ignored; as is the dumping of Republican bodies in the graves to help make up the numbers. Even though this version of the guidebook was published in 2018, it makes no mention of the 2007 Historical Memory Law, the 2011 special government commission on transforming the Valley, or the controversy that has raged since the 1970s.
Franco - who is so tied to every part of the Valley that he personally selected the juniper wood for the crucifix on the altar - is mentioned only three times in 60 pages. His grave, which stands in pride of place in front of the altar, receives just one blunt, descriptive sentence. It is an exemplar of the Spanish establishment's attitude to the horrors of the period.
This absence of words – from the explanations at the site, to the omissions from the visitors guidebook, to the names of 33,700 bodies buried at the site – is mirrored in Spain's national anthem; it is one of only two wordless anthems in the whole world.
Of course, Spaniards are no more mute in the face of terror or dictatorship than any other national population. From resistance at the time, to excellent organisations like the Association for Historical Memory today, there have always been those at the grassroots who’ve pushed back. What we’re talking about here is official silence; silence mandated from the top down, through 36 years of dictatorship, and the transition to democracy that followed.
At the bus shelter outside the gates to the Valley of the Fallen National Park - gates still adorned with Franco's double-headed eagle - A4 posters have been plastered. “Don’t touch the Valley!”, reads one, which also bears the logo of the Partido Popular (PP), the mainstream party who have governed for 15 of the last 22 years, and who grew out of the ashes of the Franco regime. Quietened by the weirdness of the day out, the three of us ride back to Madrid.
The following day is Spain’s ‘Fiesta Nacional’, a public holiday that mirrors Columbus Day on the other side of the Atlantic, and a day of celebration for Spanish right-wingers at the best of times - and these are not the best of times. The Catalan independence crisis has helped revive latent Spanish nationalism - a sentiment that’s been further antagonised by PM Pedro Sánchez’s surprise accession to power and his determination to finally move Franco.
That Friday, when the right-wing PP and Ciudadanos marched provocatively in Barcelona in support of Spanish unity, they did so side-by-side with Vox, a fast-rising party of the far-right. Catalan flags were burned. Only this week, the anti-immigrant, anti-separatist, Islamophobic Vox took a significant step towards mainstream acceptance with a surprisingly strong election performance in Andalusia, winning their first-ever seats.
“Despite Sanchez’s intentions, the body of one of the 20th Century’s most notorious fascist dictators still lies in a custom-designed Catholic cathedral - exactly as he intended”
When Sanchez announced the plans to move Franco’s remains, back in July, he said it would be done quickly - before the end of August (“he thinks he can get anything done in August? In Spain?” joked more than one friend). Then in September, when the plan was approved by parliament, it was to be completed by November. Another obstacle arose at the end of October, when the Franco Foundation proposed he be reburied in the main cathedral in Madrid, prompting more protests. And so despite Sánchez’s best intentions, at the time of publication, the body of one of the 20th Century’s most notorious fascist dictators still lies in a custom-designed Catholic cathedral - exactly as he intended.
In recent history, when civil wars end, we hear about battle-weary nations heaving towards peace and stability with ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions – intensely painful, but opportunities for necessary catharsis, and eventually, you hope, healing. Spain had no such process after Franco died in 1975. In fact, it had the opposite - that official ‘pact of forgetting’, effectively enshrined in law. Purgatory and silence emanated from the top down.
As long as the tussle over Franco’s remains continues unresolved, it’s hard to see that silence being broken, or the wounds being healed. Meanwhile, the Valley of the Fallen will remain a strange, if horrible, place to visit.
Dan Hancox is a London-based journalist and author. Keep up with him on Twitter.