Valle De Los Caidos: Grand Monument to the Dead

Spain, sad to say, is an enigma for most Americans. A country of heat and passions, of Gypsy music and castanets, and lately of a teetering economy on the verge of collapse, as is much of the rest of Europe, Spain is probably the most mysterious and least understood of western European countries. Isolated and shunned by other western nations for much of the twentieth century, many still consider her Europe’s backwater. Yet there is no other country with a more glorious past, a greater Empire and a devoted Catholic population for the length of her history. Indeed, Spain as we know it, dates from the marriage of “los Reyes Catolicos” — the Catholic Kings — Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castilla. The uniting of this royal couple created the heart of Spain in the fifteenth century. They, in turn, sent their missionaries and their soldiers to bring the Faith to much of the western hemisphere, even to the Far East, at the same time celebrating the expulsion of the last of the Moorish kings from their eight-hundred year brutal occupation of this Christian land.

My topic, the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s, is a controversial one, although it need not be. It is the purposeful misinterpretation (and downright lies) surrounding the event that makes it so. There is no better capsule of that brutal war than Gary Potter’s article Spain’s Crusade, which can be read on this website. A re-reading of this marvelous article will certainly lay the groundwork for my remarks here. I also recommend Warren H. Carroll’s wonderful book, The Last Crusade: Spain, 1936, for a detailed account of the tragic events of the first year of that bloody conflict.

The Monument

When the war that pitted Spaniard against Spaniard — and sometimes sons against fathers — ended in 1939, and General Francisco Franco, the leader of the Nationalist cause, was proclaimed Caudillo of Spain, nearly one million Spaniards lay dead. A year later, at the ceremony commemorating the end of the war, Franco announced his intention to raise a huge and magnificent monument to those who had fallen. His stated intention was that the memorial would possess the “grandeur of the monuments of old, which defy time and forgetfulness.” A site was chosen not far from Madrid, 3360 acres of the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains and its valley. The dead would be buried under the valley floor while the primary memorial would be a huge basilica under the mountain, the size and scope of which are truly astounding. Outdoors, upon a rough granite outcropping would stand the world’s largest cross — 500 feet high and visible from almost thirty miles. Four enormous statues of the Evangelists sit around the base of the cross. There is a huge Pieta at the entrance to the outdoor memorial. Besides the church (now a basilica, declared so by Pope John XXIII in 1960), there are a large Benedictine Abbey on the grounds, a hospederia (hostel for visitors), gardens, and a huge esplanade leading into the underground basilica. It is astonishing to think that the entire inside of the mountain was hewn out to make space for this Basilica. As originally planned, it is actually larger than Saint Peter’s, but a section was closed off and left undedicated to prevent this from happening.

Work began in 1940 and took eighteen years to complete. It was paid for primarily by donations. Controversy still exists over the fact that prison labor was used in part for the construction. Sources who are anti-Franco (and they are many) will call these workers “slaves.” However, they were paid the going wage and were allowed to work off part of their sentences by helping to erect the monument. Yes, they were political prisoners who functioned on the losing side of the war and were caught before they could escape, but they were grateful to be alive and most finished their sentences. About ten percent of the workforce consisted of such prisoners.

The site itself is a national park and is owned and operated by the Patrimonio Nacional, the government heritage agency. It is one of the most visited sites in all of Spain. On the other side of the mountain, from the esplanade leading to the Basilica, is the huge Benedictine Abbey where Masses are said in perpetuity for the dead of the Civil War and later wars in which Royal Spanish soldiers fought. These Benedictines also say public Mass regularly in the Basilica for the Spanish faithful and the many tourists who visit.

Also entombed there is Franco himself (although Franco’s intention was to be buried in his family tomb in Madrid) and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Party, who had been imprisoned even before the start of the war and was murdered in its first year by the government at Alicante prison along with two Falangists and two Carlists. Co-incidentally, he and Franco died on the same day, November 20, thirty-nine years apart. Jose Antonio was only thirty-three years old when he was killed, and despite some of the excesses of the Falange Party, he remained a man of peace and a faithful Catholic to the end. Spanish admirers of Franco still commemorate the two leaders on that day by attending Mass in the Basilica. These are the only two buried within the church itself.

