Ian Thomson

Franco’s exhumation could help decide the Spanish election

I was no sooner in Madrid than General Franco was exhumed from his mausoleum not far from El Escorial. An air force helicopter ferried his remains from the Valley of the Fallen, where a gigantic stone cross marks the dictator’s grave as well as that of 34,000 Spanish Civil War dead. For four decades the dictator had lain beneath a 1.5 ton granite slab. No longer. As eight of his descendants shouldered the coffin to the helicopter, shouts went up of ‘Viva España! Viva Franco!’ from Falangist diehards behind a police cordon. Franco was reinterred the same day alongside his wife, Carmen Polo, in a family pantheon 20 miles away. The exhumation was a symbolic triumph for Spain’s socialist government under Pedro Sánchez, which has long argued that the Valley of the Fallen glorifies the generalísimo at the expense of the thousands in unmarked graves from the 1936-39 war. The elimination of the last great symbol of Spain’s dictatorship may help to win votes for Sánchez in the general election on Sunday.

I had come to Madrid to talk about Dante Alighieri and the Italian writer-chemist Primo Levi. University City, where I was staying, was the site of a savage battle for Madrid in November 1936 and still bears pockmarks of shrapnel. The campus entrance itself is marked by a monumental Arch of Victory built by Franco to celebrate the defeat of the Second Republic. Against the Republican infidel Franco had launched a self-styled ‘crusade’ which he compared to the Christian Reconquista of Spain from the Moors. Hailed as Caudillo (the nearest equivalent to Führer), Franco radiated a sour Catholic asceticism and kept Saint Teresa of Avila’s mummified hand by his bedside.

Next day I was taken on a tour of the Prado Museum.

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