This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 40 and 41: 17 – 30 April 1937

April 19

Franco creates the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (FET y de las JONS). This brings together the horrid Falange fascists and the hard-right Catholic Carlists into one big hate group. Franco appoints himself as leader, making him both a political and military leader, paving the way for dictatorship. The Falange has many of leaders killed during the war, more than any other group, and needs leadership. These groups together can go on to control all other parties and unions. Franco, with no real alliance to any group, told all what they wanted to hear, bending to suit to take over all parties he worked with, in order to slowly assume total control. This party can dominate enough to make Spain pro-Catholic, pro-monarchy, pro-fascism, pro-conservatism, pro-ultranationalism by combining their people. It allows the small fascist Falange group to swell to a peak of 900,000 (when combined together) and the women’s unit (needed because these groups were anti-women), Sección Femenina, grows to 500,000 during the war.

April 20

The Nationalist ‘government’ in Burgos has been battling the Basque ports now for two weeks. They launch a huge bombardment of Basque port towns to stop all flow of cargo entering to help the Republican cause, as British ships have defied blockades. The Nationalist 1st Navarrese bridge battle Basque troops at Elgeta, just 20 kilometres east of the newly destroyed town of Durango (see week 37).

Basque fighters must retreat to the Iron Ring, a series of tunnels built around Bilbao, which are simple and under-defended, but have no other option, as the German Condor Legion are bombing towns and forest areas through the region.

pro-Republic Basque fighters in Elgeta, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country

April 23

The Junta de defensa, Madrid defense council, is dissolved, in an effort to reshape the protection of the city. They have been active since the outbreak of war, but now have to change tactics. The Ministry of War, who control the command of the Republican army takes over the defense of Madrid, as fighting in the city has stabilised and the frontlines are outside Madrid itself.

April 26

The German Condor Legion launch their major terrorist offensive on the small Basque town of Guernica. After experimenting on several towns in previous weeks, the Condor Legion strike the unarmed Basques with airstrikes on civilians. The town of Guernica is bombed for three hours, and no military targets are identified; the bombing is purely to kill innocents. The Basque army in the area are forced to instantly retreat and bombed upon fleeing. They attack on a Monday, market day in Guernica, to maximise the civilian death toll. Military factories are spared, along with Gernikako Arbola, the Guernica Tree, symbolising freedom outside the old government building and the Casa de Juntas, the new location (and tree). These are spared as the Nationalist want the locations for themselves once they invade. The bombing shocks the world, and Nationalists have to hide and lie about what really happened at Guernica.

A separate post about Guernica will be posted.

April 30

Nationalist-supporting Italian troops take the port town of Bermeo, but the España, a 132 metre Nationalist battleship hits one of its own mines and sinks off the coast of Santander 150 kilometres away, and never reaches the port. The España was aiding fellow destroyer Velasco in stopping a British ship of getting into port when it hit its own mine. Five seaman die as Republican planes bomb the sinking ship, but all other men were rescued by the Velasco.

As Nationalist troops close in on Bilbao, the Basque government makes a plea, asking that 20,000 children be shipped out of Spain in temporary exile. The first ship leaves a month later, 4,000 Basque refugee children to Britain, while others are sent to France, Belgium, the Soviet Union and Mexico. Many never return home.

Basque children in the French Pyrenees. Children in western countries have to suffer the Second World War during their return home. Children in Communist countries could not return for nearly 20 years

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: José Antonio Primo de Rivera Executed

Would you look at this creep? Was there a vampire lookalike contest in Madrid?

José Antonio Primo de Rivera y Sáenz de Heredia, a mouthful of a name for a man who, at first glance, had a standard rich boy’s life, then got himself in with an equally awful man and got his name into history.

Born in Madrid on 24 April 1903, he got to inherit the noble title 3rd Marquis of Estella, from his father Miguel Primo de Rivera, Spain’s dictator through the 1920’s. He started with a typical aristocratic lifestyle, learning from home while being raised by his aunt, riding horses on the rich family’s estates, and then stumbled through university. Over six years, he received an excellent bachelors and doctorate in law while running a group opposing education policies. He graduated the same year his father became Spain’s dictator, assuming he could a better job than politicians. The sense of entitlement was huge in this family.

