Report on Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen): “Don’t drop the hot potato”

With the following post, based on a report, I will explore the peculiarities of Valle de los Caídos and to inform on what changes should be introduced to the management of it. It is directed to the vice president of Spain, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, who has been personally in charge of this site (Barcala 2010).

To carry out the assessment an ad hoc questionnaire# has been carried out to attain an overview of the different perceptions that exist in Spanish society toward the site. Although not scientific the questionnaire gives a rough impression, which is useful to assess the mentioned sensibilities.

The following introduction to the Valle de los Caídos reflects the peculiarities of the site, the relevant issues and the current situation, all of which justify the criteria chosen to carry out the assessment (interpretation and promotion).

Valle de los Caidos
Fig. 1Valle de los Caidos, aerial view

ORIGINS

Valle de los Caídos is a huge funeral memorial that lies in an unpopulated area, 42 km from Madrid (Fig. 1). It was conceived by Franco just after he won the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) for the purpose of “remembering those fallen in [the] glorious crusade#” referring to the Civil War started by a 1936 right-wing coup#. The idea was to bury the heroes of the National side at the war formed by conservatives, monarchists and fascists.

Nevertheless, in 1958 after the 18 years that took to construct it, the regime decided to give it a more reconciliatory significance. In order to do this, the mortal remains of soldiers who fought the war in both sides were moved to the site, on most occasions without the familys’ permission. Today, 33.872 people are buried inside the crypt of the basilica (Junquera 2010). Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera# were also buried in the site, profoundly connecting it with the dictatorship.

During the transition to democracy (1975-1978), it was decided not to address the question of what to do with Valle de los Caídos and no changes were introduced. In fact, the process to move to the site the remains of Civil War soldiers went on until 1983.

1.2 CONTROVERSY

The meaning of the site is disputed. Many conservatives have accepted its intended reconciliatory intention and regard it as a memorial to remember all who perished during the Civil War. On the other hand, the political left and regionalists such as the Basques and Catalans deny its reconciliatory meaning and they rather consider the monument as a Francoist mausoleum. This is a view that was reinforced when a historian (Preston 2005) found evidence of forced work by Republican political prisoners during its construction, a story confirmed by interviews with the survivors (Halper 2005).

Valle de los Caídos is the greatest monument left bythe Francoist regime and remains extremely controversial. In fact, it is probably the physical place that unleashes most tensions between the so called “two Spains”, the laic and leftist one and the religious and conservative one. The debate about the site, often heated, exposes the ongoing social and political polarisation in Spain toward the Francoist regime. Therefore, all democratic governments have been reluctant to intervene in the site to avoid reviving the ghosts of the civil war or “opening old wounds” as it is often put by the conservative Partido Popular.

The site currently remains in the same basic state since its origins. For example, the monks that since the beginning inhabit the Abbey and Basilica still hold masses to commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of Franco and Primo de Rivera every 20th of November, although recently they also include “all the fallen” in their sermons (N.T. 2009).

This religious significance adds even more complexity and controversy to the site. The Catholic Church and Franco were political allies. A Catholic temple was included inside Valle de los Caídos. The conservatives have opposed any change in its status claming its religious condition. They often put forward the argument that it should be treated as an ordinary cemetery or monastery. With similar arguments, the conservative abbot of the basilica, supported by the church, is opposed to any change in the site. Currently the monks control important parts of the site, as the library or the listing of those buried there (Casanova 2007).

1.3 POLITICISATION

The site has also been a gathering place for political extremists. The extreme-left armed group GRAPO has attacked the site twice in 1968 and 1999 as well as ETA in 2005, without major damage.

On the other hand, extreme-right wing nostalgics have been visiting the site to glorify the Franco regime (See Fig. 3). This pilgrimage has influenced how many feel about the site, supporting the interpretation of the site as a mausoleum for Franco. The link between extreme-right and the site has endured in the minds of many. The questionnaires completed for this report suggest that some are unwilling to go to the site for this reason#.

Fig 3. Extreme Right group holding Francoist flags at the site.

1.4 SITE FEATURES

The characteristics of the site itself are often eclipsed by its strong political charge. The complex of Valle de los Caídos includes a Benedictine abbey and a 262m long basilica excavated inside the mountain (See Fig. 2). On top of the mountain, a 150m cross stands visible from 40km away. The renowned Spanish sculptor, Juan de Ávalos, made some of his most important works for Valle de los Caídos.

The site was designed to receive visitors. Therefore, the Francoist management provided good access, a car park, a guesthouse and a cable-car to access the base of the cross. This was installed in 1975.

