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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Franco's Monument

El Caudillo
[WC News Service]
Part I
There are few memorials to tyrants. Consider the dictators of the World War II era.
Imagine the unthinkable -- a monument to Hitler; another, to Mussolini.

On the other hand, Stalin, the Soviet Union's villainous Communist dictator, still gets venerated in a Red Square, Moscow, crypt.

And, remarkably, memorialized in this country is the lesser-known, fourth butcher of that war period -- Francisco Franco, who in the wake of Spain's Civil War claimed the nation as his own as the victorious Caudillo, or Leader.

Unlike Stalin's resting place, Franco's grave site is off the tourist grid, in the Guadarrama mountain range, high above, and to the northwest, of Madrid. It's big, creepy, and chilling.
Franco's tomb is inside
And no wonder. Though least known of the European Fascist triumvirate of the time (and never officially a paid-up member of the enemy Axis powers) Franco was as much of a despot as Hitler and Mussolini, overseeing the killing of hundreds of thousands, including the mass slaughter of pregnant women and their children; and, finally, the harsh post-war internment of thousands more.
His brutal dictatorship ruled Spain for almost forty years, from 1936 to 1975, the year of his death at eighty-two. As a matter of course and ideology, Franco had no use for Jews. But unlike his German and Italian allies, he didn't bother to single them out for extermination. He executed Communists instead.
Part II
As a teenager, my knowledge of Spain's Civil War, which ravaged the country for three years, from 1933 to 1936 in a fratricidal blood bath, was almost limited to what I read in Hemingway's romanticized chronicle, From Whom the Bell Tolls.

That there were 'good' guys (the leftist, Republican Loyalists) and 'bad' guys (Franco's right-wing Falangistas) was forcefully reinforced at home where my grandfather, a Cuban of Spanish descent, was a fierce defender of the defeated Republic. Anyway, many of my literary heroes at the time, Hemingway and John Dos Passos, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the like, had been Republican stalwarts. As were members of the Lincoln Brigade, a group of idealistic Americans who thought the cause for a 'democratic' Republic was worthy enough to fight and die for.

Of course, as in all wartime narratives, such moral simplicities are quickly overshadowed by reality.

Was Franco the only villain? Hardly.
Despite inclinations -- then and now -- to sanitize the Republicans as righteous, democratic standard bearers, they were in many ways as cruel and bloodthirsty as the Nationalists. Their political spectrum ranged from liberal, anarchist, socialist, to Communist, the root of years of divisive societal upheaval.
As was the case of much of post World War I Europe, this cauldron prompted the rise of Nazis Germany and fascist Italy. In turn, Spain saw the overthrow of its monarchy and soon thereafter a fast descent into anarchy. 

Thanks to the war, each side put their 'best' foot forward: Franco garnered aid and troops from the Fuhrer and Il Duce; the Loyalists, help from Stalin and wide mix private international brigades, including those from the Soviet Union, France, the United States. The Loyalists were also anti-clerical. Torching churches was sport.
Their slogan soon became 'No Pasarán,' or. 'They Will Not Pass' -- in other words, resistance to the last man, a rallying war cry that was famously featured in headlines around the world.
Part III
I encountered Francisco Franco in the late 1960s. Well, not Franco personally, of course. But rather the strict, authoritarian tone of his regime in a frightening episode that occurred, in all places, in an innocent enough car park at El Escorial, the 16th-century palace cum monastery of Spanish kings.

I have my father to thank for the occasion.
My Dad was the world's worst driver, and, in a typical manoeuvre while parking, he managed to strike something; toppling this time a poplar sapling.

Such an accident anywhere would surely result in restitution and maybe, in the USA, some negative points on a driver's licence. In Franco's Spain, it occasioned the immediate appearance of the Guardia Civil, the Leader's para-military national police force. In fact, showing up were three heavily-armed Guardia Civil goons, then noted for their shiny patent-leather tri-corn headgear. They demanded, in no uncertain terms, restitution, in addition to a fine. Or else. I don't think they were referring to points.

My father paid. The bullies departed. We were shakened.
The episode was unsettling enough, too, to have stayed with me these past fifty years.
And the memory was also strong enough that I drawn to the accident site when I toured El Escorial in another just recent visit. The sapling is now a sturdy tree. I also spotted a young Guardia Civil. The tri-corne had been replaced by a baseball cap. He looked like a Boy Scout.
Part IV
Francisco Franco's burial tomb is deep in a underground crypt in the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen (Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos). The mammoth monument is bored into a mountain top. A huge stone cross sits above.

In all, the consecrated site is in keeping with Franco's inflated self-regard, dripping in Roman Catholic mumbo jumbo and hocus pocus, showcasing the messianic spirit of Spain's onetime temporal savior. It is also a testament to hypocrisy and blasphemy, capped with a functioning monastery to its rear.

The monument opened in 1959, after nineteen years of planning and construction. It cost millions, as well as the lives of the dozens of prisoners of war who were conscripted to help in the construction.

Until Franco's death, in 1975, only Nationalist soldiers could be interred there, and thousands were. Now, Republicans can also find a final resting place in the mountain -- as long as they professed in life their Roman Catholic faith.

Catholic or not, why anyone would want to share space with Franco is a more troubling question.