Fusi’s Franco

David Gilmour

Francisco Franco’s uprising in 1936 provoked powerful emotional reactions in Europe and aggravated the continent’s political divisions. Nearly three years later he completed his conquest of Spain on the eve of a war which engulfed the whole of Europe and led to the destruction of his principal international allies. The circumstances of his rebellion, coupled with European events over the following decade, have since made it difficult for writers to look objectively at Franco’s rule. Dogmatic opinions, raucously expressed, were long used as a substitute for rational judgment: perceived as either a brutal fascist or a crusader on a white horse, Franco himself was almost wholly concealed by swags of propaganda. The ‘biographies’ which appeared in his lifetime could generally be divided into three categories: the hagiographic, the vitriolic and the subtly partisan. None of them made much effort to penetrate the man’s personality and almost all were written from a clear political position. Writers in the first category, for example, were fond of spraying their eulogies with ridiculous claims: Franco’s Spain, declared one of them in the Fifties, was ‘an oasis of order, peace, prosperity and tranquillity in a world of fear’.

Juan Pablo Fusi’s Franco fortunately falls into none of the earlier categories. It is in fact neither a biography (as the publishers claim on the cover), nor even a biographical essay (as the author claims in the introduction), but a short, balanced and intelligent account of Franco’s long reign. The author seems to have encountered the traditional difficulty of finding anything original to say about the dictator’s domestic life and relies heavily on the published memoirs of Franco’s doctors, his cousin and his ministers. Presumably he also encountered an even more serious deterrent to potential biographers – the fact that Franco was an extremely boring man: no ideas, no flamboyance, no charm, no love affairs, no brilliant speeches, no idiocies, no imagination, no disasters, no frivolity, not even a few comic misunderstandings. Fusi suggests that he had a certain charm and ‘some sense of humour’ but he gives little evidence for this; if Franco did say anything amusing, it seems to have been unintentional. He was dull, determined, competent, complacent and meticulous, and he displayed these qualities as a soldier, a politician, a sportsman and a Sunday painter. Everything was done with solemn efficiency and without flair, carefully planned and unimaginatively executed. The same meticulousness would go into planning a campaign, painting a hare or counting his dead partridges. He treated gamebirds like a cricketer treats his batting average, even boasting to an American journalist that he had shot 8420 partridges in a single year. It is difficult to like someone who could be so impassive and cold-hearted about such things, and difficult also not to be repelled by his treatment of other people. He was capable of astonishingly ungenerous behaviour, rarely praising subordinates or showing gratitude for decades of loyal service. He was even capable of chatting pleasantly to one of his ministers before sending him home to learn of his dismissal in the newspapers.

Franco’s indifference to the feelings of those he knew was extended to the millions of Spaniards who opposed his rebellion and disliked his regime. He made no attempt to unite the nation after its ordeal, insisting instead on a total capitulation to his point of view. It was not, however, always clear what this was. He knew what he was against – liberalism, Marxism, Freemasonry and so on – but he was vague about what he was in favour of. Fusi rightly stresses that he was essentially a soldier, a conservative and a nationalist whose views had been formed during many years fighting the Moroccans. Unlike other dictators of the period, he came to power not with a half-baked theory of national regeneration but simply with the conviction that Spain’s greatness had been destroyed by imported ideologies. During the first year of the civil war he had little notion of the nature of his future state beyond the aim that it would be ‘pro-Spanish and pro-Catholic’. It should preserve the traditional values of True Spain – by which he meant the Spain of the Catholic kings and Charles V – through a strong, centralised government untainted by liberalism. (The fact that 16th-century Spain was not a centralised nor even a unitary state – and was therefore unsuitable as a model – was not understood by Franco.) He saw Spanish history as a contest between True Spain and Anti-Spain (‘the bastardised, Frenchified and Europeanised Spain of “the liberals” ’) which for many years Anti-Spain had been winning. Many terrible things had happened as a result – in particular, the loss of empire and the rise of regional separatism.

This was more or less the sum of Franco’s political thought. Under the influence of his brother-in-law, Serrano Suñer, who escaped from Madrid in 1937, he added a number of fascist decorations to the regime. He needed the support of Hitler and Mussolini, and he needed a party like the Falange to give both coherence and motivation to his motley groups of supporters, but he had little ideological sympathy with fascism. Fusi is quite right when he says: ‘Innocent of all political doctrine and ideology, with nothing of a politician by vocation about him ... Franco was no fascist.’ He promoted the Falange and made the fascist salute compulsory when this was politically convenient, and he demoted the party and repealed the law about arm-raising when they had become an embarrassment. These moves (like the placing of photographs on his desk: Hitler and Mussolini removed to make way for Carmona and the Pope) were made for political reasons and implied no ideological commitment. Franco simply wanted a personal, authoritarian rule and a regime he chose to call a ‘Catholic and organic democracy’. As he gave the Church greater privileges than it had enjoyed since the reign of Philip II, ‘Catholic’ was a reasonable adjective to use. ‘Organic democracy’ was of course a nonsense: it was held to stem from ‘natural organisms’ (the family, the municipality and the syndicate) rather than from unnatural, inorganic things like political parties. In any case, organic or otherwise, the regime was never a democracy.