Some Statistics

Although the dead numbered nearly a million, the valley floor entombs only about forty thousand of them. So many died in the first year of the war — 1936 — that even an estimate is undependable. Many of these were bishops, priests, nuns, and faithful Catholics, for the primary aim of the so-called Republic was to exterminate any vestige of Catholicism in the country. And while they called the country a Republic, the coalition running it was made up of anarchists, socialists, Communists and various and sundry revolutionaries of all stripes. There were even Russian advisors on hand. Indeed, the price of Russia’s “assistance” was the entire gold reserve of Spain, five-hundred and ten tons, sent to Stalin in return for his help. In Republican-held Valencia, street names were changed to honor Russian Communist heroes.

According to Warren Carroll, the total number of priests and religious martyred in the Republican part of Spain during the War was 6,832, most of whom were killed simply because they were Catholic religious, with no trial or tribunal even accusing them of a crime, for their “crimes” were being what they were. There were 4,184 diocesan clergy, 2,365 male regular clergy and religious, and 283 nuns murdered. A total of thirteen bishops were murdered as well. Most were merely shot on the spot while others were brutally tortured before being martyred. Seminaries were emptied out and the young seminarians simply driven to the cemeteries and executed there, making the job of the gravediggers easier. The number of deaths that occurred because people were members of some Catholic group, or relatives of nuns or priests, or wore religious medals or scapulars, or granted refuge to hunted priests, or even for simple acts of charity is incalculable. Even dead nuns were disinterred and put on display in their habits at the entrances to churches warning Catholics not to enter. Such was the hatred of the left for the Church.

Of the more than forty thousand churches and chapels in the whole of Spain, more than twenty thousand were totally destroyed, vivid proof that the intention of the Republicans was to obliterate Catholicism from the face of Spain and from the hearts of Spaniards. The brutality and viciousness of the left knew no bounds.

Return of the King

It was always Franco’s intention that Spain’s Catholic monarchy would someday be restored. The last king, Alfonso XIII, shamefully went into self-exile in 1931 when the election came down on the side of the Republicans. As Gary Potter explains in his article, he did not even have to decency to abdicate formally, but merely left the country when the election totals from the large cities favored the Republicans. The fact is, though, that the majority of the country folk wished to retain the Catholic monarchy. Alfonso simply abandoned these faithful. The revolutionary influence took longer to invade isolated Spain, but enter it did, and the next few years showed how close Spain would come to capitulating to that spirit.

As Franco neared his end, in the mid-1970’s, he called on the young Juan Carlos de Borbon, a grandson of Alfonso XIII, as next in line for the monarchy. Franco bypassed Juan, the son of Alfonso, because he suspected him of liberal tendencies and feared that he would undo all that Franco himself had accomplished to keep Spain conservative and Catholic. The family had lived in Rome since Alfonso’s self-exile; so the young Juan Carlos was brought to Spain to be educated there under Franco’s watchful eye. Sadly, after Franco’s death, Juan Carlos, now King of Spain since 1975, began to liberalize the country. Since 2005, even gay “marriage” is legal. Today, the king is more a figurehead than a true monarch. This was obviously not what Franco had in mind for the future of the Spanish governance.

The Valle Under the Socialists

In 2004, Jose Luis Zapatero, a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, was elected Prime Minister of Spain, ushering a new era in the formerly conservative country. Of course, ever since the death of Franco Spanish society had become more and more liberalized. Zapatero’s government instituted the “Law of Historical Memory,” the intention of which was to erase the memory and influence of the Franco regime. Some in his government wanted to close and destroy the monument — something which would cost money the Spanish government certainly does not have; others wanted to convert it into a “monument to democracy” a ridiculous idea since neither side in the Civil War was fighting for “democracy.” A commission was formed by the Socialists — the Expert Commission for the Future of the Valley of the Fallen — to make recommendations on what to do with the monument. Most of the commission wanted first to disinter Franco (based on the fact that he did not die in the War) and have him reburied in Madrid. Then there were suggestions on how to make the Valle “more inclusive” and less Francoist.

