Franco, Alexander and Mihajlov

Ljupco Popovski

At first, and maybe even at second sight, the connection between the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, the ancient conqueror Alexander the Great, and the VMRO the blood-covered war leader Vanco Mihailov, is almost impossible to find. Nevertheless, the present can draw a parallel to these three figures. It is simple – confronting the past and presenting it in the present so as not to lose the future. This, in some way, connects modern Spain and modern Macedonia.

Last week, Spain’s minority socialist government decided to exhume the remains of a dictator, whose victory in the Civil War paved the way for fascist regimes in Europe and brought the world to unprecedented suffering. Franco’s tomb is set in honorary spot at a monumental memorial near Madrid called the Valley of the Fallen. The decision should be confirmed in parliament with a simple majority, and the Socialists can secure those votes despite the opposition of the two biggest right-wing parties. The Franco family has been given a deadline of 15 days, or by late August, to decide where the dictator will be reburied. The excavation of the remains is planned for the end of the year.

Spanish society, like the Macedonian one, is deeply divided by a large gap between the left-wing and the right-wing. That division has been dragging on since 1936 when General Franco organized a coup against the legitimate left-wing government and started the civil war, and with the help of fascist planes and troops from Italy and Germany, he defeated the republic. No historian, nor official authorities, can determine how many people died in this incredibly bloody and devastating fratricidal war – it is assumed that the number is at least 500,000. In 1959, Franco opened this mausoleum whose construction he commissioned, where 33,000 people from both sides were buried, with a false pathetic for reconciliation, but basically for glorifying his victory in the war. The huge basilica of the rocky hill, on which a 150-meter granite cross was raised, was designated for his eternal resting place. It was built by 20,000 political prisoners, hundreds lost their lives to build this celebration of fascism. The tomb of Franco, who died in 1975, is right next to the altar, and close to him is the tomb of the ideologue of the Spanish fascists, the leader of the infamous Spanish Phalanx, Primo de Rivera. On the shiny granite tomb of Franco’s grave, fresh flowers are laid every morning. According to European democratic standards, the whole situation is abnormal. It is unthinkable to have this kind of celebration of the dictator with a monument built by slaves in any place in Europe where there was a fascist dictatorship.
The remains of the soldiers are left at the mercy of the weather in the almost destroyed funeral chambers in the basements. Relatives of the dead Republican fighters demand that the remains of their relatives be also exhumed and reburied in family tombs so that they do not lie with their executioners, but the state and the leadership of the Benedictine priests who run the basilica do not allow it.

This is the last place in Europe to go to worship the tomb of a fascist dictator, while about 140,000 of his opponents lie in unmarked graves all over the country, buried hastily during and after the civil war. The last executions of the opponents of the regime were in the last year of Franco’s life, in 1975. To make a soft transition from dictatorship to democracy after Franco’s death, all parties agreed to a so-called “pact of silence” to avoid opening old wounds in a divided society. No one was charged with the crimes, a commission for the truth was not formed, and those who perpetrated these crimes were pardoned.

The previous socialist government made several steps in clearing the dark past – several smaller Franco monuments were removed throughout several cities, street names were changed, but all of this was stopped after the change of power. The mission of the socialist government looks like an incredibly difficult task. But Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez seems prepared to deal with the past at all costs to wake the society from the “pact of silence”. Exhuming the dictator’s body is only one step, the other tasks to follow are more important. Sanchez returned to the committee’s proposal from a previous socialist government composed of historians and anthropologists, the Valley of the Fallen to be radically transformed and this morbid monument to Franco’s “glorious crusade against half of the Spanish population” be turned into a true museum of national reconciliation and memory. According to the commission’s proposal, the museum should explain how this monument was created, why political prisoners were used to build it, how many died during its 20-year construction etc. Basically, for the people to face the past, not silence it.

Facing the past is always unpleasant. Although not in this brutal sense, the Macedonian society should face the installation of the bloody VMRO phalanx from the darkest time of the party in the 1920s and 1930s under the veil of presenting the truth in the VMRO Museum. The heartbreaking scenes from the Rubens-like painting on how Todor Aleksandrov was killed, painted as part of a biblical story, the mythological statements about the formation of VMRO in Thessaloniki, the representation  Vanco Mihajlov as a hero between the lines, whose order was killing two men daily in Gorna Dzhumaya and Sofia during the worst inter-Macedonian incidents, the marginalization of the anti-fascist war and the creation of the Macedonian state, installed this museum in celebration of the organization that brought Macedonians so much hope and even more suffering in the past.

The Ministry of Culture has set up a commission of eminent historians who studied the objectivity of this setting of the museum. Its conclusions are clear – it needs to be redefined for Macedonia to face the past in a real way, however painful it may be for some of its parts, and turn it into a museum that will explain how the country got to its statehood. The committee did not lack the courage to publish its findings, but obviously politics needs courage to make the necessary steps. Just as Franco’s family announced that it would take all possible legal means to prevent the dictator’s exhumation, because “the decision was made contrary to our desire,” and VMRO-DPMNE welcomed this announcement about the redefinition of the museum as a retaliatory move. From a party that has fallen into its own mythology, a different reaction can not be expected. It can not get rid of the delusion that it has a monopoly of the past and turn it into its own myth even when it was hidden and almost non-existent.

If it feeds off of misconceptions and myths, those who are constantly talking about the future – the current authorities – should not wait for alleged better times to begin clearing up what undermined the substance of the nation. It is not a question of whether Zoran Zaev has the courage of Pedro Sánchez (the name agreement is courage, as well as leadership and vision), but the question is whether there will be a tact and a political determination to confront the population with the two myths that hypnotize the citizenship. One is VMRO, and the other is Alexander’s history. The other day, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said that the monument in the center of Skopje was named “Warrior on a horse” for classical opportunist reasons – not to disturb our prospects in the process against Greece in The Hague. Has the debate about the Skopje 2014 project, which has brought confusion among people about their historical roots, calmed down due to opportunist reasons? The current authorities in Skopje lost their votes from protest statements when they were opposition and when the streets were renamed. Does this mean that opportunistically it is acceptable that one of the most famous streets in Skopje continue to bear the name “Aminta III”? Maybe.

There is no inadequate time for real actions on the health of the nation. No one can expect that the VMRO-related mythomania associated with the killings in the organization in its bloodiest period will disappear as if it never existed. Because that will never happen. Neither should the selfies in front of the monuments in the center of Skopje should be our new normality, however much they undermine the substance of the nation. As for the Macedonian confrontation with the past, we would probably have to wait a little longer.

Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik