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A waitress whisks three plates of steaming lentils over to a family’s table. Elsewhere beneath this mountaintop mess hall’s wooden beams, a garrulous group of about 30 men and women are getting louder with each emptying bottle of wine. An elderly couple struggle to hear each other over the din. Such a familiar lunchtime scene would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the fascist insignia adorning the tableware.

Crockery and serviettes seldom get swept into debates about national harmony but, in July, Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory urged the state prosecutor to act on this restaurant’s flagrant use of Francoist symbols. In a secluded pine-covered valley 60km from Madrid, the Hospedería del Valle de los Caidos is no ordinary food stop. Run by a semi-reclusive community of Benedictine monks, the restaurant is perhaps the most anodyne part of a monument long mired in controversy: this is Europe’s only remaining mausoleum dedicated to a dictator.

Deep inside a basilica that was tunnelled into a mountain mainly by prisoners of the Spanish civil war between 1941 and 1959, the bouquet-covered tombs of fascist dictator Generalísimo Francisco Franco and his predecessor, Primo de Rivera, were visited by 283,000 people in 2017.

The number of sombre Spaniards, bewildered tourists and barefaced neo-falangists has spiked 40 per cent this summer. The visits, especially pilgrimages from the latter, were spurred by new prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s announcement in June that his government intends to honour a non-binding parliamentary motion to exhume the dictator and have him moved elsewhere. The motion was first passed with a parliamentary majority in 2017, following the 2011 government commission recommendation that €11m be spent converting the vexatious monument into a site of civil-war reconciliation.

Former prime minister Mariano Rajoy sat on the commission’s report for six years but 46-year-old Sánchez – the country’s first leader to have grown up in the post-Franco era – is resolved to redress decades of political handwringing when it comes to all things Franco. The 130-metre-tall stone cross standing atop the mountain that houses the Valle de los Caidos (“Valley of the Fallen”) basilica throws a long shadow over Spanish politics. Inspired by the grandiloquent monuments of Egypt, Franco enlisted 20,000 labourers to carve out this haunting complex in the Guadarrama valley. The fact that it became his final resting place often overshadows a more troubling truth: this is also the site of Spain’s largest mass grave. Franco’s prominent name may be surrounded by flowers in front of the central altar but there is no mention of the 33,487 other souls entombed inside this mountain, all victims of the war.

“We are guided by one idea: for too long the civil war victims have been forgotten. This is about repairing their suffering.” The recently named general-director of the new Department of Historical Memory, Fernando Martínez López, is talking to us from behind his manila-folder-covered desk inside the Ministry of Justice. The monumental task before him goes well beyond the delicate matter of a new burial site for a diminutive dictator: it is also about educating a country coming to grips with decades of ignorance.

“A democracy cannot look the other way when there are still more than 114,000 people in mass graves,” says Martínez López, referring to the Valle de los Caídos as well as the numerous others that have been discovered around Spain. The government’s plan, which encompasses several departments, focuses on education to counter the historical revisionism, which gained traction in the 1990s, impelled by the conservative press.

“The same people who argue that Franco was good for Spain always talk about turning the page,” he says, clearly exasperated. “Rather than turning the page we need to re-read it, analyse what happened and ensure that we don’t repeat the errors of the past.”

On a national level, much of that effort focuses on identifying the remains recovered from mass graves and bringing closure to the families. “The government is handling this issue sensitively with the utmost care,” says Martínez López. “By creating the historical memory commission, Prime Minister Sánchez aims to advance the process of healing.”

On a local level, city councils around the country have been making greater strides. In Madrid, mayor Manuela Carmena is nearing the end of an exhaustive process that has seen dozens of Franco-era street names rebadged, many with names of prominent women. She tasked lifelong activist and lawyer Francisca “Paquita” Sauquillo with spearheading the municipal effort.

“There are a lot of people who argue that a lot of history has passed, that we should forget it,” says Sauquillo. “I do not agree. I think this is negative. One of the problems we’ve had in Spanish democracy is that we have attempted to forget history.” Meanwhile controversial street names have been unceremoniously removed from the city map. These include Calle General Yagüe, named after a general dubbed “The Butcher of Badajoz” who oversaw a massacre of up to 4,000 people, and Calle General Millán Astray, named after a notoriously thuggish general who later became head of Franco’s propaganda wing. “Initially a lot of controversy and criticism was brewing around changing the street names; it was dividing more than it was uniting,” says Sauquillo. “What we need now is a more informative, educational approach.”

