LONDON - Spain's long-running controversy over the legacy of its 20th century leader, the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco, is entering a new phase as the government presses ahead with plans to move his remains from a mausoleum in the hills outside Madrid.

The issue has long been the cause of anguish and shame for those who see Franco as a murderous dictator whose crimes have never truly been acknowledged. The mausoleum is located in Spain's vast Valley of the Fallen, which Franco commissioned in 1940, purportedly as a monument to reconciliation after the Spanish civil war which his Nationalist forces won at a cost of half a million lives.

Spain Franco's Remains
FILE - Flowers are placed on the tomb of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco inside the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen monument near El Escorial, outside Madrid, Aug. 24, 2018.

The exhumation effort comes as Spain faces a constitutional crisis sparked by the Catalonia region's efforts to break away from Spain. During the civil war in the 1930s, the area was a key stronghold for Republicans who fought against Franco until his Nationalists eventually beat them. Franco became Spain's leader until his death in 1975. Calls to break away have been fueled by historical resentment over rule from Madrid.

Ministers have given Franco's family until the end of the month to decide where to move the remains. 

Those who see Franco as a Spanish hero — among them retired General Juan Chicharro Ortega, president of the Francisco Franco Foundation — oppose any such relocation.

"Here in Spain there are millions of Spaniards who still admire Franco and remember what he did for Spain, especially because he won [against] Communism. Many people are very grateful to him. We don't see any other possibility [than] that his remains remain where he is now," Ortega told VOA.

Supporters of the exhumation argue that the dictator's remains have no place in the Valley of the Fallen, which is supposed to honor victims on all sides of the Spanish civil war.

Spain Franco Remains
FILE - Protesters march in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 25, 2018. Hundreds of demonstrators are urging the government and Catholic church authorities to prevent the remains of the country’s 20th century dictator from ending in the city’s cathedral.

Should the exhumation go ahead, Franco's relatives want his remains interred in the Cathedral of Almudena in central Madrid, where other family members are buried. The government has ruled out that location, fearing it would become a place of pilgrimage for Franco admirers in the heart of the capital. Gonzalo Berger, a historian at the Open University of Catalonia, says such a move would only exacerbate divisions.

"It would be easy to visit those remains and the worship of him would be passed to the center of Madrid, with absolutely undesirable consequences. The absolute opposite of what is intended — it would be an absolute disaster," Berger said. He also said it will take more than exhumation for Spaniards to have closure over the past.

"At the same time, you have to deploy policies to society as a whole. It is necessary somehow to solve the problem of the disappeared, the people who are in the mass graves, the recognition of the anti-fascist combatants or those who defended the republic."

For decades, Spain tried to forget the Franco dictatorship. Now the battle over his legacy could play into the country's profound political crisis.