In November, 2009, the Patrimonio Nacional ordered the closure of the Basilica and the Cross and sculptures alleging safety issues due to deterioration and wear. The Benedictines who live there vehemently objected, stating that the Socialists merely wanted to keep people away from the place for political and (anti) religious reasons. Fortunately, the Socialists lost the general election in 2011. The new Popular Party government of Mariano Rajoy promptly reopened the monument to the public, adding a charge of five euros to assist in its upkeep. The recommendations of the Expert Commission were discarded. The new government now plans to open a cafeteria restaurant to accommodate visitors — a bit of commercialization, but since it is somewhat remote, at least a convenience. Spain has much bigger problems now than worrying about the extraordinarily huge expense of destroying part of its recent history just to satisfy an angry troupe of leftists. The legacy of her brutal Civil War still takes a toll on the country.

An Interesting Aside

The enormous cross that is the outdoor focal point of the Valle de los Caidos seems to be a copy, although on a much larger scale, of the stone crosses found in Kerala, India, the extreme southwestern state of that sub-continent that was Christianized by Saint Thomas the Apostle. These crosses are called Nazraney Sthambas, meaning crosses of Nazraney Christians (or Saint Thomas Christians). The construction of the Cross in the Valle is accomplished in exactly the same manner as the Indian crosses. The supposition is that later Spanish missionaries (perhaps Saint Francis Xavier?) returned to Spain with knowledge of the early stone crosses of Kerala. An interesting tidbit of Christian history and influence.

A Final Word

It has been said that the winners write the history books. This truism does not seem to hold for this particular war, however. Consider how the International Brigades that fought on the Republican side have been made heroes. It is a fact that many who joined the American Lincoln Brigade were Communists and Socialists, or at least adventurers wanting to overthrow Altar and Throne, the goal of revolutionaries since 1789. The same can be said for the Brigades from other countries as well. It was these 40,000 fighters who prolonged the war and caused the brutality, and hence the death toll, to rise.

While Franco was far from perfect, his fight was for Spain, for conservatism and for Catholicism. He succeeded in keeping the Nazis and the Russians out of Spain. Indeed, when hostilities ended and the Nationalists had won, he ceremoniously laid his battle sword at the altar and swore he would never raise it again except in defense of Spain. As my friend Gary Potter has observed, “General Franco understood, of course, that it wasn’t merely the Reds he’d fought against who were against the Faith (and the Nationalist Crusade), but the whole weight of the Enlightenment — modernity. I suspect that he built so huge a Basilica and located it inside a mountain in the hope that the complex could not be easily demolished. Franco and his architects knew what they were doing.”

NB: For readers who are inclined to tackle big projects, I recommend the trilogy of novels by Jose Maria Gironella. The masterpiece is the first, The Cypresses Believe in God which covers the run-up to the War and the first few months of it. The two sequels, One Million Dead and Peace after War are not as riveting as the first, but are certainly worth taking the time to read. The books follow the family Alvear of Girona, in Catalonia, Spain. The war is told through the eyes of this family whose various members served the many factions that made up the two warring sides. The trilogy is beautifully written and heart-wrenching even in translation.

  • Tomas de Torquemada

    You’ve encouraged me to at least seriously consider taking to hand “The Cypresses Believe in God”. I’ve had the novel for some years, but have been intimidated by its size. Actually, the book isn’t outrageously long; it’s literal dimensions are off putting — poorly conceived and designed.

    By the way, Warren Carroll’s book is indeed excellent.

  • Eleonore

    Tomas, My copy of Cypresses is 1010 pages including the very helpful glossaries of historical persons and organizations which I turned to again and again. It is the 1956 Alfred A. Knopf edition, printed on quality paper; so it is a heavy book. Sadly, it was withdrawn from a Catholic high school library. I treasure it and guarantee that you will be “hooked” in the first few pages.

  • Tomas de Torquemada

    Are you confessing that you did not return the book to the library, and a Catholic one at that? Well, we’re all sinners.

    I’m looking forward to the read, but my edition (published by Ignatius) is an unwieldy paperback.

  • Eleonore

    Tomas, As a retired school librarian, I would think it sinful to not return a book to the library. My students could tell you stories about how I went after late books, especially if another student was waiting for a title. I was not known as “Conan the Librarian” for nothing! No, this book was purchased from a used book site.

