The route from Manzanares Real to El Escorial took us to the foothills of the Sierra Guadarrama mountain range and directly past one of the few remaining reminders of the Franco regime – the Valle de los Caídos.
The Valley of the Fallen is a shallow green natural basin tucked into the folds of the mountain about fifty kilometres north of central Madrid. It is the controversial last resting place of the dictator General Francisco Franco who conceived this place for himself during his lifetime out of his own arrogance and conceit.
For almost forty years until his death on 20th November 1975 the Generalíssimo was someone that Spain could not escape from. He was there in school books, church prayers, statues, plaques, street names and thousands of other reminders of a violent insurrection that led to a vicious civil war. Now though his face and name are being erased from public view and even the army, where nostalgia for the dictator survived long after his death in 1975, has pledged to remove all plaques, statues and monuments to the regime of a man it once revered.
From the entrance gate there is a five kilometre drive to the monument on a road that passes through lush vegetation of tall pines punctuated by a scattering of oak, ilex and poplar trees and which passes over a couple of elegant stone bridges and at the top is the most recent piece of fascist religious monumental architecture to have been erected in western Europe. A huge blue-grey granite cross soars one hundred and fifty metres into the sky which on a clear day can be seen from the centre of Madrid and no wonder because it is claimed to be the largest in the World. Below the cross are a series of arches overlooking a wide featureless concrete esplanade and beyond the galleries is the entrance to the basilica through two modest bronze doors.
The floor is made of granite and black marble and above it there is an interior dome lined in gold mosaic. The basilica is longer than St Peter’s in Rome and almost as high and is built to dimensions that matched the mountainous ego of its creator. Officially it is a war memorial in remembrance of all those who perished in the Spanish civil war and a symbol of forgiveness and peace but the monument has never actually managed to achieve this worthy status because it was built partly by using Republican prisoners as slave labourers and the grim intimidating monument has always been seen rather as a symbol of the victory of the Nationalists and it is a place that commemorates unpleasantness:
“If the horrors of the black legend seemed to be fading at last, the horrors of the Civil War revived it with a vengeance. Almost every page of its history reeks with cruelty… as we read of the blood running down the streets of Toledo or the hundreds of unarmed men slaughtered in the bull ring at Badajoz. Sometimes it is the frenzied militiamen of the Republican armies, crucifying priest, castrating landowners or humiliating nuns. Nobody it seems was immune to the infection. At one end the mob often tore its victims limb from limb. At the other end the secret courts of the Communists condemned men first and tortured them later. The thirst for blood, the taste for violence, the opportunity for vengeance, the savagery of despair or resentment….” , Jan Morris – ‘Spain
Today the monument is an embarrassment to the State and successive Spanish governments have agonised over what to do with it. Since 2004 successive governments have been following a policy of the removal of Francoist symbols from public buildings and spaces and there has been an uneasy relationship with a monument that is the most conspicuous legacy from Franco’s rule.
In November 2009, Patrimonio Nacional, who manage the building, suddenly and controversially ordered the closure of the basilica for an indefinite period of time, citing as a reason deterioration and preservation issues which may affect the cross and compromise some of the sculptures. These allegations have been contested by technical experts and the religious community that lives in the complex, and had been seen by some conservative opinion groups as a policy of harassment against the monument, an opinion reinforced when in 2010 the Pieta sculpture group started to be ‘dismantled’ with hammers and heavy machinery.
Every year on the first Saturday after the 20th November old hard-line Francoists attend a religious ceremony at the monument in his memory, which is really a massive political rally, and this annual gathering of fascists is also an embarrassment to the government and to most of modern Spain.
We had read that the monument was closed but the gate was open so we swung inside anyway and pulled up beside the pay kiosk at the entrance where a middle aged lady explained that the monument wasn’t open and we should leave. I followed some cars and drove on expecting to find a turning point but after a kilometre it was obvious there wasn’t one and the cars we were following were authorised to be there so I did a three point turn instead next to two vertical granite columns at either side of the road.
