Valley of the Fallen

Valley of the Fallen

by Mary Schrack


Valley of the Fallen, inaugurated by Francisco Franco in 1959, rests in the Cuelgamuros Valley outside of Madrid. Its structure boasts of a cross 150 m high, a crypt 262 m into the mountain, and a dome 33 m in diameter. Several common graves, both of Republican and Nationalist soldiers, lie beside the bodies of Franco and the founder of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Catholic Masses take place here every Sunday as there is a Benedictine Abbey on the other side of the cross as the entrance to the crypt.

View Valle de Los Caidos in a larger map

The Valley is dedicated to everyone who died in the Spanish Civil War, but in reality, the monument is more one-sided than it claims to be. It is covered in Falangist symbols and slogans, and is the final resting place of two of the greatest champions of Nationalist Spain. Every November 20th before the Law of Historical Memory was enacted, there were memorial celebrations commemorating the deaths of these two leaders.

The Law of Historical Memory seeks–however polemically– to address the ideological bias present in this place of remembrance, a site ostensibly constructed in the name of all the war´s fallen. No longer are the celebrations of November 20th allowed, nor are any pro-Franco symbols or flags. For many observers, these measures–rather than resolving ideological tensions–have fanned the flames of controversy and heightened the debate that surrounds the Valley of the Fallen as a long-contested site of national memory .

Field Notes

I had heard that the cross was big. I had heard that the crypt was deep. I had heard that the dome was great. But none of these prepared me for the immensity of the Valley of the Fallen.

The Holy Cross, designed by Diego Mendes, shoots 150 meters into the sky, arms stretching to 40 meters, so impressive that one can see it shooting through the trees from miles away. Looking at the Cross, I took in its beauty while at the same time my thoughts were with the thousands of prisoners of war that Franco forced to erect it.

The crypt, carved 262 meters into the mountain, engulfed me. Footsteps echoed, whispers repeated a thousand times before dissipating in the vastness of the crypt. Entranced by this space, I could only think about the republican hands coerced to carve the crypt that made me feel so small, so unimportant.

The dome in the transept hovered about me 33 meters in diameter, a gargantuan bowl turned upside down. In admiring the architectural genius that designed it, my heart went out to those who gave their lives to make Franco’s vision a reality.

Valley of the Fallen is indeed an impressive structure; no doubt the sight of it will make a person gasp. As impressive as the structure of Valley of the Fallen is, it can never in my opinion be considered beautiful because everywhere I look, I see Franco’s agenda, his ideals; it is tainted with the blood of the republican prisoners that built it.

There is irony in that Franco dedicated it to all those who gave their lives in the war, and while being built, more died who opposed Franco’s ideals. Looking at the memorial, I thought how ridiculous it was that Franco could have thought people from both sides of the war would appreciate such a place.Upon entering the Valley, we drove under huge wrought-iron gates topped with Franco’s eagles, almost warning us that this is a place for Nationalists, not everyone seems welcome. Every structure is so gargantuan, I felt like I was helpless and unimportant; Franco’s obsession with holding power over others lives on even after his death. The crest of the Falange, Franco’s eagle holding the arrows, is stamped on either side of the doors leading into the crypt.

You can’t get away from Fascism here.

Inside the crypt and church, where I couldn’t take my camera, carvings lay out the rules for everyone who enters, even today. One says “Honor in dress. Prohibit the entrance of those who do not follow this rule.” Carved into the rock, Franco made sure that he would have power over those who come here, even after his death. Another inscription in the rock: “Silence. Sacred place.” Franco still represses, still lives on in this eerily quiet place.

In the church there are old wooden pews and kneelers leading up to the altar with a giant crucifix. Just before the crucifix, however, is the final resting place of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. Surrounded by red velvet roping and graced by a bouquet of fake flowers, one has to walk around the grave, has to notice it and pay homage in order to get anywhere else in the church. Behind the Crucifix, possibly to signify that he backs Christ, is the grave of Francisco Franco himself, decorated in the same manner as Jose Antonio. Both are in the center of the church, directly under the dome, a very visible and important location; these Nationalist leaders are the center of attention in a place supposedly dedicated to both sides.

Over a mass grave in another part of the memorial is carved a typically Nationalist phrase, “Fallen for God and for Spain.” In this grave are the bodies of Republican soldiers; Franco here is imposing a Falangist title on these men who are no longer able to resist, once more satiating his thirst for power.