Baby Rivera went to do his one-year military service while Daddy Rivera started imposing his will on the country. Baby Rivera then got court-martialed for punching his superior officer. The officer had written a letter against Daddy Rivera and his son felt that violence would be the answer. But, naturally, a dictator’s son can hardly receive much of a punishment. (To be fair, the officer was Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, a nasty human being in his own right).

By 1925, Baby Rivera was back to being a lawyer in Madrid, working quietly in his office. With Spain going down the toilet for a variety of reasons, Daddy Rivera was forced to give up his hold on the country in early 1930, and died in Paris shortly after. Now, Baby Rivera was ready for politics.

Spain was in turmoil by the time of the 1931 election, and Rivera strangely ran for office as a monarchist for the Unión Monárquica Nacional party, and also oversaw (which was in opposing competition) the Agrupación al Servicio de la República. The monarchy fled Spain, and Second Republic was born. Rivera was on the wrong side of history. He managed to get his first arrest a year later in the 1932 Sanjurjo coup (also a failure).

But this young fascist was no quitter. By 29 October 1933, he launched his new Falange Española party in Madrid. His opening speech included his feeling that violence was important and democracy… not so important. He stressed that change could not come by elections, but by force. Despite a lack of serious numbers to the party, they could be noticed by the ‘right’ people (meaning rich and mean).

A month later, Rivera ran for office in the election again, for the Unión Agraria y Ciudadana, part of the CEDA (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas) group of parties. This time he won, to represent Cadiz in the far south. In February 1934, the Falange merged with the Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, and they became known as the Falange Española de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, with Rivera as leader. Then things really went south.

In early 1935, the Falangists started attacking Jewish stores, believing that violence was acceptable, because both Jews and Freemasons had too greater influence. Any meetings or rallies involving Rivera and the Falange were the scene of constant fighting and racism. The country was becoming a whirlpool of disaster – perfect for a violence-loving man like Rivera.

February 1936 saw another election, with the left-wing Popular Front winning. The Falangists only gained a mere 0.7% of the vote. But hate was on Rivera’s side. Despite the appalling turnout, right-wing sympathisers flocked to the tiny fascist party in the wake of the election, with 40,000 haters quickly signing up to the Falange. Suddenly the amount of voices spouting fascist rubbish was growing, stability was at nil, and the Falange were telling everyone to obey their leaders and prepare for burden.

Rivera hated everything. He spouted fascist rhetoric from Germany and Italy, despised democracy, had a thirst for war, believed women were useless, that people shouldn’t even be allowed to vote, and generally sounded like the Trump of his time. He liked to write poems, mostly about Spain being saved in its hour of truth, ruling with iron fists, blah blah.

Rivera got arrested in Madrid on 14 March 1936, on a charge of illegally possessing a firearm. They held him in custody for nine weeks and shipped him off to Alicante on the eastern coast. Sadly, things were too relaxed there and Rivera could still work with his party to be part of the group planning a military coup against the government. Rivera also wrote with General Franco, and had guns and ammo in his cell.

July 17 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Falange party standing alongside the rebels as the military rose up and killed thousands. Rivera remained behind bars, now in solitary confinement doing nothing while Spain burned. Franco was busy taking over a country with violence, but Rivera languished in jail. Franco never liked Rivera (calling him a foppish playboy) and Rivera played no role in the uprising. The Republicans even tried to swap Rivera for one of their prisoners, and Franco didn’t want him back. Franco took the rhetoric, took the support, and left Rivera to rot.

As Spain heaved through immense pain, it wasn’t until October 3 that Rivera got officially charged with conspiracy against the Republic and military insurrection. As a lawyer, he defended himself, with another failure on his part. He was convicted on November 18, and executed at dawn on November 20.

The Falange party was small, but they did one thing for Franco – while the soldiers were fighting on the front lines, the fascist nut-jobs were running in among the population, carrying out murders to aid the war. Franco had the army, and the fascists, the carlists and the monarchists, the churchmen and their followers, on his side, in every town and city. The Falange party was swallowed in 1937 when Franco killed their new leader, Rivera’s deputy, and gave the job to his brother (talk about a booby-prize). But Franco used Rivera, and his death, as propaganda. A facsist leader, embodying all the evil behaviour necessary to be a right-wing leader, was a great symbol for the haters who fought for Franco. Dead Rivera was named the 1st Duke of Primo de Rivera. When the war ended in 1939, Franco had Rivera’s body put in the royal El Escorial temporarily, and then moved in to Franco’s own super tomb, Valle de los Caídos, in 1959 at its grand opening. Franco also died on November 20, making the day a real super-freak anniversary.

Check out the anniversary of Franco dying  – The Beginners Guide to the 40th Anniversary of Franco’s Death

Check out the 80th anniversary of the death of someone great instead – 80 Years Since The Death of Buenaventura Durruti – 20 November 1936

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight of Rivera’s life. Unlike most posts, there is no room for comments, as I don’t want to talk to anyone who supports fascism. I also do not want any more photos of him, his work, his Falange symbols or anything else on my site.

This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: Federico García Lorca – 19 August 1936

Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca 05/06/1898 – 19/08/1936

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Federico García Lorca, born in June 1898 in the small town of Fuente Vaqueros (near Granada) is a universally known poet and writer. But just as he is recognised for his literary achievements, his name is also well known for what happened on 19 August 1936.

García Lorca grew up with his father, Federico García Rodríguez, a successful farmer, and his mother, teacher Vicenta Lorca Romero, on their farm until moving to Granada in 1909. Six years later he started at the University of Granada, and despite being a gifted musician, he started writing. Just one year later, García Lorca travelled through Spain, and self-published his first book, Impresiones y Paisajes (read my review here) based on the trip in 1918. Through his success, he moved to Madrid a year later to the Residencia de Estudiantes to study at the University of Madrid.

García Lorca studied philosophy and law, but his heart lay in writing. He struck up friendships with Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Gregorio Martina Sierra and Juan Ramón Jiménez, and published his first work of poetry two years into his studies. More poetry, essays and plays followed, with his most popular poetry Romancero Gitano published in 1928. García Lorca found inspiration in the land and the people of Spain, seeing it through less-than traditional eyes, instead finding beauty in new lights. In 1927 a play opened by Salvador Dalí had García Lorca at his side, to great acclaim, after play failures five years earlier.

Lorca (1914)
Lorca (1914)

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The mid-twenties were filled with strong collaboration between García Lorca and Dalí, though Dalí rejected García Lorca’s romantic advances. By 1928, the friendship became strained, and García’s Lorca also broke off his affair with sculpter Emilio Soriano Alarén, which enhanced García Lorca’s depression. The constant stress of being a public figure, and having to hide his true self weighed on him (same-sex relationships were technically legal between 1881- 1928, and then 1932 -1936, but in a deeply Catholic nation it wasn’t considered acceptable). He was being typecast as a gypsy poet, as gypsies were one of his predominant themes in his work. García Lorca wanted to adapt and live his art. Dalí and Luis Buñuel released a film in 1929, without García Lorca’s help, and Dalí married, leaving García Lorca feeling he was being edged out of the group and the depression only grew worse. His family shipped him to the US in 1929 to recuperate from his worries. García Lorca flirted with new styles, though his work would not be published until after his death.

García Lorca returned to Spain after a year and then in 1931 the Second Spanish Republic was born. The young writer was in charge of the Teatro Universitario La Barraca. Thanks to the new government education programme, García Lorca toured rural Spain to bring free art to the public. With little equipment and a tiny stage, the masses got to see García Lorca acting and hear his work performed. Seeing the poor populations of Spain and their reaction to their first (sometimes only ever) art performances drove García Lorca to believe art could change lives with plays about social action. The La Barraca tour created three of Garcia Lorca’s best plays – Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, all about standing up to the bourgeois.

