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Coming to terms with the past

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El Valle de los Caídos is probably the most controversial and emotive physical expression of the Francoist dictatorship that still remains in present-day Spain. Partly built by Popular Front prisoners in the 1940s and 50s, this pharaonic memorial to the fascist triumph in the Civil War towers over a valley that conceals tens of thousands of corpses moved there under Franco’s orders. After the burial of the founder of the Falange Party José Antonio Primo de Rivera and Franco himself, the mausoleum became a place of homage for neo-fascists who continued to commemorate the dictator’s death every November 20 by parading their fascist paraphernalia at the site. But the future of the monument has finally been exposed to official scrutiny following the decision of the socialist government to set up a committee to decide how to turn the site into a monument to reconciliation.

The removal of Franco’s remains is one option, but the destruction of the giant cross appears to have been dismissed as has the possibility of evicting the Benedictine monks who inhabit the site. The most likely outcome is the establishment of a museum or interpretation centre which will put the monument in its context and use it as a reminder of the horrors that resulted from the Civil War. But the debate has shown how raw feelings remain in Spain and how problematic the country has found the experience of coming to terms with its traumatic past.

It was not until 2007, over thirty years after the death of the dictator, that the socialist government introduced what became known as the “historical memory” law, which recognised victims of the Franco regime, prohibited political events at the Valle de los Caídos and provided some state help for the identification and eventual exhumation of the victims of Francoist repression whose corpses still lie in over two thousand mass graves scattered across Spain. Even that step was resisted by government opponents who preferred to turn a blind eye to the deep wounds left by the Civil War and its aftermath. But grassroots campaigns, often led by relatives of the victims, to dig up the mass graves forced the government to break its silence and confront the issue.

At last there is the prospect that Spain may finally try to come to terms with matters that have been swept under the carpet for so many years. As Catalan photographer Francesc Torres, one of the leading lights in the movement to shed light on Spain’s obscure past, has said: “History is resilient. You can cover it, but it’s not going away.”

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