El Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) is a controversial case study, and the Spanish country continues to struggle to come to terms with the memories at the site. Ordered in 1940 by general and dictator Francisco Franco (the Head of State and Government of Spain), the memorial and monument was constructed to pay tribute to those that passed away during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).5 Franco’s fascist troops eventually won the war, and the dictatorship ended after Franco’s death from heart failure in 1975. The monument arose at the time Franco abolished the Second Spanish Republic’s constitution in 1939, initiating freedom of speech, introducing women’s right to vote, granting divorce, and establishing secular education for Spanish citizens.6 The dictatorship forced Catholic, Falangist, and nationalist motivations that work its way in the design of El Valle de los Caídos. In 1940, Franco announced, “The dimension of our Crusade, the heroic sacrifices involved in the victory and the far-reaching significance that this epic has had for the future of Spain cannot be perpetuated with the simple monuments with which the outstanding events of our history and the glorious deeds of her sons are often commemorated in towns and villages. The stones that are to be erected must have the grandeur of the monuments of old, which defy time and oblivion.”9
1 — Silent Walls (Link)
STORIES OF THOSE AT EL VALLE DE LOS Caídos
Manuel Lapeña Altabas
Manuel Lapeña Altabas was executed by Franco’s forces in 1936 and buried at the fringes of the cemetery in Calatayud, where his body had been exhumed, years later, without consent from their relatives, and brought to El Valle de los Caídos.
Antonio Lapeña Altabas
Antonio Lapeña Altabas was a blacksmith who was also executed by Franco’s forces in 1936 alongside his brother Manuel Lapeña. His body was dug up many years later and reburied in El Valle de los Caídos without the families’ knowledge or consent.
Valerico Canales was shot by Fascist sympathizers of Franco in August 1936, a month after Franco and other officers staged a military coup that turned into a three-year civil war. His body was moved to El Valle de los Caídos but is unidentified at the mausoleum. “If we really want to overcome the wounds of our civil war and build a more educated society and more profound Spanish democracy, we have a huge workload left before us, which certainly includes giving every victim a proper burial,” stated the grandson of Mr. Canales.10
we have a huge workload left before us, which certainly includes giving every victim a proper burial.
Vitorino Canales was killed in January 1937, while fighting in Franco’s army. He was buried in a military cemetery in Griñón. In 1968, Franco’s regime transferred the remains of about 3,000 soldiers from Griñón to El Valle de los Caídos, including the body of Vitorino. Exclaimed the grandson of Mr. Canales:
My family spent years living with the rumor that my father had been shot, but with no idea where and with my mother simply crying whenever his name was mentioned. We knew Vitorino because his name got engraved on the facade of our village church, on a plaque for those who had fallen for God and Spain. So we knew he had died for Franco, but people were just too afraid to ask exactly how.10
my father had been shot, but with no idea where and with my mother simply crying whenever his name was mentioned.
1940 2 — Spanish convicts (Link)
THE CONSTRUCTION PHASE
3 — Diagram of the connotations of the monument
The Spanish Civil War begins. Generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco launched an uprising aimed at overthrowing the country’s democratically elected republic.
The Republican stronghold of Guernica was bombed to ruin in 1937; the assault was carried out at Franco’s request by warplanes that Hitler and Mussolini had dispatched. Thousands of volunteers also went to Spain to fight on the side of democracy, including nearly 3,000 Americans.
Franco declared victory on 1 april 1939.
The Spanish Civil War ends. Following internal conflict between Republican factions in Madrid in the same month, Franco entered the capital and declared victory on 1 April 1939.
The location selected for the study is at the Nava cliff in the Sierra Guadarrama, northwest of Madrid, Spain. Its architecture, put together by a workforce that was made up of roughly 40,000 convicts and political prisoners, house 33,847 bodies exhumed from mass graves, mainly without the permission of the deceased’s families.2 There are bodies from both the Nationalist and Republican sides, whose bones were dug up from cemeteries throughout Spain and reburied in El Valle de los Caídos in an attempt at reconciliation. Although 21,000 sets of remains were taken there with the knowledge and permission of the families – and those from the Nationalist side were marked with names and surnames – the other remains arrived in boxes explaining only how many bodies they contained and which town they were from.13
On top of that, water has flooded into the floors and walls of the mausoleum’s crypts for many years, destroying the boxes and mixing up the bones.13 “There are thousands of boxes in each chapel, and they’re stacked from floor to ceiling, like shoeboxes,” says Francisco Etxeberria, a leading forensic anthropologist who examined the remains of Cervantes.13 “You have to drill into the walls – which are brick, concrete and cement – to open up a hole. All you can see are the boxes. Nothing else.”13
A 150-meter tall cross sits atop a Benedictine basilica under which the dictator rested from 1975 to 2019.