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After taking Blood Wedding to Argentina in 1933, García Lorca was on a roll. He returned home and created Play and Theory of the Duende, and wrote about how art needed to understand death, and reasoning limitations, and then returned to his roots of romance in his poetry (after a love affair with Juan Ramírez de Lucas) with the amazing Sonnets of Dark Love. But La Barraca had their funding cut in 1934 and closed in April 1936. García Lorca kept writing over summers at home in Huerta de San Vicente outside Granada, adding to his works with When Five Years Pass and Diván del Tamarit.

But as everyone knows, García Lorca was living in a deeply troubled world. The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, and García Lorca knew his work on rebelling against the wealthy and his outspoken views on right-wing politics could see him as a target. A spokesman for the people was not going to be welcome anymore. Granada was in turmoil; not one of the cities to be initially overthrown by the rebel Nationalists, but it had martial law imposed. Bombings became frequent and the huge divide between left or right (poor or rich) was so stark that fighting emerged everywhere. García Lorca was not political, but when push came to shove, he supported those with nothing, after years of seeing deprivation in his country and abroad.

García Lorca left his home and stayed with his friend Luis Rosales in central Granada, but nowhere was safe. Lorca’s brother-in-law, Granada Mayor Manuel Fernández-Montesinos was assassinated during fighting on August 18. Hours later, fascist militia turned up at the Rosales’ residence and García Lorca was arrested, no reason given. He had been visited and interrogated weeks earlier, but when a right-wing politician came and got García Lorca alongside armed men, all of García Lorca’s fears came true.

García Lorca was held overnight by armed gunmen, their whereabouts or activities murky. The following morning, García Lorca and three others – Joaquín Arcollas Cabezas, Francisco Galadí Melgar and Dióscoro Galindo González – were driven out to Fuente Grande, the middle of nowhere between the towns of Víznar and Alfacar. After digging their own  graves, García Lorca and the others were executed.

While the world was deprived of García Lorca from then on, the why’s and how’s have been debated ever since. He was shot by fascist forces, though his arrest came from CEDA, a conservative Catholic political group. Some think it was part of an elimination process of all who supported Marxism. His murderers spoke of his sexual orientation, leading that to be a theory on his killing, along with some kind of same-sex love and jealousy theory. García Lorca had friends in right and left-wing groups. He supported the left-wing government and had spoken at gatherings supporting the left. He also had communist supporters, yet was arrested in the home of a leading Falange fascist, and regularly met with Falange leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Francisco Franco himself ordered an investigation on the execution, but the paperwork has never been found.

Since the undignified death, countless have sought to find García Lorca’s burial place. One early search was by author Gerald Brennan himself, as documented in the wonderful The Face of Spain in 1949. Despite many attempts, García Lorca was never found in the Franco era (1939-1975).  The site of the executions was identified in 1969 by a man who said he helped García Lorca dig his grave, but it wasn’t until 1999 that digging by the University of Granada could begin. Nothing was found. García Lorca’s family long denied permission for people to dig up their relative, but relatives of another man also executed continued to push for answers, which the García Lorca family agreed to. DNA samples were taken from all families and in 2009, it was time again to find García Lorca.

 

site of 1999 excavation

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After two weeks’ work, samples were taken from a site for testing. No bones were found, and no bullets were uncovered. The grave was very shallow, about 40 cm deep, and could not have been a 70+ year-old grave-site. Three years later, another dig was launched, 500 metres from a first site, which also uncovered nothing. People who claimed to be part of the killings, hired men out killing for the Falange, claimed that García Lorca was a target after writing The House of Bernarda Alba, and the people portrayed in the story wanted him gone.

