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Franco, Francisco (1892–1975)




Spanish general and dictator.

On the cover of its 6 September 1937 issue, Time magazine presented a diminutive, balding, and increasingly pot-bellied forty-four-year-old Spanish general, Francisco Franco Bahamonde, to America as the de facto head of Spain. This incongruity between Franco's appearance and his power represents just one of many contradictions of the Spanish dictator who ruled until 1975. While Franco was most often associated with fascism (Time's accompanying article in fact placed him in the dubious pantheon of Europe's fascist leaders), his own political makeup was essentially conservative and traditional. His personal beliefs were dominated by a devout sense of loyalty and propriety, and yet he rose to power in a revolt against a democratically elected government to which he had sworn allegiance. He projected calm and efficient command, yet he bewildered friend and foe with an apparent utter lack of political guile or intellectual heft. His significance in twentieth-century European history is seemingly contradictory: an intellectually incurious pillar of Spanish conservatism in the twentieth century, Franco was also the one leader tied to the Axis who survived World War II and remained in power well into the future.


Born in the northwestern province of Galicia in the coastal town of El Ferrol on 4 December 1892, Franco saw his early life prefigured by his nation's military failures. As the main port of Spain's Atlantic fleet, El Ferrol experienced the military defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the loss of the last remnants of Spain's overseas empire as a direct affront not just to Spanish pride but also to the town's institutions. In particular, the closing of the Naval Administration School that the young Franco would have attended denied the future generalísimo the naval career that occupied his brothers, his father, and his grandfather. His decision in 1907 to attend the army's Infantry Academy in Toledo played a far more direct role in creating the values, politics, and also the ambiguous personality that guided Franco's career.

For one, the departure to Spain's ancient capital allowed Franco to escape an overbearing father known best for the philandering and gambling that created, in some historians' view, the social rigidity that defined Franco's lifelong demeanor. The education at Spain's military academies also helped forge the conservative and nationalist outlook that served as the only consistent element of Franco's personal politics. Franco learned that Spain's glorious past was shaped by the intermingling of imperial conquest, strong monarchy, Catholicism, and rigid social hierarchy, all of which were defended, protected, and occasionally revived by Spain's warrior class, the military. While he absorbed these values well, Franco's military education was not a stunning success; in 1910 he graduated 251st in a class of 312 cadets.


The creation of a Spanish protectorate in Morocco in 1912 to defend small but long-held colonies offered Franco the chance to develop his military prowess. Dispatched to Morocco in 1912, Franco quickly gained a reputation as a ruthless and courageous leader who seemed to possess an unusual amount of luck. After he survived a number of serious injuries, Moroccan troops fighting for the Spanish began to ascribe to Franco a kind of divine or mystical protection they called baraka. Franco never lost this sense that his life possessed a divine purpose. He also began to demonstrate in battle an unusual ruthlessness toward his enemies. Throughout his first published work, Diario de una bandera (1922; Diary of a battalion), Franco detailed in an unsettlingly casual tone the presentation of enemy heads to his own troops as awards for valor or as souvenirs to visiting journalists and dignitaries. His later treatment of opponents both during and after the Spanish civil war was no less violent.

His book also demonstrated that Franco's political attitudes were aligned with those of the close-knit group of military leaders in Morocco known as the africanistas. These figures generally blamed Madrid politicians for failing Spanish troops, both overseas in 1898 and then in Morocco. Yet the africanistas were only one part of a broader attack on Spain's political system from across the political spectrum. Regional independence movements, anticlerical movements, and the growing socialist and anarchist parties and trade unions all attacked a system that had generally worked to favor wealthy landowners, industrialists, the church, the military, and other conservative institutions. Despite this ferment, Franco offered little of a political philosophy throughout the 1920s. Even with the arrival of a military dictatorship in 1923 under General Miguel Primo de Rivera, Franco served the new leader but never made clear whether he truly supported Primo or preferred other solutions to the political crisis. The price Franco paid for his ambiguity was negligible, as he was nevertheless promoted to brigadier general in 1926. At the age of thirty-three, Franco had become the youngest general in Europe since Napoleon.


Franco's hesitation to declare his politics proved prescient when Primo's dictatorship ended and pro-Republican parties trounced monarchical and other conservative parties in subsequent municipal elections in April 1931. Shortly thereafter, on 14 April 1931, the Spanish Second Republic was declared. Still, Franco continued to hide his true political opinions. While he offered some speeches and articles that seemed obliquely critical of the Republic, he also resisted the numerous military coup plots that immediately began to emerge. It remains unclear whether Franco was biding his time or actually reluctant to decry the Republic in its early days. Yet, experiencing the same political instability that dominated much of Europe in the 1930s, the Second Republic struggled for legitimacy. Beset by revolutionary groups on the left and the right, including one of Europe's most powerful anarchist movements, and by intractable social and economic problems formed over centuries, Republican leaders faced mounting problems in the Republic's first years.

Their reforms against the pillars of Spanish conservatism, among them the separation of church and state, military reforms, and the recognition of regional autonomy, proved the most deleterious. Increases in street violence, revolutionary insurrections, and the number of military plots signaled the growing recourse toward nonlegal means among the Republic's conservative opponents. After the election of a Popular Front government in February 1936 and ever growing political violence, Franco openly began to advocate a coup to other military leaders, many of whom were former africanistas. On 18 July 1936 Franco helped lead the insurrection. The plotters captured much of northwestern and parts of southern Spain but failed to take many of Spain's major cities, and a three-year civil war began. Franco gradually emerged as the leader of the insurgents, as they came to be called, after all of Spain's other leaders and Franco's potential rivals died in the early days of the war. In the fall of 1936 Franco officially became generalísimo, or supreme military leader of Spain, and head of state. In April 1939 the war ended.