Many perished fighting for Franco, but others fought against the dictator, including Republican prisoners of the Spanish war who died while working on the construction of El Valle de los Caídos. A 150-meter tall cross sits atop a Benedictine basilica under which the dictator rested from 1975 to 2019.1 This cross has long acted as a symbol for those who rue the end of Francoism and its association with National Catholicism. It means that, says Fernando Martínez, a historian who was brought in as secretary of state for democratic memory last year, the monument must be turned into a place of solemn remembrance where visitors can come to learn about everything El Valle de los Caídos was meant to celebrate and symbolise. “That’s the best antidote to the totalitarian outbreaks that are happening at the moment. It’s like visiting a Nazi extermination camp – when you leave, you do so with the firm determination that these things should never happen again.”13
1960 4 — Monument in place (Link)
The construction of El Valle de los Caídos begins.
The construction of El Valle de los Caídos ends.
El Valle de los Caídos is inaugurated and is now open to the public. The cost of the construction totalled 1,159 million pesetas, funded through national lottery draws and donations.7
1980 5 — Franco and the monument (Link)
The underground crypt at El Valle de los Caídos becomes known as a basilica.
Thousands of remains were exhumed from cemeteries around Spain and transferred to El Valle de los Caídos without the consent of the families, as part of an initiative to make the site a cemetery for victims of the civil war.
ARCHITECTURE OF MEMORY
6 — Video montage of Francisco Franco’s inauguration speech (Link)
7 - The holy cross (Link)
Franco passes away and is buried at El Valle de los Caídos. The Transition from the Spanish government being a fascist government to a democratic one begins.
The Pact of Forgetting is enacted. The pact, under the Amnesty Law, grants legal forgiveness for the crimes during the Spanish dictatorship with hopes of moving forward and forgetting the past.
Even after Franco’s death, there were reminders of the dictatorship throughout the Spanish country. Spain started its first general election in 1977, and an agreement known as Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) passed, granting forgiveness for the crimes during the Spanish dictatorship with hopes of moving forward and forgetting the past.3 Headed by the government of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the pact ended when Congress approved The Historical Memory Law in October 2007.1 The Historical Memory Law acknowledges and provides aid to the victims of the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship, as well as to their family; rallies support for the tracking, recognition, and exhumation of missing persons; and condemns the Francoist dictatorship.1 The law also condemns the commemoration of political events at El Valle de los Caídos, most notably by the far right groups celebrating the dictator on November 20, the day of his passing.2 These events have ended since October 2019 due to the exhumation of Franco’s body from the monument.3 From September 2020, the Spanish Cabinet is set to pass the Democratic Memory Bill. Expanding from the Historical Memory Law, the Democratic Memory Bill urges to shut down organizations that honor Franco’s memory, such as the National Francisco Franco Foundation – a foundation set up by sympathizers in 1976 to glorify the dictator. The bill also issues provisions for an office for democratic memory, a ban on groups that glorify the Franco regime, a “redefinition” of El Valle de los Caídos, and a DNA bank for the exhumation of the bodies at El Valle de los Caídos. The government says the proposed law will help “encourage a shared discussion based on the defence of peace, on pluralism and on broadening human rights and constitutional freedoms.”13 Some, on the other hand, choose not to talk or listen.
In 1977, Spain celebrated its first free general election, and an agreement known as Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) passed, granting legal forgiveness for the crimes during the Spanish dictatorship with hopes of moving forward and forgetting the past.