As the site started to age, conservation work has been carried out in recent years. The most important issue related to state of the site, was when the famous statue of La Piedad was removed from the site to carry on some restoration work. The removal of the statue from the site provoked some criticism by the extreme right, as they claimed removing the statue from the site could damage it.

Conservation efforts have been taken care of by the site management both in dictatorship and democracy without any striking difficulty. The statue of La Piedad, has been removed from the site to carry out restoration work and should soon be back in its place. This example show, once again, that all issues about the site is observed politically.

1.5 RECENT EVENTS

In 2005, a report on “the need for international condemnation of the Franco Regime” was released by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, known as the Brincat report (2005). The report confirms the need to acknowledge “the crimes committed during the Franco dictatorship in Spain and the full account of human rights abuses from that period” and “establish a truth commission of historians”. Specifically on Valle de los Caídos, the report demanded to “set up a permanent exhibition in the underground basilica […] explaining the way it was built by the republican prisoners”.

Although, many of the recommendations of the Brincat’s report, were more far-reaching than what the Spanish political right could digest, the following year (2006) all the political parties reached an agreement about the status of Valle de los Caídos as part of the so called Law of Historic Memory. This states that “inside Valle de los Caídos, no political acts or exaltation of the civil war, of its protagonists or of Francoism is allowed” (Ley de Memoria Histórica 2007) in order to avoid the mentioned extreme-right pilgrimage to the site, obliging the police to stop the access of such groups (EFE 2008).

Similarly, for the first time, the families were allowed to restore the mortal remains of their relatives to their original tombs (Tremlett 2008).

Fig. 2: The basilica

2. ASSESSMENT

2.1 INTERPRETATION

Providing this site with a proper interpretation at the site has been avoided by all the democratic governments since 1978. In the same way, Spain lacks any official interpretation centre or museum about the Francoist regime or the Civil War due to reasons we discussed. New generations had to learn about the recent history through films, novels, documentaries and especially oral stories, rather than textbooks or museums. There is no official place in Spain where information and documents are put together to give a picture of Francoist times to the new and old generations as well as visitors who want to know more about Spain’s recent history other than minor local exhibitions on specific topics.

In Valle de los Caídos, the only information currently provided to the visitor is that:

“[the site was erected] by initiative of the former chief of State, Francisco Franco, as a symbol of peace and as resting place for the thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War(1936-1939)” (Casanova 2007)#

Although nothing in the statement above is really false, it implicitly accepts the Francoist views of the site. Recalling Franco as the “former Chief of State” disturbs a big part of the population, especially younger generations, since it hides the dictatorial nature of the regime. Similarly, its significance “as a peace symbol” is a very subjective interpretation, which only those close to the regime would accept without any reservation.

There is no further information about the architectural nature of the site, the civil war, Primo de Rivera, Franco, or the history of the site whatsoever.

The lack of information about the site is compensated for by the knowledge visitors already have, which is often inaccurate and/or biased. Additionally, most information that can be found on the web belong to ad hoc associations that hold Francoist interpretations of the site and systematically criticise the management of the site. The persistent lack of official interpretation leads to misinformation and inaccuracies among the general public#. Nothing stops these biased views to be reinforced during the visit to the site.

2.2 PROMOTION

Spaniards first heard about Valle de los Caídos when, once completed, the Franco regime presented it as a reconciliatory memorial. During the dictatorship the site a was typical school fieldtrip and enjoyed a strong presence in the Francoist media from 1958 until 1978. By then, the site was very well known.

The lack of interpretation has also affected the promotion, which currently consists of a mere mention in most brochures of Madrid. In the website of Patromonio Nacional# (Tremlett 2008) the description is so vague and short that it omits that Franco is buried there. For a visitor without previous knowledge it is very difficult to determine what is the site all about.

The quiet promotion has not stopped the site being one of the most visited monument of Patrimonio Nacional#, probably due to the strong knowledge of the site of older generations. Additionally the controversy generated by the site probably means that it is often mentioned in the press. On the other hand, the knowledge of the site and its history is much less weaker among younger generations#.

3. RECOMMENDATIONS

Although the issues assessed in this report may surpass the scope set by Responsible Tourism, the recommendations made are still relevant to the points the Cape Town Declaration (Cape Town 2002). There are two sets of recommendations, since some of them would not be feasible in the short term#. As generations that experienced the dictatorship will be outnumbered by the ones who grew up in democracy, some recommendations may earn the acceptance that they would not attain nowadays.