My conclusion here is that the Valley of the Fallen is helplessly, unchangeably, a Fascist memorial. The ancestors of Republican soldiers will never feel welcome here, will never be able to come and mourn the loss of their families. There is too much Nationalist paraphernalia, too much hate, too much power. Not even the Law of Historical Memory would be able to erase the fact that republicans were forced to die for this shrine to Franco’s ideals. It will not be able to clean the rock, erase the carvings of the Falange crest, melt the eagles out of the wrought-iron gates, exhume the bodies of Franco and Jose Antonio. It is my belief, however unfortunate, that the Valley of the Fallen is forever doomed to be a place of Nationalist memory.

Current Research

On the forefront of recent scholarship about the Valley of the Fallen is Fernando Olmeda’s 2009 book, Valle de los Caídos: Una memoria de España (Valley of the Fallen: A Memory of Spain). Olmeda’s stated objective with his book is to provide a glimpse of Spain’s history “without preconceived ideas,” in an effort not to open old wounds, he says, but to heal them. An El mundo book review references the articles of the Law of Historical Memory relevant to Valley; click here for the review, Valle de los Caídos: Una memoria de España

The End of Silence, 2008, is a Swedish documentary. The filmmakers Martin Jonsson and Pontus Hjorthen, propose to uncover the past “swept under the carpet by a pact of silence.” Jönsson was a television news reporter and editor at TV4 before working as an investigative journalist from 2003 to today. He has a degree in journalism from Gothenborg and is the founder and editor of philosophical magazine The Nausea 1992-1998. Pontus Hjorthén got is degree in Spanish language and Culture and society of Ancient Rome and Greece at Gothenburg as well. He has worked as a translator for BCT, Babel lingua as well as Bonniers as well as a writer and journalist for many Swedish newspapers. Since 1997, Pontus works as a translator, bricklayer and journalist in Granada. The following link Mari Carmen España–The End of Silence features a 9 minute clip, in which the directors interview an abbot at the Valley of the Fallen about the polemics that now seem to define the memorial. (The End of Silence was produced by:Tussilago, Linnegatan 5, 41304 Göteborg, Sweden, tfn: (+) 46 31 711 7555, fax: (+) 46 31 775 9232, E-mail:, Co-produced by SVT-Göteborg, WestDeutscher Rundfunk.)

The following link El Follonero vs Francisco Franco is a YouTube video clip of a popular late night comedy TV show in Spain, Buenafuerte. In the clip, a regular character on the show, aka El Follonero, travels to the Valley, lightly making fun of Fascist ideals, at one point even teasingly whispering img_2583.JPGto Franco’s grave that gays can now marry one another in Spain. In another clip from the program, actors impersonating gay Falangists dance on the grounds of the Valley, Gay Falangists. See video below:

The irony here (homosexuality was condemned by the Franco regime) is evidence that Spain has broken its pacto del olvido, that the Spanish people can openly confront the legacy of the national past of war and dictatorship, even making jokes about formerly taboo topics, twisted into comic relief on formerly sacred ground.

In the News

These are recent news events involving The Valley of the Fallen:

Communists Buried With Franco

This is an article discussing the controversy surrounding 10 victims of Franco’s repression that were shot and buried only later to be exhumed and moved to the mass grave in the Valley.

I Call it Cuelgamuros

An interview with a Republican prisoner of war (HIS NAME?) forced to work on the Valley. He shares his memories of being coerced to build the monument as well as his thoughts for what should be changed about it.

Families Ask for New Exhumations in the Valley of the Fallen

Two families petition the government to have their loved ones removed from the common grave at Franco’s side in the Valley.

Only 70 People in the Valley

This is an article about the first anniversary of Franco’s death after the Law of Historical Memory was enacted and the changes it brought to the observations.

Memory Recorded in the Valley of the Fallen

An article in “El Mundo” that deals with the Law of Historical Memory in the Valley, including a dissenting voice.

ICV Advises that the Government Convert the Valley

An article about re-inscribing memory of the victim’s of the dictatorship onto the Valley.

La Sexta and “Follonero’s” Visit to the Valley of the Fallen

This is an article about the recent television show (GIVE TITLE OF THE SHOW)that visited the Valley and the controversy it created with the Falangists.

The Civil Guard Impedes the Entrance to the Valley

This article is about the changes the Law of Historical Memory has brought to the Valley: The Civil Guard did not allow a group of people wearing Francoist symbols in to the Valley.

The Law of Historical Memory Prohibits Acts of Commemoration on November 20

Another effect of the Law of Historical Memory in the Valley of the Fallen.