Let’s Tune In To The EU’s Periphery: Spain Still Dealing With Fascist Past

Nicholas Zalewski
Valley of Cuelgamuros was ordered to be constructed in 1940 as a memorial to those killed in the Spanish Civil War. Source: Manu Fernandez/AP

Last week Spain exhumed the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera and was reburied to the south of Madrid. While a grave is normally known as a person’s final resting place, this is the fifth time Primo de Rivera needed to be buried. Primo de Rivera founded the Falange movement, a fascist movement that supported the authoritarian regime of Franco. He is also the son of Miguel Primo de Rivera, the first military dictator of Spain. Franco ruled Spain from 1939-1975. In Stark contrast to this period in its history, Spain became a democracy again in 1977. Spain however still is working on how to remember this painful period of its history. For the current Spanish government, this meant reburying Franco and Primo de Rivera and not permitting them to continue to be the center of attention at a monument now recognized as a site to honor all those killed during the Spanish Civil War.

In order to rectify its past, the Spanish government feels it is best to have José Antonio Primo de Rivera buried in an understated grave rather than in Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) where Primo de Rivera was buried under the alter in the basilica where Francisco Franco was also buried after his death. Franco’s body was already exhumed and moved in 2019. The Spanish government plans to turn the complex into a memorial for the 500,000 Spaniards killed during the Spanish civil war. Prisoners from the Republicans, a left-wing political party were used to build the complex. For each day prisoners worked on the site, their prison sentences were shortened by 5 days. It is not known how many prisoners died during the construction, as the estimation widely varies from as few to 15 and as many as 27,000. The name of the complex has now been changed back to Valley of Cuelgamuros. Besides the exhumation of Franco and Primo de Rivera, the government is allowing family members of victims of the civil war buried there to reburied elsewhere if they desire to do so.

Franco decided to build the complex in 1940, which took almost two decades to finish. Franco presided over the complex’s opening in 1959, exactly 20 years after the end of the civil war. The Spanish government was motivated to rethink the complex due to the deterioration of some monuments including an arm falling off and almost hitting a tourist. In order to make the complex focus on the victims of the civil war and not a specific ideology that participated, Franco’s body was recommended to be removed from the basilica by a commission of experts in 2011. Partido Popular ignored the recommendation and did not move Franco’s body. Instead, this occurred under Prime Minister Sanchez who exhumed his body in 2019.

The reburial of Primo de Rivera did not occur without problems. Three people were arrested for disturbing the peace at the San Isidro cemetery, located in southern Madrid. Around 150 people came to show their support at the cemetery. This included raising their right arm for the fascist salute and singing Cara al Sol (Facing the Sun), a fascist hymn that Primo de Rivera partially rewrote.

Supporters of the Falange party visit his grave in the basilica. Source: Times of Malta

Family Of José Antonio Primo de Rivera

The family of Primo de Rivera has been defensive and claims that too much blame is attributed to him. He was killed in prison before Franco became dictator and was imprisoned before the insurrection due to a charge of illegally possessing a firearm. Nonetheless, he would be charged with insurrection against the state and ordered to be executed by firing squad. His death paved the way for Franco to consolidate power and gain complete control over the Falange movement.

At the same time, it is clear that Primo de Rivera was not completely innocent. In 1943, a group of Hitler youth activists was sent by Nazi Germany to honor Primo de Rivera’s grave with a wreath. He was also used as a symbol by Franco to legitimize his regime. Even if Primo de Rivera was not personally responsible, his memory was used to support the fascist regime, as can be seen by people who honor him by displaying fascist symbols and the fascist salute.

Logos of Vox and Podemos. Source: Hispanidad

Extremism in Modern-Day Politics

The Falange Political Party still exists but currently has no members in Parliament. While the Falange movement may have lost its appeal to the majority of Spaniards, there are currently two populist parties in Spain that have been gaining momentum. Vox is a right-wing populist party, while Podemos is to the left. Podemos was formed in 2014 as a response to Spain’s five years of economic difficulty due to the financial crisis and the austerity measures that followed. While Podemos was able to shield itself from ever being labelled as far left, the reality is that both Vox and Podemos are further from the centre than other political parties. Vox is an anti-immigrant party, while Podemos was founded as an anti-system party. Podemos has become calmer and less violent since it entered into a coalition with the Socialist Party. Vox is also considered a highly controversial political party as it is against the system of regional autonomy in Spain and instead puts emphasis on Spain’s need to be united. Time will tell whether the same will occur with Vox if it enters into a coalition with the Partido Popular, as predicted will be the outcome of the next Spanish election. On the bright side, Spain is a member of the European Union, which requires all member states to be democratic as part of the Copenhagen criteria.

While it is a delicate subject to discuss, rethinking the complex is necessary to be able to move on to the future. Removing the bodies of Franco and Primo de Rivera was necessary to make the focus of the site the victims of the civil war focus of the site and not the authoritarian regime that ruled following the war. Everyone may not agree with these actions, but it is important for the Valley of Cuelgamuros to be a place to remember those killed in Spain’s recent bloody past, not a place where people come to honor the memory of fascist Spain.

Please Read The Following For More Information:

Leon, Pablo. The Valley of the Fallen — the problem that won’t go away El Pais 31 January, 2015

Salazar, Pablo. ¿Vox es de extrema derecha y Podemos no es de extrema izquierda? Las Provincias 02 December, 2019

AFP. Spain to exhume remains of fascist party founder. Times Of Malta 24 April 2023.

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Let’s Tune In To The EU…

by Nicholas Zalewski time to read: 5 min