It’s as if he’d never existed
- The Transformation of Spain: From Franco to the Constitutional Monarchy by David Gilmour
Quartet, 306 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2461 X
As Franco lay dying in the winter of 1975 wild conjectures circulated in Madrid as to what would happen when the old dictator who had already been twice rescued from what had looked like certain death, but who could not hope to escape a third time, finally departed. As in most societies where all but the most anodyne political debate has been rigorously forbidden and the only available political vocabularies have been emptied of any possible meaning, these conjectures often took the form of jokes. One which appeared as a strip-cartoon in the pages of La Codorniz, a semi-clandestine Spanish version of Le Canard Enchaîné, went as follows: the young prince Felipe asks the king, whether there will be a public holiday when Franco dies. Yes, he replies. And, papa, will there be a holiday when you are declared king? Yes, says the king. And, papa, will there be a holiday when the Republic is restored? I suppose so, replies the king somewhat alarmed. Oh good, says the prince: a whole week off school.
Juan Carlos, who was often referred to during the Franco years, but never afterwards, as el nene, ‘the kid’, was at best an enigma. At worst he seemed to be little more than the willing instrument of Franco’s closest associates – ‘the Bunker’, as they were popularly called. Although Franco had never allowed him any authority, except for 45 days in 1974 when the old dictator appeared to be on his deathbed, he had been raised by Franco to succeed him and – as everyone knew – Franco, whose sense of history was at best restricted and whose understanding of modern political societies was practically non-existent, wished only to perpetuate the archaic and increasingly corrupt and incompetent regime he had created. And even if el nene should prove smart enough to realise that it was no longer possible even to wish to re-create the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabel, he was too close to the generals to have the will to carry out the reforms that would be required if Spain was to become, as nearly everyone outside the Army and the Bunker recognised that it had to become, a democratic state. Something had to give, and since few people seriously believed in the possibility of another civil war (‘Spain is already too modern for that to happen,’ a Madrid banker once explained to me: ‘civil wars only occur in primitive countries’), the most likely outcome was either a coup by the Army following on the King’s inability to fill the power vacuum created by Franco’s death, or a swift transition to some form of republican government – though how the latter was to be achieved without provoking the former was never explained.
Nearly everyone, except perhaps his closest associates, underestimated Juan Carlos; they undervalued his political intelligence; they misjudged his ability to control the Right and the Army; above all, they failed to recognise, although in the circumstances it is difficult to see how they could have done otherwise, his own wish to be not an absolute monarch but the constitutional head of a modern democratic society. In less than six years Spain went from being a dictatorship guided by a man who saw his political role – much as Philip II had seen his – as the defender of the ‘Spirit of Spain’ from outside enemies (heretics in the case of Philip; the agents of the ‘Judeo-Masonic conspiracy’ in the case of Franco) to become a modern and – something which Spain had been only very briefly in the 18th century – a European nation. This transition is one of the most remarkable events of the post-war years and, as David Gilmour says in what is by far the best general account of the phenomenon to have appeared so far, it was the King who made it possible.
Vol. 7 No. 16 · 19 September 1985
SIR: Military governments are tiresome, even Fidel Castro’s. But so are Leftist litanies, and in his review of The Transformation of Spain by David Gilmour (LRB, 18 July), Anthony Pagden uses them to oversimplify both the complicated character of General Franco and the diverse motivations of his regime. If the Republicans in the Civil War were often referred to as ‘Rojos’, it was because many of them were Reds, and proud of it, too. Pagden has only to turn back to George Orwell to find their effect on the Loyalist cause. He places Franco himself in the 15th century, with an understanding of modern political societies ‘practically non-existent’: ignoring his very shrewd statesmanship. How else can one explain his stunning marathon interview with Hitler, who arrived expecting Spain on a platter, Gibraltar for dessert, and control of the Mediterranean thereby – and who left with little more than a sick headache? Compare it with the performance of Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, for which millions are still paying, when they had to face Stalin. If it is ‘15th-century’ to be astute rather than gullible, then our leaders should rush to reread Machiavelli. Even more fragile is the currently obligatory accusation of anti-semitism: particularly when I think of many of my friends who managed to reach a haven South of the Pyrenees during the war. Some were so grateful that they returned as residents to a country where they had been better treated than in their homeland (France). On a different level, it was during Franco’s regime that the first Centre of Studies of Sephardim Culture was set up; but I suppose that is 15th-century too. It was a complex century – just like our own.
