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.’

It was Franco’s success in transporting the Army of Africa across the straits (a success made possible by the Luftwaffe) that saved the 1936 rebellion from petering out. General Mola, whose attack on Madrid from the north had been repulsed, was preparing to retreat, but the Moroccan regulares and the Legion pushed north to take Mérida and make contact with Mola’s forces. On the way, after the capture of the small town of Almendralejo, one thousand people were shot, a hundred of them women. This was typical, and deliberate. These massacres ‘indulged the blood-lust of the African columns, eliminated large numbers of potential opponents – anarchists, Socialists and Communists whom Franco despised as rabble – and, above all, they generated a paralysing terror’. Franco later explained to the chief of staff of the Italian troops who had captured Málaga and who now proposed to push on to Valencia: ‘In a civil war, a systematic occupation of territory accompanied by the necessary purge (limpieza) is preferable to a rapid rout of the enemy armies which leaves the country still infested with enemies.’ The literal meaning of the word limpieza is ‘cleansing’; it was a metaphor with a future.

This cold-blooded ferocity was the Africanista side of the man – ‘Without Africa,’ he once said, ‘I can scarcely explain myself to myself, nor can I explain myself properly to my comrades in arms.’ But in the political power struggles that led to his elevation to the post of Generalisimo and also head of the Movimiento, the unified party of the Spanish Right, it was the gallego who kept his rivals in the dark about his real objectives while allowing and even encouraging them to make false moves that played into his hands. By May 1937, he had ‘control over every aspect of political life. Only the areas of jurisdiction of the Church eluded him,’ though he had the Church’s enthusiastic support for his so-called crusade. ‘Otherwise, his powers were comparable to those of Hitler and greater than those of Mussolini.’

His political base secured, he went on to win the war. It took him two years and could have been achieved much sooner. The war was prolonged by his determination never to lose territory to the Republicans and his deliberate policy of seeking engagements in which maximum losses could he inflicted on his enemies. When the Republic launched an initially successful offensive at Brunete on the Madrid front in the summer of 1937 in an attempt to relieve the Nationalist pressure on the Basques, he withdrew troops from the Northern front to regain the lost ground, in the process inflicting 20,000 casualties on the best troops the Republic could field. In the following year, to the dismay of his staff officers and the despair of the Italians, he called off an offensive against Madrid that might well have ended the war, in order to regain the strategically unimportant town of Teruel, which had fallen to a Republican attack. And in July 1938, when the Republican armies crossed the Ebro and advanced forty miles to the outskirts of Gandesa, he threw away another golden opportunity. ‘With a more adventurous strategy, pinning down the Republicans near Gandesa, and launching an attack on Barcelona ... he could probably have ended the war in the summer of 1938.’ Instead he chose to hammer the Republican salient with artillery and air strikes and push the remnants of the Republic’s last army back across the Ebro. It was ‘the kind of decisive victory that meant more to him than swift strategic manoeuvres. He had achieved the physical annihilation of his enemy.’

The West’s surrender at Munich sealed the fate of the Republic, extinguishing the last flicker of hope that the Western democracies might come to its aid, and by April 1939 all Spain was under Franco’s control. He was now free to embark on a programme of ‘institutionalised revenge’, declaring that ‘the Nationalists had a list of two million Reds who were to be punished for their crimes.’ This was not an idle threat. For years after the final battles had been fought the newspapers went on publishing long lists of executions, life sentences and assignments to penal labour battalions; 20,000 Republican prisoners of war, for example, worked for twenty years to build the Valle de los Caídos, Franco’s megalomaniac memorial for the Fascist dead, a modern Escorial in which he would himself be buried. The postwar repression was so savage that Heinrich Himmler, of all people, was appalled by what he saw when he visited Spain in 1940.

