The Valley of the Fallen
Over the weekend we headed to Madrid for a little break away from Zaragoza. Being one of my favourite cities, it was great to get back to the Spanish capital and get immersed in the atmosphere there. However, instead of doing the traditional tourist activities, we decided to take a trip to La Sierra de Guadarama to pay a visit to one of the more unusual sites in Spain; el Valle de los Caídos. Approximately 50 km from Madrid, the Valley of the Fallen is a memorial dedicated to the fallen in the Spanish Civil War, and also the final resting place for Francisco Franco, the dictator that controlled Spain for nearly 40 years. It is a very unusual monument given that it is, as The Guardian Spanish correspondent labelled it, ‘the largest and most recent piece of fascist religious monumental architecture to be erected in Western Europe’.
After 18 years of construction, the Valley of the Fallen was inaugurated on 1st April 1959; twenty years after the war finished with the victory of the Nationalists. Hidden in the mountains, the most visible piece of this gigantic monument is the 150ft cross, which is visible from over 32km away. The architecture itself is very impressive and the Basilica is as big as St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican. The remains of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Riviera (the founder of the Falange, the Spanish fascist party which was to help Franco whist he was in power) lie next to the altar, and there are many paintings and sculptures demonstrating to the glory of Spain. Around 40,000 bodies are buried beneath the monument, and are recorded in the Valley of the Fallen register. These bodies were brought there from all over Spain, and are the remains of men who died during the Civil War. The Bodies are predominantly from the Nationalist dead, although Republican bodies were brought in to be buried here also. Although some of the Republican dead are buried here, one cannot forget that this monument was made purely to celebrate the Nationalist victory, rather than reconciliation. Inside the Basilica, there is a plaque that says ‘Caídos por dios y Espana 1936-1939’ (‘for those who fell for God and for Spain’). This is a reference to the Nationalists rather than Republicans, who were considered ‘anti Spanish’ and enemies of Spain by the Nationalist’s forces. Given that Franco maintained a policy of dividing the victors of the war from the defeated right up until his death in 1975, this monument reflects his ideas of Spain and what the victory of the Civil War meant. Furthermore, there is controversy surrounding the construction of the Valley of the Fallen. It is estimated that 10% of the workforce were prisoners, who were forced to work there and gained reductions in their sentences.
There has been great controversy surrounding the place, as Spaniards are divided on what to do with a place which overtly celebrates the Nationalist victory and the dictatorship. Given Spain’s uncomfortable relationship with the past, it is not difficult to see that this place is at the forefront of the discussion. In the immediate aftermath of the dictatorship and the transition to democracy in the late 1970s, many believed that the best way to not reopen old wounds was to simply leave the past in the past, which came to be known as el Pacto de Olvido (the pact of forgetting). However, in recent years, with democracy well and truly consolidated, a generation which never experienced the polarisation of the Franco dictatorship started to ask answers about what happened to their grandparents. This started in families researching where their relatives had been killed and buried, and culminated in the digging up of the many common graves where the murdered where left after being taken out to be shot. In 2000, the first disinterment took place, and thanks to the efforts of La Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, by 2011, 1311 bodies had been recovered throughout Spain, although many more are still in the thousands of common graves around Spain. By recovering the bodies of relatives, families have been able to give their dead a dignified burial, and close some wounds. Last year, the Ministry of Justice published a map so people could find out what graves had been dug up and which ones remained. In fact, 11 families who have relatives buried in the Valley of the Fallen have tried to pursue leagal action to try and recover the remains of their relatives who died fighting for the Republic.Under the last socialist government, there were many advances in changing the attitude towards the past. The Law of Historical Memory, which was passed on 27th December 2007. This law prohibited political rallies at the Valley of the Fallen, and also brought measures in to remove Francoist symbols and statues. Over the last few years, the last Franco statues have been removed, and street names have been changed. However, the Valley of the Fallen still remains a controversial issues, and is the matter of a highly polemicized debate. Whilst organisations such as Patrimonia Nacional, the group that maintains the valley of the fallen, claim that the monument is a homage to all Spaniards who died during the war, many on the left want to radically change the monument. Some would like to change it into an information centre, whilst last year an expert commission under the previous government suggested that the remains of Franco and Riviera be removed from the Basilica, with Franco’s remains being moved to a cemetery close to El Pardo, his residence. However, the Franco family have said that they would never accept this proposal, and the Popular Party and the recently elected government will not contemplate removing his remains; the PP are vehemently opposed to Historical Memory, and argue that it has unnecessarily opened up old wounds.
There is not a simple solution for this site. For a tourist, the Valley of the Fallen is well worth a visit due to its unusual architecture and grandeur. However, it is, and always will be, a monument glorifying the Nationalist cause, and the Franco ‘crusade’. One only has to look around the place to see the type of visitors; older generations sympathetic to Franco and a well-represented group of younger Spaniards who support the extreme right. It is quite a unique place to visit and although the whole experience inside the Valley of the Fallen may be uncomfortable, the views around the Sierra de Gudarama are spectacular.
 Tremlet, Giles, The Ghosts of Spain, London, 2006, p.35