Resurrecting Franco

Spain's political leaders are dusting off the old dictator as a panto villain to distract an increasingly disgruntled public.

Three decades after his far from untimely passing, Spaniards dust off their memories of former dictator Francisco Franco. But this time he’s coming back as a panto villain, in hopes of drawing a torrent of boos and hisses to distract a public that is becoming increasingly critical of Spain’s ruling leftists.

There’s something stirring inside the tomb, and a whiff of nastiness sours the air. Should we fear the return of the undead - or is it a case of Resurrection Men digging up a corpse for their own nefarious purposes? The question is one that bears asking as Spain prepares for the thirtieth anniversary, on 20 November, of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s death - after 39 years as Head of State, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and caudillo de España by the grace of God, to go by his official titles.

Prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero may actually welcome the anniversary as a pretext for convincing people (including a disgruntled segment of his own Socialist Party) that no matter how much of a muddle he may get the country into, things could actually be a good deal worse, as indeed they were under a dictatorship still alive in the memories of many Spaniards. The more fuss made over Franco, the more emphatically the point gets driven home.

Not that we need worry about generals plotting to reinstate archaic political arrangements meant to ensure that the caudillo kept on calling the shots for as long as he lasted, or Parkinson’s spasms of thuggery from residues of the far right. Zapatero should only be so lucky. With its spoof news bulletin ‘Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead’, the satirical American TV show Saturday Night Live not only enriched the repertory of catchphrases, but also anticipated most Spaniards’ coolly dismissive final word on the squeaky-voiced, ruthless little man whose obsessive notions of socio-political rectitude and national destiny had circumscribed their lives.

Barely a decade after his death, relics and remnants of the Spain that Franco thought he had left ‘securely tied down’ were flooding the flea markets in cities convulsed by hedonistic self-indulgence - as people played catch-up on previous taboos and no-go areas long forbidden to them by a regime that had implemented the moral doctrine of the Catholic Church as state policy. As the British novelist Anthony Burgess observed on a 1985 visit to Barcelona, ‘to the young, Franco has the same kind of reality as Snow White’s stepmother’.

That began to change in the decade leading up to Zapatero’s upset victory in the March 2004 elections, a few days after Islamist terror attacks killed 192 people in Madrid. Two things had happened by then. The number of people who actually lived through the fighting of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, and the period of postwar hardship and repression, had fallen off to the point where it became possible to circulate a simplistic and self-serving fable of good and bad guys. Despite their scant regard for what no-friend-of-Franco reporter Martha Gellhorn termed ‘all that objectivity shit’, these versions still have one drawback: the good guys lost.

In today’s culture, though, being losers makes them victims and legitimises them, allowing the Socialists to peddle a snake-oil version of history that makes them out to be the true heirs of Republican Spain and demonises the opposition Popular Party as spawn of the rebels that killed innocent people in the process of toppling a legitimately constituted government. The victims’ list includes Zapatero’s own grandfather, an Army captain who refused to join Franco’s uprising.

Socialist-controlled regional and municipal governments have been sponsoring so-called ‘Historical Memory Recovery Associations’, which search for clandestine Civil War graves and lobby until every bone found in them has been identified by expensive forensic work. This seems an odd cause in a country where graveyard niches in Catholic cemeteries are routinely emptied out after 30 years occupancy. The tomb raiders ran into a major problem when the family of poet, gay martyr and republican sympathiser Federico García Lorca refused to allow his exhumation, though it meant going against the relatives of the other people who were shot and buried along with him.

Then last March, Zapatero’s boys pulled down Franco’s last remaining statue in Madrid, an equestrian monument outside the Nuevos Ministerios complex. They did it in the middle of the night, supposedly to avoid traffic tangles, though the timing gave rise to comments unfavourably comparing Zapatero’s masculine appurtenances to those on the underside of Franco’s horse. It happened the same night Zapatero was attending a ninetieth birthday bash for Santiago Carrillo, the veteran Communist leader whose involvement in the worst of the Republican violence, the execution of over 2,000 ‘potentially disloyal’ junior army officers at Paracuellos de Jarama, has been solidly established. Even former Socialist premier Felipe Gonzalez was moved to remark that ‘if unseating Franco from his horse is such a worthy deed, too bad they didn’t muster the courage to do it while he was still alive’.

