Feature 11 Oct 17

Why Croatia’s President Tudjman Imitated General Franco

Franjo Tudjman said he developed a model of post-war reconciliation based on a monument built by Spanish fascist leader Franco - but at the memorial near Madrid, experts say the Croatian got it wrong.

Sven Milekic BIRN San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Franjo Tudjman (left) admired Francisco Franco's model of reconciliation. Photos: Beta, Wikimedia Commons/

Despite being the first democratically-elected president in Croatia’s history, Franjo Tudjman did not hide his admiration for Spanish fascist ruler General Francisco Franco.

“It is true that there were victims of fascism, but it is also true that the Croatian people suffered even more, as victims of the [Serbian WWII extreme nationalist movement] Chetniks and Communism. Let’s instead erect a monument to everyone, like the one Franco did, in that way making possible the normal development of democracy in Spain,” Tudjman told Croatian weekly Start in April 1991, just before full-scale war broke out.

The Franco monument that Tudjman was referring to is Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), located in Cuelgamuros Valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama, 50 kilometres from the centre of Madrid.

Its crypts hold the remains of approximately 34,000 soldiers, from both the fascist Falange and the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Tudjman saw a similarity with Croatia, where, he told German newspaper Tageszeitung in July 1990, “Croats fought for freedom under different flags” during World War II, when some backed the Nazi-allied Ustasa regime and others supported Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Partisans.

He praised the way that Franco “buried fascist and communist victims together”.

“Only on the basis of this type of reconciliation can a democratic society be created, in which there will no longer be warring sides. A monument for all victims of war should be built, and we should finally realise that all of that [conflict between Ustasa and Partisans] was the consequence of the historical situation,” Tudjman added.

Valle de los Caídos took more than 18 years to build, and was finished in 1959. It can be seen from over 30 kilometres away, with its 150-metre-high cross towering above a basilica carved into rock.

The basilica contains a massive hall, filled with numerous large mosaics and sculptures of angels and saints.


The crypts, where the fallen troops are buried, which only monks can enter, have the engraving “Fallen for God and for Spain”, a Spanish fascist slogan, over their entrance.

A central, circular room has a sculpture of Christ on the cross and mosaics of angels and fascist soldiers above its dome.

In front of the cross, there is the grave of Jose Antonio Primo De Rivera, the founder of Falange who was killed in the civil war, while behind it is Franco’s tomb.

As it functions as a place of prayer and contemplation, visitors are allowed in, but they are asked to remain silent, adding to an overall atmosphere of sanctitude.

After being asked several times, security guards admit that the Francisco Franco Foundation, which exists to maintain the Spanish leader’s memory, regularly puts flowers on the general’s tomb.

“The Valley is a realisation of Franco’s dream,” Gareth Stockey, a British historian at Nottingham University, told BIRN.

Stockey, who wrote ‘Valley of the Fallen: The (N)ever Changing Face of General Franco’s Monument’, explained that Franco “was obsessed” with building the monument.

He also noted that the monument was initially dedicated to the fallen military rebels from the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War - Franco’s forces.

“When the monument was first announced on April 1, 1940, the statement… made clear that it was for those who fell during the War of Liberation, during a national crusade. So in that sense, ‘los caidos’, ‘the fallen’, were very clearly delineated in 1940,” Stockey explained.

The prevailing explanation says that Franco intended to make the Valley a monument to the fallen on both sides from the beginning, but Stockey rejects this idea and offers an explanation he sees as more probable.

“It is likely that by the early 1960s, faced with the prospect of a very expensive, grand monument when they couldn’t fill the crypts, this was one way of filling the crypts. Even those Republicans buried there, were allowed by Franco on the express condition that they were Catholics, that it was known that they were Catholics. Even in that sense, the regime was imposing its own definition what Spanishness meant,” he said.

As the crypts needed more bodies, the Spanish authorities began to transport killed Republicans from all over Spain – around 8,000 of them at least – without the knowledge of their families or the general public.

“Often trucks would arrive in the middle of the night and literally dig up the bodies and take them to Cuelgamuros, where the Valley of the Fallen is,” Stockey said.

Stockey explained how, at the opening of the monument, Franco made an hours-long speech, warning that “the enemy is defeated, but is never beaten”, and calling on Spaniards to “be vigilant”.

The central memorial at the site of the former Jasenovac concentration camp. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Bern Bartsch.

According to Stockey, Franco never publically stated that “both sides fought for Spain”, as Tudjman quoted him.

He explained how during the 1960s and 1970s, more bodies were taken to the Valley, probably because some people within Franco’s regime were “a bit more farsighted” about shifts in Spanish society.

This was the time when the narrative about the monument changed, and it was presented ambiguously as “a monument built for the both sides of the Spanish Civil War”.

In these later years of Franco’s regime, the official narrative depicted the general as the one who brought peace to Spain.

“[The civil war] is a seen more as the war between the brothers, or as some kind of collective tragedy or madness among Spaniards. This comes in very handy during Spain’s transition to democracy, because all of a sudden you have an inbuilt narrative which Spaniards were already taught, saying that everyone was to be blamed for the Civil War, and so no one is to be blamed for the Civil War,” Stockey said.

“Valley of the Fallen was never conceived as the monument to both sides,” he concluded, rejecting Tudjman’s claims.

Paco Ferrandiz, a Spanish anthropologist who was part of a government-appointed commission tasked with making a proposal for the transformation of the monument, said that at the moment, tourists could visit the site without getting “a clear picture of who Franco was”.

