A placard German leader of the Nazi party Adolf Hitler, left, and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco with the words ‘criminals’ during a Republican protest on Puerta del Sol Square, in Madrid, Spin, on October 24 2019. Picture: AFP/OSCAR DEL POZO
A placard German leader of the Nazi party Adolf Hitler, left, and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco with the words ‘criminals’ during a Republican protest on Puerta del Sol Square, in Madrid, Spin, on October 24 2019. Picture: AFP/OSCAR DEL POZO

The Spanish government on Thursday exhumed the remains of the dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, from a mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid and took them to a city cemetery where Franco’s wife is buried. It may give Spain’s caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who is fighting for re-election, a boost in the polls, but it won’t really put anything right.

Franco’s old resting place was probably the most ostentatious of any 20th-century tyrant’s in Europe. The mausoleum is one of the world’s biggest Catholic basilicas, located at the foot of a hill crowned with a 15m granite cross. Franco himself planned the memorial to honour the fallen, on his side, in the 1930s Spanish civil war, which he won with the help of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. While the American, French and British governments refused to intervene, the Soviet Union backed the leftist Republicans who fought Franco. Pope Pius XI designated Franco’s war a crusade and his successor, Pius XII, congratulated Franco on his victory, which explains the church’s embrace of the Valley of the Fallen.

The construction, carried out in part by prisoners, took so long — from 1940 through to 1958 — that at the end, Franco could no longer consider it merely a monument to his victory. He had to claim the Valley of the Fallen was dedicated to reconciliation, and the remains of soldiers from both sides were brought there, often without relatives’ consent.

It remained Franco’s grand design, though. No wonder King Juan Carlos I, whom Franco had groomed to take over Spain after him, ordered the dictator buried there.

Socialist governments in Spain have a long history of being uncomfortable with Franco’s grave site. The Historical Memory Law the Socialists pushed through in 2007 contains a special article on the Valley of the Fallen, which forbids any Franco-ist celebrations or political events there. But it was Sánchez, prime minister since June 2018, who has moved the most decisively to get Franco’s coffin out of the memorial.

Germany has taken care not to create any such sites — but neo-Nazis still come, for example, to the place not far from Berlin where Hermann Göring’s imposing Carinhall estate was before it was bombed to the ground

Over the objections of the dictator’s descendants, his government, with the help of Spanish courts, has pushed through the reburial. “It’s a big victory to our democracy,” Sánchez said last month, after the supreme court authorised his plan.

He’s probably wrong about that, though.

The removal of Franco’s coffin from the basilica is a replay of the 1961 removal of Joseph Stalin’s remains from the mausoleum on Red Square that Stalin’s embalmed body shared with Lenin’s. The grave of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Falange Party in Spain who was executed by the Republican government in 1936 and was interred in the valley on Franco’s orders, remains in the basilica. Even if the government or the Primo de Rivera family move to rebury him elsewhere, the Russian example shows their graves will still be visited by admirers.

Josef Stalin’s grave at the Kremlin wall is blanketed with flowers every anniversary of his death. Communists who visit Vladimir Lenin’s tomb will still gather at his graveside if his body is ever removed from the Kremlin and buried, as officials such as Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, would like him to be.

In Italy, people flock to Benito Mussolini’s grave in his birth town of Predappio. Local businesses depend on the traffic, and the town’s recently elected right-wing mayor wants to keep the crypt open all year round rather than for specific occasions such as the anniversary of his death.

In Spain, tourist traffic to the Valley of the Fallen increased almost 34% since 2017, to 378,875 visitors last year, in part because some rushed to see Franco’s grave before it was moved.

Even if Spain were to dynamite the Valley of the Fallen memorial (which isn’t being proposed) and put both Franco and Primo de Rivera in unmarked graves (which would likely be impossible because their descendants wouldn’t allow it), Franco-ists would find new “holy sites” to visit. Germany has taken care not to create any such sites — but neo-Nazis still come, for example, to the place not far from Berlin where Hermann Göring’s imposing Carinhall estate was before it was bombed to the ground in 1945 — even though only random stones remain in the forest.

Not giving Franco pride of place at a memorial that’s also Spain’s biggest mass grave has a lot to do with justice, but little with memory. The bloody 20th-century dictators operated their populist projects on such a gigantic scale and ran such powerful propaganda machines that myths of their good deeds survive by word of mouth, even if current governments do all they can to kill them off.

The myth of the ‘transition’

In Franco’s case, perhaps the most powerful of these myths is the one of the “transition” — Spain’s peaceful conversion to democracy after his death. Many Spaniards believe Franco himself set it in motion. In the words of Adolfo Suárez Illana, son of the first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, if Franco “had not wanted the transition to be done as it was, it would not have been done that way”. In part because of this sentiment, more than a third of Spaniards were against Franco’s reburial, while 43% approved of it.

Among the voters of the centre-right Popular Party, 77% opposed the exhumation; in the liberal Citizens Party, 48% did. A full 81% of the backers of the far-right Vox party wanted Franco’s remains to stay put. That sentiment won’t disappear just because Sánchez got his way.

That makes me wonder if it’s really governments’ business to mess with the graves of dictators to make symbolic points. I don’t care where the remains of Stalin and Lenin are stored; they won’t rise from the dead. I’d rather see my country of birth, Russia, turn to democracy, renouncing political repression and the justification of Stalin’s conquests in Eastern Europe.

It doesn’t matter where the bones of Mussolini have come to rest, and who comes to visit them. It would be better if Italians didn’t vote for the anti-immigrant far right that would like to emulate the Duce in government.

Spain made an important step forward more than a decade ago with the Historical Memory Law, condemning the Franco regime, overturning the convictions of its enemies and restoring Spanish citizenship to those who fled the country. Some say it didn’t go far enough; the 1977 amnesty, which prevents the prosecution of Franco-ist crimes, remains in place. But even without repealing the amnesty and re-opening many old wounds, Spain can still do more meaningful things to enhance its democracy than moving Franco’s grave. For example, it could soften or repeal its harsh sedition law, recently used to convict Catalan secessionist leaders to long prison sentences, causing large disturbances in Barcelona.

Franco, Stalin, Mussolini and other 20th-century monsters are much more dangerous when they’re in people’s heads than when their bones lie in the grandest of crypts. And it’s their lasting legacies, not their remains, that politicians should be fighting.

• Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.

Bloomberg