What we hadn’t known about was the significance of the 20th November and being only a week away this must have been making the people on the gate a bit nervous because as we drove down we passed the woman from the kiosk who was pursuing us in a red Seat and who waved frantically to us as we drove by.
Political rallies in celebration of the former dictator are now banned by the Law of Historical Memory, voted on by the Congress of Deputies in October 2007 and it seems that the authorities were anticipating extra trouble this year in response to the closure of the monument and back at the gate two burly guards were shaking their heads and giving disapproving grimaces. I gave my best socialist smile and made pathetic gestures of apology but then left as quickly as possible and rejoined the road to El Escorial where we hoped we might be made to feel more welcome.
THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: A BRIEF HISTORY
On 17 July 1936 General Francisco Franco launched a military uprising against the Republican government elected that spring. Mobilising troops from Spanish Morocco – the so-called Army of Africa – the Nationalist forces quickly took control of Seville and other areas in the south. The plotters claimed to be acting in defence of traditional Catholic Spain and to restore order to the country. Their treatment of the opposition was brutal.
REPUBLICAN MILITIAS MOBILISE
Civilians join militias and prepare to fight to defend the Republic. In Barcelona, anarchist workers put down the Nationalist insurgency and launch a social revolution of their own. Factories are collectivised, and in some parts of Catalonia money is abolished. The Ritz hotel in Barcelona is renamed Hotel Gastronómico No 1 and serves as a workers’ canteen. A short-lived euphoria sweeps the left as the belief takes hold that Franco’s uprising could be the catalyst for a socialist revolution. In Madrid, the Republican government, which hopes to build a popular front including moderates and liberals to combat the Nationalist threat, will become increasingly concerned at the growing radicalism.
GEORGE ORWELL JOINS UP
On Boxing Day 1936, the writer arrives in Barcelona and joins up with the Poum, a revolutionary socialist party. Orwell goes to the Zaragoza front to fight and will subsequently write the classic war memoir Homage to Catalonia about his experiences. In May 1937, as tensions mount between communist, socialist and anarchist forces behind the Republican lines, Orwell becomes involved in street battles in Barcelona. His experiences will inform his indictment of Stalinism in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Bombed in April 1937, the fate of the ancient Basque town of Guernica was to become a symbol of the devastation caused by war. Raids by aircraft from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy constituted one of the first systematic aerial bombing campaigns to be conducted against civilians. In January that year, the Republican government had commissioned Pablo Picasso to create a mural for the World’s Fair. After the bombings, that mural became the one depicting the horror and suffering of the town. The artwork remains the most famous ever produced on the subject of war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died during the civil war as a result of bombings and executions. There is now a museum dedicated to peace in Guernica.
BATTLE FOR MADRID
The Spanish capital endured what amounted to a two-and-a-half-year siege during the civil war. After invading from the south in the summer of 1936, Franco’s forces, assisted by German and Italian air power, came close to taking Madrid towards the end of the year. A heroic resistance saw the Nationalist forces beaten back. But the government eventually decamped first to Valencia, then to Barcelona. By the winter of 1938 Madrid was freezing, starving, and more or less out of arms and ammunition.
On 26 March 1939 Franco ordered his troops to advance on Madrid after fighting there between Republican factions. Two days later the city had fallen. Thousands of its defenders were executed.
For hundreds of thousands of Spaniards, Franco’s victory meant exile. As the Nationalist forces advanced through Catalonia, a steady flow of refugees headed to France. In the winter of 1939 more than 450,000 are estimated to have crossed the border. Some Republicans went on to fight for the French Resistance against the Nazis. The refugees hoped to be welcomed by the French, but they were treated with suspicion and hostility.
From the end of the civil war in 1939 to his death in 1975, Franco ruled Spain. His regime, particularly in the early years, was cruel, repressive and vengeful towards the defeated enemy. Near Madrid a huge monument to the Nationalist dead, the Valley of the Fallen, was erected. Meanwhile the executions of Republican sympathisers continued well into the 1950s, and thousands languished in prison for years.