The Barranco de Viznar, a nearby spot of mass civil war graves in the wilderness, has been suggested as a site where García Lorca may lie, killed or moved there during the war. A memorial headstone lies there for García Lorca stating ‘We are all Lorca’. An olive tree at Fuente Grande has a memorial for García Lorca, where flowers are laid every year. All his family homes are now museums in Granada, along with a park named Parque Federico García Lorca. A famous statue of García Lorca stands in Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid, and his niece runs The Lorca Foundation in his honour.

me paying homage to García Lorca's life in Madrid
me paying homage to García Lorca’s life in Madrid

García Lorca’s work was banned by Franco until 1953, and then censored for the rest of the Franco era. Since then more work has been published and celebrated, along with new publications from unpublished manuscripts held dear by his family. Searches and theories on his death remain ongoing 80 years later. This month, Argentinian federal judge Maria Servini has agreed to take on the García Lorca case, sequestering paperwork on the killing of the poet, while she is also prosecuting over other civil war deaths. Perhaps one day, Federico García Lorca will be found.

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This is not a detailed analysis, instead a simplified report of Lorca’s life and death. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit.

This Week In Spanish Civil War History – Week 1: July 17 – 24 1936

Here is the first installment of a new series, a weekly post chronicling the Spanish Civil War, 80 years after the uprising in July 1936. The Spanish Civil War is a complex subject, but if you are new, here is a super simple round-up.

A country with a rocky past, but the more recent Spanish troubles started in 1931, when the monarchy was exiled, creating the Second Spanish Republic. Left-wingers won an election, but as people tried fighting for basics, like fair wages, workers’ rights, women’s rights, education etc, nothing went well, no one agreed, and right-wing conservatives and the church resisted in every which way. Power switched in every direction, but when the Republican left-wing Popular Front took power in February 1936, the military considered an uprising to restore conservative control. Tensions ran high for several months, and when several prominent left and right-wing leaders were murdered in Madrid in July, the match was lit for battle.

The Republicans, the Spanish left, consisted of the Popular Front government, combined with socialists, communists, anarchists, workers’ unions, Marxists, leaders of autonomous Spanish regions like Catalonia and Galicia, and later the International Volunteers. The Spanish right consisted of the military, the Falange fascists, the religious Carlists and the monarchists.

People quickly had to decide which side they were on, though this would have been obvious in most people’s lives already. Within days, thousands were killed for being on the ‘wrong’ side, depending on the consensus of their town or city. What happened next was three years of bloody murder, fighting and executions.

Week 1 – July 17-24 1936

July 17

A military rebellion starts in Morocco, with the Spanish Legion soldiers killing or imprisoning their Generals. Guardia Civil police try to hold back the military in Tetuán and  Larache, resulting in bloody battles. Within a day, Spanish Morocco has fallen to the rebel soldiers. Three Generals – Franco, Mola, and Sanjurjo, all recently demoted within the army, have set up much of the plans. Franco declares a state of war, a call for soldiers to rebel all over mainland Spain and take control of their towns and cities. Anyone who resists gets a bullet.

The Prime Minster, Santiago Casares Quiroga, does nothing to arm the population of Spain, instead spending all day on the phone, ensuring no military barracks decide to rise up in support of the angry Generals.

Armed workers’ militia in July 1936

July 18

Word has spread and the socialists, communists, anarchists and workers’ unions are ready to fight to preserve the Republican government. By dawn, Pamplona, Segovia, Cadiz, Avila, Salamanca and Zaragoza are already overcome by the military, with many deaths. Zaragoza was a stronghold of the anarchists, so it is a huge blow to the Republicans.

The rebel Nationalists already have 1/3 of the country under their control and systemic executions start as other locations rise to protect themselves. Unions offer to help if given weapons, but are refused. Workers strike and start building barricades in the streets.

July 19

By dawn, the prime minister has resigned, and after negotiations, José Giral takes over, giving weapons to the population to defend themselves after formally disbanding the army.

tof-02-035aWeapons handed out to the populace

Seville fights but is defeated by the rebels. Much of southern Spain is invaded and executions begin. Navarre in the north falls to the rebels in a bloody massacre. The city of Burgos has no fighting, totally in support of the military.

Jaén, San Sebastian, Santander and Malaga manage to hold back the rebels. The important cities of Madrid and Barcelona have not yet been taken by the military. Madrid is on a knife-edge as workers are armed, ready to do battle, the assault guards personnel on their side.

General Franco leaves his post in the Canary Islands to take control in Morocco. Barcelona faces battle in the streets, with armed workers and police fighting the large military contingent. The police divisions could not hold the city on their own, and arms are given to the public to help with the siege.