  • Tomas de Torquemada

    Your word is good enough for me. That said, it’s been well established through the most assiduous historical research that the Villarrubias of Jerez are notorious, generation unto generation, for not returning books to the library. But I have no doubt that you have broken the Villarrubian Curse.

  • Eleonore

    Thank you for your faith in me, Tomas. My husband’s family originates in Bilbao. Eleonore

  • Jim R.

    Mrs. Villarrubia,

    Thank you for your words on the Valle De Los Caidos. This monument is on my list to see before I leave this world. One question. Do you know if one can make donations to the folks running the monument? I’ve been to the Spanish website for Valle De Los Caidos, I couldn’t find a means to make a donation there. Thanks again…

    Vaya con Dios.

    Great Falls, MT

  • Eleonore

    Jim, I will check. I believe that it is government property, but whether you can donate specifically to the upkeep of the monument is something that I can’t answer now. If the Spanish government is anything like our own, who knows where the money would go? Eleonore

  • Eleonore

    Jim, The monument is run by the Patrimonio Nacional which runs many monuments around the country. Their email address is Perhaps that can give you the information you want. There is an abbey of Benedictines there. You may be able to contribute directly to the monks.

  • JJ

    I was raised catholic and reading this made me physically sick. Franco might have defended Spain from communism but he used it as an excuse to oppress cultures and even had Jews sent back to Germany who fled to Spain from the nazis. This is a monument honoring a man who had the Basque city of Guernika bombed and killed 1500 people including my great grand parents. Not because they were communist or socialist, they were even catholic, but because they were Basque. The Catholic church should be nothing but ashamed for the role it played in the Franco regime.

  • Eleonore

    Dear JJ, I am sorry for the loss of your great grandparents in the Nazi bombing of Guernica. That was an unnecessary and terrible event of an already horrible war. I would like to refer you to Gary Potter’s article from 2008 on this website entitled “Spain’s Crusade, 1936-1939” wherein he discusses in the section called “Nazi Sympathy?” the bombing of Guernica and why it was contrary to Franco’s policy (of saving Spain rather than destroying her). Gary is a thorough researcher. He makes the claim that the Nazis bombed Guernica without the knowledge of the Spanish high command. He also describes the one and only meeting between Franco and Hitler after which Hitler claimed to von Ribbentrop that he would “rather have four or five teeth pulled than meet with that man again.” As far as Jews escaping Nazi Germany into Spain being sent back to Germany, I have never heard or read that, but I will most certainly look into it. Can you tell me what sources you used to make that statement?
    The monument at the Valle de los Caidos was not built to honor Franco, but to honor ALL those who died in this most tragic of wars – the name means “The Valley of the Fallen” on both sides. After all, they were all Spaniards.

  • JJ

    Madrid: The history, by Jules Stewart pg. 249 talks about Franco police officers especially Meliton Manzanas who was not only known as a Nazi collaborator but a torturer as well. Franco may claim that he had nothing to do with Guernika which he may have had nothing to do with it, but he despised the Basques and any other culture in Spain. Franco made it illegal to speak basque or catalan in Spain and had a regime the tortured people with other ideologies. Franco had Basque and Catalan priests executed who disagreed with him ( As for the monument Franco could call it whatever he wanted, there is a reason he was a dictator. Imagine being one of the family members of the victims killed by his regime knowing that your family member will be forever buried next to the man responsible for his death. I understand that the past is the past and we don’t need to linger on it, but it is disheartening to read an article that is blatantly biased just because the man in question was a supporter of the church. The article claims that Spains current issues are because Franco lost power and a new government was installed but it is the other way around. Many of Spains issues such as terrorism, loss of religious activity, and secession movements stem from the churches and Spanish governments refusal to acknowledge what happened. The fact that this article would claim that any form of dictatorship is good because it supported the church should be enough to immediately discredit it.