Spain’s conservative People’s Party (PP) – the descendant of an alliance founded by former Francoist leaders – has opposed for some time efforts to look into the past, urging that the Pact of Forgetting that started Spain’s return to democracy should be untouched and respected. The PP’s Mariano Rajoy, who was prime minister from 2011 to 2018, wanted to cut Spain’s historical memory budget after his administration inherited the 2007 law. This month, Pablo Casado, who took over Rajoy’s position as PP leader, stood in a bullring in Valencia and promised to repeal the new legislation, saying that the writing served only to “dig up grudges.”13 Fernando Martínez does not have the capacity to listen to complaints. At the moment, a team of leading forensic professionals arrange to enter El Valle de los Caídos to start looking for the bodies of 77 of the thousands of people whose remains were reburied there alongside Franco without their families’ consent; Martínez exclaims the current bill is both urgent and important.13 “There’s a fundamental point here, which is that these sorts of things say a lot about a democracy,” he says. “And, obviously, this country has to live up to the same standards as its neighbours in western Europe who have already resolved these questions. All this – recovering the bodies and redefining the valley – strengthens democracy. You could say it’s all a bit late, but it has to be done.”13
La Movida Madrileña begins. This period was a countercultural movement that took place mainly in Madrid during the Spanish transition after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. The movement coincided with economic growth in Spain and the emergence of a new Spanish identity.
The Transition from the Spanish government being a fascist government to a democratic one ends.
La Movida Madrileña ends.
2020 8 — Exhumation (Link)
The government institutes the removal of Francoist symbols.
The Historical Memory Law is enacted.
Actions prompting to remove fascist symbols in Spain began with Judge Baltasar Garzón.
The allegations, supported by reports on structures affected by visible humidity and leaks, prompted the closing of the memorial in 2009.
REMOVING FASCIST SYMBOLS
In November 2010, citing safety reasons, the Zapatero government closed down the Basilica for the Mass.
On 29 November 2011 the Expert Commission for the Future of the Valley of the Fallen, formed by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero on 27 May 2011 under the Historical Memory Law, charged to give advice for converting El Valle de los Caídos to a “memory centre that dignifies and rehabilitates the victims of the Civil War and the subsequent Franco regime.”2
Fascist symbols around Spain are taken down by a collective effort from the Spanish government to move forward as a democratic state.
The Silence of Others is released and gains worldwide acclaim. The film reveals the epic struggle of victims of Spain’s 40-year dictatorship under General Franco, as they organize an international lawsuit and fight the Pact of Forgetting. The film offers a tale about fascism and the dangers of forgetting the past, and speaks powerfully to issues of transitional justice and universal jurisdiction.
Franco’s body is removed from El Valle de los Caídos.
The Democratic Memory Bill is written.
El Valle de los Caídos is at the forefront of an ethical dispute. To remove the symbols of Franco’s dictatorship from Madrid, such as street names, plaques, and monuments, the municipality, organized by the Mayor Manuela Carmena, created the “Historical Memory Commission.”1 In May 2016, after the decisions made in October 2008 by Judge Baltasar Garzón, who instructed the exhumation of nineteen graves, Judge Jose Manuel Delgado approved the exhumation of Antonio Ramiro and Manuel Lapeña from El Valle de los Caídos.1
In 1959, their bodies were exhumed, without consent from their family, and reburied at El Valle de los Caídos.12
BECOMING A PLACE FOR HISTORICAL MEMORY
The Lapeña family members were executed by the dictator’s troops in 1936 and buried at the cemetery in Calatayud—a town southwest of Zaragoza. In 1959, their bodies were exhumed, without consent from their family, and reburied at El Valle de los Caídos.12 Manuel Lapeña, whose father and uncle were killed by Franco’s forces, passed away last month at the age of 97. His family are crestfallen and upset that he did not live to see the bodies brought back from El Valle de los Caídos and reburied in their home village of Villarroya de la Sierra. “I’ll believe it all when I see it with my own eyes,” says Manuel’s daughter, Purificación.13 “We’re really fed up, but the thing is that we’re talking about people now who are really old – like my dad was. They’re the last ones who actually knew the people [who were reburied in the valley] and they’re disappearing, one by one.”13 The anger is shared by Emilio Silva, the president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH), a human rights group that has put decades to exhuming mass graves and campaigning for justice for Franco’s victims.13 For Silva and many of his co-workers in the ARMH – which is funding and leading the excavations in Guadalajara – the draft bill does not provide enough information when it comes to justice and amends. “They’re drawing up a census of victims but there’s no list of executioners,” he says.13 “And nowhere in the draft law’s pages is there a mention of the Catholic church, which was one of the biggest instruments of the repression. The law glosses over things; it’s designed not to bother anyone. That’s a problem. A proper memory law should upset the executioners,” he adds.13 There have also since been disagreements between Patrimonio Nacional (the National Heritage Agency owning the monument) and the community of Benedictine monks who live in the Santa Cruz abbey in the monument.
