MADRID — An hour’s drive northwest of here, in the Valley of the Fallen, is a residue of Europe’s past that suggests what the continent’s future would have been if fascism had not been defeated in the previous century. Atop a granite mountain stands an almost 500-foot-tall stone cross, the world’s tallest. An enormous basilica has been hewn deep into the mountain. The effect, surely intended, of all this gigantism is the diminution of the individual.
It was, however, conceived by, and for the apotheosis of, the individual who, from his death in 1975 until last October, was buried there. Francisco Franco’s remains have been removed as part of Spain’s ongoing grapple with the politics of memory. Like Americans disputing about Confederate statues and other discomfiting reminders of things past, Spaniards are in the difficult process of striking a delicate balance between necessary remembering and judicious forgetting.
At 33, Franco became Europe’s youngest general since Napoleon. In July 1936, he ignited the civil war that, until it ended with his fascist victory in 1939, was a rehearsal for the cataclysm that engulfed the rest of Europe that year. He lacked the flamboyance of the German and Italian dictators he survived by three decades, but he had a distinctive cold cruelty: He would sign death warrants while dining, sometimes stipulating death by garroting and ordering that this method be announced to deepen the grief of the loved ones of the executed.
All civil wars are savage, but Spain’s — a boiling cauldron of left and right political fanaticisms, anti-clericalism and class hatreds — was especially so. There are mass graves not yet opened. Paul Preston, a Franco biographer, judges Franco responsible for a large majority of the 200,000 murders — non-battle deaths — during and after the war. More than 33,000 are buried in the Valley of the Fallen, the largest of Spain’s many unmarked gravesites. Reportedly some from the war’s losing side died there doing forced labor for the winner.
In his 2019 book “After the Fall: Crisis, Recovery and the Making of a New Spain,” Tobias Buck of the Financial Times reports that in 2018 there were 1,143 Spanish streets named for Franco and others in his regime, and there were villages named Caudillo, the title Franco chose for himself. Forty-five years after Franco’s death, Spaniards might be embarking on a confrontation with their past akin to the one Americans are having about theirs 155 years after Appomattox.
In 1977, as Spain was beginning to tiptoe toward today’s status as a normal European nation, a law granted amnesty to former members of Franco’s regime, including his torturers. In September 2018, however, the tacit “pact of forgetting” was forgotten, to this extent: A socialist prime minister won the approval of a divided parliament (176 of 350 members for, 165 abstaining) — its ambivalence reflected the public’s — for removing Franco’s body. “I believe,” he said, “that a mature European democracy like ours cannot have symbols that divide Spaniards.”
Writing in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy about European “memory laws,” George Soroka and Felix Krawatzek note that some are “prescriptive”: They aim to buttress national unity and social cohesiveness — and perhaps thereby resist European homogenization — by giving official imprimaturs to certain historical judgments:
“France’s 2005 Mekachera Act attempted to enshrine a more positive view of that country’s colonial involvement in Africa; a 2014 amendment to Russia’s penal code made it illegal to denigrate the actions of the Soviet Union during the Second World War; and a 2018 Polish statute attempted to protect the ‘good name’ of the Polish state and people against any charges of complicity in Nazi atrocities, among other potential slights.”
In Spain’s healthy democracy, parties heatedly debate national history. The law, however, is used lightly (as with the removal of Franco’s remains) to shape the future by taking, as France, Russia, Poland and other nations have done, normative positions about the past.
Europeans walk gingerly among their cultural inheritances. The Vienna Philharmonic always plays the Radetzky March at its annual New Year’s Day concert, which this month was broadcast to 92 nations. This year, however, it played an altered version of the march because it was reminded that the usual version was arranged by an Austrian who was a member of the Nazi Party and who, the Financial Times reports, “also made popular arrangements of the party’s anthem, the Horst-Wessel-Lied.” On a continent strewn with ruins, there is much to remember to remember. Or sometimes to forget.
George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Washington Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com.