Franco controversy as Spain exhumes remains of former fascist dictator from mausoleum

The government-ordered, closed-door operation satisfied a decades-old desire of many in Spain who considered the mausoleum that Franco built an affront to the tens of thousands who died in Spain’s Civil War and his subsequent regime, and to Spain’s standing as a modern democratic state. After his coffin was extracted from under marble slabs and granite, a brief prayer was said in line with a request from Franco’s family.

The dictator’s body was then carried out of the mausoleum and flown by helicopter to Mingorrubio cemetery, where his wife is buried, 35 miles away.

In a bid to guarantee privacy and avoid the actual exhumation operation being videoed and posted on social media, the government banned cameras and mobile phones among the 22 Franco family members, government authorities and workers allowed into the mausoleum.

Fearing disturbances, the government banned a demonstration against the exhumation by Franco supporters at the Mingorrubio cemetery although some 400 people, some waving Franco-era flags and symbols and chanting “Viva Franco”, gathered near the cemetery while police looked on.

Macarena Martinez Bordiu, a distant relative of the dictator, said she felt “outraged” with what was happening and accused the government of “desecrating a tomb”.

Ex-Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told Spanish national television that the exhumation “has great significance for our democracy”. He added: “Today our democracy is more perfect.”

Franco ruled Spain between 1939 and 1975, after he and other officers led a military insurrection against the Spanish democratic government in 1936, a move that started a three-year civil war.

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A staunch Catholic, he viewed the war and ensuing dictatorship as something of a religious crusade against anarchist, leftist and secular tendencies in Spain.

His authoritarian rule, along with a profoundly conservative Catholic Church, ensured that Spain remained virtually isolated from political, industrial and cultural developments in Europe for nearly four decades.

The country returned to democracy three years after his death but his legacy and his place in Spanish political history still sparks rancour and passion.


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For many years, thousands of people commemorated the anniversary of his death on November 20 1975 in Madrid’s central Plaza de Oriente esplanade and at the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum outside the capital.

And although the dictator’s popularity has waned immensely, the exhumation has been criticised by Franco’s relatives, Spain’s three main right-wing parties and some members of the Catholic Church for opening old political wounds.

The exhumation was finally authorised by the Supreme Court in September when it dismissed a legal bid by Franco’s family to stop it.

Speaking to last year, professor Paul Preston of the London School of Economics told “This has been a burning issue since the death of Franco in 1975 – the Valle de los Caídos, where the dictator’s body is buried, was his gigantic monument built by the slave labour of Republican prisoners – leaving Spain as the only European country where the Dictator is celebrated.

“There are no monuments to Hitler in Germany or Austria, or to Mussolini in Italy.

“It is still a place of pilgrimage for his devotees.

“Unlike Hitler and Mussolini who were overthrown by foreign armies, Franco survived for thirty years after 1945.

“From the late 1930s until 1975, he carried out a programme of national brain-washing through his control of the media and the education backed up by an apparatus of terror.

“That ensured that two generations were brought up to believe that he was a benefactor for Spain.

“When democracy was restored in 1977, there was no counter brain-washing and pro-Franco ideas continued to circulate.

“No government has done what Pedro Sanchez is proposing because of fears of a right-wing backlash.”

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