July 20

After two days fighting in the streets, Barcelona is won by the Republican population. In Madrid, workers lay siege to the military barracks, killing many and saving the capital city with people power, as in Barcelona.

condorsMallorca, Coruña, Vigo, Bilbao and Granada are all won by the rebels. Valencia is still in confusion, when the army did not take sides. Fighting begins as workers strike and attack the military barracks.

The rebel military leader, General Sanjurjo, flies from exile in Portugal but is killed when his plane crashes due to plane overloading.

July 21

All chances of ending the rebellion is over, although Seville is the only main city controlled by the military.

SpanishCivilWar_DivisionOfSpain_193607endAreas controlled by Republicans and nationalists in the early days of the war

The Siege of the Alcázar starts in Toledo, south of Madrid. The Alcázar (castle/fort) is filled with rebels and their hostages as Republicans fight to free the women and children inside and defeat the rebels.

July 22

The People’s Olympiad, (an event held in protest against Germany holding the Olympics) get cancelled with the outbreak of war, with many athletes in the city at the outbreak. Many were trapped in Barcelona as fighting started; some choose to fight.

The navy is loyal to the government and the Republicans. Sailors got word of the uprising and defied and killed most navy officers, saving the navy from the rebels. The air force never intended to turn against the government, but didn’t have much in the way of planes or power anyway.

808-0001-001People’s Olympiad poster

July 23

The Nationalist rebels start their own military government, the Junta de Defensa Nacional, based in right-wing Burgos. General Miguel Cabanellas is their leader.

All areas are suffering from killings and prisoner-takings, regardless of who won the uprising.

July 24

The Durruti Column, led by leader Buenaventura Durruti volunteer to leave safe Barcelona and head to Aragon to start fighting back the rebels. About 3000 workers leave in their first group to begin  a take back of rebel-held areas.

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From now on, each weekly round-up will be posted on a Monday. All photos are linked to original sources for photo credit.

This is not an in-depth analysis, merely a weekly highlight (lowlight?) round-up. Comments on any extra details anyone wishes to add are welcome.

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 7: Valle de los Caídos: A trip to Franco’s tomb to see a divided Spain

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You know how Germans dress in their best every Sunday and go to leave flowers and prayers at Hitler’s grave? Oh wait, they don’t, they opened up about their past, dealt with their issues and moved on as a people decades ago. So why are Spaniards having family picnics near the tomb of fascist dictator Francisco Franco? I packed my best possible neutral opinion and set off into the Madrid forests to find out.

“The moment you move the soil over shallow graves, the agony of Spain will pour out, like fresh blood from a wound. All that pain and hatred is covered by a thin layer. Don’t stir up something you can’t understand” – Blood in the Valencian Soil

I’m no ignorant tourist. I’m aware of the tensions that surround El Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen. Some say it shouldn’t be open at all, and for a time when the PSOE was in power, it was closed to the public. It was one of the few places on my trip where I was the only foreigner, trying to quietly pass between families of all ages inside a macabre and eerie Basilica inside a mountain.

What is Valle de los Caídos?  It is a giant memorial to those killed in the Spanish Civil War, but ended up as a monument to only the Nationalist side, headed by ultra-conservative war winner Franco, who is buried there. Even the history surrounding the place is murky. ‘Official’ records say it was built by approximately 2,600 workers, and a handful of them were Republican (left-wing anti-Franco) prisoners. (Long story short, Republican prisoners were basically anyone the new dictatorship didn’t like. Proof that ever committed any crime, against the public or the State was tough to find, unless being a Republican soldier counts as a crime, and it was back then). It was commissioned in 1940 and finished in 1959, but a more accurate report was of 20,000 Republican prisoners taking part, and the number  killed in the process is unknown, some say dozens. You can get an idea of how touchy this subject really is.