Tourist guides tell visitors that it is a monument to reconciliation and focus on the aesthetics of the site.

Ferrandiz argues that because of its fascistic and militaristic symbolism, it cannot act as a symbol of reconciliation, however.

“On the roof, you have a scene from the Civil War, and it’s very fascist. You have the formidable bodies [of the soldiers]; you have a fascist flag, a Francoist flag,” he told BIRN.

Ferrandiz also said that Franco never mentioned that it was a monument of reconciliation, although there was a line in the announcement that war dead could be buried at the site which stated that “people killed on both sides of the war, on condition that they were Catholics” would be accepted.

Franco never really tried to create a ‘reconciliation model’, Ferrandiz argued.

“There was no reconciliation. Franco was very tough on the defeated; he continued to kill after the War. There were a lot of people who went to concentration camps and jails … Women and children [of the Republicans] were humiliated publically,” he said.

From Franco to Franjo

'Bones in a Mixer', the well-known Feral Tribune article on Tudjman's initiative. Photo: Feral Tribune.

After the end of the war in Croatia in 1995, Tudjman started to actively work on putting his Franco-inspired model of reconciliation in motion.

In a speech to parliament in early 1996, Tudjman proposed his idea of creating “a memorial site to all Croatian wartime victims” in Jasenovac.

In August 1941, the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement set up their biggest concentration camp in Jasenovac, where until April 1945, over 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists were killed.

Tudjman proposed that Ustasa troops, the anti-fascist Partisans and all civilian victims would be buried together at Jasenovac - an idea inspired by Franco’s monument.

Tudjman even proposed that bodies of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, Ustasa leader Ante Pavelic, as well as other historical leaders and Croatian nationalists buried outside Croatia, be brought back and buried in the tomb in Jasenovac as well.

In 1996, Marinko Culic wrote a satirical article entitled “Bones in a Mixer” for the legendary anti-establishment weekly Feral Tribune.

“Would they be mixed in one tomb, or one next to another? That was never precisely explained,” Culic, who is now a journalist for the Croatian weekly Novosti, told BIRN.

“Although the Jasenovac victims [from WWII] were not explicitly mentioned, there are no guarantees they wouldn’t be included as well,” he added.

Tudjman saw Franco as his reconciliation “role model”, Culic said.

“He even talked about himself as ‘new Franco’. Others coined the name ‘the Croatian Washington [as first US President George Washington]’ for Tudjman; he did not use it himself, but he talked about himself as ‘the new Croatian Franco’; without any restraint, in the most positive sense, saying, ‘What Franco did was marvellous, and we’ll repeat that,’” he explained.

Tudjman’s initiative was met with condemnation, with Feral Tribune publishing a series of satirical articles.

"Jasenovac in Court" and "United Colors of Jasenovac", Feral Tribune's satirical reports from the trial of its journalists. Photo: 'The Laughter of Freedom'.

“Communist general [Tudjman] returned to power as a declared follower of generalissimo Franco, who instead of ‘Good Day’ or ‘Praise Jesus’ had the habit of greeting people with ‘Viva la Muerte’ [‘Long Live Death’] and who, in the same period, gave [orders] to kill, torture and expel all who didn’t agree with his regime, so that he could mix up the bones of dead Phalangists and Republicans undisturned and thus maintain peace in the country,” wrote editor-in-chief Viktor Ivancic.

On an international level, there were sharp reactions from the US, Israel and Jewish organisations worldwide.

While meeting Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher demanded that Croatia gave up the idea of creating a joint tomb for all WWII victims in Jasenovac.

But after legislation was introduced in 1996 allowing people to be prosecuted for insulting to senior officials, the state attorney indicted Culic and Ivancic for their articles about Tudjman.

The trial began in June 1996 at Zagreb municipal court. The case was high-profile, with a packed courtroom, well-known lawyers defending Culic and Ivancic pro bono, and domestic and international media following the proceedings.

“I asked the judge: ‘If I can vote against Tudjman at elections, what sense does it make that I can’t criticise him?’” Culic said.

During the trial, as journalist Boris Pavelic explains in his book about Feral, ‘The Laughter of Freedom’, Ivancic made a speech saying that the position of the president had indeed been insulted, but not by Feral, but by Tudjman himself, when he expressed admiration for Franco.

Culic made the public in the courtroom laugh when he explained what he wrote in an article about Tudjman being a composite of body parts from Josip Broz Tito and Ante Pavelic.

“I suppose it isn’t disputed, that it is clear to me that Franjo Tudjman is not, in the physical sense, made from one part of Tito, and the other part of Pavelic,” he told the court.

The court acquitted Culic and Ivancic in September 1996, with the judge saying that the authors were expressing personal opinions, which could not be defined as libellous.

But in May 1997, the higher Zagreb county court quashed the acquittal verdict, sending the case to retrial.

However, the entire prosecution slowed down as Tudjman became ill, and the case was adjourned in December 1997. Tudjman died in December 1999, and that was the end of it all.

With the idea of a collective tomb, Tudjman wanted to rehabilitate the Ustasa movement, Culic argued - to show that it fought for Croatia just like the Communist Partisans did, “in the same way that Franco did it in Spain”.

According to Culic, the Croatian president might also have thought that Franco was a good model because he managed to survive for decades as an authoritarian leader - as if Tudjman was thinking: “If Franco did it, why can’t I?”

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