MADRID, Spain — We were having lunch recently at a sidewalk café in Madrid’s suburban Barajas district when the two dozen or so other diners stopped their conversations in mid-sentence and leaned forward in their chairs to hear a special government announcement broadcast on the café’s television set.
The TV report stated that plans had been finalized for the remains of Gen. Francisco Franco, who had ruled Spain for nearly 40 years until his death in late 1975 at the age of 82, to be exhumed from his elaborate marble and granite tomb in the grandiose Valley of the Fallen mausoleum outside Madrid and reburied in a family crypt in a nearby cemetery.
About half of our fellow diners applauded and clapped their approval when hearing the news. The others cursed and cried out, “No. No. No.” Franco, a career army officer who had adopted the title “El Caudillo” (The Leader) when he took control of the nation, is apparently just as controversial dead as when he was alive, Ludie and I discovered that day.
Seizing power from the ineffectual King Alfonso XIII, Franco, an authoritarian rightist and a group of likeminded army officers supported by wealthy landowners, industrialists and the Catholic Church, had turned Spain into a brutal, one-party dictatorship following the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, which left an estimated half-million dead, that had pitted the forces of Franco against a rag-tag army of anarchists and leftists (some of them communists) who wanted to reduce the power of the military, the church and other entrenched interests. Franco, supported by arms and money supplied by fellow fascists Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was the decisive winner of the three-year conflict and ruled Spain with an iron fist until he died 45 years ago of a heart attack.
After taking power, Franco began a campaign of torture, mass incarcerations and executions of his enemies. Opposition leaders were thrown into jail, demonstrations against his regime were prohibited and strict censorship of the press, motion pictures and the publishing industry was put into place. An example of this censorship related to the 1940 novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway, who had been a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and despised Franco. Not only was the book banned by Franco’s censors, but the 1943 motion picture of the same name, that starred Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, also was banned despite the fact that Cooper and Bergman had won Oscars in the 1944 Academy Awards for their roles in the film.
As for the exhumation of Franco’s corpse, the day-long operation, which was held a week later and carried live on Spanish television, showed his coffin being transported from the mausoleum by army helicopter to the civilian cemetery where he was buried next to the body of his wife, Carmen. The decision to move Franco’s body was made by Spain’s democratically-elected socialist government to placate millions of Spaniards who believe the mausoleum honoring the dictator insulted the thousands of people killed during the Civil War.
The massive shrine that glorified Franco was carved out of a mountainside by slave laborers who were convicts and political prisoners. Many of Franco’s victims are buried in unmarked graves in the mausoleum, and Spain’s prime minister said the exhumation “puts an end to a moral affront that is an exaltation of a dictator at or in a public place. The exhumation repairs a national infamy.” He also stated that efforts are now being made to “honor a long-made promise” to turn the mausoleum complex into a memorial for those killed during the Civil War and the government “will do its best to identify those in the unmarked graves.”
I also remembered that although Franco had accepted financial and military assistance from Hitler during the Civil War and World War II, he was romanced by the United States government at the end of World War II as the Cold War between the western democracies and the then-Soviet Union and its east European satellites began heating up. The U.S. signed a pact with Franco that permitted our military forces to use three Spanish air bases and a naval base (Rota) and presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford visited Franco in Madrid to thank him for the use of his bases and his anti-communist stance. No other leaders from other anti-communist, democratic nations set foot in Spain during this time, however.
Today, Spain is a full-fledged democracy, but there are clouds on the horizon. Angered by the influx into Spain by thousands of refugees from impoverished nations in the Middle East, North Africa and black Africa, far-right, racist political parties have been gaining votes in Spanish local and national elections as they have been in Germany and France. Although it is difficult to predict the future strength of these parties and if they will eventually be able to form governments in Spain and other European nations, it is a subject that will continue to be covered by the media here and abroad as alarm bells ring in democracies the world over.
David C. Henley, who has returned from Spain and the Balkans, is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle Standard.