On 20 November 1975, Spanish General Francisco Franco died in bed, signaling the unceremonious end of one of Europe’s longest dictatorships (1939-1975).
Written by Andrea Davis. Narration by Nicholas Breyfogle. A textural version of this video is available here.
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Video production by Laura Seeger and Dr. Nicholas B. Breyfogle. Audio production by Paul Kotheimer, College of Arts & Sciences Academic Technology Services. The Origins' editorial team includes Editors Nicholas Breyfogle, Steven Conn and David Steigerwald; Managing Editors Cameron Givens, Damarius Johnson, and Brionna Mendoza; Article Layout: Kristin Osborne
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signaling the unceremonious end of one of Europe s longest dictatorships (1939-1975).
On October 24th, 2019, his remains were exhumed from the state-sponsored monument,
Valley of the Fallen. Built by the Francoist regime during the 1940s and 1950s
with the forced labor of thousands of political prisoners, the Valley of the Fallen is a mass
burial site that was designed to commemorate the Spanish Civil War as a fratricidal conflict and
celebrate the triumph of reconciliation. With the 2019 exhumation of the Caudillo
(the Fascist-era title that Franco embraced as his own),
the Spanish government retracted support from these timeworn narratives, paving the way toward a
public reassessment of the legacies of Francoism. The Spanish Civil War began on July 18th,
1936, when General Franco and other Spanish officers from the colonial Army of Africa staged
a failed right-wing military coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government.
In response to the attempted coup, loyalist forces and popular militias rose up to defend
the besieged republic. In turn, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy came to the aid of the belligerent
officers, airlifting the Army of Africa from the Spanish protectorate in Morocco to mainland Spain.
Like other interwar crises across Europe, the three-year conflict that ensued pitted those
who wanted to preserve the hierarchies of the pre-1914 order against those who embraced social
and political change. The Civil War was more than an ideological struggle between fascism
and anti-fascism. Spain splintered during the war as competing visions of the era s
most pressing social questions, such as gender relations and religion, were brought to the fore.
During the war, Franco s so-called Nationalist forces pursued a campaign of
systematic extermination, with aerial bombing of civilian populations, as in the case of Guernica;
attacks on evacuees, as in the case of the M laga-Almer a Road Massacre; and the summary
execution of teachers, intellectuals, and political opponents. By the war s end in 1939,
350,000 Spaniards had died as a result of the conflict and another 500,000 had fled into exile.
In many ways, the dictatorship that ensued was initially just as brutal. Between 1940
and 1942, 200,000 Spaniards died because of political repression, hunger, and disease.
Even Spaniards living in exile continued to suffer at the hands of the Caudillo.
For example, during the Second World War, Francoist officials
sent 10,000 Spanish prisoners of war to Nazi concentration camps in Austria.
During the 36-year dictatorship, the Francoist regime never abandoned its signature political
violence. However, brutality gave way to reform beginning in the 1950s.
With the goal of establishing a strategic position in the emerging Cold War order,
the regime touted its anti-Communist credentials, liberalized the economy, and introduced limited
social and political reforms. At the same time, three million
Spaniards migrated from the rural south to the industrial north, where they broke the
repressive bonds of postwar life and forged new relationships in cities and factories.
Taken together, these reforms from above and social changes from below laid the
foundations for the Spanish economic miracle (from 1959-1974) and subsequent political transition
in the wake of Franco s death (from 1975-1982). Members of the former regime and its opposition
negotiated the political transition that followed under the supervision
of King Juan Carlos, whom the dictator had selected as his personal successor.
Working together behind closed doors, these transitional elites established a constitutional
monarchy with a parliamentary system based on the principles of representative democracy.
Once hailed as a model, the Spanish transition has come under scrutiny in recent years
as new economic and political crises have emerged amidst growing demands
for the recovery of historical memory. Critics have called for the renegotiation
of foundational pacts like the 1977 Amnesty Law, which released political prisoners
in exchange for prohibiting legal proceedings against perpetrators of human rights violations.
Although illegal under current international regulations, Spain s Amnesty Law has remained
in force, hindering criminal investigations and preventing the formation of Truth Commissions,
as was common in other post-dictatorial societies such as Argentina, Chile, and South Africa.
To date, the 2019 exhumation marks the state s most definitive condemnation of Francoism.
In 2020, Spain passed the Democratic Memory Act, which builds on the earlier 2007 Law of Historical
Memory and years of grassroots organizing. It proposes to institutionalize this condemnation
by converting the Valley of the Fallen into a civilian cemetery, preventing publicly funded
institutions from glorifying the dictatorship, and organizing the exhumation and identification
of the estimated 112,000 victims of Francoism that are still buried in unmarked mass graves.