At last Franco is properly buried. This victory belongs to the people of Spain

The Valle de los Caidos. Franco’s remains are being transferred to the crypt in Mingorrubio state cemetery where his wife is buried. Photograph: Xaume Olleros/Getty Images
The Valle de los Caidos. Franco’s remains are being transferred to the crypt in Mingorrubio state cemetery where his wife is buried. Photograph: Xaume Olleros/Getty Images

In Spain, the process to exhume the remains of the dictator Francisco Franco from the basilica at the site known as the Valley of the Fallen concluded today. It brought to an end an anomaly that had persisted for 44 years – because in principle, a democracy cannot honour a dictatorship. Until now, Franco had been interred in a mausoleum of gigantic proportions, located in the mountains to the north of Madrid, at an altitude of 1,400 metres and crowned by a 150-metre-high cross that can be seen for miles.

From now on, his remains will lie in the family tomb of an ordinary cemetery, with no flag or honours of any kind. The dictator has left the monument that was constructed on his orders at the end of the civil war, under the initial direction of the Basque architect Pedro Muguruza, a sympathiser with the new regime. It is estimated that the monument’s construction was achieved with the labour of 20,000 Republican prisoners of war and political prisoners, a fact that has been especially hurtful to many.

The dictator’s family and the monks of the basilica had attempted to prevent the exhumation, using all the instruments legally available to them. It is the very strength of the Spanish legal system that has given them the protection that the dictator refused to the millions of Spaniards whom he made his enemies, and to those he executed without mercy. Nevertheless, these legal manoeuvres only delayed the outcome. The fact that the exhumation is taking place today, and not sooner, is due to those who opposed it, not because of government inaction.

The first step towards this conclusion was taken in May 2017, when a parliamentary initiative by the Spanish Socialist Workers party (PSOE) to reactivate the 2007 law of historical memory and to exhume the dictator generated an extraordinary degree of consensus in the congress of deputies. Only one vote was cast against the measure, and that was by mistake.

On the basis of the consensus – inevitably nuanced but fundamentally solid – that a democracy cannot honour a dictatorship, the government led by Pedro Sánchez put into action the exhumation procedure. The supreme court endorsed the action, and therefore all legal guarantees were obtained. The fact that Franco’s descendants have declared their intention to appeal to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg is just another example of democratic generosity, albeit ironic. The Franco family are joined in their displeasure by the recently elected parliamentary deputies of the far right (less numerous in Spain than other European countries), but this does not mean that the issue is divisive within Spanish society.

The vast majority of citizens view this historic day with tranquility, observing that the law has been upheld in the Valley of the Fallen. Some will be happy, others perhaps indifferent, while many will raise a glass to toast the occasion. None will experience any substantial change in their lives, but that is indeed the irresistible force of symbols: apparently they change nothing and yet they change everything.

In this case, the elimination of the last great symbol of the dictatorship brings our reality into line with the image that the Spanish people wish to transmit of contemporary Spain. While Franco has laid in his mausoleum for the last 44 years, society has not stood still – quite the opposite. We have built a democracy that is world-leading, ahead of the US and Japan (according to the V-Dem Index, of the University of Gothenburg), and a country that enjoys some of the highest levels of freedom in the world (exceeding those of France, the UK and Italy), according to Freedom House. The tolerance of our society has made us a country in love with diversity: for example, we were pioneers in legalising gay marriage. In contrast to Franco’s ambitions of a unitary, hierarchical Spain, Spain is today one of the most decentralised countries in the world, only behind Germany. Our government has more female deputies than any other OECD country and our laws against gender violence provide a model for legislation elsewhere.

The Spain of just 40 years ago is now radically different. And yet, for democrats the tomb of Franco aroused profound disquiet. Our democracy – with roots stretching back to the Cádiz Cortes (parliament) of 1810 – has matured and strengthened, but the pharaonic mausoleum has remained in plain sight. We needed to address the most important question: the symbol. Franco has long been dead and buried, but from today he is properly buried. This victory belongs to all the people of Spain and to our sturdy democracy.

Irene Lozano is a writer and the secretary of state for global Spain.

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