As Spanish Dictator is Reexhumed, Wounds From Civil War Still Fester

By Sophia Halverson

Although the Spanish Civil War was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the twentieth century, most of the world has never heard of it. Fifty years of enforced silence under military dictator Francisco Franco has created a culture of silence that is slowly beginning to break down. 

Spain has been brought up in the news recently when the government exhumed Franco’s body, which was buried in the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen 44 years ago, and reburied it in a private cemetery next to his late wife. The Valley of the Fallen, a mass grave filled with nearly 30,000 bodies, was constructed during Franco’s lifetime and was meant to be a sign of the country moving forward after Franco’s brutal ascent to power. However, the memorial was built through the forced labor of Franco’s political rivals and non-Franco supporters believe that the dictator’s presence, even in death, spoils what is supposed to be a place of remembrance. However, plenty of supporters of Franco were angered by the decision to move the body-further polarizing an already divided Spain. 

Franco was a controversial leader when he first came to power in the 1920s, often violently crushing his opponents who did not support his militaristic and fascist state. He most commonly used mass executions and forced labor in concentration camps to work his political enemies to death, and many mass graves have only recently been excavated and the bodies identified, allowing remaining family members to discover what really happened to their loved ones that disappeared long ago. After coming to power, he brutally repressed those who had fought against him, even going so far as to kidnap the children of his enemies and hand them off to loyal Catholic families to be raised as good members of Francoist Spain.

His former resting place was no less controversial: the Valley of the Fallen was built by the forced labor of his former enemies and houses the remains of thousands of people who died on both sides of the Civil War, most buried there without familial consent. For those whose remains are buried there, the site is a powerful place of remembrance; however, for Franco’s fervent supporters it is a point of strength and a rallying point for the far-right which some Spaniards believe is disrespectful to those interred there without a proper burial. 

In the thirty-five years of Franco’s dictatorship, from his rise in 1938 to his death in 1973, he ruled with nearly unlimited power and a strong, forceful personality. He used fear as an enforcement tactic, turning neighbor against neighbor and forbidding anyone to mention the war, insisting that the nation needed to move on. Indeed, following World War II Spain was able to quickly modernize,due in large part to America’s controversial role in recognizing Franco’s rule as legitimate and encouraging business and tourism interests in Spain. He pushed a ‘pure Spain’, founded on Catholic ideals that emphasized a woman’s place in the home and the necessity of having children and raising them to be good Christians. He also pushed stringent policies of censorship of inappropriate media, including vulgarity and nudity.

The United States especially had a role in legitimizing Franco’s regime and helping the country modernize after World War II by promoting industry and tourism inside the country. They also provided loans to Spain at a time when Franco was largely treated as a pariah by the rest of the world. Relations were carried out secretly and kept out of the press, as the government guessed rightly that it would cause a backlash if people found out. Spain was especially sought after as a possible base against Communism; in 1948, Spain had already given members of the US military and their families permission to enter the country without passports. US interference also led to Spain joining the United Nations. Then-President Eisenhower visited Spain in 1959, signaling an end to Spanish isolationism. 

Franco’s brutal separation policy is possibly the darkest secret of the former regime. Nearly 30,000 babies and small children were stolen from their families and distributed to Franco supporters. Law enforcement reports that 30,000 cases of clandestine adoptions, but many thousands were not recorded, meaning the number may be -as high as 300,000, by some estimates. Mothers were often told that their babies had been born dead, even though some of them remembered hearing their baby cry before being taken away. Although this was most common in the era immediately after the Civil War, abductions continued for the next twenty years. Even after Franco’s death, it was uncommon to talk about the missing children; many often did not realize they had been adopted. The missing babies’ case first appeared in courts in 2018, fifty years after the last family separation. The ingrained culture of silence that Franco perpetuated persisted long into the 21st century and still exists in some forms today. 

However, Spain is being forced to confront its past again, whether in the courts or in government. Spain is now a full democracy and has taken steps to set itself apart from its past leader and move forward. The reburial of Franco is another way to do that, and another way of acknowledging the country’s brutal past. I think the idea of moving the dictator’s body is a strong way of moving forward, acknowledging all the country suffered under him while providing a way for the dictator’s supporters to show their continued support.

The Spanish Civil War is part of Spain’s history; many people in the country can say that their families were affected, through adoption or the war itself. However, the reexhumation of Franco may give them a new way to consider and talk about the past, as more court cases involving stolen babies will undoubtedly flood the court systems in the coming months and years. 

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