The Valley of the Fallen

At Appomattox, at the end of the American Civil War, the surrender of the Southern armies was unconditional.

The parlor of the (reconstructed) McLean House, Appomattox Court House, Virginia, site of the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the end of the American Civil War, photographed by Hal Jespersen

There was no question of any terms. Yet General Lee made two requests: that his officers be allowed to keep their swords; and that the farmers be allowed to keep their horses.

Grant in his memoirs doesn´t say if he was expecting these requests. But he immediately understood their purpose and granted them. They weren´t concessions; they weren´t even favors. They were measures of sound common sense and leadership. The swords the officers would keep were their dignity. And the horses would be needed to get the men back to work, to re-build the ruined farms and countryside.
It was then spring. There was still time to plow the fields and get a crop growing. This was urgent. Without that year´s cereals there would be certain starvation in the South by winter.

When the Spanish Civil War ended (1939) there were no Republican generals around to surrender the armies and to make requests. They had all fled to France and Portugal. Honor and dignity were still around as a crutch to help men through the horrors of twentieth-century war, and to lean on while facing the firing squad when the war was over. But they were a luxury from another age, not this one.

General Francisco Franco at his victory parade

There was no dramatic surrender scene but the problems facing the country were the same. Tens of thousands of men had nothing to do and no food for themselves and their families. Spain had never had much industry. She couldn´t simply switch on the heavy machinery and start producing again. There was no machinery. She was an agricultural country with her fields in ruins. Grain shipped in from Argentina saved thousands from starvation. That was all the help there was. From the United States there was nothing and there would be nothing for twenty years. The Marshall Plan bypassed Spain.

Franco decided on a surprising government project to employ thousands of men: a mausoleum. It was to stand as a monument to his victory and as a tomb for himself and the soldiers of both sides who died in the war.
The country had no cash and its natural resources were used up. Traditional projects such as dams and roads were out of the question because even cement was scarce. A tomb, a kind of tunnel in a mountain, was probably the cheapest of Franco´s options. There were few overhead costs. No steel was required, no heavy machinery—not even cement. All the stone that was needed would be quarried in the mountains and hauled to the site of the great mausoleum. They would be cut to size and lifted like the stones of the pyramids. Most of the work would consist in chipping away a chamber under the mountain—a kind of negative sculpture.

And so thousands of men hammered away at the mountain and at the roads to the mountain—maybe more stone workmen than had been assembled since ancient times. They were full of ill-will. The huge camps they lived in had the air of prison camps because of the post-war repression. Most of the men had been on the losing side and were stained with guilt. Trials and executions were going on at the time and there were rumors of murders and score-settling. And the firm establishment of Franco´s reign made their future look very bleak.

The Valle de los Caídos, in the mountains near Madrid. The building complex is a Benedictine monastery


This entry was posted in architecture, history, Madrid, religion, Spain and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Valley of the Fallen

  1. viraga says:

    I thought finding this would be so arduous but it’s a breeze!

  2. Charl says:

    I aptrceiape you taking to time to contribute That’s very helpful.

  3. Dale says:

    He did ban religion, all except Roman Catholic.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Dale: Hey, Franco didn’t ban religion! On the contrary, he was its great protector. The state proposed by Jose Antonio, the other man buried there, was very nearly a theocracy. I agree with you about appreciating the size of the place. I must go back there now that it has been reopened. Un saludo.

  5. Dale says:

    I’ve been to the monument 20 years ago, it was spectacular. You cannot understand the size until you have been. Franco banned religion but not here. El Escorial is not far away either.

  6. PIT says:

    Great photo, nice smile on General Francisco’s face

  7. 100swallows says:

    Andrew: The same happened to me last summer–it was already closed. This has to do with the government’s “historic memory” initiative. They were (and still are, I think) trying to identify the bodies of the soldiers buried there. They are also removing Franco propaganda from the decoration, such as a big mosaic that makes him look like the Saviour or Caesar. The President wanted to right the wrongs of the Civil War and, especially, afterwards, but it was not the right time–if there ever can be a right time. It may have caused the downfall of Judge Garzón (that and other things). If the opposition party wins the next elections they will surely open it again.

  8. Last year I tried to visit the Valley of the Fallen but it was closed and as it was only a few days from the 20th November the guards on duty were a bit nervous. I wonder if anyone will ever be allowed to visit it again?

  9. Jose says:

    For those interested, I have a few photos of the Valley on my website right here:

  10. erikatakacs says:

    Thanks for the pic. That’s a beautiful Pieta.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Thanks for the research, Miki! Yes, that’s the Pietà but I wouldn’t have recognized it from this angle. This picture is taken right under the door, when of course the relief was made to be seen at some distance from the front.

  12. Miki says:

    A great entry, 100swallows! And as Erika says, a very impressive monument.
    I found a photo of the piedad by Juan de Avalos en El Valle de los Caidos at the URl
    Piedad de Juan de Ávalos
    Is it the one you mean? In fact it is fantastic. I will have to go there one day in one of my painting trips…

  13. 100swallows says:

    erika: There’s a very good Pietà by Juan de Ávalos (as I remember it) over the main entrance but I couldn’t find a picture. There are also some impressive stone angels with black hoods over their heads by Luis Sanguino along the great tunnel as you go in.

  14. erikatakacs says:

    It looks impressive together with the monastery even on a postcard. I can only imagine how massive must look from below.

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