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In Spain, a constitutional debate has arisen over the body of former dictator Francisco Franco. The new left-wing government wants to relocate Franco's remains, which lie in the Valley of the Fallen, a Spanish civil war monument near Madrid. But the Benedictine monks overseeing the fascist dictator’s mausoleum say only the king can decide the fate of Franco’s corpse. Malcolm Brabant has the story.
There are times when history emerges front and center in a current debate. That's true in Spain right now, and it centers on the body of the country's former dictator, Francisco Franco.
He's buried in an extravagant mausoleum near Madrid. The new left-wing Spanish government wants Franco's remains moved in order to help settle grievances that still divide the country.
But there's resistance among those who have fond memories of the dictator.
Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has our report.
It was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
The giant cross reminds anyone for miles around that here lies Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist for 36 years until his death in 1975.
The mausoleum, an hour's drive northwest of Madrid, is located in a former battlefield of the 1930s Spanish Civil War. The bones of thousands of fallen fighters are hereabouts, but only the generalissimo's tomb is marked with a temple of gloom.
Filming is strictly forbidden. But dictatorships always spawn rebellion.
Miguel Urban (through translator):
For us, it is essential not only to exhume Franco's body, but also to exhume what Franco's dictatorship means, both from the valley and our institutions.
Miguel Urban is a member of the European Parliament for the popular left-wing party Podemos. He is angry that, 43 years after Franco's death, Spain has not been able to judge the crimes of the dictatorship or prosecute so-called Franquistas, subordinates who enforced his tyranny.
We are an abnormal democracy in Europe because we maintain a regime of impunity. To exhume Franco and to exhume Francoism from the valley can allow us to initiate a step of justice, recognition and restoration for the victims, an element to end with the impunity that has reigned in our country.
Spain's Parliament voted in September to approve the disinterment. But conservative lawmaker Jose Villegas is skeptical of the motivation of the country's politically fragile new Socialist-led administration.
Jose Manuel Villegas (through translator):
After 40 years, in my opinion, the exhumation of Franco's remains is not a priority or urgent for the majority of Spaniards.
As we said, the prime minister does have an urgent matter, and that is to launch a smokescreen to cover the embarrassment and the weak points of his government.
But the argument of socialist lawmaker Adriana Lastra won the day.
Adriana Lastra (through translator):
Can you picture a monument 20 kilometers away from Berlin in honor of Hitler, or one 20 kilometers away from Rome in honor of Mussolini? I don't want that for my country, because I want to have a country that is democratically advanced. I want to put an end to that abnormality, and so does the prime minister and Spanish society.
Juan Chicharro Ortega (through translator):
This is the best picture we have.
The dictator is lionized in a time capsule not far from the center of Madrid. Busts of Franco are in every room, even on the filing cabinets.
If this was Germany, these people would be prosecuted for glorifying the Third Reich. But in modern Spain, the Franco Foundation is able to promote what it regards as his legacy.
Foundation President Juan Ortega:
We are David against Goliath. But we are sure we will win. And we don't think they will exhume him, because, as long as there is the rule of law in Spain, the law protects us.
Ortega believes that the proposed exhumation is an act of left-wing-inspired vengeance. And he bridles when Franco is compared to Hitler and Mussolini.
History can't be changed. It is what it is, and we need to respect that. For example, we could think of Napoleon in Paris, Lenin in Moscow, Ataturk in Turkey, or Cromwell in London, and no one intends now to exhume Napoleon.
History is the way it is. And here we have some people who are not using modern thinking. They're using Marxist thinking. What they want in a way is to eradicate Franco and the system that Franco worked for 40 years to build.
Franco came to power in 1939, after a three-year civil war. Up to half-a-million people were killed during the conflict.
During his ensuing dictatorship, tens of thousands of his opponents were killed or imprisoned. Franco was ideologically aligned with Hitler's Nazis and provided military and material support to the German-led Axis, but stayed out of the Second World War.
Historian Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz, now 92, spent six years in prison with three other students for opposing Franco politically.
Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz (through translator):
It didn't go further than expressing opinions and a certain propaganda, and it led us to being arrested and to stand before a military court.
The Valley of the Fallen is a monstrosity of the years after the war. It should be turned into a national cemetery and be neutral and respectful to all those buried there.
Once a week in a central Madrid square, history buffs gather to tour significant sites in the fight against Franco. The organizers are trying to preserve the memory of his opponents and maintain pressure over the disinterment issue.
I think it's something made lots of years ago. And, well, I don't there's a big problem it being there, but I think the problem is the symbol.
Woman (through translator):
It is very important to change the symbols of a fascist regime, like the Francoist one, because, at the end, those symbols stay in the culture and keep making the country undemocratic.
But although Parliament has voted in favor to remove Franco's body, some sides in this debate believe a stand-off is looming.
We have spoken to the Benedictine order of monks which administers Franco's mausoleum, and they insist that there is going to be no exhumation. They say that they were entrusted by the former King Juan Carlos to care for Franco's body, and say that the only person who can reverse that decision is the current King Felipe, and he has to do it by expressing his desire to remove Franco's body and to start the process himself.
If true, this would present a huge dilemma for the royal palace. The king is supposed to be a neutral figurehead who unites the nation. Taking sides could be perilous for the monarchy, which, as it happens, was put back on the throne by Franco as he approached death.
So, where does Spanish law stand on this issue?
Constitutional lawyer Gustavo Lopez-Munos,
The Parliament is the representative of all the power of all the people of Spain. If the people of Spain, which have all the powers, even more than the king, because, in Spain, the king is subject to the constitution, the Parliament, if it approves the exhumation of the body of the remains of Franco to any other place, that is perfectly legal.
Perhaps anticipating the inevitable, Franco's grandchildren have said that, if his body is to be exhumed, they would like it reburied in the crypt of the Almudena Cathedral, opposite the royal palace in the center of Madrid.
Miguel Urban of the Podemos left-wing party says Franco's family shouldn't be allowed to decide where his remains are finally laid to rest.
This needs to be a government decision. And the government needs to work, so that the new emplacement of Franco's body is a place where there cannot be a memorial, where there can't be a fascist pilgrimage. It can't be a space for the remembrance of Francoism and fascism. And that needs to be ensured through public policy.
Of course, burying him in the center of Madrid doesn't meet these characteristics.
Fresh flowers adorn the tomb of Franco's daughter, Carmen, in the cathedral crypt. If the former dictator was buried nearby, this would become even more hallowed ground for his supporters.
With right-wing nationalism on the rise across Europe, this has become an important battle for hearts and minds.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Madrid.
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Malcolm Brabant is a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.
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