Franco’s ostentatious Catholicism was encouraged by his wife, who believed that God had selected him as Spain’s saviour; the mummified hand of St Teresa of Avila sat beside him when he slept and eventually accompanied him to his deathbed. The sanctimonious ingredient in his personality could be extremely irritating to his allies. Pétain complained that Franco was too ready to believe he was the Virgin Mary’s cousin. Hitler, who did not think much of him anyway – he believed Franco had got to the top by luck ‘like Pontius in the Creed’ – could not stand his piety or ‘the clerico-monarchical muck’ which supported him. When he heard that Franco had made Segovia’s patron saint a field-marshal for her role in the civil war, he swore never to visit Spain. Franco’ prejudices, like his historical and religious beliefs, indicate an astonishing simplicity of thought. He was obsessed by threats to ‘unity’ and ‘order’, sharing the extreme conservatives’ traditional fears of the caos, desorden and separatismo (these, together with muerte, unidad and patria being obligatory words in right-wing oratory) which he believed Freemasons were plotting to bring about. A good deal of Franco’s time in the late Forties was wasted writing 49 pseudonymous articles (later published in a book) blaming all the world’s ills on a sinister conspiracy plotted by the Masonic international in alliance with Communism. Any speech hostile to Spain would be attributed to the fact that its author (Churchill, Roosevelt, Mendés-France, Trygve Lie etc) was a Freemason.

Franco’s contradictions occasionally bewilder Professor Fusi, who finds it incredible that a man who was a good soldier and a prudent politician should have believed such rubbish. Generally, however, the author manages to reconcile conflicting views by deflating the arguments used by both critics and admirers. There are some contradictions in the book (how does Castiella’s foreign policy, regarded as a great success on page 109, become a failure on page 136?), but its appraisal of Franco’s achievements is more accurate and less tendentious than we used to get. Franco is presented as neither a great statesman nor a lucky adventurer but as a skilful politician without much vision – which is what he was. Fusi shows, for example, that Franco’s meeting with Hitler at Hendaye in 1940 was not the masterpiece of diplomacy his supporters have claimed. Much has been made of the Spaniard’s stonewalling and Hitler’s subsequent remark that he would rather have some teeth pulled out than go through another meeting like that. Franco no doubt behaved shrewdly and certainly knew a lot more about his country’s military potential than Mussolini did about Italy’s. But the claim that he was able to browbeat Hitler at Hendaye is a myth: the German leader also knew about Spain’s condition and did not try to force Franco to join him at that stage.

Fusi makes a similarly balanced judgment about Franco’s contribution to the Spanish ‘economic miracle’. He did appoint new economic ministers in 1957 and allowed them to carry out the liberalisation of the economy which, with the help of the IMF and foreign tourists, did create prosperity. But it was not a planned move and it nearly did not take place: in 1956, as Fusi shows, Franco was thinking of reinforcing the Falangist role in government, which would have put an end to thoughts of economic liberalisation. He then changed his mind – for unconnected reasons – and accepted the new economic plans, but it is unlikely that he understood – or made much effort to understand – the arguments of either the liberals or the Falangists. Nor did he understand, or seem to care about, the social and ecological cost of the subsequent economic transformation. A conservative nationalist might reasonably have been expected to show some concern at the exodus of five million people from the land after 1960, most of them to shanty-towns in Madrid and Barcelona, others to the factories of Western Europe. A regime which regarded Castile as ‘the heart of Spain’ and ‘the depository of eternal values’ might have been expected to care about the destruction of Castilian peasant culture. People who justified that regime through constant evocation of the 16th century might have been expected to preserve historical monuments, instead of encouraging and even participating in their destruction. All these expectations were unfulfilled because, except in Catalonia, there is no Spanish tradition of civilised conservatism. With few exceptions, Spain’s conservatives under Franco could be divided into inquisitors, soldiers and speculators: the Church, Order and Profit.

Francoism at the end was vulgar and corrupt, but it was less repressive and obscurantist than it had been at the beginning. Franco had presided over a great economic advance which, paradoxically, made the survival of his regime impossible after his death. This was the greatest contradiction of all, though it was not one that the dictator or his ministers understood. A reactionary regime promising a return to the past ended up by modernising the country and thus paving the way for a modern regime to take over. It is sometimes suggested that Franco knew this would happen and that he would have accepted the reforms of Juan Carlos’s governments. But this is hardly credible. Franco was never a farsighted statesman working towards distant goals. He remained in power for nearly forty years not because of any real political vision but because he could handle the day-to-day problems of his government, resolving most difficulties through subtle reshuffles of his supporters. He was helped by economic triumph and the divisions of his opponents, but his survival owed much to his tactical political skills. Sir Samuel Hoare, Britain’s ambassador in the Forties, ascribed Franco’s success to luck and ‘Gallego cunning’ and regarded his career as ‘a series of unexpected successes over both his friends and his enemies’. But there was more to him than that. Franco’s ‘unexpected successes’ continued for another thirty years while his enemies dwindled from many millions to a few thousands. Any judgment of Franco must set the stability and prosperity his regime created against the persecution and misery he caused in the early years and the disregard for human rights he maintained until his death. For many years supporters and critics simply refused to acknowledge that there were two sides to his rule. It is the chief merit of Fusi’s book that it presents the contrasting features of the man and his regime clearly and dispassionately, so that an impartial judgment can at least be attempted.