In June, the center-left administration of Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s newly appointed prime minister, announced the government’s intention to exhume Francisco Franco’s body and move it to an as-yet-undecided location. Since the announcement, a renewed national debate has broken out in Spain over Franco’s legacy. The Franco family have made clear their intentions to fight the order.

The discussion is not a new one: in 2007, the Historical Memory Law ordered that symbols of the ultra-right regime be removed from public buildings and monetary aid be provided to victims and their families. The law also declared the “de-politicization” of the Valley of the Fallen, the monumental complex built by Franco in 1959 and the site of his grave, and designated it a holy memorial to all those who died during the Civil War. To allow for the exhumation, Sánchez’s party, the Socialist Workers’ Party or PSOE, proposed a revision to the law’s text that was recently approved by Congress. Even with the changes, however, the Historical Memory Law falls short of the national reconciliation it claims to pursue because it fails to truly confront the enduring, pervasive legacy of Franco.

I recently visited the Valley of the Fallen, or Valle de los Caídos, where the shortcomings of the 2007 law are particularly clear.

© Anna Oakes

Located in the municipality of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, some thirty miles from Madrid, the Valley of the Fallen consists of an immense stone cross (almost 500 feet tall) built over an equally immense basilica. A work force that included up to 20,000 Republican war and political prisoners constructed the site over the course of eighteen years. Around 34,000 people, among them the bodies of thousands of Republican fighters — many of which were collected from mass graves without the consent or knowledge of their families — are buried in the basilica. The Valley is categorized as a site of patrimonio nacional, or national heritage, and as such is run by the government. Having seen photos of pro-Falange protests and lines that stretched around the plaza, I was surprised at the subdued atmosphere when I went. Most of the visitors seemed to be either families, older tour groups or couples in their thirties, all speaking in hushed tones. The entrance, moreover, felt like a national park: there was a picnic area, cafés and a restaurant, and the site is surrounded by a quiet pine forest.

© Anna Oakes

The cavernous entrance and crypt lead to the altar where Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange movement, are buried. I was struck less by Franco’s tombstone than by the rooms on each end of the transept, which house the majority of the bodies buried at the site. Above each door is inscribed, “Caídos por Dios y por España, 1936-1939, RIP” — “Fallen for God and for Spain.” The inscription on a wall at the entrance, “Francisco Franco, caudillo de España, patrono y fundador, inauguró este monumento el día 1º de abril de 1959” — “commander of Spain, patron and founder, inaugurated this monument” — leaves no doubt that the site was built in glorification of the dictator, the victory over the Republic and the might of the Falangist military, and to serve as a cynical kind of proof that the nation had healed — while the regime would go on to kill tens of thousands of people and imprison many more. Franco, lest it be forgotten, was an ardent Nazi ally who sent troops to fight with Germans on the Russian front. The monument continues to enact this fundamental violence in exploiting Republican lives and depoliticizing the war for the sake of a united Spain, and removing Franco’s body alone will not detoxify the site.

As an American living in Madrid, for me these debates bring to mind ongoing discussions in the United States regarding the placement of Confederate statues, especially on the anniversary of the Charlottesville protests. When those statues are viewed as purely historical documents, they erase the violence that is enacted in the present day as black people are continually arrested and murdered by police. Similarly, the Valley’s impact in the current national consciousness is too close to its original intended meaning. There may not have been a Falangist rally when I visited, but the space is just as offensive, if not more so, as a quiet sanctum and tribute to authoritarianism. The debates in Spain have made it clear that much progress remains to be made towards true reconciliation. This was all the more evident as the two major parties of the right, the Popular Party and Citizens (Ciudadanos), abstained from voting on the exhumation. And the idea of the monument as shared national historical patrimony becomes even more dubious as the private Fundación Franco refuses to release to the public its archive of almost thirty thousand documents of the regime.

In July, Sánchez’ government expressed its intentions to launch a truth commission that would establish a database of victims of the Civil War and dictatorship and recover and identify bodies that remain missing. In May 2017, historian Julián Casanova argued that there are a number of steps more urgent than establishing a truth commission: first, to make clear the link between the Catholic Church and Franco’s dictatorship and remember that the Church was an eager, inquisitorial, omnipresent and all-powerful force next to the dictator. Next, to recognize the monument’s original purpose: to immortalize Franco’s victory and to honor only the dead of his side. It is far more important to return the remains of killed “reds” stolen from their graves to their families and provide political, judicial and moral reparations than to exhume the dictator. Finally, Casanova proposed that the Valley be desacralized, and that Franco’s body remain at the site so as not to be forgotten.

The Valley of the Fallen, like Confederate statues, cannot and should not be separated from its historical and political context. I agree with Casanova that exhuming Franco’s body may not be the best way to confront the Valley’s significance, but I do believe that it is a crucial step towards desacralizing the space. Sánchez recently announced that his government would abandon plans to convert the Valley into a museum, stating that the site was too closely associated with Franco — even with his body gone. I think this is a mistake, as a museum may be the only way to reclaim the space without destroying it. Destruction of the monument is a possibility (Sánchez also recently renounced plans to tear down the cross) but it is imperative that a museum of some kind be built, either in its place or at another more accessible site, that rigorously explains the Civil War and dictatorship with no attempt to justify or defend.

The existence of the Valley itself, as is, serves as a monument to Franco’s legacy as he wanted it to be depicted, regardless of the location of his body. Spain cannot have a monument to reconciliation and national healing when it means everything but that — and when it hides the need for accountability.

Anna Oakes lives in Madrid and works at the online publication Revista Contexto. She graduated in 2017 from Wesleyan University, where she studied sociology and Latin American studies.