With right-wing nationalism on the rise, Franco's legacy in Spain should be a warning to the rest of Europe

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By Jessica Jones ,  The i

A scrawl of graffiti. That was what sent historian Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz to a military court in 1948.

The student, part of an anti-Franco student organisation, was sentenced to six years in a labour camp and put to work on the construction of the Valley of the Fallen, what would become the final resting place of Francisco Franco.

'It is incomprehensible that a democratic state makes the victims of a dictatorship pay for the tomb of a dictator with their taxes'

On Tuesday, Mr. Sánchez-Albornoz was back at university in Madrid overseeing the recreation of the graffiti – which read ‘Long live free university’ – 70 years later.

That same day 150 die-hard Franco supporters gathered at the Valley of the Fallen to lay flowers on the 43rd anniversary of his death. Femen protesters crashed a similar commemoration in Madrid on Sunday with “legal fascism, national shame” painted onto their chests, highlighting an uncomfortable fact: that the ghost of Franco continues to haunt Spain.

Now 92, Mr. Sánchez Albornoz, sporting a suit and cravat and with a keen sense of humour, remembers his incarceration and subsequent escape like it was yesterday.
Living in exile

“It was construction work mainly,” he said, describing building the monastery at the Valley of the Fallen. 

The escape was carried out in broad daylight on a Sunday when head counts were less frequent. He and fellow prisoner Manuel Lamana were driven to the French border by two American women, whose car, decked with an American flag, did not arouse suspicion at checkpoints. They crossed the French border and Mr. Sánchez-Albornoz lived in exile in Argentina and New York before returning to Spain in 1991. Of the 44 prisoners to escape, he and Lamana were the only ones never re-captured.

“I don’t think I was fearful because when you are in such a position you are not looking back… but are looking to the next step you have to perform to remain free,” he said.

The memorial was built by prisoners and its upkeep is paid for by the state. Many want it to be transformed into a site to remember the victims of both sides of the civil war. 

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In August, the Spanish government approved Franco’s exhumation, provoking fierce opposition from the dictator’s grandchildren, who took legal action and demanded he be buried in Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral. 

Leftist parties also recently proposed amendments to Spain’s 2007 Historical Memory Law that include appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Franco-era crimes.

'Remove symbols of Franco's victory'

Around 34,000 people from both sides of the Civil War are buried in the Valley of the Fallen, the majority never identified.

“In a democracy, there is no room for a monument of that sort,” Mr. Sánchez-Albornoz said.

“It’s a shame that it has been there for 43 years – ideologically, but also in comparison with other countries in Europe. There is no burial monument for Hitler or Mussolini,” he said.

“Some say it should be destroyed, some say it should be transformed into a sort of museum, let’s think about that after,” he said. “I think the first step is to take out Franco and all the symbols of his victory.” 

“I hope it happens tomorrow,” he says, laughing, when asked if he would like to see the Valley of the Fallen destroyed.
National brain-washing

But why do some people remain devoted to the memory of the late dictator?

“During the near forty years of his dictatorship, control of the media and the education system facilitated a national brain-washing,” said historian Paul Preston, author of The Spanish Civil War.

“This meant that there were two or more generations of Spaniards brought up to believe that Franco was a providential figure who had saved the nation from the clutches of Bolshevism. Under democracy, there was free speech and those ideas survived.”

Far-right group Falange members perform the fascist salute during a demonstration marking the anniversary of the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in Madrid on November 18, 2018.

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Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has dedicated the past 18 years to helping families recover the bodies of their loved ones lost during the Spanish Civil War. His mission is personal: Silva found the body of his own grandfather in 2000.

“The personal is also political,” he said. “It is incomprehensible that a democratic state makes the victims of a dictatorship pay for the tomb of a dictator with their taxes."

“I think it should be a museum that tells the stories of those who built it.”
Franco's continued grip on Spanish culture

'Two or more generations of Spaniards were brought up to believe that Franco was a providential figure who had saved the nation'

At the recreation of Sánchez-Albornoz’s graffiti this week, student Carmen Romero, 23, said when she told her grandmother she wanted to study Political Science, she replied “no, it’s dangerous”. Growing up under Franco, her grandmother had learned to fear anything ‘political’. 

This is the lasting legacy of Franco, who despite being dead over 40 years, still holds a grip over certain areas of Spanish politics and culture. But Mr Sánchez-Albornoz cites feminism and gay marriage as two examples of how Spanish society has transformed since the dictatorship. 

“There is hope in Spanish society. Now that has to be translated into the political sphere,” she said.