Unlike his allies Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco survived World War II, retaining his dictatorial grip on Spain for another 30 years. Even when he died, he avoided the fate of his fellow despots. Hitler's body was likely incinerated outside his bunker; Mussolini's corpse swung from a gas-station awning in Milan; but Franco still lies in a grand tomb funded and carefully maintained by the country he subjugated. On Sunday, the 30th anniversary of his death, several thousand Franco supporters will make their annual journey to the Valley of the Fallen, some 50 km northwest of Madrid, where a colossal basilica is carved into the craggy Guadarrama Mountains. There, they will lay wreaths and offer fascist salutes, as they do every year. But this time, their pilgrimage will take place in a country that is ready to confront the dark chapter of its dictatorship and perhaps finally put to rest the legacy of Francisco Franco.
After igniting a civil war in 1936 when he led a coup against Spain's democratically elected government, Franco and his Nationalist forces aided by Germany and Italy finally prevailed in 1939. For the next 36 years, Franco ruled the country; he sent political prisoners to concentration camps and homosexuals to mental asylums, and women were not allowed to work without the permission of their husbands or fathers. Speaking out for democracy or against the regime was hazardous to your health.
Even after Franco's death in 1975, parties across the political spectrum maintained a "pact of silence" about the Civil War and decades of dictatorship to ensure, they said, a peaceful transition to representative government. But after watching their democracy survive tests ranging from the legalization of divorce to the Madrid bombings, Spaniards are ready to break that silence. And the Valley of the Fallen is one of the places where their voices echo loudest. "The 'pact of silence' was necessary for the transition to democracy," says José María Pedreño, president of Forum for Memory, an organization dedicated to identifying killed or missing opponents of Franco. "But it meant that our democracy was fundamentally flawed, resting on the impunity of Franco's regime. It had to change."
Commissioned by and with design input from Franco, the Valley of the Fallen was built at least in part through the forced labor of political prisoners. Soldiers from both sides of Spain's Civil War Franco's Nationalists and the defeated Republicans are interred there, but only Francoists treat the site as a shrine. Last November, the Catalan Green party (icv) suggested that the basilica be transformed into a "center for interpretation" to inform visitors about the repression and suffering inflicted by Franco's regime. "It's not normal for a democratic society to have failed to resolve this issue," says icv vice president Jaume Bosch. "Auschwitz has been converted into a learning center; Argentina has turned its torture chambers into places for explanation. Too many years have passed for us simply to leave the Valley as the Franco regime left it." Since the icv floated the idea, more than 30 human-rights groups have expressed support for it.