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.
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.
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.