16/05/2014, by CLAS

Visiting the Valley of the Fallen

I have recently returned from a visit to one of Spain’s most (in)famous monuments, El Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen), where I was doing an interview with some journalists from the BBC. I first visited the monument in 2009, and having spent the best part of five years researching and writing a book on it, I was intrigued to see if (and how) the place had changed. It was also fascinating to talk to first-time visitors and hear their reactions to the monument.

El Valle de los Caídos was built over a period of almost twenty years. Announced on 1 April 1940 – the first anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, as decreed by Franco – and officially inaugurated on 1 April 1959, the monument served as resting place to over 33,000 victims of civil war violence: the fallen. The monument is set atop a mountain, amidst the beautiful countryside of the Sierra Guadarrama. Its key features are an enormous cross measuring 150 metres in height, which can be seen from 30 km away, and a huge basilica carved inside the mountain. A Benedictine abbey was also built behind the monument to house a religious community who would take charge of the basilica’s daily functions and religious services.

The religious veneer serves to present El Valle de los Caídos as a site of peace and reconciliation, but from the outset it was intended as anything but. Its infamy in Spain was assured from an early stage, both by the process of construction and subsequently by the use to which the monument was put. Several thousand workers at the site were in fact forced labourers, taken from the ranks of the defeated Republican side of the Spanish Civil War and then compelled to construct a monument in honour of the side that had defeated them. With scant regard for safety or welfare, many died and many more were injured during the long process of construction. Once complete, the monument was used not only to house ‘the fallen’, but also as a site for regime pageantry and commemoration on key dates from the Spanish Civil War. In speech after speech, rally after rally, El Valle de los Caídos was a place to keep alive the hatreds of the conflict, or at the very least present the war and lessons to be learned from it from the Manichean perspective of the dictatorship. Since Franco’s death in 1975, the site has become no less controversial, not least owing to the dictator’s burial there, and the subsequent use of the monument on the anniversary of his death each year by nostalgists, who pay homage to Franco’s memory with the blessing of the resident Benedictine community.

As if all of this were not enough to raise questions over the ‘reconciliatory’ nature of the monument, the site is replete with (quite deliberate) symbolism designed to reinforce divisions between victors and vanquished from the civil war, glorify the victory and values of Franco’s forces, and project the regime as a logical successor to the purported glories of the Spanish Golden Age. Arriving at the monument with even the most basic understanding of the history of the Spanish Civil War enables the visitor to comprehend these symbolic messages presented by El Valle de los Caídos.

Unfortunately, context is completely lacking at the monument, and deliberately so. Official guidebooks pass quickly and with ambiguity over the historical origins of the monument. They try to say as little as possible about Franco’s role in the monument, the nature of his dictatorship, and the reasons for his burial there. Instead, El Valle de los Caídos is presented as essentially a Catholic monument, akin to so many other famous sites in Spain, a place of peace and reconciliation.

On my first visit to the site in 2009, the gift shop at El Valle de los Caídos contained no historical books to offer context as to the monument itself or the dictatorship of Franco. Information for visitors was confined to the official guidebooks produced by Patrimonio Nacional, a government body akin to the National Trust in Britain. It was possible, however, to buy T shirts, tea-towels and ashtrays adorned with images of the monument. Perhaps in response to recent political debates over the site and numerous critical academic studies of it, one can now buy books about the monument in the gift shop, though only those which present the monument in the most favourable light.

So how does this sanitised presentation and lack of historical context affect visitors to the monument? From the outset, the Franco regime was not embarrassed by El Valle de los Caídos. On the contrary, it became a ‘must see’ for important foreign visitors to Spain after 1959, including Richard Nixon, Konrad Adenaur, Haile Sellasie, and Rafael Trujillo. Democratic Spanish governments since 1978 have been rather less keen to promote the site to visiting dignitaries, but it continues to attract its share of famous visitors. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s visit in 2013 was well-covered in the Spanish media, for example. In researching my book I found numerous testimonies of non-Spanish visitors to El Valle de los Caídos who were moved by their experience, and genuinely believed the sanitised presentation of the monument to be one of religious piety and reconciliation.

Having done some background research, the BBC team was rather less taken in by this narrative. Whilst not denying the undoubtedly impressive dimensions and the sheer feat of its construction, they were quick to recognise the intimidatory nature of the monument, the harrowing and oppressive atmosphere within the basilica, and logical parallels with other dictatorial architecture from Europe’s violent twentieth century. They were also keen to understand how religion and politics mixed (and mix) in constructing, using and now defending El Valle de los Caídos.

For other visitors, however, there was a rather different reaction. Speaking to some American tourists as they left the basilica, I was told not only how impressive the structure was, but how poignant and magnanimous a gesture it had been for the Franco regime to build a monument to the fallen: ‘We didn’t have anything like this after our own civil war’, commented one of the visitors. When I asked what they had been told by their tour guide as to who ‘the fallen’ were, it was clear that they understood it to mean the dead from both sides. Whilst technically accurate – it is possible that as many as 12000 of the 34000 interned there were from the Republican side – their guide might have mentioned the fact that many of these fallen were taken from their original resting places without the knowledge and/or consent of the surviving families, and that they could only be buried there if they were Catholics. The guide might also have observed that there is no symbolic concession to Republican victims in any part of the monument.

Context is key to understanding and interpreting El Valle de los Caídos. In 2011, a socialist government in Spain had commissioned a report into the future of the monument. Among many recommendations, the most controversial was a proposal to remove Franco from the monument and rebury him at a place of the family’s choosing. But also presenting an enormous threat to the current official (and misleading) representation of the monument was a proposal to construct a visitor centre outside of the basilica. All visitors would be directed through the centre before entering the monument proper, and so be presented with the necessary historical context to understand what they were about to see. When the right-wing Partido Popular was elected to government soon after the publication of this report, it was put to one side.

For the foreseeable future, therefore, visitors to El Valle de los Caídos will receive a partial and largely misleading representation of what the monument’s meaning and purpose was (and is). Those presently charged with running the monument have no intention of presenting it as anything other than a religious monument of a reconciliatory character. Meanwhile, judging from my most recent visit, many tour guides are complicit in this re-presentation of the monument. Standing by the grave of Franco, a group of perhaps thirty American tourists were told not about the dictator and his monument, but instead about the success of the Spanish transition to democracy. They left like so many others with positive impressions of the place. Some even stopped to buy a tea-towel on the way out.

Dr Gareth Stockey, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies

(Photograph: Håkan Svensson. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.)

Posted in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies