Valley of the Fallen

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
About an hour northwest of Madrid, an enormous stone crucifix rises 500 feet out of a rocky mountaintop. It’s so big you can see it from miles away. Beneath the cross, there’s a sprawling Benedictine monastery and a basilica carved out of the mountain. This place is called the Valley of the Fallen, and it’s likely the most controversial monument in Spain.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
The valley is synonymous with Francisco Franco, the general who ruled Spain from the end of its bloody civil war in 1939 until his death in 1975.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Jennifer O’Mahony.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
When Franco died, he became the valley’s most notorious inhabitant. His body was buried under a huge stone slab.

Roman Mars:
But as the decades passed after his death, anger about the monument grew. People began to push for the removal of Franco’s body. They argued there was no place in a democracy for a monument exalting a man who had tortured and killed thousands of Spaniards in the name of fascism. And then in October of 2019 …

[NOW, THE SPANISH DICTATOR FRANCISCO FRANCO DIED 44 YEARS AGO. TODAY, HIS REMAINS WERE MOVED FROM THE VALLEY OF THE FALLEN-]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Franco’s body was disinterred, his coffin packed into a helicopter, and then flown to a graveyard on the outskirts of the city to be reburied.

[FRANCO WILL LIE NEXT TO HIS LATE WIFE. AND AS YOU CAN SEE FROM HERE, THERE WERE SOME PROTESTS.]

Roman Mars:
Despite all his torturing and murdering, Franco still has fans in Spain. Some see him as the emblem of a traditional Spanish Catholic life, and some actually like his fascist ideology and would like to see it make a comeback.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And so when his body was removed, hundreds of his supporters gathered at the new cemetery to wield swastikas and Franco-era flags and to perform the fascist salute in his honor.

[DE HECHO, YO VIVÍ 19 AÑOS BAJO FRANCO Y ESPAÑA ERA UN PAÍS MARAVILLOSO, MARAVILLOSO. AHORA ES UNA MIERDA.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
One of the protesters told me she’d lived for 19 years under Franco and that Spain was a marvelous country back then.

[FRANCO SU ESPÍRITU ESTARÁ SIEMPRE EN EL VALLE Y ESTARÁ CON NOSOTROS EN NUESTRO CORAZÓN.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
She said the dictator’s spirit would always be in the Valley and in her heart.

Roman Mars:
Even if you’re not familiar with Franco, this story might sound familiar to you. You got your fascists, you got your antifascists, and there’s this monument honoring a very bad man from the past that people are arguing about. But this story is different because the Valley of the Fallen isn’t just a monument, it is also a mass grave.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
There are tens of thousands of other bodies still trapped in the basilica beneath where Franco used to lie. Many were ordinary civilians killed by Franco’s security forces during the height of the civil war.

Roman Mars:
And for years, their families have been trying to get them out. The story of the Valley of the Fallen can be traced all the way back to the mid-1930s when Spain found itself torn in two different political directions.

[THE REPUBLIC — LA NINA BONITA — THE BEAUTIFUL GIRL. JOYFUL DEMONSTRATIONS THROUGHOUT SPAIN AGREE TO THE PROCLAMATION OF THE REPUBLIC.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
In 1936, the country was a new democracy. Just a few years removed from monarchy when a group of left-wing anti-clerical Republicans won the elections. This horrified the right-wing Catholics in the country. That included Francisco Franco, a general in the Spanish army.

Roman Mars:
After the election, Franco banded together with other right-wing military leaders to carry out a coup. They believed they were on a divine crusade.

[AND WHAT BEGAN AS A MILITARY COUP LED TO ALMOST THREE YEARS OF CIVIL WAR.]

Roman Mars:
The right-wingers gradually seized control of Spain. Their death squads rounded up suspected leftists, and then paraded them through villages and shot them.

[FOR BOTH SIDES, POLITICAL OPPONENTS BECAME ENEMIES TO BE HUNTED DOWN AND KILLED.]

Purificación Lapeña:
[SPEAKING IN SPANISH]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
This is Purificación Lapeña. Her grandfather Manuel and great uncle Antonio were among Franco’s victims. When I met her, she showed me photos of them as handsome young men back in the 1930s. Manuel worked as a village vet, caring for the animals of local farmers.

Purificación Lapeña:
[Mi abuelo era veterinario e inspector veterinario pues cuidaba de los animales.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
His brother Antonio was an ironworker. Both men had supported the leftists who won the elections and both had joined a union, making them targets for the right-wing nationalists. Manuel was working in the field one day in July 1936 when a group of Franco’s men rolled up in a truck.

Purificación Lapeña:
[Pasó un camión con falangistas y Guardia Civil y lo cogieron.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
They grabbed Purificación’s grandfather and the other workers and took them to a nearby jail.

Purificación Lapeña:
[Pues lo sacaron en camión junto con otros lo llevaron al barranco de la bartolina y allí lo asesinaron.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Her grandfather was killed and left in a ditch. Her great uncle was murdered a few months later. Over the years, word spread through the village that the ravine where Manuel well was killed was filling up with bodies. But it would take a long time for the family to find out exactly what had happened.

Roman Mars:
And they weren’t the only ones left without answers. Something similar was playing out for families across the country.

[THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, LIKE ANY OTHER, UNLEASHED THE PASSIONS OF CENTURIES OF HATRED. THE KILLING WAS UNRESTRAINED.]

Roman Mars:
By 1939, the Civil War was over and Spain was in ruins. At least 400,000 people had died. Half of them were civilians who faced torture, assassination, and the unexplained disappearances of their family members.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And networks of mass graves now scarred the Spanish landscape. Some contained thousands of bodies. It’s estimated that Spain still has 114,000 missing people dating back to that time.

Roman Mars:
But Franco wasn’t interested in what happened to the bodies of his enemies, at least not at first. He was too busy consolidating his power. As the great superpowers of the world took up sides in World War II, he decided not to fight, focusing his energies on fully crushing his opposition at home.

[IN AN OFFICIAL DECLARATION, GENERALISSIMO FRANCISCO FRANCO STATES THAT HIS GOVERNMENT WILL NOT JOIN THE GERMAN-ITALIAN-JAPANESE ALLIANCE AGAINST COMMUNISM. BUT HE SAYS THAT HE WILL EXTIRPATE COMMUNISM IN SPAIN.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
The country now had a single political party and protest was effectively banned. Franco became known as El Caudillo, the Supreme Leader. And in a very savvy move, he continued to cultivate the backing of the Catholic Church.

Paul Preston:
Franco was not a particularly religious man, but he adopted the idea, very cleverly, that his war effort was a religious crusade.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
This is Paul Preston. He’s one of the leading scholars of the Spanish Civil War and of Franco’s regime.

Paul Preston:
And this guaranteed him the support of the Catholic Church internationally.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Which meant Franco could operate with relative impunity. He went about taking away many of the rights that Spaniards had gained during the 1930s. Women, for example, lost the right to divorce their husbands and have abortions. And they could no longer work outside the home without permission.

Roman Mars:
Men, on the other hand, could kill their wives for adultery. The government banned regional languages like Basque and Catalan. The Catholic Church ruled over every aspect of most Spaniards’ lives.

Paul Preston:
The ideas of Francoism are being pumped out from church pulpits, they’re being pumped out in schools to people who, in principle, would not have supported Franco, who are basically forced either to accept these ideas or go into what we call inner exile. In other words, to go into a world of silence.

Roman Mars:
And now that Franco had gained absolute power over the country, he wanted a monument to immortalize his great triumph.

Paul Preston:
It is to be, for him, what the pyramids were to the Pharaohs.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Franco commissioned the Valley of the Fallen in 1940. The building, he said, would rival the grandeur of ancient monuments.

Roman Mars:
And then because he was Franco, he went about building the monument in the most fascist way possible, relying on the forced labor of his political prisoners.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
The three camps were controlled by a brigade of city guards. We were counted every three hours to make sure that nobody has escaped.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
This is Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz. Back in the 1940s, he was a college student in Madrid and he got involved in anti-Franco organizing. After getting caught handing out pro-democracy pamphlets, Nicolas was sentenced to work at the Valley of the Fallen.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
We had to sleep in barracks and well, at 7:00 or 8:00, we are supposed to be working.

Roman Mars:
Because of Nicolas’s university education, he was put to work in the office, shuffling papers around for prison officials and filling in endless forms. But as he walked to and from his barracks each day, he saw men carving rock on pitiful rations of food and working with dynamite without protection.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
Very harsh work. And obviously, there was some people that were killed.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
The construction of the Valley of the Fallen took an enormous human toll. An estimated 40,000 prisoners worked on the project. Some died from exhaustion, others inhaled pulverized granite and were killed by lung diseases many years later.

Roman Mars:
Franco hadn’t initially conceived of the Valley of the Fallen as a gravesite, much less a mass grave. But it would become one thanks to Franco’s twisted response to pressure from one of Spain’s main allies.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
The Americans relied on Spain as one of their European partners during the Cold War. And when they heard about Franco’s plans for the Valley of the Fallen, they started to get nervous.

Roman Mars:
The monument was shaping up to be pretty confrontational and divisive. The Americans hoped Franco would dial it back a bit to make it a place that memorialized all the countries war dead, not just the Catholic crusaders.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And so Franco declared the Valley of the Fallen to be a place of reconciliation, a place where the dead for both sides of the Civil War would be laid to rest.

Roman Mars:
But then, once again, Franco went about making that happen in the most fascist way possible.

Purificación Lapeña:
[SPEAKING IN SPANISH]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Purificación Lapeña says that Franco ordered his people to bring him bodies from mass graves and cemeteries all over Spain. They dug the bodies up without permission and jumbled them together in boxes.

Purificación Lapeña:
[SPEAKING IN SPANISH]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Then they drove them to the Valley where they were reburied in the crypt near the basilica. Finally completed, the Valley opened to the public in 1959.

Roman Mars:
Nearly two decades later, when Franco finally died of heart failure, he too was buried at the Valley of the Fallen. He was laid to rest in a grand basilica above the bodies of the Spaniards he had tortured, killed, and then reburied in a mass grave where their families couldn’t find them.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And with Franco gone, Spain suddenly confronted a new future without El Caudillo.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
Well look, when Franco died, we were very happy to get rid of him. We were expecting that. We had a freezer full of champagne.

Roman Mars:
The three years between Franco’s death and the signing of a new constitution became known as the transition. The country moved from fascist dictatorship to multi-party democracy.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And starting in the late 1970s, Spain finally got to do what the US, Britain, and France had done more than a decade before. They got to have fun. A new revolutionary movement sprang up in Madrid and became known as La Movida Madrileña.

[LA MOVIDA HAS CONSUMED MADRID, TRANSFORMING THE CAPITAL INTO EUROPE’S NEW MOVABLE FEAST.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Suddenly, Spaniards could drink, dance, have sex outside of marriage, and make music about it. The transition seemed to have ushered in a new Spain. But the elation felt after Franco’s death was temporary.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
It’s only after several years that you realize that a new democracy hasn’t solved all the problems that were brought by the dictatorship.

Roman Mars:
For one thing, there were reminders of the dictatorship everywhere. There were statues of Franco and his collaborators in central plazas all over the country. His name was on street signs. And of course, the Valley of the Fallen served as a colossal reminder.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
How can you have a democracy and at the same time have a huge monument to the glory of the dictatorship built by political prisoners?

Jennifer O’Mahony:
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to fully addressing what had happened to the country under Franco was an agreement that became known as the Pacto del Olvido, the “Pact of Forgetting.”

[UN AMNESTIA DE TODOS PARA TODOS. UN OLVIDO DE TODOS PARA TODOS.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
As one politician said, the pact would be an amnesty for everyone, agreed to by everyone.

Roman Mars:
At the heart of the Pact of Forgetting was legal forgiveness for all Franco-era crimes. It was a deal agreed to by parties on the right and the left. It was a massive compromise.

Paul Preston:
The whole process of transition to democracy was a transaction. It was a deal. It was a negotiation.

Roman Mars:
Paul Preston again.

Paul Preston:
Moderation, compromise, sacrifice was the only chance of getting even a glimmer of democracy. So that’s the context.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
The left agreed to the pact because they wanted their political prisoners freed and their political parties legalized. They wanted to be able to live in this new democracy without fear of being tortured or murdered.

Roman Mars:
But as time went on, they had to grapple with the fact that the amnesty applied to people on the right too.

Fausto Canales Bermejo:
[Pues nosotros creímos que esa Ley de Amnistía era una amnistía para los pocos que quedaban presos políticos.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Fausto Canales was a left-wing activist back in the late ’70s when the Pact of Forgetting went into effect. He knew back then that his father had disappeared during the Civil War when Fausto was just two years old. And he says that instead of making sure people on the left wouldn’t be persecuted for their political views, the amnesty law was primarily used to shield those on the right who’d killed civilians.

Fausto Canales Bermejo:
[Ocurrido eso nos echamos las manos a la cabeza hemos sido engañados absolutamente.].

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Fausto says when he realized what had happened, he put his head in his hands. He felt he’d been tricked. The pact created a culture of silence around the atrocities of Spain’s past. It suppressed conversations about the killing of civilians during the Civil War and the long years of repression that followed. The pact basically said, “Let’s just not talk about what happened. Let’s move forward instead.”

Roman Mars:
And as for the Valley of the Fallen, it became something like a shrine to Franco. Fascists would visit it from all over Europe to pay their respects and would mark his death with flowers every year. Franco was remembered even as the pact ensured that his crimes were slowly forgotten and erased.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
For people like Purificación, the pact just didn’t work. It was impossible to move forward without knowing exactly what had happened to her relatives. As time went on, her family and many others began to resist the taboo against speaking up. They began to talk about what they’d been through.

Purificación Lapeña:
[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Purificación says that during the 1980s, discussions that had long been kept quiet started to come out into the open.

Purificación Lapeña:
[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And even if people didn’t want to listen, at least it was no longer unthinkable for families of victims to make their grievances known.

Roman Mars:
And as families began to talk more about what happened to them, they also started to organize around an important goal. They wanted to find the bodies of their missing family members that had ended up in the mass graves around the country.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And they weren’t going to wait for the government to give them permission. They began hiring forensic specialists and archeologists to help them find and dig up the bodies themselves.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Miguel Ángel Capapé:
[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Miguel Ángel Capapé works for an organization called ARICO. It carries out private exhumations for families who want to find their murdered relatives.

Miguel Ángel Capapé:
[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
As Miguel showed me around the headquarters, I noticed a wall of boxes and asked what they contained. He told me that inside was skeletons, some broken into pieces by torture and the years spent underground. Now waiting to be washed and identified.

Miguel Ángel Capapé:
[Si los lavamos aqui.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
I asked him how families typically react to seeing these broken bodies emerge from the ground after waiting for answers for so long.

Miguel Ángel Capapé:
[Es todo. Llevan muchos años peleando primero buscando a sus familiares porque hay mucha gente que no sabe dónde están.].

Jennifer O’Mahony:
“It’s everything,” he says. Especially when they’ve spent years trying to learn where their loved ones were buried. Having a real funeral makes a huge difference to people.

Miguel Ángel Capapé:
[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Roman Mars:
For a long time, the work of people like Miguel happened below the radar and without support from the state. But then in 2007, a new law went into effect that gave a boost to these efforts to uncover the crimes of the past. The new law was called the “Historical Memory Law,” and it broke the Pact of Forgetting. For the first time, victims of Franco-era crimes received official recognition. The law called for the removal of Francoist symbols from public places. And lots of new money flowed to the excavation efforts happening at mass grave sites across the country.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Purificación Lapeña and her family seized their chance. They contacted Eduardo Ranz, a human rights lawyer who was helping to investigate crimes dating back to the Franco-era. Eduardo started looking into the case of Purificación’s grandfather and great uncle.

Eduardo Ranz:
[Una investigación reúne datos y se llega a la conclusión que su padre su abuelo su tío no está en esta fosa y no está en el Valle de los Caídos.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
He learned that Purificación’s relatives were not in a mass grave near the town where they’d been killed.

Roman Mars:
Instead, they were among the bodies that had been moved to the Valley of the Fallen before it opened in 1959. They’d been jumbled together in boxes with other remains and then transferred into the crypts of the basilica. When reburied, their names had not been written down.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
And Purificación’s family wasn’t the only one hearing this. All told, around 33,000 bodies had been reburied at the monument.

Purificación Lapeña:
[Nosotros eramos… cuántas seremos más o menos 9 en la asociación pero ahí están ahora por ejemplo 31].

