It was December of 2015, and my visit to Spain was about to come to an end. But there was one last thing I had to see before I left.
On a Friday night, I took an overnight bus from the sunny, southern city of Málaga to Madrid. From there, a quick train ride brought me to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a small town nestled around the palace from which Philip II hurled the Spanish Armada like a thunderbolt against the heretic bastard Elizabeth while enforcing religious unity at home through the tortures of the Inquisition.
After spending the morning exploring this shrine to Spain’s once-unrivaled empire of crown and Church, where the bones of King-Emperor Charles I lie in repose next to a similar casket prepared for those of the still-living former king Juan Carlos II, I took another, much shorter bus ride to another, much newer monument.
El Valle de los Caídos—“The Valley of the Fallen”—was completed in 1959 and encompasses a rugged, hilly pine forest in which the bodies of 40,000 soldiers from both sides of the Spanish Civil War are buried. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who led his Falange party to victory and ruled Spain with an iron grip until 1975, commissioned the memorial in 1940, the year after the war ended, as “a national act of atonement.”
It was in Sunday School that I’d first heard the word “atonement.” It was, our teachers explained, a theological term describing how Christ’s death brings us back into a relationship with God, to a state of being “at one” after a long and bitter enmity.
By this definition, a shared mass grave may have helped to heal the wounds that had riven the very heart of Spain. But the first thing I noticed on my approach wasn’t the burial ground.
The Valley of the Fallen slopes up to a mountain crowned with a 500-foot stone cross, the largest in the world. The mountain itself was, on Franco’s orders, hollowed out by the labor of prisoners of war from the defeated Spanish Republican Army and consecrated as a Roman Catholic basilica.
The walls are lined with chapels dedicated to the various branches of the Spanish military interspersed with ornate tapestries depicting scenes of apocalyptic warfare against the Antichrist of the Book of Revelation.
And at the altar—the tomb of Franco himself. On the anniversary of his death each year, thousands of Spaniards come to hear the Benedictine monks of the Basilica’s Abbey say a requiem Mass for the repose of the dictator’s soul.
The Generalissimo may have payed lip service to national reconciliation, but the true message of the monument is clear: We have fought and won the final crusade against the godless forces of communism. If any hint of unity was salvaged, it was a unity achieved through the silencing and subjugation of dissent and the triumphalist proclamation of dominant ideology.
Since Spain’s return to democracy in 1978, the Valley of the Fallen has been beset by political controversy, and in Catalonia, a region whose distinctive language and culture Franco suppressed throughout his nearly 40 years in power, the nerve is especially raw. “I want what was in reality something like a Nazi concentration camp to stop being a nostalgic place of pilgrimage for Francoists,” Catalan politician Jaume Bosch said in 2014.
Franco may be nearly 40 years dead by now, but many in the Catalan secession movement see the current Spanish “regime of ’78,” guided by the democratic constitution approved that year and led at present by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, as little more than an extension of the Generalissimo’s program of enforced national unity.
Their opinion is not unjustified.
When the Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain, the center-left opposition party, proposed removing Franco’s remains from the Basilica earlier this year, Rajoy’s majority People’s Party blocked the measure. At rallies in Madrid, anti-secessionists have sung the Falangist anthem and waved Franco’s flag in the streets.
Then, when Catalonia attempted to hold an independence referendum earlier this month, Rajoy sent in the Guardia Civil to seize ballot boxes and drive would-be voters from the polls with batons and tear gas. He opted for this hardline response in spite of polls suggesting that a majority of the region opposed secession and planned to boycott the vote, which with such low turnout could not possibly have been viewed as anything but illegitimate.
A week later, a journalist asked Rajoy if there was any chance he might relent. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Spain will not be divided, and national unity will be preserved.”
Since then, his policy has been one of continuous escalation. In response to Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s initial vague declaration of independence—the effects of which he agreed to suspend if Rajoy came to the negotiating table—Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution for the first time since its adoption. This article empowers Rajoy to depose Catalonia’s leadership and seize direct control of the region.
Puigdemont attempted to placate Rajoy by offering to revoke the independence declaration and call for new regional elections immediately, but Rajoy refused this final attempt at diplomacy.
Friday afternoon, the Catalan parliament approved an immediate and unilateral declaration of independence. Within an hour, the Spanish Senate in Madrid passed an emergency measure empowering Rajoy to arrest Puigdemont and his fellow secessionist leaders and forcibly bring Catalonia under Madrid’s direct rule. If the two sides remain at such irreconcilable odds, the result will be civil war.
Rajoy has promised to hold new elections in Catalonia within six months, but even after their new government has been sworn in, it is absurd to think that pro-secession Catalans will feel any ties of kinship with the Madrid government that beat them with clubs and jailed their leaders. Just as when Franco coerced anti-clerical, anti-fascist POWs into building the Basilica that would become his resting place, the result will be gloating on one side and resentment on the other.
The Spanish Constitution unambiguously asserts the “indissoluble unity” of Spain, and Rajoy has made a strong case that his actions are actually protecting a majority of pro-unity Catalans from having their region hijacked by a separatist minority. Regardless of these arguments, however, his violently repressive responses have reopened old wounds and inflicted new ones.
As we Americans discovered after our own Civil War, a reconciliation based on suppression isn’t necessarily genuine, or at least it may take centuries to become so. Even if he manages to keep Catalonia in the fold, Rajoy would do well to stop ignoring the lesson of Valley of the Fallen: Unity by force is no unity at all.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.