El Valle de los Caídos also has been a tourist attraction in Madrid. Tourists photograph the monument without knowing that it is a symbol of the victory of fascism. Patrimonio Nacional urges silence inside the basilica, and rejects the implementation of brochures, plaques, or an information center.1 The construction and maintenance of the monument, which continues to create tensions in Spanish society, brings to light the culture supported by the dictator.4
There have been many proposals for the transformation of El Valle de los Caídos—from making it a space for “reconciliation” to creating a study center for historical memory.2
9 — Construction of the structure (Link)
the future of the monument
10 — A plaque honors one of the victims of Franco’s regime (Link)
Conversations over the preservation and maintenance of El Valle de los Caídos bring up further issues. The monument, constructed between 1940 and 1959, is the notable work of Franquista architecture. The nature of the monument continues to haunt Spanish life, so there is a strong need for a construction of historical memory. While the exhumations – the accumulation of many legal battles – are family matters, the forensic anthropologist believes that they could have a larger impact. “I always think things like this help broaden the conversation about human rights,” says Francisco Etxeberria, leading forensic anthropologist.13 “Young people are already being taught about human rights values; we never had that kind of training and education about human rights when I was young. This shows that if things happen, there are things that can be done on behalf of those who suffered.”13
El Valle de los Caídos serves a fascist ideology, and continues its legacy of repression.
The remains of the victims would be a part of a monument that commemorates and continues their silence. Roughly twelve thousand bodies remain nameless.11 Here, El Valle de los Caídos serves a fascist ideology, and continues its legacy of repression. However, families of the relatives resting at the monument now hope that Franco’s exhumation will help their own quest to identify and rebury their loved ones. There is a demand for recontextualizing the monument that is sensitive and respectful for the future generations.2 The idea of forgetting what happened is impossible. Stated Jesús Ropero, who has one of his relatives at El Valle de los Caídos, “This is a story that needs to be told like any other, and we need to find out as much as we can.”13 He goes on, “People sometimes say that this is about opening up old wounds but I think it’s just the opposite. People feel better when they know the history and have their relatives back. I think that heals wounds.”13 Discussions continue to come up with future plans of the monument, work against the silence, and create a design for the memories.
The conversation surrounding the memories at El Valle de los Caídos requires the creation of a new symbolic, cultural, political, and legal framework that defines the architecture over time. To make this happen, the tourism at the monument should be dismantled as the site is considered a mass grave. Visitors to the monument should soley pay tribute to those who have died in the Spanish Civil War. Furthermore, there should be a site on El Valle de los Caídos for identifying and naming those who have remained unnamed at the monument.
1 - Verzier, M. O. (2018, January 23). Silent Walls: The Architecture of Historical Memory in Spain. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from (Link)
2 - Solé, Q. (2017, April). The Valley of the Fallen: A new El Escorial for Spain. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from (Link)
3 - O’Mahony, J. (2020, June 28). Valley of the Fallen. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from (Link)
4 - Rodríguez-Pina, G. (2017, February 28). 7 propuestas fallidas sobre qué hacer con los restos de Franco y el Valle de los Caídos. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from (Link)
5 - Cátedra Memoria Histórica del s.XX, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, from (Link)
6 - BOE (BOE Official State Gazette) (May 28, 2011). Bulletin nº 127. Pg, 53148 to 53153, Department: Ministerio de la Presidencia, from (Link)
7 - Luis Gómez, “La mayor fosa común de España,” El País, (September 21, 2008), accessed December 29, 2020, from (Link)
8 - Cué, Carlos, “Spain drafts bill against remaining legacy of Franco era,” El País, (September 15, 2020), accessed December 28, 2020, from (Link)
9 - BOE (BOE Official State Gazette) April 2, 1940. Bulletin nº 93. Pg, 2240, Department: Presidencia del Gobierno. Translated by the author, from (Link)
10 - Minder, Raphael, “About to Exhume Franco, Spain Faces 33,000 Others Buried With Him,” The New York Times, (2019, October 19). Retrieved December 30, 2020. Print.
11 - Jones, Sam, “Spain to begin civil war exhumations at Valley of the Fallen,” (2018, April 23). (Link)
12 - Palmer, Alex, “The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War,” Smithsonian Magazine, (2018, August). (Link)
13 - Jones, Sam, “Old wounds are exposed as Spain finally brings up the bodies of Franco’s victims,” The Guardian, (2021, October 9). Retrieved October 13, 2021. (Link)