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Purificación eventually banded together with more than 30 families. They filed a series of legal complaints that wound their way through regional, national, and European courts over the course of many years.

Purificación Lapeña:
[CONTINUES IN SPANISH]

Roman Mars:
And then in 2011, the government asked a panel of experts to consider the future of the Valley of the Fallen.

[SPANISH LANGUAGE NEWS CLIP]

Roman Mars:
The panel recommended that Franco’s body be removed from the Valley, a small victory for those who’d long said that the Valley was a monument to fascism. With Franco’s body moved to another cemetery, at least the fascist pilgrimages would stop.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
But the panel also said that identifying and removing the tens of thousands of other bodies was not practical. Purificación was once again denied the chance she’d hoped for.

Purificación Lapeña:
[Lo siento pero es que ya son muchos años.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
“It’s been so many years,” she says. She laments the fact that her father is 95-years-old and has lost his memory. He’ll never know what happened to his own father.

Roman Mars:
And this is true for thousands of Spaniards. Of all those buried in the Valley, 21,000 could be identified. The other 12,000 people remain nameless. The only thing known is where their bodies came from in Spain, offering a small sliver of hope for families still searching for their loved ones.-The efforts to address Spain’s fascist past remain patchwork, not just at the Valley of the Fallen, but across the country. There are still Franco era statues and street signs. And recently, more insidious reminders of the dictatorship have been re-emerging in the country. A new far-right party known as VOX won seats in parliament last year.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Their slogan? “Hacer España grande otra vez.”

Roman Mars:
“Make Spain great again.”

Jennifer O’Mahony:
VOX would never actually claim to be fascist, but their policies align with what Franco represented. They want a border wall with Morocco. They want to take away the power held by Spain’s regions in favor of national unity. They would deport all undocumented migrants, and they’re totally opposed to a gender violence law that would tackle Spain’s shamefully high levels of domestic violence.

Roman Mars:
Their rapid rise has been driven by Instagram memes and YouTube videos. A recent election spot showed the party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, striding through a Castilian landscape and talking about honor and national pride and about refusing to live among traitors.

[ELECTION AD CLIP]

Roman Mars:
VOX puts on events which attract a lot of young people who have never voted before. And many of them don’t even know who Franco is. In a lot of ways, the Pact of Forgetting actually worked. Recent history isn’t taught in Spanish schools, which means that young people are more susceptible to VOX’s appeal. They don’t understand the party’s connection to Spain’s bloody history.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Fausto Canales, the left-wing activist, says his own father is believed to be in the Valley of the Fallen. But every attempt to get him out has been blocked. After living with the pain of his father’s murder his entire life, Fausto has watched VOX’s rise with increasing alarm.

Fausto Canales Bermejo:
[España es el país de la desmemoria — fue olvidado todo este drama que ocurrió toda esta todo este genocidio.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
He says Spain is the country of amnesia. So much tragedy. A genocide has been forgotten.

Roman Mars:
After Franco’s body was removed from the valley, VOX accused the government of using the exhumation to score political points ahead of an election, drowning out the calls from families to take their own loved ones out of the monument.

[VIVA ESPAÑA, ALZAD LOS BRAZOS, HIJOS DEL PUEBLO ESPAÑOL, QUE VUELVE A RESURGIR.]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Meanwhile, pro-Franco protestors gathered at the Valley and sang Spain’s old national anthem, which is peppered with fascist lyrics.

[CROWD CHANTING OLD NATIONAL ANTHEM]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
The anthem was retired after Franco died in favor of a wordless melody you just nod along to. But now, they’re singing the lyrics again.

Roman Mars:
Opinion is now divided on what the future of the Valley should be.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
The government has been spending a lot of money to keep in good shape the monument. Stop it. Not a dime more.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Once all the bodies are out, Nicolas would leave nature to take its course, just let the monument fall down.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
The only problem is that nature works, but it works very, very slowly.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Purificación says the most important thing is to get the rest of the bodies out of the Valley, not just Franco’s.

