Discovering Franco’s Fascist model villages

Above Image: Statue commemorating the settlers of Vegaviana with the church behind.

Visiting Vegaviana, by Tom Robinson

Driving across the Meseta plains of Western Spain we came across the village of Vegaviana. Wide leafy streets, manicured gardens, rows of identical white houses gleaming in the midday sun: Vegaviana is more than a little reminiscent of the white picket dream of post-war American capitalism.

However, this small village built between 1954 and 1958 and located in Extremadura, the poorest and most isolated region of Spain, was originally built as a Fascist model village.

Vegaviana was built according to the principles of community, self-sufficiency and harmony with nature. In contrast to the cities which were restricted to a homogenized architectural design, the young architects who designed the village were able to utilise new, foreign and diverse artistic styles.

Vegaviana is one of 296 model villages scattered across the Spanish countryside, built under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco who ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. The villages were part of a movement to repopulate the countryside and provide workers with high-quality accommodation.

However, any vision of Fascist utopia in the Spanish countryside is merely superficial. Only 25 kilometers from Vegaviana lies a network of unmarked graves containing the victims of Franco’s firing squads. It’s a sobering reminder of the brutality of the Fascist regime.

The model villages also served as a bastion of Franco’s power in the countryside. The dictator despised country labourers who posed a threat to his regime and wanted to replace them with city dwellers who would come to populate Vegaviana and the other model villages. Those selected to make the move to the countryside were chosen for their loyalty to the Fascist regime, enabling Franco to strengthen his grip over a country that had been ripped apart during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

Today however, there is not even a plaque in Vegaviana commemorating the lives lost under the Fascist regime. The village has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, although it is no longer self-sufficient and the vast majority of shops and other amenities have closed. On our visit we saw only a few people loosely congregating outside the cafe, the eerie silence only punctuated by the song of the numerous birds who have made the village rooftops their home.

The cafe in Vegaviana
The school, one of the few amenities that remains in use in Vegaviana
Vegaviana’s centre square

Vegaviana within the landscape of Spain’s Francoist legacy, by Freya Marshall Payne

Vegaviana is part of the visible but rarely addressed archaeology of Francoism. It was built to cultivate the land made fertile by a dam built by Franco, which to this day bears a plaque celebrating his greatness. Nearby sit two other model villages, La Moheda and Puebla de Argeme, although neither of these remain as untouched as Vegaviana.

Spain has a national landscape of unmarked mass graves overlaid with streets and towns re-named in honour of the regime and monuments and plaques erected to celebrate it. At its heart lies the “Valley of the Fallen”, Franco’s mausoleum containing 33,000 bodies from both sides of the conflict, the Republicans having been enslaved to build it.

This painful history has been normalised by 80 years of repression and secrecy. Memories of executions and reprisals are whispered locally, but Spain’s transition to democracy imposed amnesties on the crimes of fascism. It was only in 2007 that the whispered knowledge of mass graves led to an ongoing project of exhumations and re-burials for the victims of Fascism.

The “Valley of the Fallen” is the greatest emblem of Spain’s memorials to Franco and has for years seen supporters visit to pay homage, make fascist salutes and mourn him. Now, finally, this may change: Spain’s new socialist government is finalising plans to exhume Franco proposed ten years ago by the last socialist government. In April this year, after an arduous legal battle, the bodies of four men (from both sides) were finally extracted and returned to their families for proper burial. But what will happen to the everyday memorials to Franco, the un-marked sites of violence against dissidents and how his influence will be commemorated in such historic yet overlooked places as Vegaviana all remain to be seen.

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