Peter Todd Mitchell
SIR: Two small points about Anthony Pagden’s excellent review of David Gilmour’s book The Transformation of Spain (LRB, 18 July). Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero’s failed coup happened on the afternoon of 23 February 1981, not 1980. And the view that ‘the regionalists in Catalonia by and large got the measure of autonomy they had asked for’ is not one, I believe, that is shared by the vast majority of the Catalonians themselves.
Maria Eugenia Frutos
Vol. 7 No. 19 · 7 November 1985
SIR: I can only apologise. Antonio Tejero’s attempted coup took place, as Maria Eugenia Fuentes says (Letters, 19 September), in 1981 and not, as I stated in my review of David Gilmour’s The Transformation of Spain, in 1980. As for her other point, I can only reply that it is obviously the case that no set of political claims is ever likely to be met to the full satisfaction of all the claimants, particularly if such claims demand the partial dismemberment of a nation state. I would still maintain, however, that ‘by and large’ the more moderate, at least, of the Catalan nationalists have ‘got the measure of autonomy they asked for’. That the ‘vast majority of the Catalonians themselves’ have often wanted more than their able and honest politicians were able to secure for them, or wanted other things, I don’t doubt.
Mr Todd Mitchell, on the other hand, on the same Letters page, seems consistently to have missed – or, enraged by my ‘Leftist litany’, has wilfully distorted – every point he raises. I did not deny that many Republicans before the outbreak of the Civil War (and a great many more after) were ‘Reds’. My, or rather Gilmour’s, point was that before 1936 their numbers were too small to constitute a threat to parliamentary democracy and certainly too small to legitimate an assault by the Army on an elected government, and that, in the official historiography of the war, the Republican cause and the ambitions of the Communist Party were made synonymous. Nor, of course, do I ‘place Franco in the 15th century’ (however that might be achieved). What I said was that Franco’s political values were largely modelled on a fantastic vision of those of 15th and 16th-century Castile who believed that Spain could only be una, grande y libre if it became, once again, a Castilian society (hence the fierce suppression of all separatist ambitions), stamped out the hated liberalism which had lost Spain its empire, and closed its frontiers to foreign ideas and foreign values, though not, of course, to foreign capital and foreign technology. Nor does this claim in any way deny Franco’s skill as a negotiator. Franco could be – since Mr Todd Mitchell urges us to rush to our Machiavelli – as much a fox as he was a lion. He could hardly have remained in power for so long if he had not been. But that does not make him a ‘statesman’, much less does it make him the architect of a ‘modern’ political regime. We still know too little about what took place during Franco’s famous meeting with Hitler at Hendaye railway station. But it clearly suited Hitler in 1940 to have a ‘non-belligerent’ ally at the entrance to the Mediterranean. A German occupation would not only have meant a further extension of German military forces, since the Spaniards had none of their own worth speaking of, but would have obliged the Reich to shore up an almost bankrupt economy, in addition to granting Franco, as the price of his continuing co-operation, an African empire.
As to accusations of anti-semitism. The only ones I can find in my review are a reference to the ‘Judeo-Masonic Conspiracy’ and the claim that, for Franco, the Civil War had been a ‘crusade’ against ‘liberalism, Freemasonry, anti-clericalism and Judaism’. Since the first is a phrase used by Franco himself and the second could be found, when I was a student at Barcelona University in the early Sixties, in any of the accepted histories of the war, I see no reason to recant. Castile, as Mr Todd Mitchell must surely know, has a longer history of anti-Judaism (although an ambiguous attachment to the image of Al Andalus has precluded simple anti-semitism) than any other European state, and something of this attitude persisted under the Franco regime. But that regime did not persecute Jews – I never claimed that it did – although in the early days of the regime it did not make life easy for them either. As for the Centre for the study of Sephardim culture, well yes, it is ‘15th’, or at least ‘16th-century’ in a way. The first Hebrew studies in Spain, after the Reconquista, were in fact established at Alcala de Henares in 1527.
King’ College, Cambridge