The Sacred Dead

Helen Graham

  • Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley Payne and Jesús Palacios
    Wisconsin, 632 pp, £27.95, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 299 30210 8

In one of the best documentaries about present-day Spain’s intractable history wars, two Swedish filmmakers visit the Valley of the Fallen, the mausoleum Franco had built outside Madrid to commemorate his victory in the Civil War.[*] They are accompanied by 86-year-old Andrés Iniesta, who became a political prisoner in 1939 when he was 17, spent nearly twenty years in prison and was one of the 20,000 forced labourers who built the mausoleum. The filmmakers wanted him to meet the abbot, chosen by Franco in 1958 and still in post in 2007. But staff at the ticket kiosk asked him to pay – the mausoleum’s upkeep is partly dependent on public funds – and he was furious. ‘You can’t charge me! I built it! This is my place! How dare you try to charge me!’ (In the end one of the filmmakers paid for his ticket.) Later in the documentary, when the filmmakers asked the abbot about the cost of Francoism, the abbot categorically denied the regime’s involvement in mass killings and the terror the postwar dictatorship imposed on large swathes of Spain’s civilian population, reducing to a Manichean parable complicated issues of social and economic change. In reality the Civil War was fought over what kind of country post-imperial Spain could be, how it would pay its way and who would have a voice in its politics. The abbot’s time-locked tirade brings echoing down the years the social critic Mariano José de Larra’s despairing cry that, for Spain, ‘days’ – as in decades or even centuries – ‘do not pass.’ The abbot’s utterances belong to mythology, not history, but the fact that such views still inhabit both church and state, and find a positive response in considerable sectors of Spanish society, is a reminder of the transformation wrought by Francoism in its first decade, ideologically reinforced by the dictatorship throughout its remaining forty years, and producing effects which haven’t dissipated in the forty years since.

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[*] Mari Carmen España: The End of Silence directed by Martin Jönssen and Pontus Hjorthén (2008).