MADRID – From the outside, it seems like any other block of flats in Madrid.
Inside, however, is the Fundación National Francisco Franco, or Francisco Franco National Foundation, an institution that preserves the memory of the man who ruled Spain for nearly four decades until his death in 1975.
To some, it is a shrine to a fascist dictator, which should not exist in democratic Spain in the 21st century.
To others, it guards the flame of a man who spared the country from communism, presided over its reconstruction after its devastating civil war, and saved it from being drawn into the Second World War.
Almost every centimeter of the walls are filled with paintings or photographs of Franco while the offices contain important papers of state signed by El Caudillo (The Leader) which are consulted by historians.
The foundation is now under threat after the Socialist government passed a law on Tuesday which will ban the organization for “glorifying the dictatorship.”
Lessons about the repression of political opponents under Franco will become part of the national school curriculum.
However, the bill is hugely divisive in a country which is still struggling to deal with this part of its past.
Unlike Germany or Portugal, Spain is the only European country which has never addressed events of its wartime past, and of the long dictatorship that followed.
An amnesty law passed in 1977 prohibited retrospective trials relating to events during the Franco years.
More than half a million people died during Spains 1936-1939 civil war that pitted leftist Republicans supported by the Soviet Union against rightist Nationalist forces led by Franco backed by Nazi Germany. An estimated 120,000 people were killed during General Franco’s time in power while 450,000 were forced into exile, historians estimate.
After Burundi and Cambodia, Spain has the highest number of mass graves in the world, according to the United Nations.
Leftist political parties believe Spain must deal with this aspect of its past in order for future generations to come to terms with events under Francos rule.
However, conservatives see the legislation as only reviving the wounds of a conflict which happened eight decades ago.
Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, tweeted: “Today we take another step in recognizing the victims of the civil war and the dictatorship with the Democratic Memory Law. Today we close the wounds a little more; we can look at the past with greater dignity.”
Enrique Santiago, a member of parliament for the far-left Unidas Podemos alliance, the junior partner in the coalition government, said the legislation was an improvement on a law passed in 2007 which offered reparations for victims of Franco but it stalled after a conservative government came to power in 2011 and froze funding.
Santiago said the new legislation provided state funds to search for missing victims, recognized those pressed into forced labor for the dictatorship, and will impose fines of up to $178,000 for glorifying Franco.
“This bill does not go as far as Germany which prohibited Nazism. Unfortunately, there are sectors which still revere the dictator,” he told VOA.
“We hope this (law) doesn’t produce a division. We hope that this establishes the international rights which should not bother anyone,” Santiago said.
The sensitivity of the issue, however, was demonstrated by the swift response from the political right.
The Peoples Party, the largest opposition party, said the leftist government used Franco as an excuse not to address other problems.
“Whenever Sánchez has a problem, he gets Franco out of the Valley of the Fallen,” said Javier Maroto, a party spokesman.
General Juan Chicharro Ortega, president of the Franco foundation, said the organization would challenge the law in the courts.
“This law is anti-democratic. It contravenes the Spanish constitution which guarantees the liberty of expression. It says you can only think one way and negates what half of Spaniards are thinking,” he told VOA.
Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right Vox party, the third largest in the Spanish parliament with 52 MPs, called the law “totalitarian.”
Ciudadanos, or Citizens, a small center-right party, believes the government should address a health crisis which has seen the number of COVID-19 cases rise to over 600,000, the highest number if western Europe.
“Of course we condemn the dictatorship but I think most Spaniards right now think the government should concentrate on trying to solve the problems of the pandemic, ” Melisa Rodriguez, a Ciudadanos parliamentary spokesman, told VOA.
For the relatives of Franco’s victims, the new law will bring solace.
When archaeologists were searching a mass grave last weekend, they chanced upon Eugenio Ursúa’s wedding ring, ending his daughter’s 84-year hunt for the father she never knew.
“It was a lovely moment. I wanted to cry. We knew my father was buried here and it was a long wait to find him and now we have,” Rosa María told VOA.
Ursúa, a 29-year-old father of two, was killed just days after the start of the civil war in 1936.
He answered a call to defend the Republican government after Franco led an armed uprising but his unit was ambushed in El Espinar, 62 kilometers north of Madrid.
Pending a DNA test, his remains will be buried next to those of his late wife.
Rosa María, who was six months old when her father died, said,“For us the search is over. This law might give other families some help to find their relatives.”