By Tyler Goldberger, ’19

Now approximately eight weeks into my summer research position, I have had the unique opportunity to learn about historical memory from both an academic and personal perspective. While I would have heard news relating to historical memory in Spain, I would not have been able to converse and critically analyze decisions and projects of memory with Spaniards who have been impacted by Franquismo without having had this experience. I have been reminded about the importance difference between decisions of memory and decisions of memory that matter, decisions that actively work to change the current landscape of commemoration. It is with this key distinction that I have so deeply engaged with the recent debate regarding El Valle de los Caídos.

This memory site was first pursued by Francisco Franco early into his dictatorship to remember the victims of the Spanish Civil War. As often happens when history is constructed by the winners, this monument was originally meant to only recognize the Nationalist victims of the war, completely ignoring the over 114,000 victims of the Republican side at the hands of fascism. Eventually, it was agreed to construct this monument to honor lives lost from both sides of the war. Franco’s government took this compromise to the next level by physically removing Republican corpses from their graves and relocating them to the Valle without telling their families. Adding to this controversial pursuit of memory, after Franco died, it was agreed that he would be buried in this monument alongside the leader of the Falange (fascist rightist party founded in the 1930s), José Antonio Primo de Rivera. This representation only gets more complicated when learning that every single day, fresh flowers are placed on Franco’s grave, which sits in the center of this memorial site, and the funds that essentially honor the work of a dictator come from the public funds of today’s Spanish population.

Yes, the topic of Spanish historical memory is indeed very interesting. As referenced in a past post, the Socialist (PSOE) political party recently took over the government amidst political corruption. In the momentum of this political swing, the new president, Pedro Sánchez, declared that in a continued effort to raise awareness of the need of historical memory, the government will be removing Francisco Franco’s body from the Valle before the end of July. Initially, I was ecstatic about the news, thinking about just how big of a step it would be for Spain has a whole to recognize the need for increased efforts of historical memory. However, conversing with experts of historical memory here in Ponferrada has opened my eyes to the truth regarding this situation.

My reaction exemplified the reaction that was sought out by Sánchez in sharing this news with Spain. As such a large monument in Spain, the government has done a great job in attracting the headlines and media to claim this new political power as a righteous fighter for historical memory. However, those around me helped me to recognize that this step to change a monument so public, so central to Spanish identity only represents one step in a solution to right the wrong done by past governments. Firstly, Sánchez has committed to removing the body of Franco at night, demonstrating that this pivotal step in changing the script of memory here cannot be shared by families of victims of Franco’s work. Hiding such an important event represents Spain’s continued shame and its inability to truly confront its memory in a public, state-sponsored manner. How can memory be integrated into today’s society when its processes cannot be shared with the public?

News of removing Franco’s body from the Valle has not been supplemented with plans of how the space will be transformed to do its job in honoring the many victims of the Spanish Civil War. There are an estimated 33,287 bodies buried or re-buried under this structure, and there has not been a single mention of efforts to exhume these bodies or reconnect their identities with their families. There has not been a single mention regarding the largest cross that sits on top of the Valle, a symbol that heroicizes fascism and all Franco represented. There has not been a single mention of how the site will attempt to reconcile with the fact that it held Franco’s remains for so long. While Sánchez is introducing a large step in Spain’s journey towards historical memory, the lack of focus on the victims shows that the government did not make this decision with those who suffered in mind. Instead, the government is supporting a decision that will produce the headlines without producing results that intentionally honor the victims of Franco’s regime.

There are so many questions that remain regarding the memory and historic implications of El Valle de los Caídos. By only committing to the removal of Franco’s remains, the government has not understood the importance of remembering the victims instead of simply shifting the memory to recognize this site as “Franco’s old burial ground.” As of now, the government’s only real work to the people is saving a few public dollars on fresh flowers every day for a dictator who never deserved them in the first place.