For prisoner of Spain’s Franco, exhumation is bittersweet


MADRID – For one activist jailed by Spain’s Fascists for his political views, Thursday’s exhumation and reburial of Francisco Franco’s bones after decades lying in state marks a bittersweet moment.

Now 93, Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz (picture) was forced as a prisoner of the Franco regime to help build the Valley of the Fallen, the mausoleum that has been the dictator’s resting place since his death in 1975.

“It was time (to move him). It was overdue,” retired historian Sanchez-Albornoz told Reuters.

“We’ve waited many decades for (Franco) to disappear from this monument, which … was the shame of Spain. All the dictators of Franco’s ilk have vanished from Europe – Hitler, Mussolini – and were not honored with such tombs.”

In a carefully choreographed ceremony, Franco’s remains will be removed from the Valley of the Fallen and reburied in a family plot under a plan ratified by a divided parliament and approved last month by Spain’s Supreme Court.

In 1947, with the civil war that convulsed the country from 1936 to 1939 still fresh in collective memory, a military court sentenced Sanchez-Albornoz to forced labor for membership of an anti-Fascist student association.

Four months later he escaped to France with the help of compatriots exiled there who, he recalled, provided him with false papers, cash and a car they borrowed from U.S. novelist and liberal activist Norman Mailer, who was touring Europe at the time.

“Spain at the cusp of 1948 was still one huge jail,” he said. “Driving down the road, there were military police barricades every 20 kilometers (12 miles) who would stop you and ask for your papers.”


Sanchez-Albornoz was one of the lucky ones.

Many of his fellow prisoners died and were buried in the valley, along with other opposition activists – and he hopes the removal of Franco’s remains might open the door to using modern forensic techniques to identify some other bodies it contains.

“Some might think that Franco’s exhumation is the end of a phase. I see this as the beginning of one,” he said in his Madrid apartment.

“Many more exhumations await, of those who were executed by the regime or moved there against or without families’ permission. Families have requested their bodies be returned, so they can be buried with their kin, in their home towns.”

Without such an effort, he believes Spain will struggle to come to terms with Franco’s still divisive legacy.

And while he tolerates those who oppose the exhumation, his hostility towards Franco remains acute.

“He should not have been buried in the first place. He should have suffered the same fate as his victims,” he said.

Sanchez-Albornoz views the millions of euros successive government have spent maintaining the mausoleum as an “inexplicable contradiction” between democracy in theory and practice.

He refers to the valley only by its pre-Franco name of Cuelgamuros and describes his relationship with it as special – “a place of imprisonment, but also of liberation.”

Spain’s governing Socialists have long sought to turn it into a memorial to the around 500,000 civil war dead.

But should the mass graves ever be exhumed and victims’ remains returned to their ancestors, Sanchez-Albornoz favors a simpler fate. “Let nature take charge of that place’s destiny,” he said.

(Corrects paragraph 5 to show supreme court approval was last month)