José Antonio, a retired mechanic from the southern Spanish city of Granada, decided this week to say “a last goodbye” to Francisco Franco.
So he drove the five-and-a-half hours to the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen, a giant complex near Madrid that the former dictator ordered carved out of the rock, from which Franco’s remains may soon be moved.
José Antonio, who like many other visitors to the compound, was reluctant to give his full name, recalls the days “when you could walk safely down the street, even if there was not so much democracy and freedom”.
He was far from alone in his sentiments. On the same morning this week, a man from the Rioja region gave the fascist salute at Franco’s tomb, which was covered by so many fresh bouquets of flowers that the inscription was barely visible.
Several people placed medallions and watches on the stone slab, as if to be imbued with the dictator’s spirit, then snatched them up and held them close.
Such sights may soon become a thing of the past. Spain’s supreme court ruled last week that there should be no impediment to disinterring the body of Franco from the state-owned site, dismissing a legal action by the dictator’s grandchildren.
“We are closing a dark chapter of our history,” Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Socialist prime minister, proclaimed soon afterwards at the UN General Assembly in New York. “No enemy of democracy deserves to lie in a place of worship or of institutional respect.”
The Valley of the Fallen is officially a memorial to the war dead on both sides and contains the remains of 33,000 people – but the only marked graves are those of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange, who was shot by Spanish Republicans in 1936.
Mr Sánchez wants to proceed with the exhumation of Franco, whose 36-year rule ended only with his death in 1975, before Spain’s general election on November 10.
The dictator would be reburied next to his wife, Carmen Polo, in a private family crypt on the outskirts of Madrid, at which police are permanently stationed and where fascist demonstrations could be hard to mount.
Spain never went through the kind of denazification process that German and Italy had
Sir Paul Preston, historian
But the question is whether, rather than closing a chapter, Mr Sánchez’s plans are inflaming old tensions.
“What will be next?” Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who heads the centre-right-led government of the greater Madrid region, asked on Thursday. “Will the parish churches burn like in 36?”.
Historian Sir Paul Preston, the author of works including a biography of Franco that accuse the dictator’s Nationalists of planning mass murder in the 1936-1939 civil war, said he was naive when he remarked, some 30 years ago, that it was a “matter of time” before Spain’s divisions over the dictator died out. “Spain never went through the kind of denazification process that German and Italy had,” he said.
The equivalent to the Valley of the Fallen, which was largely built by Republican prisoners and is marked by the biggest stone cross in the world, “would be a monument to Hitler just outside Berlin”, he added.
But, he said, he had the “almost shameful reaction” that although reburying Franco was “absolutely what should have happened . . . might it not have been better to let sleeping dogs lie?”
Instead, Mr Sánchez’s plans have provoked a flurry of reactions.
The Francisco Franco foundation, which stores 33,000 documents related to the late dictator and sells Franco merchandise ranging from wine to CDs, has called on its supporters to pray “for his soul and all those who fell for Spain” at the Valley this Saturday.
It has also written to Pope Francis, asking him not to allow the exhumation team access to the basilica without the consent of the Franco family and the Benedictine monks who run the complex.
Mr Sánchez’s stance has also been attacked by the anti-immigration Vox party, which won 10 per cent in Spain’s elections in April, breaking the mould in a country that has been suspicious of the far-right since Franco’s death.
Juan Chicharro, president of the Franco foundation and a retired general in the Spanish marines, said that Vox was a “hope, a light, for many Spanish people”.
He depicts the far-right party as a true heir to Franco’s tradition, which he describes as anti-communism, commitment to the unity of Spain and respect for the country’s age-old Christian traditions.
Some commentators suggest that the planned exhumation of Franco’s remains could help Vox in next month’s election, called after Mr Sánchez failed to cobble together a government, while also paying dividends for the caretaker prime minister.
“Sánchez’s political calculation is that if he can really do this before November 10, he will be seen as someone who has carried out a historic change that the left has long sought,” said Jorge Galindo, a political scientist and columnist.
“It may also be convenient for Sánchez for Vox not to be too weak: fear of Vox helped the Socialists in the April elections and the party wants the rightwing vote to be divided.”
But Mr Galindo added that controversy over Franco would at most curb Vox’s decline, since opinion polls suggest the party will struggle to hold on to its April share of the vote.
Indeed, while many of the predominantly elderly people visiting the Valley of the Fallen shared the Franco foundation’s anger at Mr Sánchez’s plans, even here there were voices of discord.
“The war dead belong here, but not this man, who put thousands of people here,” said Beatriz, who remembered the fear that half a century ago prevented her from talking about politics when she travelled to Madrid.
“His was a dictatorship . . . let him be with his family instead.”
This article has been amended since publication to correct an earlier reference to Pope Benedict