The Fascist Reign in Spain A new biography questions how bad Franco was.

Franco: A Personal and Political Biography

Stanley G. Payne and Jesús Palacios (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 632 pages with photos and illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index

Francisco Franco is an excellent litmus test for 20th-century political ideology. Franco (1892-1975) rose to prominence as a commander in Spanish Morocco, fighting the Riff army of Abd-el-Krim in defense of the Spanish empire, and his success made him one of the youngest generals in Europe at age 33. Shocked by the elections of the Spanish Second Republic (1931-1939) that produced a Popular Front government of republicans, socialists, syndicalists, and communists, General Franco joined an army revolt against the republic in 1936 and rapidly emerged as the leader of the revolt (or Caudillo, an approximate equivalent of Mussolini’s Duce, Hitler’s Führer, or Stalin’s Vozhd). On October 1, 1936 the rebels named Franco Chief of the Spanish State with dictatorial powers. Franco held this dictatorship (amended in title) until his death in 1975, making him the most powerful man in modern Spanish history, indeed, as Payne and Palacious write in their biography of Franco, “the most dominant figure in Spain since the time of Philip II.”

Under General Franco, the army crushed the Spanish republic in a brutal civil war (1936-1939) that took (depending on the scholar consulted) hundreds of thousands of lives. Franco’s victory relied significantly on the military assistance of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, assistance that he directly sought. (Hitler reportedly did not know who Franco was when his agents made first contact.) Fascist military assistance included great air power, delivered most famously in the Luftwaffe bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, whose agony Picasso memorialized in his painting of that name (completed June 1937). In April 1939, Franco guided Spain into the pre-war Axis alliance of Germany, Italy, and Imperial Japan, known as the Anti-Comintern Pact. This agreement was nominally about shared opposition to the menace of international communism, and General Franco was a stout anti-communist.

Franco’s ideology (insofar as he had one) was different from that of Mussolini and Hitler. It is perhaps best suggested by his decision in April 1937 to force the unification of the Spanish fascist party (the Falange Española) and the most reactionary of Spanish monarchists (the Carlists) plus other small right-wing parties to form a new party that Franco would lead himself, the Falange Española Tradicionalista. The result was a Spanish mixture of fascism with Catholicism, the landed elite, and the military hierarchy.

Spain was in no position to join combat when World War II began in September 1939. Franco asked Hitler to bargain in exchange for a wartime alliance (he wanted Gibraltar, Morocco, and part of Algeria plus financial and military aid), and he did not get it. So Franco announced Spanish neutrality and maintained it throughout the war, although he sent thousands of Spanish volunteers (the División Azul) to support the Nazis on the Russian front. War-time Spain followed the outline of the fascist revolution (“One State! One Country! One Chief, Franco, Franco, Franco!”), and the Falange remained at the center of the government. Franco shared their anti-Semitism, and he believed that Jews and Freemasons (whom he tried to eliminate in Spain) directed the Allied war effort. Thus, Franco continued to send war materials to Nazi Germany until May 1944, and he did not break diplomatic relations with Germany until May 1945, four days before the leaders of the Falange attended a requiem mass for Hitler. Franco did not attend that memorial service, but he gave refuge to many figures from the Nazi regime and refused Allied demands for their repatriation.

Franco’s ideology (insofar as he had one) was different from that of Mussolini and Hitler. It is perhaps best suggested by his decision in April 1937 to force the unification of the Spanish fascist party (the Falange Española) and the most reactionary of Spanish monarchists (the Carlists) plus other small right-wing parties … The result was a Spanish mixture of fascism with Catholicism, the landed elite, and the military hierarchy.

Franco’s Spain was in an awkward position in the postwar world, but the Generalissimo navigated the difficulties successfully. Spanish neutrality meant that the Allies did not overthrow the dictatorship, but the San Francisco conference of 1945 explicitly excluded Spain from the United Nations. By 1950, however, Franco’s anti-communism seemed more important to some westerners than his close ties to Fascism. The United States decided to extend Marshall Plan economic assistance to Spain as a step in normalizing relations and in embracing Spain in Cold War anti-communism. In 1953 Spain and the United States signed a 10-year military accord. By the 1960s, Franco had increased his popularity as Spain underwent an economic boom. Monarchism eclipsed fascism in Franco’s thought, and in 1969 he announced that upon his death, the grandson of Spain’s last king would succeed him. The United States made large investments in (still dictatorial) Spain and obtained four naval and air bases on Spanish territory in return. By the end of that decade, President Nixon celebrated close American-Spanish relations with a state visit to Spain.

Francisco Franco died in his own bed, surrounded by sacred relics such as the petrified hand of Santa Teresa, just short of his 83rd birthday in November 1975. His dictatorship had lasted for nearly four decades, far longer than the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy combined. And in contrast to the gory end of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco’s death produced a decree for 20 days of public mourning, with all public entertainments closed. It was reported, however, that his anticipated death had more than once led the émigré opposition, assembled in Paris, to drain their entire stock of celebratory champagne.

Both sides in the century-long tragedy of Spanish modernization have understood it as a battle between good and evil. Franco’s supporters have portrayed him as a military hero (for his victories in defense of empire in Morocco), as “the Savior of Spain” (for his defeat of the Popular Front, salvation of Spain from the communist menace, and retention of secessionist regions of Catalonia and the Basque country), as the “Man of Peace” (for keeping Spain out of World War II), and as the “Bestower of Prosperity” (for Spanish postwar economic revival and prosperity).[1] One might add a final incarnation for the Cold War, to depict Franco as a traditional conservative Catholic and vigorous anti-communist in the Western alliance. In contrast, the majority of accounts by western intellectuals—from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) to Paul Preston’s massive history of Spanish atrocities, The Spanish Holocaust (2012)[2]—indict Franco as the destroyer of the republic and a fascist mass murderer. (Preston, a professor at the London School of Economics, makes a dubious decision to use the term “Holocaust,” but presents great evidence of mass murder.)

There is little room for compromise between these two Francos. So little room that in 1977 (two years after Franco’s death), the government promulgated an Amnesty Law protecting all Spaniards from trial for crimes during the Franco era, both on the left (even if they participated in a “red terror” and killed priests and nuns) and the right (for any of the far more numerous murders of a “white terror”). The Amnesty Law is still in force today, but remains under multiple challenges. A Spanish investigating judge, Baltasar Garzón, attempted to overturn the law in 2008 by launching a criminal investigation and ordering the opening of no fewer than 19 mass graves from the 1930s, including one believed to contain the remain the celebrated Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Garzón, who had won acclaim and notoriety in 1998 for trying to prosecute General Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity, undertook the 2008 investigation on the petition of 13 associations of families of victims of the civil war violence. The result of Garzón’s efforts was his own indictment in 2010 for abuse of power. Most recently, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights supported Garzón by demanding that Spain comply with international conventions on civil rights, noting in 2012 that there is no statute of limitations in international law for crimes against humanity.

Stanley Payne has survived the Spanish debate for half a century. In 1961, as a young instructor at the University of Minnesota he published an important history of fascism in Spain that won him a tenure-track job at UCLA.[3] For most assistant professors, a monograph published by Stanford, then Oxford, then in French and Spanish editions might be a difficult challenge to match. For Payne, it was an aperitif. Through 20 books and two hundred articles, he established himself as the unmistakable American authority on 20th-century Spanish history.[4] Now in his eighties, Payne has joined forces with a Spanish journalist and historian at the University of Madrid, Jesús Palacios, to produce a new biography of Franco.

Payne and Palacios have aimed for a full portrait of the man, from childhood to death, a portrait that covers the personal as well as the political. Opening sections introduce a short, unhappy, and hazed cadet in Toledo and tell of his failed courtship of 1913, in which he wrote more than 200 love letters (plus another 100 postcards), sometimes three or four billets-doux in a day. Then, after heroic combat in Morocco, Franco finds the love of his life, Maria del Carmen Polo, a 15-year-old girl. These romantic sketches provide the authors the opportunity to portray Franco as “strictly honorable” and to report that “the standard sensual vices were unknown to him.” The man of the blameless personal life reappears regularly.

The authors need such images to carry them through Franco’s rapid rise through the ranks in the 1920s. The young man who wrote all of those love letters also believed in maintaining discipline by the summary execution of his own troops. When a volunteer rejected his rations and threw his plate on the ground, splattering an officer, Franco had him executed immediately, then required his entire battalion to look at the corpse. The rebellious Rifs received worse, of course. Franco was determined to pacify Spanish Morocco and engaged in ruthless conflict. As Payne and Palacios acknowledge, the Spanish army in Morocco began using poison gas in 1921 and by 1924 had begun dropping mustard gas bombs from the air, an atrocity that none of the belligerents in World War I had dared to do.

As these early stages of this biography unfold, it becomes clear that the authors wish to present an objective, balanced view. It is not easy for them. The use of poison gas is called “sinister,” but it is dismissed in two sentences, neither of which open the question of war crimes (nor clarify Franco’s role in the atrocity). The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 having outlawed chemical warfare, Articles 227-230 of the Versailles Treaty having applied the concept of war crimes to Germany in 1919, and the Geneva Protocol of 1925 having reiterated the civilized world’s attitude, the atrocities of Franco and the Spanish army in Morocco might have been given a bit deeper examination.

It soon becomes clear that the litmus paper is beginning to change color. While Payne and Palacios continue to use blunt language to condemn many events in Franco’s long career and earn credit for objectivity, the balance of their judgment leans towards exculpation, rather than inculpation. They are quite emphatic, for example, in insisting that Franco does not deserve the blame he has received for brutality as the commander of an army sent to control striking miners in Asturias.

While Payne and Palacios continue to use blunt language to condemn many events in Franco’s long career and earn credit for objectivity, the balance of their judgment leans towards exculpation, rather than inculpation.

Thus, by the time the reader reaches the major issues of the Spanish Republic, the Popular Front, and the civil war, it seems likely that Franco will receive gentle treatment. He emerges as a man who preferred an authoritarian government (preferably a monarchy) and opposed the republic. He was not initially a conspirator, but electoral violence in the Popular Front elections of 1936, “the great bulk of it initiated by the left,” changed that. The popular front was “the Trojan horse for violent revolution,” and Franco pressed both the government and the generals to establish martial law. The victory of a leftist coalition (as happened in France, too) and its “frequent overt violations of the law” were “without precedent” created a situation “that would have been intolerable in any country.” Franco became a leader of a military conspiracy and his forces in Morocco began an insurrection. From the start of the civil war, he turned to Mussolini and Hitler for military assistance, especially airpower.

Payne and Palacios are certainly correct when they state that “both sides carried out brutal repression in their respective zones.” But they turn away from a detailed analysis of the horrors of the war. Instead of the treatment of a “red terror” and a “white terror” that other scholars have examined, they prefer to frame the wartime violence in an international context: “atrocities were typical of all the revolutionary/counterrevolutionary civil wars of 20th-century Europe, without the slightest exception, for such conflicts, much more than international wars, emphasized the dehumanization of an internal enemy …”

This argument about comparative civil wars is a strong and important point; it deserves to be taught widely. But it should not overshadow the atrocities themselves. The fact that others also committed terrible crimes should not dim scholarly attention to each set of war crimes. Historians are far from agreement on the wartime terror in Spain. Payne and Palacios count 55,000 executions by the defenders of the republic, including nearly 7,000 members of the clergy. Others have set a range of 38,000 to 72,000, but such highly regarded scholars as Hugh Thomas and Paul Preston have agreed upon a range of 50,000 to 55,000—so Payne and Palacios stand in a mainstream consensus. (Their footnote prefers the greater reliability of Spanish works.) They next state, without giving figures, that “the repression by the military was somewhat more extensive.” Indeed. The scholarly consensus sets the death count of the “white terror” in the range of 150,000 to 400,000. Preston sets the toll at 200,000, or roughly four times the size of the “red terror.”[5] (The Payne and Palacios footnote for “somewhat more extensive” addresses exaggeration in republican claims of atrocities.)

Payne and Palacios devote the entire following chapter to “Franco and the Nationalist Repression (1936-1945).” The chapter extends to 1945 because the “white terror” continued for six years after the end of the civil war, Franco’s concentration camps lasted a few years longer, and martial law continued until April 1948. The authors frame this chapter with their argument about comparative civil wars, this time going beyond the 20th century: “The only direct precursors were the French revolution, with its mass ‘terror’ that led to the slaughter of many tens of thousands, and the revolt of the Paris Commune in 1871 …” Their interpretation is again lenient in assessing Franco’s role: “In the first months, Franco had little to do with the repression, which would have taken the form that it did had he never existed.” Later, he is seen restraining and controlling the terror.

This biography has many merits. It is a well-written, readable book, and 73 pages of footnotes support it. It adds a little new material from interviews with Franco’s daughter. But the readers who enjoy it most will be those who share this concluding verdict on Franco: “He has frequently been denounced as the general who led a Fascist coup d’état against a democratic republic, but this allegation is incorrect in every detail. The only accurate part of this claim is that he was a general.”

[1] See the analysis of this in Antonio Cazorla Sánchez, Franco: The Biography of the Myth. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[2] Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012)

[3] Stanley Payne, Falange: A History of Spanish Fascism. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1961).

[4] Payne’s books cover virtually every topic in the political history of twentieth century Spain, including: the military (1967), Basque nationalism (1975), Catholicism (1984), Franco’s government (1988), the Second Republic (1993), Spain in the Second World War (1997), the civil war (2004) and its origins (2006), and his relations with Hitler (2008).

[5] Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge. (London: Harper, 2006), p. 22.