Emboldened by victory, the Socialists and their followers have also been casting about for a legal way to get Spain’s courts and military tribunals to annul all sentences handed out during the war and its immediate aftermath, when Franco executed at least 30,000 people deemed to be his enemies though they no longer represented a threat to the regime, right through to anarchist bank robber Salvador Puig Antich, who was garrotted for killing a policeman in 1974, a year before Franco went to his reward.

The problem is that proponents blithely overlook the fact that Spain’s court system has been borderline dysfunctional for as long as anyone can remember, clogged with paperwork and an immense backlog of pending cases. Moreover, the criminal code is firm about insisting new evidence must come to light before cases can be retried or sentences be revised.

Meanwhile, op-ed pieces have also started to appear calling for the dismantling of the Valley of the Fallen, the grandiose monument Franco had built supposedly to commemorate the lives lost on both sides of the Civil War. Many of those who did the digging were prisoners of war offered a reduction in their sentences for ‘volunteering’. After 19 years, the world’s largest free-standing cross loomed 150 metres above a pleasant valley in the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid - still an imposing sight. But that impression changes after you enter the tunnel-like basilica hewn deep into an outcropping of granite. Here is where Franco is buried along with José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falangist Party, whose politics, let it be said, Franco never had much use for, despite the ‘Fascist’ epithet attached to him by his opponents.

It is claimed that 40,000 war dead from both sides are interred with them in the Valley, the only requirements for admission their having been Spanish and Catholic. But it is hard to square that with the predominant symbolism of the basilica itself. The statuary and friezes in particular are hardcore fascist kitsch with obvious bellicose overtones. Clearly, Franco ordered up a monument to his own victory, and not a tableau attesting to the horrors of war. It’s likely that the inclusion of Republicans came about only because the Church pressured the regime into paying last-minute lip-service to reconciliation. But the Valley of the Fallen ranks number three on the National Heritage’s list of most-visited monuments, attracting 407,000 visitors last year. Some make reservations years in advance to get married at the on-site Dominican monastery that trains and educates youngsters for Spain’s premier boys’ choir.

And yes, there are fresh flowers every week on the two tombs and yes, on 20 November,  journalists will be counting heads to see how many die-hards show up for the Franco memorial mass. But does that mean the place should be shut down, or ‘reconverted’ into a holocaust-museum-type ‘Centre for the Study for the Horrors of the Franco Regime’, as some lawmakers have proposed? Ah, wouldn’t that be a finger in the dead general’s eye! The interactive computer simulation of execution by garrotte is sure to pack them in!

I’m betting that it’s going to happen and that Spaniards will hear about it on or about the 20 November anniversary date, when ‘Viva Franco’ graffiti gets spray-painted around town. Zapatero will come out with some great plan for the symbolic reconversion of the Valley of the Fallen - it’s too good a chance to pass up.

For Zapatero has been having a tough time of it of late. Influential members in his own party are upset by his apparent willingness to let the Catalonian regional parliament proclaim their right to ‘nationhood’ and lay the statutory groundwork for de facto separation from the rest of Spain. Police say the Basque terror group ETA may be organising a big-ticket attack for some time before Christmas to improve its bargaining position in peace talks the Spanish government claims to know nothing about. Meanwhile, would-be immigrants crash their way into Europe through Spain’s North African enclaves, making Zapatero look not only ineffectual but positively inert.

What to do? He has already played and overplayed the Bush-bashing card, and the bill legalising gay marriage succeeded in getting the opposition all worked up, while he strutted up and down the politically correct highground. That’s why I suspect that Zapatero is counting on buying some more time by mounting an anniversary assault on the Valley of the Fallen. It should be an easy victory for the government that defeated a copper statue, and most importantly of all, will allow his side to claim to have won the last battle of the Spanish Civil War.

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based journalist.

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