‘Spain shouldn’t ‘honour dictatorship’: ex-Franco prisoner

Seventy years ago, prisoner Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz fled from the building site of a sprawling monument that now houses the remains of Spain's dictator Francisco Franco, in a daring escape later made into a film.

'Spain shouldn't 'honour dictatorship': ex-Franco prisoner
Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to November 1975 when he died, is buried in the valley just outside Madrid. Photo: AFP

One of 20,000 political prisoners forcibly conscripted to build what became known as the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), the 92-year-old said he was “delighted” that the government recently announced it would exhume Franco.

“In no European country has a similar tyrant been given recognition,” he told AFP in his country home near the city of Avila, not far from Madrid.

“It's an act of rationality,” added the historian who after his 1948 escape lived in exile in Argentina and the United States until 1976, months after Franco's death.

Evasion on foot 

Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to November 1975 when he died, is buried in the valley just outside Madrid in an imposing basilica carved into a mountain-face, with a 150-metre (490-feet) high cross that can be seen kilometres away towering over it.

Fresh flowers are laid on his tomb every day.

“A democratic regime cannot honour a dictatorship,” said Sanchez-Albornoz, whose father Claudio was a minister in Spain's Second Republic that was crushed by Franco and his supporters in the 1936-1939 civil war.

Nicolas was a young student when he was detained in the spring of 1948 for trying to restore an activist student organisation. He was sent to the valley where construction of the monument had been underway since 1940.

Franco had wanted it to be a place of “reconciliation” between Spaniards who had fought each other so bitterly during the war, filling it with the bodies of thousands of supporters and Republicans alike when it was finished in 1959.

It has since become a divisive symbol of a past that Spain still finds difficult to digest.

Sanchez-Albornoz said he was luckier than many other prisoners — his type-writing skills saw him assigned to an office rather than manual forced labour.

At least 14 people died in the demanding construction work, although more may have passed away from related respiratory problems, he added.

There were more than 40 escape attempts, but Sanchez-Albornoz and his friend Manolo Lamana were the only ones who succeeded.

“All the rest fell” into the hands of the police, he said.

In his case, friends who lived in Paris dispatched a car and fake letters of safe-conduct so that they would be able to travel through Spain to the French border.

Sanchez-Albornoz and Lamana escaped on foot and were picked up several kilometres away by two young American tourists and a Spaniard.

The escape later inspired the 1998 Spanish film “The Brutal Years”.


During his time at the construction site, Sanchez-Albornoz said he discovered that forced conscription was fuelling a corruption network.

The state rented out each prisoner to a construction company for 10.5 pesetas a day, effectively doing business with its inmates.

But it went further than that. Half of the money earned by the state was officially destined for food for the prisoners.

In reality, said Sanchez-Albornoz, a lot of the food was taken by civil servants who resold it in Madrid on the black market, at a time of high poverty.

“I don't know if it was really lucrative, but it was definitely immoral,” he said.


Spain to exhume bodies of civil war victims at Valley of the Fallen

The Spanish government on Tuesday approved a special fund to exhume graves at the Valley of the Fallen, where thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War and dictator Francisco Franco are buried.

Spain to exhume bodies of civil war victims at Valley of the Fallen
Women hold up pictures of their fathers and relatives, who were condemned to death during Franco’s dictatorship. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP

The Socialist government said it had set aside €665,000 ($780,000) to exhume some 33,000 victims whose remains lie behind a vast basilica near Madrid.

Franco was buried in the basilica when he died in 1975 but his remains were removed in 2019 and transferred to a discreet family plot on the outskirts of the capital.

Government spokesperson Maria Jesus Montera told reporters that more than 60 families and international institutions had called for the exhumation of the victims to give relatives who suffered during the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship “moral reparation”.

Campaigners estimate more than 100,000 victims from the war and its aftermath remain buried in unmarked graves across Spain —- a figure, according to Amnesty International, only exceeded by Cambodia.

Human remains discovered during exhumation works carried out by the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory of Valladolid, in a mass grave where the bodies of hundreds of people were dumped during the Spanish civil war. Photo by CESAR MANSO/AFP

Built between 1940 and 1958 partly by the forced labour of political prisoners, the imposing basilica and the mausoleum of the Valley of the Fallen was initially intended for those who had fought for Franco.

But in 1959 the remains of many Republican opponents were moved there from cemeteries and mass graves across the country without their families being informed.

The crypts and ossuaries where some of the victims are buried are inaccessible as they were walled off at the time.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has made the rehabilitation of the victims of the Franco era one of his priorities since coming to power in 2018.

As well as the Valley of the Fallen, his government is also focusing on identifying remains founds in mass graves across Spain.