Purificación Lapeña:
[Yo querría que todas las fatto todos los familiares que tengan asesinados en el Valle de los caídos de las cunetas de los cementerios que se sacan todos los restos de toda España porque es una gran fosa, España es una fosa…]

Jennifer O’Mahony:
She says, “What I want is for every family with murdered victims in the Valley of the Fallen or thrown in ditches, I want them to dig up all of these people buried all over Spain because Spain is a mass grave. My idea would be to exhume them all and for them to be given back to their families and dignified with burials in cemeteries, where they should be. The story of what really happened should be known and taught in schools so that everyone knows the real history of what happened.”

Roman Mars:
In 2016, a judge ordered an exhumation of Purificación’s family members. It was the first and only time that had happened in Spain.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
But it still hasn’t been carried out. Purificación and Fausto were told that with Franco’s body gone, this might be the year. And while they’re not getting their hopes up, it’s true that in Spain the dead have a way of surprising the living.

Roman Mars:
Coming up after the break, Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz, the student who was sentenced to work at the Valley of the Fallen, well, he eventually escaped. And the story of how that happened is pretty wild. Stay with us.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So as a reminder, Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz was the student who was imprisoned at the Valley of the Fallen for a few months during its construction. He didn’t do hard labor. He worked in an office job there. But it was an awful place and a lot of prisoners tried to escape. It’s estimated there are 50 attempted escapes between 1940 and 1959.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
But the only true escape that succeeded were those of my friend and myself. The rest were caught.

Roman Mars:
And how Nicolas did it is a pretty crazy story so we to bring back Jennifer O’Mahony to tell us a bit more. So Jennifer, tell us what happened with this escape.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
So to begin with, there were a few things that made escaping from the Valley of the Fallen difficult. The Valley wasn’t actually really heavily guarded, but it was set very deep in a forest. And if anybody managed to walk out, they get picked up as soon as they got to the nearest road. And in Spain at that time, the roads were really heavily policed and Spaniards needed special permission just to travel around their own country.

Roman Mars:
So if an escaped prisoner even made it out to the road, there was little chance they’d be able to make it any further because of all the guards.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
It would be very difficult. So Nicolas understood that context and he reached out to a good friend of his, an architect who drafted him some fake travel permits. And the next thing Nicolas did was write a letter to some of his friends who were exiled in Paris, and he asked them if they could help him get out of the Valley. And those friends just happened to be connected to Norman Mailer.

Roman Mars:
Norman Mailer, the author? I mean, was he already famous at this point?

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Yeah, this was just before his debut novel came out. He wasn’t quite famous yet, but he was just on the cusp of it. And he was one of a number of writers and artists from the US who’d got very interested in the anti-fascist movement in Europe.

Norman Mailer:
“Fascism goes back. To our infancy and our childhood, where we were always told how to live. We were told do this, don’t do that. No. No. Yes, you may do that. No, you may not do that.”

Roman Mars:
That’s a very Norman Mailer take on fascism. So how did he get connected to Nicolas’s friends?

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Well, according to Nicolas, apparently Mailer was on holiday in France and he’d had a chance encounter with his friends. Mailer mentioned he’d be going back to the US quite soon, that he’d bought a car and he was trying to get rid of it before he left.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
And a friend said we need your car. And he said, well, I’ll give it to you. But I also will give you my sister to drive.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
So that would be Mailer’s sister Barbara, who had also been in France, and she was also interested in the anti-fascist movement. And she began corresponding with Nicolas via his friends. They wrote letters back and forth. And eventually they agreed on a day and time when she’d come to the valley in Norman Mailer’s car, driven by one of Nicolas’s friends to take him away.

Roman Mars:
It all sounds kind of surprisingly easy.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Yes. So the fact that Barbara was an American and the fact they were in a car, in a strange way, it meant they aroused much less suspicion.

Roman Mars:
It seems kind of like the benefits of being an American in that situation.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Yeah, well, at this time, almost any foreigner really had a certain amount of privilege in that respect. So on the appointed day, Nicolas and a friend of his from university who was also jailed for pro-democracy activities snuck out of his barracks and found Barbara waiting for them with their mutual friends. They were just parked there in front of the monument.

Roman Mars:
They were just like sitting outside, they beeped a couple of times, and they come running out.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Yeah, according to how he tells it, Nicolas and the fellow prisoner hopped into the car and then Barbara drove them to northeastern Spain and dropped them at the border with France. And then there was a hard part. Nicolas had to hike with his friend through the Pyrenees Mountains for three days, walking only at night and hiding out, or sleeping during the day to avoid police. They were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. And finally, on the third day, they saw a road sign written in French.

Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz:
It was written in French and we found an old Frenchman with a long mustache. And we began to talk with him and he said, you are safe here in France.

Roman Mars:
Was it typical for people fleeing Franco’s Spain to go into France seeking safety? I mean, like, were there lots of people hiking to the Pyrenees, just as Nicolas did?

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Well, Nicolas was following a route established by hundreds of thousands of political refugees actually, when the Republican forces lost their last battle to Franco’s nationalist army in 1939. So at that time, men, women, and children made their way into France through the mountains. But by the time Nicolas made that journey, it was a lot less common. I mean, Spain wasn’t a totally closed country like North Korea. But he was a fugitive. So it was a bit different for him.

Roman Mars:
And so what did Nicolas do once he got into France?

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Well, as any of us would, I guess, he got in touch with his family. And his father, a diplomat who was in exile for his own safety, told him to come to Argentina. So Nicolas flew out and reunited with his family there and he wouldn’t return to Spain until Franco’s death.

Roman Mars:
That’s such a cool story. All right. Thanks so much, Jennifer. Appreciate it.

Jennifer O’Mahony:
Thanks a lot, Roman.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Jennifer O’Mahony and edited by Senior Producer Delaney Hall. Mix by Bryson Barnes. Music by Sean Real. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg, Emmett FitzGerald, Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is now distributed in multiple locations around North America, but our hearts it will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California

We are a proud member of radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative, listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.

You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can find out how to pre-order the 99% Invisible book that we announced last week at 99pi.org/book and for all your other 99pi needs, look no further than 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Reporter Jennifer O’Mahony spoke with Almudena Montojo, Franco supporter; Eduardo Ranz, human rights lawyer; Nicolas Sánchez-Albornoz, historian and former political prisoner; Purificación Lapeña, a relative of victims murdered by Franco’s forces; Miguel Ángel Capapé, director of ARICO (la Asociación por la Recuperación e Investigación contra el Olvido); Paul Preston, British historian of the Spanish Civil War and biographer of Franco Pedro; Fausto Canales Bermejo former political activist whose father was murdered by Franco death squad during the Spanish Civil War.

This episode was edited by Delaney Hall.

  1. My mom is a refugee from fascist Spain. She came to Mexico with her mother when she was five years old. Here, they reunited with my grandfather, who had been an air force captain for the Spanish Republic and had had to flee on foot through the mountains to France, after which he made it to Mexico. As kids, my siblings and I rarely heard about Franco or about the concentration camp where my grandfather had been a prisoner in France. In 1980 my parents traveled to Spain to visit with my mother’s family. For some reason, they visited the Valle de los Caídos. My dad discreetly pulled away from the group, rounded a corner, and peed on the monument! It was his little revenge for what Franco had done to his wife’s family. The day my dad peed on Franco’s grave became legendary in our family’s narrative.

  2. Nick Ball

    I remember visiting Spain as a child. It was 1983; I would have been about eight years old. I had seen a large slogan spray-painted on a promenade wall in Blanes, on the Costa Blanca. It was something about “el mort Franco.”

    Well, when your eight years old you assume that Dad knows everything. I asked him what it meant, and who was Franco. He showed me an old 25ptas coin. On it was the head of an old man, (like the Queens head would have be on a British Coin.) He said “That’s him. Now don’t ever mention that name here again. Some people will spit on you. Others will smash your face in for just saying his name.” I didn’t mention that name again until we got back to the UK.

  3. vic

    I rarely come across articles so poorly documented and with such a partisan tone.. Many have criticized Franco and many have defended him too.. All is good as long as serious research and unbiased sources are used. Not here.. Not today.. The author so eagerly inclined to count the thousands killed by Franco fails miserably to count the thousands killed by Republicans.. Not to mention the failure of the republic to protect religious freedom in a mostly Catholic country..by the way two years before the conflict started.. Burning churches was their thing and killing priests and nouns too.. That is why the infuriated conservatives reacted..to those who fled fearing for their life its sad they missed the Amnesty granted by Franco.. Which by the way the author also forget..

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