Yet this calculating intriguer and cold-blooded killer was also, as Preston documents with striking examples, prone to self-delusion to a degree verging on mental aberration. He continually compared himself to the Cid, whose most famous exploit was the defeat of the Moorish Almirovids, the Islamic fundamentalists of the 11th century. Franco, however, had brought in Moorish mercenaries, recruited from backward tribes, to kill, rape and mutilate his own people. Not content with the Cid as his peer, Franco began to speak of himself as a successor to the imperial Spanish monarchs of the 16th century, to Charles V, who governed most of Europe, and his son Philip II, who sent the Armada against England and built the Escorial to house his bones. He had delusions, too, about the catastrophic state of the Spanish economy during the Second World War and its aftermath. Believing in the Falangist policy of autarky – reliance on Spanish resources without recourse to foreign investments or credits – he plunged Spain into the años de hambre, the years of hunger, which saw people fighting over crusts and collapsing in the streets. And he could be deluded by others: by geologists who persuaded him to mine Estremadura for non-existent gold, and, even more bizarre, by a confidence man named Fliek, who claimed that he could make gasoline by mixing water with plant extracts and secret ingredients. Before he was finally exposed as a fraud and sent to prison, Filek had been commissioned to build his gasoline factory on the banks of the Jarama river.

Franco also created and then came to believe in various flattering myths about his own past. One of these had the Generalisimo ‘keeping a lonely and watchful vigil to prevent Hitler pulling Spain into the world war’. In fact, he was confident from the start of an Axis victory and hoped ‘to make a last-minute entry into the war to earn a seat at the table at which the booty would be distributed’. His share was to be Gibraltar and French Morocco. Confidence became certainty after the fall of France, and at that point he announced Spain’s renunciation of neutrality in favour of non-belligerency, meanwhile providing German U-boats and crews with harbours and refuelling facilities that enabled them to extend their range to the north coast of Brazil. He made repeated efforts to ‘negotiate Spanish entry into the war’, but Hitler, confident at first that England would come to terms and later that Operation Sealion would solve the problem once and for all, saw no reason to cut Franco in on the division of the spoils. He realised that satisfaction or even encouragement of Spanish demands for French Morocco would cost him the support of the Vichy regime, and in any case had plans of his own for French North Africa. But Franco continued to see the future through rose-tinted spectacles.

After the famous meeting of the two dictators at Hendaye in October 1940, Franco was ‘obliged to recognise that his imperial pretensions were of little concern to Hitler’. Yet he remained a devoted admirer of the Third Reich and a supporter of the Axis in spite of the rapid deterioration of Spain’s economic position, which made him vulnerable to the threat of a British naval blockade, as well as hopeful of Anglo-American credits and supplies if he remained neutral. By November, the situation was reversed: Hitler, ‘shaken by the British naval victory over the Italians at Taranto’ and the Italian defeat by the Greeks in Albania, planned to ‘close the Mediterranean’. Operation Felix, a German attack on Gibraltar from Spanish soil, was drafted and German troops began to rehearse the assault near Besançon. Meanwhile, however, Franco’s military experts had come to the conclusion that an attack on Gibraltar would have disastrous consequences for Spain as long as England held Suez. In addition, Franco had been forced to recognise the fact that Spain was on the verge of famine and desperately needed the supplies offered by England and the United States. Operation Felix was called off.

Franco remained Hitler’s enthusiastic ally, however. Non-belligerency was replaced by ‘moral belligerency’ as the Blue Division of Falangist volunteers was despatched to fight under German command on the Russian front in 1941. Later still, the supplies sent from Spanish ports to the last German garrisons on the French Atlantic coast in 1944, as well as the welcome given to Nazi officials on the run in 1945-6, demonstrated Franco’s continuing emotional commitment to a regime even more uncompromisingly repressive than his own. ‘Spanish neutrality in the Second World War,’ Preston sums up,

was hailed for the next thirty years as Franco’s greatest achievement. However, Franco ultimately avoided war not because of immense skill or vision but rather by a fortuitous combination of circumstances to which he was largely a passive bystander: the disaster of Mussolini’s entrance into the war that made the Führer wary of another impecunious ally, then Hitler’s inability to pay the high price sought by the Caudillo for his belligerence, and, throughout, the skilful use made by the Allied diplomats of British and American food and fuel resources in an economically devastated Spain ... Above all, Franco’s neutrality rested on the appalling economic and military plight of a Spain shattered by the Civil War, a disaster from which the Caudillo thus derived enormous benefit.

