Putting a stake through fascism as neo-fascism rises

The Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid, Spain. - Alex Kingsbury/Globe Staff
The Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid, Spain. – Alex Kingsbury/Globe Staff

Unruly crowds converged last weekend at Europe’s most formidable monument to fascism. They were Spaniards outraged by their government’s decision to remove the body of longtime dictator Francisco Franco from its crypt in a lugubrious basilica called Valley of the Fallen. Some of them defiantly raised their right arms in the fascist salute. They could not stop the removal of Franco’s body. Spain has decided to make an important break with the bloody past that he represents. With this act, Spain declares that fascism is dead in Europe. But is it?

Valley of the Fallen, built in part with the labor of political prisoners, is a giant mausoleum carved into a forested mountainside outside of Madrid. A 500-foot-high cross towers above it. For decades it has been a pilgrimage site for nostalgic fascists. Franco’s body lies in a tomb flanked by military chapels and guarded by statues of sword-wielding angels. The dictator who led a rebellion against the Spanish Republic in 1936, seized power after a three-year civil war, became Hitler’s ally in World War II, and harshly ruled Spain for four decades, has lain in the country’s most sacred spot since his death in 1975.

The bodies of 33,847 Spaniards who died in the civil war will remain interred at Valley of the Fallen. Without Franco, though, it will cease to be the Taj Mahal of dictators, a Church of the Holy Sepulcher for pilgrims seeking to commune with the spirit of fascism. In our xenophobic and chauvinistic era, this is an important moment for Spaniards and all Europeans

Spain began removing symbols of the Franco dictatorship from public buildings and spaces more than a decade ago. Not all Spaniards approve. Nationalist politicians still play to their right-wing base by indirectly saluting Franco and his legacy. Some Catholic leaders have defended Franco’s legacy and sought to prevent the removal of his body from Valley of the Fallen, which also serves as a church. Last month, however, a Socialist government came to power in Madrid. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has relentlessly pushed for the transfer of Franco’s body to a conventional cemetery. It is part of his campaign for “historical memory.” His government is establishing a “truth commission” to compile an official catalogue of Franco’s crimes. Organizations that exalt Franco’s memory have been banned. A museum is to be built around a wall in Valencia where Franco’s forces are said to have summarily executed 2,000 people. Prime Minister Sanchez announced his “historical memory” campaign at a speech in front of that wall.

“At the beginning they told us the wounds were too fresh,” he said. “After years went by, they said there was no point in disturbing forgotten history. First it was too soon, then it was too late. But a comfortable future cannot be built by ignoring an uncomfortable past.”

Spain’s difficult reckoning with the legacy of its civil war mirrors our own. In both Spain and the United States, symbols of the oppressive movement have been used in rallying cries for a return to former times. Confederate memorials in the United States are supposed to honor the sacrifices of long-dead warriors, but their true purpose has always been to intimidate African Americans. Letting Franco lie on one of the world’s most elaborate mausoleums plays a similar role. Valley of the Fallen masquerades as a tribute to all who fell in the civil war. In fact, it uses the corpse of the twentieth century’s longest-ruling fascist to glorify fascism itself.

By removing Franco’s tomb from ostentatious public view, Spain is telling the world that it no longer honors him or his cause. Three-quarters of a century had to pass before it could reach this point. Removal of Confederate symbols in the United States did not begin for a century and a half. That process is hardly complete, and racists who revere those symbols now have a sympathizer in the White House. While Spain moves resolutely to complete its break with a movement that preached brutal oppression, the United States seems ambivalent. This encourages some Americans to cling to the fantasy that the Confederate rebellion was a battle for states’ rights rather than slavery.

Moving Franco’s body from a place of worship to a normal cemetery symbolizes permanent rejection of fascism. In Spain, which has liberated itself from its past and become a deeply democratic state, that sentiment seems reasonable. In other parts of Europe the political climate feels different. As the pendulum swings against fascism in Spain, it is swinging the other way elsewhere. In Poland and Hungary, authoritarian rule is taking hold behind a façade of democracy. Some leaders of Italy’s new government openly admire Mussolini. The new vice-chancellor of Austria was once arrested for marching in a neo-Nazi parade. And while Franco’s body is being moved, that of another highly successful fascist, Ante Pavelić of Croatia, who directed the Holocaust in the Balkans, still rests in a Madrid cemetery — where his friend and ally Franco gave him a place of honor.

Removing Franco’s body may have come just in time. We like to believe that Europe has pronounced its final verdict on Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Pavelić. That may be premature. Removing the symbols of past fascist movements, as Spain is doing, is the obligation of any democracy. That alone, though, is not enough to counter the rise of neo-fascism in Europe and beyond.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer

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