Madrid: With a towering huge cross, the monumental mausoleum where Spain’s late dictator Francisco Franco is buried continues to divide the country more than 40 years after his death.
Inaugurated by Franco on April 1, 1959, the imposing monument known as the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) is carved into a granite mountain face in a tranquil area of pine trees, just 50 kilometres north of Madrid.
The site includes a 262-metre-long basilica and a Benedictine Abbey.
The vast complex is topped by a 150-metre-high cross weighing nearly 200,000 tonnes that can be seen from miles away.
Fresh flowers are placed on Franco’s tomb at the far end of the basilica, which also holds the remains of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Spanish Falange party who was killed at the start of the 1936-39 civil war.
Franco, whose Nationalist forces defeated the Republicans in the war, ordered the construction of the site in 1940, calling it an attempt at “reconciliation” for all Spaniards.
He filled the basilica with the remains of some 37,000 dead from both sides of the civil war, which was triggered by Franco’s rebellion against an elected Republican government.
The families of the fallen Republicans were never told about their remains being transferred to the site.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wants to turn the monument into a place of reconciliation and memory, in the same way some Nazi concentration camps were transformed, and not let it remain a place of apology for the Franco regime.
A 2007 law passed under a previous Socialist government had already banned political gatherings at the Valley of the Fallen, where far-right groups used to attend a memorial mass on each anniversary of Franco’s death on November 20, 1975.
An expert commission set up by that government recommended the “re-signification” of the site.
Its report proposed setting up a permanent exhibition on the grounds of the monument dedicated to its history, the people buried there, and the estimated 20,000 political prisoners who took part in its construction.
But the Socialists lost power in 2011, and their successors, the conservative Popular Party (PP) chose to ignore the report, arguing that it was best not to open old wounds.
Since the Socialists returned to power last year, they have made the exhumation a priority.