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Franco inspects the site of Valle de los Caídos in 1940

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Republican prisoners building the cross

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Remains of soldier killed in Toledo arrive to be reburied in 1959

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Watching the opening of Valle de los Caídos in 1959

(click to enlarge the photos will launch an amazing slideshow of pics)

Franco created Valle de los Caidos in the Sierra de Guadarrama, the mountains outside Madrid city. Nearby is San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the once summer palace of the royal family (I visited, and the golden tomb is WELL worth the visit – for another post).  The trouble is, Valle de los Caídos was filled with the bodies of killed men, Nationalist (Franco) soldiers and sympathisers. It was a civil war, Spaniard against Spaniard, but those who opposed the rebel army takeover of the Republic were simply forgotten. José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Falange party is buried there, and Franco was also placed inside a tomb under the basilica in 1975. The exact number of bodies laid to rest inside Valle de los Caídos is unknown, and could be anywhere from 30-35,000. In the last 10 to 15 years, a large number of Republican families and organisations have found the strength and courage to dig up their relatives who were murdered and thrown in mass graves around Spain. However, some have been removed from these graves and placed in Valle de los Caídos without family permission, which only serves to give this place an even more heartbreaking feel.

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View while driving up the mountain

Political views aside, the sight of this location is incredible on its own. You can see it while driving along the motorway, sticking out of the otherwise peaceful mountains the surround the north side of the Madrid province. We went through an innocuous gate off the main road to El Escorial and made our way several kilometers up the mountainside on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning. You constantly catch glimpses of the behemoth through the trees, but until you are standing below the enormous cross  built on the hillside (152 metres, the worlds’ tallest), you cannot grasp the size and scope of the this place.

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The carpark was filled with cars and buses, and I suspected I was about to turn into another touristed location. Not so! Once at the arch doors to the entrance, the only people in sight were the Guardia Civil. The place itself is situated in a beautiful location and the quality of work done is exquisite. The place could have been built as a place to honour those lost in the war and the healing of a great nation. But given that the crypt is a basilica, and that the church oppressed the Spanish population and the Republican (or left-wing if you prefer) side didn’t support the church, there was never the possibility that the monument could honour both sides of the nation.

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Entrance archway

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View of the Sierra de Guadarrama

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Statue over the entrance – The Pietá

I stepped inside, sadly unsurprised that there is gift shop (After all, what child doesn’t want a gift of a colouring book and pencils from a crypt, or a fan with Franco’s grave printed on it?) I put my camera in my satchel, as photos were forbidden, but I had my iPhone in my pocket, just in case. Then I entered the nave.

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Nave

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Ceiling over the altar

From the moment you go inside, the overwhelming and solemn feel of the cold and dark place takes you over. Giant gloomy and menacing angels brandishing swords bear down on you. The nave is filled with masterpieces of religious painting and tapestries. The attention to detail is second to none. I paused to take in them and the angel statues, but the foreboding sense of the place had already sunk into my bones. Mass was finishing up as I arrived at the altar, and I sat down quietly to listen to children sing in the choir. Children were singing in this place that spoke of death.

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Altar angel

Mass ended and the faithful began to wander around the altar, me included. The first thing I noticed was not the menacing  angels, or the elaborate golden Jesus, but the grave of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, which someone had left flowers. Now, can I judge those who come here? No, I can’t. I don’t know why they come. Perhaps their loves ones were buried here,  as Nationalist believers to the Franco cause. It was a civil war and everyone lost one way or another. Can I, or anyone, look down on these people for coming  to pray? No. Whether it’s for a loved one, to feel closer to the history of Spain, or even if they supported Franco, that’s their decision. But what about the people who came to leave flowers on the grave of the founding father of Spain’s fascist party? What was the motivation there? A grieving loved one, or someone with old evil ideas that haven’t been forgotten? It was shiver up the spine stuff.

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Altar

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As priests wandered about and nodded hello, I found what I had (kind of) came for – the tomb of Franco placed on the opposite side of the altar below the semi-circle of wooden stalls made for the monks and the choir. There lay flowers on the grave, and this time I saw no reason why anyone would place them there. There are many reasons why people continue to support Franco (and it’s a discussion too long for this post) and I don’t see the merit in any of them. Just to the right lay more floral tributes – dozens to be precise, which had been placed to one side presumably because of the sheer volume. A few people were taking photographs, under the watch of a guard. These people had laid the flowers and wanted to capture the moment, no mistaking their alliances in this case. I asked if I could also take a photo with these people and got permission. Why take it? I don’t know, it’s like watching a car crash, it’s awful but you can’t look away.

