OPINION: Franco’s gone, now it’s time to bury his ideas too

Richard Torné reflects on the recent exhumation of the Spanish dictator and what it tells us about modern Spain.

OPINION: Franco's gone, now it's time to bury his ideas too
Archive photos: AFP

I was a young school boy living in Madrid when Spain’s long-standing dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975.

On the evening of November 20th, the country’s prime minister, a rodent-like man called Arias Navarro, appeared teary eyed on TV, dramatically announcing ‘Franco has died’ as though no one had been expecting the news.

But Franco’s death didn’t come as a surprise to anyone at the time, the wonder was that he had survived for as long as he did.

Struck down by a series of strokes in October, Franco fell into a coma and languished in a hospital bed for almost a month. The dictator’s death throes became the subject of much mirth at the time, albeit from behind closed doors. I remember my father’s work colleagues at the state airline Iberia coming round for dinner and cracking jokes about the ailing despot’s condition – one of them pledged to release a white dove the day Franco kicked the bucket (he kept his word).

Even at my school, which was hardly a hotbed of liberal thinking as it was run by strict Augustine priests, there were kids openly running around impersonating Franco, jokingly clutching their chests and pretending to collapse mid-speech.

Franco’s been reburied – now’s the time for a mature and open debate on the despot’s legacy

As expected, the state propaganda machine churned out a very different story. Anyone today watching the grainy TV footage of the thousands who filed past his open casket would think the entire country grieved. It is a deeply skewed picture, but one that seems to be spurring today’s francoists, both young and old.

I thought this while watching last week’s news footage of the dictator’s exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum, when a group of francoists outraged at the ‘desecration’ of their hero’s remains, proudly displayed a banner that said ‘Franco Lives’.

Juan Chicharro, the president of the Francisco Franco foundation, an association that pays lip service to fascism and openly honours the dictator, went so far as to claim that the exhumation was a ‘betrayal’.

It shows that acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez was on a hiding to nothing when his government decided to transfer the body to a modest Madrid cemetery in a bid to redress the crimes committed by the regime.

Even before Franco’s relatives began carrying the coffin out of the mausoleum in the full glare of the TV cameras, it was pretty clear they had decided to make the most of their ‘15 minutes’ of fame.

Tensions were high and inevitably a small fracas ensued between the Civil Guard and a cluster of relatives just outside the chapel where Franco’s body was reburied. One of them shouted in outrage ‘This is a dictatorship!’, but it was impossible to tell if he was being sarcastic or simply hadn’t bothered to read up on Spain’s history circa 1936-1975.

The whole episode turned into a tasteless reality show because Franco’s entitled relatives were allowed to grandstand on TV. In hindsight, the government had perhaps been a tad too deferential and should have simply loaded the dictator’s coffin into a white van in the middle of the night and quietly handed it over to his relatives to do as they saw fit.

The media circus was an unnecessary distraction from the other pertinent issue here – the monument’s raison d’etre.


The Valley of the Fallen mausoleum is a painful reminder of Spain’s recent history

Essentially Franco’s brainchild, it was devised in 1940 when it seemed that international fascism would emerge victorious from WWII. The regime later conveniently claimed that the Valley of the Fallen was intended to honour all the Civil War dead, and while it’s true that the remains of almost 34,000 combatants from both the Nationalist and the Republican sides lie together, the only graves with names were those of Franco and the leader of the extreme right-wing Falange party, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera.

In practice the monument became a focal point for Franco loyalists. It’s a shrine to death and suffering, and about the intimidatory hold of the Church and the State over its people.

There are now moves afoot to transform the monument into a centre for reconciliation dedicated to the memory of the 500,000 people who died during the 1936-1939 conflict.

There’s resistance even to this idea from conservatives, who are determined to bury the past, arguing that it will re-open old wounds.

But they’re being disingenuous. Just as a mental health professional will instruct a patient to undergo therapy to address deep-seated trauma, Spain must hold a wide-ranging, all-inclusive debate on the impact the war and the regime had on the country, just like South Africa did over apartheid.

Whatever nationalists would like to believe, the truth is that francoism was destined to die along with the dictator. It was a hotchpotch of ideas designed solely by and for Franco, based on a mix of traditional Catholicism, the glorification of Spanish history, and a hatred of communism, jewry, anglo-saxons and masonry.

None of this resonates with the aspirations of a modern, 21st century European nation – it’s time to bury this piece of deeply disturbing nostalgia.

Richard Torné is a journalist and author based in southern Spain. He also plays in a band. Follow his writings on Word Press and on Twitter

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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner