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Renowned historian, Hispanist honored in UK, still studying Spain's past

 Paul Preston at a press conference in Valencia, Spain, Dec. 2, 2014. EPA-EFE FILE/ Juan Carlos Cárdenas

Paul Preston at a press conference in Valencia, Spain, Dec. 2, 2014. EPA-EFE FILE/ Juan Carlos Cárdenas

Madrid, Jun 22 (efe-epa).- Professor Paul Preston, who was recently knighted by the Queen of England for his services to relations between the United Kingdom and Spain, said Friday he was working on a new book and fully absorbed by recent developments in the Iberian nation as it continued to strive to overcome its turbulent past.

Preston, acknowledged as one of the greatest historians to have researched Spain's social evolution, was given the title of Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II in her recently announced Birthday Honors List.

"I feel the knighthood is a recognition of both my publications on Spain and the Center’s extensive work to encourage the study of Spain," Preston said, referring to the Cañada Blanch Center for Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics section of London University, of which he is the director.

The Queen published Preston's award in the diplomatic service and overseas section of the list of the honors she conferred on outstanding Britons to coincide with her 92nd birthday.

Preston said he had been particularly intrigued by the new Spanish government's initiative to try and resolve the problems that have for decades engulfed the Valley de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) monument north of Madrid.

"This place has been a burning issue since the death of (Gen. Francisco ) Franco in 1975," Preston told EFE. "The Valle de los Caídos, where the dictator’s body is buried, was his gigantic monument built by the slave labor of Republican prisoners – leaving Spain as the only European country where a Fascist dictator is celebrated."

He said that there were no monuments to Adolf Hitler in Germany or Austria, or to Benito Mussolini in Italy.

"And yet it is still a place of pilgrimage for his devotees in Spain," Preston said of Franco's enormous mausoleum.

Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, who were overthrown by foreign armies, Franco survived for 30 years after 1945, Preston said.

"From the late 1930s until 1975, he carried out a program of national brain-washing through his control of the media and the education, backed up by an apparatus of terror," Preston said. "That ensured that two generations were brought up to believe that he was a benefactor for Spain," he added.

Preston expressed interest in how the recently-installed government led by Socialist Party Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had proposed removing the remains of Franco from the huge rock pile in the coming months.

Sánchez has proposed reforming the Law of Historical Memory to enable Franco's exhumation and burial elsewhere, an initiative likely to receive the backing in parliament by most lawmakers except those of the recently ousted conservative opposition Popular Party and the center-right Ciudadanos.

The proposed reform also aims to annul the convictions handed down to defeated Republicans by Franco's often makeshift courts.

All of Franco's henchmen were pardoned of any alleged crimes by a blanket amnesty.

The Valley of the Fallen is located 60 kilometers northwest of Madrid, framed within an imposing natural scenery of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range.

It houses an almost empty abbey and a huge burial pit, where the remains of more than 33,000 Civil War (1936-1939) fighters belonging to both sides were unceremoniously dumped after the mausoleum was completed.

It is owned by Spain's National Heritage organization which each year collects around two million euros ($2.33 million) from the 300,000 visitors it attracts annually.

Sánchez's government would aim to create a public DNA database to register and hopefully identify a national census of victims and also withdral the remaining fascist symbols that are still visible in parts of Spain.

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