4.1 RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE SHORT TERM

Provide the site urgently with the much needed basic interpretation, since political parties should now# be able to agree on the basic facts and explanations about the site

Permit artistic and architectural nature of the site emerge through appropriate interpretation

Promote the site for international visitors, that may have an interest in the Spanish history but do not know about it

Use the possible profit to further spread the information on Spanish recent history and support the Francoist victims

Ensure access and facilities are provided for disabled people, given that survivors of both the Civil War and the dictatorship will now be ageing and are likely to have mobility problems. (point 6 of the Cape Town Declaration)

4.2 RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE MID/LONG TERM

Consider setting up a permanent exhibition about the Franco regime and/or the Civil War with the help of international historians, who could offer a more neutral approach.

Do not remove the mortal remains of Franco and Primo de Rivera to remove the image of the site as a fascist mausoleum, since it is a demand of only a small minority# and it would create a huge controversy and a new problem: what to do with the remains.

Consider, if there is enough social approval, the secularisation of the site

4. CONCLUSIONS

This site is a symbolic bomb that should be managed with a lot of care to avoid polemic. Now, this is not an excuse to avoid the necessary changes in its management. On the contrary, some kind of political courage is required to carry out some of the recommended actions as they expose a painful part of the Spanish recent history.

Other countries have gone through that. Germany’s attitude toward Nazism after the 2nd World War is a good example of how to give a honest look to one’s past. Also in Germany the GDR regime has been scrutinised and its secret files have been opened to the public#. Romania has recently done the same. And a museum in Soghetu Marmatiei#, Northern Romania exposes the insights of the communist regime.

It is not acceptable that a democratic country is incapable of offering any interpretation to one of its most important heritage sites. But any interpretation is obviously not enough. The interpretation should be agreed by national and international historians. Such interpretation should aim to contribute to a common and more informed vision of the Spain’s recent past while drawing the country together.

All this does not seem to be easy but is, definitely, worth it.

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES

Barcala, D., 2010. El Gobierno censa los restos del Valle de los Caídos. Público. Available at: http://www.publico.es/espana/302344/gobierno/censa/restos/valle/caidos [Accedido Abril 17, 2010].

Brincat, L., 2005. Need for international condemnation of the Franco regime. Available at: http://assembly.coe.int/main.asp?Link=/documents/workingdocs/doc05/edoc10737.htm.

Cape Town, 2002. The Cape Town Declaration for Responsible Tourism. Available at: http://www.icrtourism.org/Capetown.shtml [Accedido Abril 16, 2010].

Casanova, J., 2007. El Valle de Franco. EL PAÍS. Available at: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/opinion/Valle/Franco/elpepiopi/20071120elpepiopi_12/Tes [Accedido Abril 16, 2010].

Decreto Valle de los Caídos, 1940. Decreto de 1 de abril de 1940, disponiendo se alcen Basílica, Monasterio y Cuartel de Juventudes, en la finca situada en las vertientes de la Sierra de Guadarrama (El Escorial), conocida por Cuelgamuros, para perpetuar la memoria de los caídos de nuestra gloriosa Cruzada. Available at: http://www.generalisimofranco.com/valle_caidos/02_decreto.htm.

Duncan, L., 2000. Gazing on communism: heritage tourism and post-communist identities in
Germany, Hungary and Romania. Tourism Geographies, 2(2), 157.

EFE, 2008. Guardia Civil impide entrada Valle Caídos personas con simbología falangista – Qué.es. Available at: http://www.que.es/ultimas-noticias/sucesos/200811161357-guardia-civil-impide-entrada-valle.html [Accedido Abril 15, 2010].

Halper, K., 2005. La Memoria Es Vaga, Available at: http://www.katiehalper.com/film.

Junquera, 2010. 33.832 personas están enterradas con Franco en la mayor fosa común · ELPAÍS.com. El País. Available at: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/espana/33832/personas/estan/enterradas/Franco/mayor/fosa/comun/elpepuesp/20100327elpepinac_12/Tes [Accedido Abril 15, 2010].

Ley de Memoria Histórica, 2007. LEY 52/2007, de 26 de diciembre, por la que se reconocen y amplían derechos y se establecen medidas en favor de quienes padecieron persecución o violencia durante la guerra civil y la dictadura. Available at: http://leymemoria.mjusticia.es/paginas/es/ley_memoria.html.

N.T., 2009. El Valle de los Caídos no volverá a celebrar los funerales de Franco. Available at: http://www.elplural.com/macrovida/detail.php?id=38001 [Accedido Abril 16, 2010].

Preston, P, 2005. Franco caudillo de España, Barcelona: Ed. RBA Coleccionable.

Tremlett, G., 2008. Judge orders exhumations from Franco basilica. The Guardian, Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/08/spain-world-news.

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