Spain Debates Future of Franco's Tomb

Saturday, Spanish authorities received a false bomb threat at the tomb of former Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Spaniards still have strongly ambivalent feelings about Franco. Now, 30 years after Franco's death, a dispute has broken out over what to do with the tomb.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Yesterday, Spanish authorities received a warning about a bomb placed by Basque separatists at the tomb of former fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The warning turned out to be false, but it illuminates the strongly diverse feelings Spaniards have about Franco. Today, you can still find statues and avenues named after fascist heroes, and now 30 years after Franco's death, a dispute has broken out over what to do with his tomb. Jerome Socolovsky went there and sent this report.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

In Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, is an anonymous burial ground. Here lie the bodies of tens of thousands of fighters who died on both sides of the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. But the site is dominated by an enormous cross that can be seen 30 miles away in Madrid. It marks the tomb of the man who called himself El Caudillo, `the leader.'

To get to the actual grave, you have to enter a cavernous, underground crypt.

(Soundbite of sounds from crypt)

SOCOLOVSKY: Just inside are two massive statues. They're supposed to be angels, but the centurion helmets and swords make them look more like Darth Vader. Further inside the crypt, past more statues and tapestries of New Testament scenes, is the gravestone. It's on the floor of a basilica where Catholic Mass is celebrated.

(Soundbite of organ music)

SOCOLOVSKY: But other than the monks who pray for the dead and the occasional nostalgic Spaniard, most of the 400,000 annual visitors to this mausoleum are foreign tourists.

Ms. MALTA VELNIA(ph): (French spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Malta Velnia is a high school teacher from Normandy, France. She's brought her two teen-age children to Franco's tomb to learn about Europe's totalitarian past. The history teacher says she was astonished to find no plaque or documentation mentioning the prisoners from the losing Republican side who were forced to build the huge monument in the 1950s.

Ms. VELNIA: (Through Translator) And we're also surprised to see flowers on Franco's grave, to see that there are still Spaniards who lay flowers on his tomb.

SOCOLOVSKY: There's also a bouquet on the only other tomb in the crypt. It belongs to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange, which became part of Franco's political party. Juan Rubio(ph), a Madrid businessman, has brought his Argentine wife and her parents to El Valle de los Caidos. He rejects comparisons between Franco and Hitler and between the Falange and the Nazis.

Mr. JUAN RUBIO: (Through Translator) No. Franco was a soldier, nothing more. And Jose Antonio was an ideologue. They were soldiers against a gang of inept and unscrupulous thugs, like those on the left continue to be to this day.

SOCOLOVSKY: Like Rubio, many on the Spanish right are angry that a statue of Franco on horseback was recently taken down in Madrid. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government also wants to pardon thousands of people sentenced to death under Franco. But the government is treading carefully on Franco's tomb. It's said to be merely studying the proposals to remodel it. One of those proposals was put forth by Johman Bush(ph), a senator for a Catalonian party based in Barcelona. He says he doesn't want to demolish Franco's tomb like some Basques do.

Senator JOHMAN BUSH (Catalonian Party): (Through Translator) On the contrary. What we want is for the monument to remain as it is, but with an explanation of what is now being concealed. If you visit the Valle de los Caidos today, you have no idea it was once a prison camp.

(Soundbite of videotape)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: A video describes the Valley of the Fallen and its giant cross as Franco's act of gratitude for his victory in the civil war. The video is on sale at the headquarters of the national Franco Foundation, a privately funded group. Foundation Vice President Felipe Moralez begs to differ with what most historians consider as fact.

Mr. FELIPE MORALEZ (Vice President, Franco Foundation): (Through Translator) El Valle de los Caidos is the subject, in a tasteless way, I would say, of many unjust falsehoods. You will hear, for example, that it was a concentration camp, that dozens of prisoners died there. It's not true.

SOCOLOVSKY: Moralez says that most prisoners were ordinary convicts. The reason that there were so many, he argues, was a crime wave that broke out during the war. Leaders of the right in Spain are already accusing Zapatero Socialists of upsetting the delicate political balance that has been maintained here since Franco's death. That balance has been credited with helping Spaniards to bury their differences and smooth the transition to a prosperous democracy. So if the prime minister decides that it is time to take another look at Franco's final resting place, it may be more than just Spanish history at stake.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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