  • Eleonore

    I have done a bit of digging in the past three days. One of the claims you make that is easily refuted is that Franco sent Jews who had escaped to Spain from Nazi Germany back to the Nazis. Franco’s Spain, and oddly enough, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic both welcomed these refugees openly. Of those who went to Spain, many crossed the country into Portugal and from there escaped Europe altogether.
    I do not have access to the book you mention, but the friction between the Spanish government and the Basques long antedates the Civil War period and the rise of Franco. The same can be said of Catalonia. Both of these entities – the Basques and Catalans – have continually attempted breakaway movements from Spain. I am not commenting for or against these attempts, but it is quite natural that the larger entity, the nation, will try to thwart these breakaway movements. This has happened in Quebec, Canada as well as in our own country. There was a time in my home state of Louisiana, the Cajun people were discouraged from speaking their ancestral French language, the thinking being that it made them less “American” to do so. This attitude has been completely done away with in recent years so that this unique culture of Southwest Louisiana will be retained. The point here is that Franco, because he was trying to keep Spain Spanish and Catholic, cannot be blamed for the historical animosity between the government and the Basque and Catalan peoples.
    The Spanish Civil War was a brutal one, and yes, when I re-read my article, I too felt sick. The wanton and deliberate murder of nearly seven thousand bishops, parish priests, religious order priests, Catholic brothers and sisters simply because they were representatives of the hated Church is sickening. There was terrible brutality and cruelty on both sides. The bombing of Guernica can never be justified. For the Nazis, it was practice for the blitzkrieg tactics they were planning to use on European cities.
    One last comment: The website you reference is very suspect. Not only do the authors buy into the “modern” interpretation of how horrible Franco and the big, bad Church were for Spain, they seriously skew the facts of history. I suspected such when I read the section you link to; so I checked another important era of Spain’s history, that of her invasion and occupation by the Muslims for nearly eight centuries. Sure enough, Muslim Spain is extolled as an enlightened time and the final expulsion of the Muslims is called a “sad end to an early experiment in multiculturalism.” THAT statement is laughable on its face, not to mention just plain bad history.

  • JJ

    Your statement “Franco because he was trying to keep Spain Spanish and Catholic, cannot be blamed for historical animosity” is disturbing. Is this to say people shouldn’t be held accountable as long as it benefits the church in the log run. What happened to democracy? Should we not believe in freedom of religion and allowing other cultures to be expressed. I get the feeling that the reason the Catholic Church stands by Franco is because he stood by them in his regime and the brutal civil war along with his repression of anything not Spanish catholic is just collateral damage. This is obviously something we don’t agree on, which is fine, everyone has different viewpoints. I just thought I would give my insight as someone who came from a Spanish Catholic family that lived under the Franco regime.

  • Eleonore

    I agree; we don’t agree. We were never discussing democracy in the first place, were we?

  • JJ

    We were discussing Francos dictatorship. When I say “What happened to democracy?” I meant why does the church stand by a dictator. There is a reason democracy was installed in Spain, to prevent people like Franco holding all the power in the country.

  • Eleonore

    Your knowledge of the history of Spain is seriously lacking and you do not adhere to the point in your replies. Democracy was never in place in Spain. It is historically a monarchy. I answered your initial objections re Guernica and the lie of Franco deporting Jews back to Nazi Germany. I am finished with this particular “discussion.” It is getting no where. Hasta luego y que Dios te bendiga!

  • I could write 3 volumes on the horrors of growing up in a democracy, where I was taught, among other things, that, because I happen to be female, I have both the right to have my own baby destroyed – as long as said baby hasn’t yet had the privilege of making a sound, or seeing the light of day – AND, should I decide to allow the baby to be born, the right to force the father to pay child support. All in the name of human/equal rights, or something. Truly mind boggling.

  • Miguel echeverria

    Do they let anyone with basic typing skills post on Or do there writers just casually ignore the facts they want to so the Catholic Church can feel better about the mistakes they have made. In northern Spain my family and the people of our town spit on the ground when we heard Franco’s name just as we would spit on his grave if we ever visited the tomb hes kept in. He was a power hungry dictator, there never has and never will be such thing as a good dictator. He allowed the bombing of Guernica which killed thousands of innocents and supressed
    any language, culture, or religion that wasnt Spanish Catholic. No wonder the catholics thought he were great. Its just a shame he didnt die sooner and its a shame tge church is incapable of recognizing they might be occassionssly wrong. If you want to make the world a better place start writing fiction and stop acting like you know what youre talking about.