At Whatever Cost

Bernard Knox

  • Franco: A Biography by Paul Preston
    HarperCollins, 1002 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 00 215863 9

Francisco Franco Bahamonde has the dubious distinction of having held onto absolute power longer than any other European dictator of the first half of the 20th century. His 39 years of dictatorship, first as Nationalist supreme commander in the Civil War of 1936-9 and then as Caudillo – God-given leader – of Spain until his death in 1973, leave even his runner-up, Salazar of Portugal, well behind (32), and far outstrip his enemy Stalin (25) and his allies Mussolini (21) and Hitler, whose world-shaking career of war, genocide and destruction lasted a mere 12 years. Paul Preston’s massive biography, on which he has worked for many years, is not, he writes in his Prologue, ‘a history a 20th-century Spain nor an analysis of every aspect of the dictatorship, but rather a close study of the man’.

Franco was born and raised in El Ferrol, a naval base in the province of Galicia, the north-west corner of Spain, whose peasants speak a dialect that is closer to Portuguese than to Castilian Spanish and are renowned for their inscrutability: ‘If you meet a gallego on a staircase,’ Preston quotes a Spanish saying, ‘it is impossible to deduce if he is going up or down.’ The man who proclaimed himself caudillo, a title conferred on charismatic warrior leaders like the hero of the medieval epic Poema del Mio Cid, but also used to describe South American military dictators (Trujillo, for example) was and remains an enigma. ‘Because of the distance that Franco so assiduously built around himself through deliberate obfuscations and silences, we can be sure only of his actions, and, provided that they are judiciously evaluated, of the opinions and accounts of those who worked with him. This book is an attempt to observe him more accurately and in more detail than ever before.’ Preston is a widely admired authority on modern Spanish history. In the 787 pages of his text, authenticated by 131 pages of notes – over three thousand of them – he follows Franco ‘step by step and day by day’ in the hope of producing ‘a more accurate and convincing picture ... than has hitherto been current’. His book is all of that, and more; unless new sources of important information come to light, which seems unlikely given Preston’s exhaustive exploitation of the written and oral sources, it will stand as the definitive biography of the Caudillo.

Franco’s early years were a series of disappointments. His father, who eventually deserted his wife to live with his mistress in Madrid, had no word of praise for the young Francisco, preferring his elder brothers: Nicolás, who became a naval officer, and Ramón, who achieved fame as an aviator. Even after Francisco’s rise to supreme power the old man would talk about the person he called ‘my other son’ only if repeatedly asked to do so. A further blow to the young man’s self-esteem was his failure to win admission to the ranks of the naval cadets, among whom his brother Nicolás was already enrolled; Francisco was sent off to the infantry academy at Toledo and eventually, as a lieutenant, joined the officer corps of the Spanish Army.

Though it had few victories to be proud of, it was an army that arrogated to itself a major role, independent of and at times in defiance of the civil government; the military rebellion of 1936 had its predecessors in unsuccessful pronunciamientos in 1921, 1929, 1930 and 1932. It had an ongoing colonial war in Morocco, to which the young Franco was sent in 1912. There, in command of a unit of Moroccan mercenaries, the regulares who were to inspire such terror in the Civil War, he distinguished himself by a reckless disregard for his own safety and a capacity for leadership that won him rapid promotion as well as decorations for bravery. It was now, and in his subsequent Moroccan service as second in command and later commander of the newly-formed Foreign Legion that he became an Africanista, one of those professional officers in whom ‘the esprit de corps consequent on shared hardship and daily risk developed into a shared contempt both for professional politicians and the pacifist left-wing masses whom the Africanistas regarded as obstacles to the successful execution of their patriotic duty’. It was here, too, while in command of Moorish mercenaries, and later of the criminals and adventurers of the Legion, that he developed the callousness which enabled him to use against his own people in civil war the firing-squad discipline that kept his legionaries in order, and the savage reprisals that terrorised the Berber tribesmen.

A famous photograph of him, taken in Africa in 1926 (and reproduced here), shows a slim, handsome young officer with an engaging smile, a Hollywood figure of Hispanic gallantry. But that smile was the mask of the future Caudillo who would before long set out to ‘save Spain from Marxism at whatever cost’, and who, when told ‘that means you will have to shoot half Spain,’ replied, smiling: ‘I repeat. At whatever cost.’

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