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Spain exhumes fascist leader Primo de Rivera as it confronts far-right past

The move — carried out as a small group of sympathizers chanted and gave fascist salutes — is part of an effort to prevent the glorification of the country’s totalitarian past.
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The remains of a fascist leader whose movement supported Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship were dug up and reburied Monday, reigniting Spain's debate over its complex past and enraging far-right activists.

The Spanish government ordered the exhumation of the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who founded the fascist Falange movement, from its resting place in an enormous mountainside mausoleum 40 miles from the capital, Madrid. He was then reburied at a city cemetery in a private family ceremony.

The move — carried out as a small group of sympathizers chanted and gave fascist salutes — is part of an effort to prevent the glorification of the country's totalitarian past as the far right seeks political breakthroughs across Europe.

Franco’s remains were exhumed from the same place — previously known as the Valley of the Fallen — in 2019; he was originally buried there on his death in 1975. The site was partly built with forced prison labor to commemorate the fascist victory in the civil war, and for many the site represents the horrors of the war and Franco's subsequent dictatorship.

A friar walks in front of the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum in Madrid, Spain.
The mausoleum in Madrid known as the Valley of the Fallen. Manu Fernandez / AP file

As with Franco's reinterment, Monday's move has angered Spain’s current far-right movement, which sees Primo de Rivera and Franco as nationalist heroes. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the populist Vox Party, has accused Spain's government of moving a patriot who "gave his life for Spain."

The party's vice president, Jorge Buxadé, said on Twitter: "If they don't respect the dead, does anyone think they respect the living, the workers, the farmer, those who have a vocation to serve Spain?"

Vox has called for a "reconquest" of Spain and has suggested building a wall around Spain's north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Vox became the country's third-biggest political party after a 2019 national election, with 3.6 million votes and 52 lawmakers in the Congress of Deputies, Spain's lower house of Parliament. Opinion polls say the party remains the third most popular, with about 15% of national support.

Under a Democratic Memory law passed last year, the site officially reverted to its original name, the Valley of Cuelgamuros. Spain's socialist government plans to convert the site into a lasting tribute to the 500,000 people killed during the civil war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said when the law was passed in October that it would "settle Spanish democracy’s debt to its past."

The mausoleum, with its 500-foot spire and cross, was partly built by the labor of Republican prisoners under Franco's orders.

Presidency Minister Félix Bolaños told reporters in Barcelona on Friday: “No person or ideology that evokes the dictatorship should be honored or extolled there.”

“It’s another step in the resignification of the valley.”

It will be the fifth time José Antonia de Rivera’s body will have been exhumed since he was shot dead by a left-wing Republican firing squad in 1936, such is the strength of feeling over his final resting place.

His body was originally buried in two different mass graves in the southeastern coastal city of Alicante. Two years later it was moved 311 miles to San Lorenzo de El Escorial near Madrid, where Spain’s royal family are traditionally buried. His body was moved to the Valley of the Fallen in 1959.

Primo de Rivera’s family said in a statement to local media that they would now move the remains to cemetery in Madrid and rebury them in a private ceremony.

He was the son of Miguel Primo de Rivera, who ruled Spain as its dictator from 1923 to 1930. 

Nazi Germany sent a delegation of Hitler Youth activists to lay a floral wreath at his grave in 1943.

Long-standing plans are underway to allow people to access the crypts at the Cuelgamuros mausoleum, which are thought to house the unidentified remains of 34,000 people, including many victims of the Franco regime.

Families have been fighting for years for the right to identify the bodies of loved ones who died during the war and are suspected to be buried in the crypt.

Spain is one of many European countries to grapple with its 20th-century history, many of which are gripped by historical debates over the extent of Nazi collaboration during the Holocaust.

Julius Ruiz, an expert in Spanish history at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., said both supporters and detractors used Primo de Rivera’s legacy to support contemporary political aims, with regional elections on the horizon in Spain.

"He played no role in the Civil War at all. He was in a Republican prison, and actually during the months he was alive he advocated conciliation, he talked about how people should come together, how the war was a tragedy," Ruiz said.

"But of course the issue here is that whatever the actions of the man himself, he was used by Franco — and Jose Antonio didn’t particularly like him — as a symbol to legitimize his regime on the basis of the single party that was created in 1937."

Ruiz added that with more Francoist regime figures still to be disinterred, it may not be the last controversial moment in Spain's process of establishing its "democratic memory."