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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in