What saved him in the aftermath of the German defeat was the opening of the Cold War, which he seems to have foreseen. ‘His expectation that he would survive derived from a belief that the alliance between the democracies and the Soviet Union was a monstrous aberration.’ In three long chapters, filled with fascinating detail, Preston documents the skilful manoeuvres and deceptions – ‘the cynical and ruthless political sense’ – that enabled him to bring a Spain battered by economic crisis and guerrilla insurgency, and treated as a pariah by the victorious Allies, to a position where, by 1953, he ‘had got what he wanted: the end of international ostracism, a massive consolidation of his regime and the right to present himself publicly as a valued ally of the United States’. This last privilege he had paid for by what Preston characterises as a ‘diminution of sovereignty ... an act of sheer irresponsibility’: the permission given to the United States Air Force to station heavy bombers at bases near major Spanish cities and to the US Navy to service aircraft carriers in Spanish ports.

Preston sees 1953 as ‘in retrospect ... the high point of Franco’s career’. Not only had he won international recognition and, in particular, American patronage – marked by state visits on the part of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford – he had also successfully united the Nationalist coalition of Falangists, monarchists and the Church under his unquestioned leadership. But in the years that followed, the Falange, with its Blue Shirt rallies, Fascist salutes and intemperate rhetoric, began to look anachronistic: the ‘monarchist option seemed more in tune with the outside world’. On the economic front, the autarky advocated by the Falange and devoutly believed in by Franco had clearly failed to solve Spain’s problems. Franco gradually surrendered the management of the economy to new men who, by 1959, with Spain on the verge of bankruptcy, talked him into agreeing to the devaluation of the peseta and the reduction of public spending that were the conditions attached to help from the International Monetary Fund. Spain’s economic recovery in the subsequent years owed little to the Caudillo: ‘far from masterminding the process, Franco grudgingly acquiesced in changes which he did not understand in order to remain in power.’

The problem of the succession was a continuing source of concern to his ministers and of irritation for Franco. The only realistic solution was a restoration of the monarchy, in the person of Don Juan, the son of Alfonso XIII. But Don Juan had proclaimed his intention to be ‘King of all Spaniards’, a clear repudiation of Franco’s policy of institutionalised revenge. It was finally agreed that Don Juan’s young son, Juan Carlos, would be named as Franco’s successor, but that meanwhile he would be educated in Spain in the military, naval and air force academies and learn to govern under the tutelage of the Caudillo.

For the last fifteen years of his rule, up until his death in 1975, Franco took a less and less active part in the government of Spain, while his technically accomplished functionaries held sway; ‘their competence in a complex world marginalised Franco from the day-to-day running of government.’ The Caudillo, when he was not addressing enthusiastic mass meetings organised by his henchmen, spent most of his time watching television or fishing and hunting; on one occasion the press solemnly reported that he had shot nearly five thousand partridges in a few days.

In 1972 I went to Madrid to confer with Spanish Classical scholars who were planning a new Spanish lexicon of Ancient Greek. After the official business, I was taken out to lunch in a fashionable and crowded restaurant by the graduate students, who proceeded to question me about my participation in the Civil War, a subject I had been careful not to mention to my academic hosts but which the students had somehow got wind of. When they found out that I had fought in the buildings of their own university in the winter of 1936, they plied me with questions, and one of them told me that her father had also fought there and had served a long prison sentence after the war. I suddenly realised that the people sitting at adjacent tables were listening to our conversation and suggested a change of subject – after all, Franco was still caudillo. ‘Oh, Franco,’ said the girl whose father had fought con los rojos, ‘he’s been dead for years.’ When I reminded her that he had made a speech just a few days before, she said: ‘Oh, that noise wasn’t Franco, it was some kind of computer supplied by the Americans.’ It was clear that though Franco still had a few years to live, he had become an irrelevancy in the new Spain that was taking shape under the façade of his authoritarian rule.

For Spain the years from 1936 to 1973 were as much the Age of Franco as the years 1661-1715 were for France Le Siècle de Louis XIV, though Preston could hardly echo Voltaire’s claim to have drawn a picture of the human spirit ‘dans le siècle le plus éclairé qui fut jamais’. One thing, though, is certain: no history of modern Spain can be written from now on without constant recourse to the lavish and fascinating details and the penetrating analyses of this masterly work.