For elderly Spaniards, many of whom still view society as the “victors and the vanquished”, generations-old quarrels have been brought to the fore by the name changes. Yet many younger Spaniards remain puzzled by the furore, an attitude compounded by their country’s tendency to recoil at conversations about the past: Spain has no museums dedicated to the civil war or the dictatorship.

Political and social inertia has had other effects. In the wake of their patriarch’s death in 1975, a delicately negotiated amnesty law saw Franco’s descendants retreat quietly – and comfortably – into the country’s subconscious, maintaining their considerable fortune and property portfolios, with an estimated value of about €500m. In more recent years the country’s continued fascination with the Franco family has been condensed into tawdry television spectacle.

Franco’s granddaughter, Carmen Martínez Bordiu, took part in Dancing with the Stars in 2006, seeing the established socialite waltz home with a reported €48,000-per-episode pay cheque courtesy of the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster. Franco’s bohemian relative Pocholo, a notorious fixture on Ibiza’s fiesta circuit, was also given his own television travel show on the left-leaning La Sexta network in 2006. The family remain reliable darlings of the tabloid press.

This year the media landscape is once again aflutter with the irresistible Franco allure. News outlets have been busy tapping into the consternation surrounding the exhumation of “El Caudillo” (“The Leader”, as Franco was known), giving his relatives and defenders ample screen time to bullishly defend his legacy. A recent television interview with Jaime Alonso, one of several recalcitrant spokespeople for the Fundación Franco (a private foundation that charges itself with defending the honour of the dictator’s achievements), left fellow panellists slack-jawed following his dubious claim that Franco was “the author of absolutely everything that is worthwhile in Spain today”.

The foundation has been fuelling controversy ever since it sued artist Eugenio Merino in 2014 for exhibiting a life-sized sculpture of the dictator inside a freezer during Madrid’s Arco art fair. The case was eventually dismissed but the foundation, which is also the custodian of the official Franco archive, remains a litigious lackey for the dictator. Sánchez’s government has mooted legislative changes to limit the existence of such organisations, a move that will surely be played out in the nation’s slow-moving courts.

“I definitely thought about the consequences of publishing about this topic,” says illustrator Ximo Abadía, whose popular children’s book Frank was imagined to redress what he calls the “fog of wilful forgetfulness” cloaking his country’s past. “It is a shame but in this country you still face legal trouble for daring to criticise the dictatorship.” The 34-year-old Valencian cites instances of both a satirical magazine and high-profile television host being hauled in front of the courts, accused of defaming figures linked to the regime.

Published last February, his beautifully illustrated and cleverly narrated fable is already on its third print run. “Frank was intended for parents to read to their children but it quickly became popular with adults too,” he says. “As children we are told very little about our past; a dictatorship that spanned four decades is often only afforded a six-line description in official textbooks.” Inspired by a trip to Cambodia which, according to a special UN report, is the only country with more unmarked mass graves than Spain, the young illustrator began to investigate the void of knowledge in his own country. He did this by reading, watching documentaries and striking up candid conversations with older citizens.

“One 80-year-old bookseller thanked me because the book is part of an effort to reclaim the past, to counter the victors’ version of history that Franco was a ‘light’ dictatorship,” says Abadía. “Forty years is a long time for a mentality to embed itself in the fabric of a country.” Like many of his generation he is buoyed by the new government’s pledge to deal with the past once and for all. “All of a sudden I feel hopeful for the future; we may finally heal long-untended wounds. This isn’t about redrawing past lines of political division: this is a human issue. Doing this will make us a fairer society and Spain will be stronger for it.”


Dictators’ deaths:

1 Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Every year thousands of people pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body but some still refuse to call Saigon by its “new” name.

2 François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti
This father and son, known as Papa Doc and Baby Doc, ruled Haiti for nearly 30 years. François died in 1971 and was buried in Port-au-Prince. Fifteen years later, protesters destroyed the grave. Baby Doc died in 2014 and was denied a state funeral.

3 Benito Mussolini, Italy
After he was executed in 1945, Mussolini’s body was dumped in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto then buried in an unmarked grave – but the corpse was stolen. Once recovered, the body was hidden in a monastery for 11 years. In 1957 the remains were returned to the family crypt, which has since become a pilgrimage site for neo-fascists.

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