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Spain seeks to identify civil war victims as it tackles fascist past


Carmen Calvo, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for Spain’s fascist past, still remembers the first time she saw the monumental complex erected by the late dictator Francisco Franco.

“I saw a place built with forced labor for the glory of a dictator,” she said of that visit four decades ago to the Valley of the Dead, the division site that contains the remains of at least 33,000 of those who died in the 1930s. civil war that brought Franco to power. “It made me feel helpless,” she recalls.

Now Calvo wants more action, four and a half decades after Franco died in power.

Socialist minister defends legislation that, among other reforms, would step up the exhumation of tens of thousands of bodies that Francoist troops dumped in graves across the country, establish an authoritative casualty register, and modify the valley itself . The centerpiece of the site 50 km north of Madrid is a huge basilica carved into the mountain under a 150 m cross with a dome mosaic depicting an interpretation of the fascist flag of the Phalanx.

A person holds a French-French Spanish flag at the Valley of the Fallen memorial north of Madrid © EPA-EFE

The Spanish measures come as countries around the world grapple with their histories, with the UK debating how to deal with its slave trade past and the US grappling with centuries of racial injustice.

Critics say the left-wing Spanish administration is sowing more divisions in a polarized society, although Calvo, who sees the civil war as part of the larger fight against fascism, insisted the plans were not nothing more than what the country owes itself.

“What do we say to families? she said in an interview with the Financial Times. “We don’t have the right to forget, we have the obligation to remember. . . We have disappeared more than Chile and Argentina combined.

Government officials point to estimates by historians that the Franco regime killed some 140,000 to 150,000 people in military courts and extrajudicial killings between 1936 and around 1947. They say 20,000 to 25,000 could still be salvaged from military courts. mass graves over the next four to five years.

While the ultimately defeated Republican camp was also guilty of war crimes, they were not on the same scale. “Repression by [Franco’s] the rebels was [in terms of deaths] about three times larger than that which took place in the Republican zone, ”wrote historian Sir Paul Preston in his book The Spanish Holocaust.

Carmen Calvo, Deputy Prime Minister
Carmen Calvo, Deputy Prime Minister, supports reforms that include the exhumation of thousands of bodies dumped by Franco’s forces © Chema Moya / EPA-EFE

The Spanish government hopes to finalize a bill in the coming weeks, after which it will be sent to parliament for approval.

But this week, top Spanish judges expressed concern over some of the proposals, especially the impact on the right of assembly and freedom of expression, given that the government plans to close a foundation dedicated to Franco’s memory. . The judges also feared that the measures were “asymmetrical” in favor of Republican victims.

In a recent FT interview, Pablo Casado, leader of the center-right opposition Popular Party, described the government’s concerns as out of step with contemporary concerns.

“Am I going to talk about Franco?” ” He asked. “I’m going to talk about culture war here and now, and culture war now is not what happened 80 years ago.”

The bill is the third major move by a Socialist-led government this century to address Franco’s legacy. A 2007 law authorized state funding for the exhumation of mass burial sites, and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez ordered the removal of Franco’s corpse from the valley in 2019.

Franco's coffin moved from the valley of the dead
The coffin of Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco was moved from the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum in 2019 © Juan Carlos Hidalgo / Getty Images

But the latest measure goes much further than its predecessors.

In particular, he made the recovery of bodies from mass graves not only the right of families but the obligation of the State.

The government has already stepped up the pace of dismantling, which largely came to a halt in 2013, when the then-PP Spanish administration funded the 2007 law, which it saw as a source of division.

This year, the government is funding the exhumation of 114 sites across Spain. Overall, authorities estimate as many as 600 mass graves remain.

Some sites are small, others huge. Excavators discovered the bodies of more than 450 people shot dead by Franco’s troops at a site in Seville; it could eventually bring back 1,000. Authorities say another site in Cordoba province may contain up to 5,000 bodies.

Human remains in a mass grave in Seville
Human remains in a mass grave in Seville, where around 1,103 people were executed during the civil war in the late 1930s © Julio Munoz / EPA-EFE

The law also establishes a national DNA database of victims and plans to update education from the civil war period in schools.

Officials recognize that this is one of the most explosive problems of all. “The state has an obligation that these truths be part of the education of the people,” Calvo said. “How can anyone make a political plea so that people don’t know? “

The government has, for the moment, no plan to exhume some 12,000 dead Republicans taken in mass graves by the Franco regime and reburied in the valley with their former enemies. But the law recognizes the right of families to recover bodies from the site. There are already about sixty requests.

The more than 33,000 graves behind the chapels of the basilica would be converted into a civil cemetery and the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Phalange, would be moved from its privileged place in front of the altar.

On a recent day in June, several visitors to the valley complained about the government’s plans. “Better to leave it as it is than to reopen the wounds,” said Diego, a security guard who declined to give his last name.

Others thought it was right for Spain to face the deadliest period in its history. “Our grandparents suffered from the civil war. . . they thought that afterwards there was real peace, but now things are different, ”said Sol De Mosteyrín Hernández, teacher.

“We need a deep process of reconciliation in this country – and it is only just beginning.”

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