Spaniards told to be grateful for Franco, 30 years after his death

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A book praising General Francisco Franco, the former Spanish dictator whose regime executed tens of thousands of opponents, has become a bestseller as Spain prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of the death of El Caudillo (The Leader).

Franco: A historical review, by Pio Moa, has become a success despite repeating claims that Franco brought peace, prosperity and stability to Spain after the Civil War and ushered in its modern-day democracy.

"Franco should receive the gratitude and recognition of the majority of Spaniards," he writes. "He left a prosperous and politically moderate country. The past 30 years of democracy have been possible thanks to that." But Moa, who is criticised by fellow historians as nothing more than a Franco apologist, is by no means a lone voice in Spain as it attempts to confront what is still a painful anniversary.

Writing in the right-leaning Epoca magazine, Ricardo de la Cierva said: "Today in Spain we have a large middle class thanks to regime of General Franco."

The fascist dictator died, aged almost 83, of natural causes on 20 November 1975 after 36 years in power. Despite being described by the artist Salvador Dali as a "saint" after the two met, Franco lacked the charisma of his contemporary 20th century dictators. But his spectre still casts a long shadow over Spain.

Spain is already preparing to mark the anniversary with every kind of memorabilia - from unseen television film of the dictator's last days to a series of books timed to cash in and even programmes tracing those who queued to pay their respects at his coffin.

Thousands of Franco's original followers plus younger members of extreme right-wing groups are expected to pay homage at the Valley of the Fallen, the vast, underground mausoleum built in the mountains 30 miles from Madrid using forced labour.

There, they will lay wreaths and offer fascist salutes, as they do every year. Others will remember the general with somewhat less affection.

Many are angry Spain's Socialist government has failed, by the 30th anniversary of his death, to fulfil a promise to find justice for those persecuted or killed under the Franco regime. When Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's party won the general election last year it was the first government to promise justice for those who lost their loved ones under the fascist regime.

Since Franco's death, during the transition to democracy, a pact of silence has existed, with many sections of Spanish society preferring to move on rather than look back. But Mr Zapatero's government was determined to deal with the open wounds that still exist in Spain's collective memory. It set up the Commission for the Study of the Situation of the Victims of the Civil War and Francoism to examine each case.

But the task has proved far more complex than first expected and the government was forced to concede it may take many years to examine all the claims. The Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory has exhumed more than 500 graves of Republicans who died in the Civil War.

Franco exhumed most of the graves holding Nationalists but not those from the Republican side.

Emilio Silva, the association's president, said his group wanted the government to take on the task. "We have been forgotten for too long. We are too angry. We thought we would see action from the government by now," he said.

Twenty groups have also called for the Valley of the Fallen to be converted into an educational centre in time for this anniversary, in the way that the Nazi's Auschwitz concentration camp has been.

Jaume Bosch, vice-president of the Catalan Green Party, one of the groups behind the plan, is also angry this has not happened. "It's not normal for a democratic society to have failed to resolve this issue. Too many years have passed for us simply to leave the Valley as the Franco regime left it."

But other sections of Spanish society, which still venerate Franco, have opposed every step to eradicate his memory.

When the government started to pull down statues of Franco in Madrid and other cities there were protests from the conservative opposition Popular Party and the Franco Foundation. Faced with the sensitivity of Franco's memory, even 30 years after his death, others have sought more innovative ways to deal with the issue.

A museum at Vilafranca del Penedes, near Barcelona, has erected a bust of the dictator - something that might provoke protests in itself now - and invited people to explain their feelings about the dictator.

The idea of the exhibition, Escucha Franco (Listen, Franco), is that people can now express feelings towards Franco they could not do when the dictator was alive.

And six film directors who were all born after the dictator's death have made a documentary, Entre el dicatator y yo (Between the dictator and me), in which they examine what he means to them. The film, which is to be shown around European cities to mark the anniversary, is a series of short personal accounts.

Officially, Spain will not mark the death of Franco, instead choosing to celebrate the succession of King Juan Carlos next Monday.

The king, who was nominated by Franco as his chosen successor, is credited with ushering in democracy and preventing acoup d'etat in 1981 by disgruntled army officers.