The political context in Europe in the late 1930s partially explains why Franco remains associated with European fascism. Yet whether Franco was ever truly a fascist in the mold of Hitler and Mussolini remains debatable. Certainly, the energetic military aid that Hitler and Mussolini provided Franco during the civil war suggested their view that Franco was a kindred spirit. However, the question better posed is not whether Franco was a fascist but rather when was he a fascist. Franco clearly admired both Hitler and Mussolini and aped their personal styles of leadership early in his regime. During some of World War II, the Franco regime also mimicked its fascist counterparts. Franco gave speeches to mass rallies, incorporated the Roman salute, established the rudiments of a corporative state, inveighed against the dual enemies of liberal democracy and communism, and created youth and women's sections of the ruling party. Yet Franco never truly cultivated the almost mystical image of the fascist "new man." Even the title Franco adopted, Caudillo, reached back to older military traditions in Spain and Latin America, unlike the titles Führer or Duce.

The regime's political party, the Falange Española Tradicionalista (Spanish Traditional Phalanx), knit together forces that were unified only by their opposition to the Second Republic. In fact, the "Traditional" of the party name was added to appease many of the more conservative political forces that joined Franco. Among them were monarchists, who throughout the course of the regime bristled at Franco's imperious hold on power and were chastened only in 1947 with the passage of the Law of Succession, which declared Franco "regent for life," with the tacit promise of a later return to monarchy. Carlists, an ultraconservative, ultra-Catholic political formation from northern Spain that favored the return of a different monarchical line, were constantly working to have Franco follow their tradition. The original Spanish fascist party, itself a collection of disparate political groupings, harbored deep resentments because of Franco's hesitation to join the Axis powers in World War II and then the banishment of many of its leaders from positions of power in the Francoist state. Franco's political gift lay in keeping these coalition members divided and thus always working to curry the caudillo's favor against the interests of other coalition partners.

While Franco's image as a fascist was more a product of his wartime alliances, his own behavior toward the Axis powers reflected a political agenda geared more toward staying in power than promoting fascism. Despite Franco's personal desire for an Axis victory and his feeling of kinship with Hitler and Nazism (he even entitled his 1941 screenplay Raza [Race] to echo the language of his German counterparts), he continuously frustrated the efforts of Hitler and Mussolini to have Spain join the Axis. Franco's mixture of promises and delays led Hitler to call Franco the "Latin charlatan." Despite ongoing sales of raw materials to Germany and logistical support for U-boats, Franco gradually began to distance his regime from the Axis in 1942.

Franco demonstrated far less delicacy with his enemies. The ruthlessness he demonstrated in Morocco returned with the postwar repressions of former Republican soldiers, communists, anarchists, regional separatists, and other political opponents. The repressions were both vicious and well publicized. Though the civil war was particularly brutal, killing perhaps up to five hundred thousand Spaniards, Franco kept the bloodshed continuing after the war, executing an estimated twenty-eight thousand after 1939. He often personally called for execution by garrote, a metal clamp tightened around the neck of the victim. He imprisoned tens of thousands more during his regime.


At the end of World War II, Western Europe remained wary of Franco and succeeded in keeping Spain out of the United Nations and NATO, at least until 1955 and 1982 respectively. In the effort to refashion Spain's image, Franco benefited most from changing international circumstances. The United States, for example, increasingly focused on Franco's ardent anticommunism and saw Spain as a bulwark against the Soviet Union on Europe's important southwestern edge. Promising more than 1.5 billion dollars of aid, the United States signed the Pact of Madrid with Spain in 1953 and secured military bases in the Iberian Peninsula. While Franco enjoyed the international benefits of his anticommunism, his economic policies only served to isolate Spain further. Immediately after the civil war the regime pursued autarkic economic policies of self-sufficiency that ushered in what Spaniards still remember as the years of hunger. Only as a result of technocratic changes in his regime in the late 1950s and an increasing opening of Spain to international tourism did economic conditions and Spain's image begin to improve.

These changes did not signal a loosening of Franco's personal politics or unitary view of the Spanish nation. His repression of political enemies, real and imagined, remained an essential facet of his dictatorship. The ferocity of his response to regionalist movements, in particular the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna—Basque Homeland and Freedom), after 1968 led to greater ostracism of the regime in Europe and demonstrated that Franco's basic conservative values remained virtually unaltered. His appointment of thirty-one-year-old Juan Carlos de Borbón (b. 1938), the grandson of Spain's last monarch, as his successor in 1969 represented his undying belief in monarchy as an essential element of Spanish national identity. Ironically, following Franco's death on 20 November 1975, Juan Carlos became the linchpin in Spain's transition to democracy and reintegration with the rest of the modern world.

See alsoBasques; ETA; Juan Carlos I; Primo de Rivera, Miguel; Spain.


Primary Sources

Andrade, Jaime de [Francisco Franco Bahamonde]. Raza anecdotario para el guión de una película. Barcelona, 1997.

Franco, Francisco. Diario de una Bandera. Madrid, 1922.

Secondary Sources

Ellwood, Sheelagh. Franco: Profiles in Power. London, 1993.

Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford. Franco: A Concise Biography. London, 2000.

Jensen, Geoffrey. Franco: Soldier, Commander, Dictator. Washington, D.C., 2005.

Payne, Stanley G. The Franco Regime, 1936–1975. Madison, Wis., 1987.

Preston, Paul. Franco: A Biography. New York, 1994.

Joshua Goode

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