I was surprised by the state of the place. Perfection? No. Built into a mountain, they must fight their own war with damp, and you can see that in the granite stonework. Water seeps in here and there, which only gave the place a more unearthly and morbid feel. After all, we were all underground, surrounded by graves…

To the left and right are small rooms, with rows of seats and monuments to Spain’s fallen. People lit candles and families laughed and chatted with priests. What says family day out more than this? I sat in the right room, the entombment, which featured an alabaster Jesus statue. I sat and looked at the wall.  Caídos – Por Dios y Por España. Fallen – For God and For Spain.  All of Spain? Many disagree. Republicans denounce this place, and many here on this random Sunday wore Falange symbols on their lapels.

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Inside the chapel of the emtombment

I will admit it – I silently cried as I sat there, which drew the attention of a priest who thought I needed comfort, and the ‘comforting’ hands of old ladies on my shoulder. Me, the young Catholic attending Mass here? Oh boy, that couldn’t be more untrue.

I headed back through the place, fairly certain I wouldn’t ever be back. I stopped by the gift shop to buy a book on the place, in Spanish, about how the place has reconciled Spain. Hmm. I also grabbed an excellent copy of a collection of civil war photographs. The crypt trinkets and religious adornments could stay where they were. After all, who would wear a Valle de los Caídos t-shirt? Why would you, and for what purpose?

The shining moment came as I left the crypt and stepped out in the sunlight. There stood a group of men, all aged 70 or more, hailing a fascist salute at the cross above the entrance. It was well and truly time to leave.

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Panoramic view from the main entrance after the fascist saluters said hello and went inside

If there is one thing, it’s that this place is full of emotion. Good emotions? Not all of them. No good ever came from a fascist salute, but it would be too simple to label everyone who visits there, whether they’re crying at Franco’s tomb or having a picnic outside in the sunshine. I am not a religious person and I am not going to tell Catholics how to pray to their God in that Basilica. The books I bought there, their glossy pages gloss over Spain’s history entirely – after all this time, the war and the subsequent dictatorship is not talked about like it should be. Spain shouldn’t have to hide its past. It has been 74 years since the end of the war and yet its presence still lives in Spanish life, whether people say so or not. In 2011, it was decided that moving Franco’s body would be a way of restoring Valle de los Caídos’ image and making it a truly impartial monument to Spain’s fallen, however as the crypt was elevated to Basilica status, the church can decide, and their opinions are not so easy changed.

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Franco’s burial in 1975  I wonder who the crying  guy is on the left (click to enlarge and view slideshow)

My personal opinion? The place is worth the visit, despite being a pain to get to if you don’t have a car. I travelled alone, and would I want to take my young family there? I’m honestly not sure. It’s not something you will find in the Spain brochures during your Ryanair flight to the beach in Benidorm or Malaga. But if you’re into Spain history, or have a personal or familial connection to the civil war (as have I) you really should visit. Just leave your camera behind and hush your opinions while you’re there. I know what side I stand on, and I took the bus back to Madrid, convinced more than ever of my opinions. But they remain mine. The other people there were very polite, and believe in what they love – that Spain was better under Franco. Nothing I stumble out in Spanish will make the slightest bit of difference. Check out this photo of a wedding over Franco’s tomb though, that was a surprise find. Just goes to show how divided this place can make people.

Photos by abc.es – protesters waved Republican flags and supporters gave out fascist salutes when Valle de los Caídos reopened. The salute seems to be pretty popular

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Want to visit for yourself? – Valle de los Caídos website

Up next, Part 8 of A Little Jaunt to Spain…. Learning to be a tourist in Spain

Click here for past editions of A Little Jaunt to Spain – Spain 2013 in Review

All photos are author’s own, or linked to original sources