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Friday, May 07, 2021

Explained: Why Spain plans to open a mass grave of 33,000 civil war victims

Spain’s socialist government has asked for permits to start exhuming the bodies from the vast mausoleum on the outskirts of Madrid, which was originally built by former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

By: Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: April 16, 2021 1:45:18 pm
Francisco Javier Ruiz, archaeologist and member of the Association Charata for the Recovery of Historical Memory, takes part in the exhumation of the grave of Saturnino Til and Ramon Navarro, shot in August 1936 by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco in Gurrea de Gallego, Spain, August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina

The Spanish government has kickstarted the process to open up a mass grave at the ‘Valley of the Fallen’, where over 30,000 victims of the Spanish Civil War lay buried.

Spain’s socialist government, headed by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, has asked for permits to start exhuming the bodies from the vast mausoleum on the outskirts of Madrid, which was originally built by former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, and has since become a sort of shrine for the far-right in the country.

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Last month, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero had said that Spanish authorities received more than 60 exhumation requests from relatives of the victims of the civil war, who are buried at the site. “For the Spanish government it is essential to comply with these requests and to locate and exhume the corresponding remains,” Montero said at a news conference, according to Reuters.

What is the ‘Valley of the Fallen’?

Built on the slopes of a mountain range on the outskirts of Madrid, the Valle de los Caídos, or Valley of the Fallen, was constructed by former dictator Francisco Franco following the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939) as a burial monument and memorial Church. However, it has since grown to become hallowed ground for the country’s far-right, while other sections of Spanish society see it as representing Franco’s tyrannical rule and abuse of power.

The valley was built in part by political prisoners of Franco’s regime over a period of 18 years. Construction began in 1940 and continued until 1959. The bodies of over 30,000 victims of the brutal violence are believed to have been shipped from across the country and buried here and were meant to represent a period of peace and healing after the Civil War. But many condemned Franco’s use of political prisoners as labour to build the mausoleum and see it as a symbol of a brutal authoritarian regime.

Franco, who ruled the country for 36 years between 1939 and 1979, won the Spanish Civil War, which started after his forces rebelled against the country’s democratically elected Republican government. Franco ultimately seized power after three brutal years of bloodshed and devastation, in which over 5 lakh people died. He was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, while the Republican government was backed by the Soviet Union and by volunteer forces from democratic countries in Europe and the US.

After he died in 1975, Franco himself was buried in the memorial basilica, but in October 2019 his remains were exhumed and moved to a state cemetery close by, where his wife is buried. However, the Supreme Court’s decision to move his body was met with considerable backlash from Franco’s family and supporters.

Why are the bodies of 30,000 victims of the Civil War being exhumed now?

Removing Franco’s body and exhuming the bodies of the 30,000 victims of the civil war has been amongst the key promises made by Spain’s left leaning government ever since it came to power. Its goal is for the Valley to be seen as a “a place of commemoration, remembrance and homage to the victims of the war”, BBC reported.

The government vowed to foot the bill for the exhumation of all the victims of the civil war and Franco’s regime, Reuters reported. The aim of the project is to transform the valley into a civil cemetery for the remains of people killed on both sides during the civil war.

How does the government plan to exhume the remains?

Spanish officials have now applied for a permit which will allow them to start removing the remains from the vast grave, after the government approved 665,000 euros (around INR 5.97 crore) in funding for the project on March 30.

The ambitious project will involve a fair deal of construction work that will permit workers to safely access and remove the remains, CNN reported.

Between 2017 and 2019, Spanish officials carried out structural analysis of the crypts to identify possible entry points, the Spanish ministry said in its statement. The removal of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen as well as the exhumation of the victims of the war is part of the Spanish government’s attempt at undoing some of the wrongs committed during one of the darkest periods in the country’s history.

In 2007, the government passed the Law of Historical Memory, which formally condemned Franco’s regime and also banned all political events at the valley.

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