“People will not look forward to posterity,
who never look backward to their ancestors.”

—Edmund Burke

Not long before his death on November 20, 1975, Francisco Franco asked a young aide if he thought Spain’s future was “inevitably democratic.” On receiving an affirmative reply, he gazed sadly into the distance and said no more. The ailing Caudillo certainly knew that “Francoism” would not remain unchanged after he was gone, but he clung to the hope that his choice as a successor. Prince Juan Carlos, grandson of Spain’s last king, would preserve the regime’s basic institutions. That is why he always insisted that the Prince’s accession to the throne was to be regarded as an “instauration,” not a “restoration.”

This does not, of course, preclude the possibility that Franco was secretly resigned to a new and more stable form of liberalism than what his countrymen had embraced during the 19th century. It was that very liberalism which he blamed for precipitating Spain’s decline and ultimate humiliation in the Spanish-American War. For 20th-century social democracy, however, he expressed nothing but uncompromising opposition. Informed by atheism and materialism and characterized by sentimentality and indiscipline, that modern form of state and society was, he believed, undermining the Western world’s spiritual foundations. It was therefore “unsuitable for our people.”

It is precisely Franco’s rejection of democracy that so exercises Juan Pablo Fusi, director of the Spanish National Library and coauthor, with the left-leaning Raymond Carr, of Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy (1979). The regime’s fundamental problem, Fusi insists, was “its lack of genuine moral legitimacy by democratic standards,” by criteria, that is, which Fusi upholds and assumes to be universally applicable. At the same time, however, he is honest enough to concede that there are problems with his point of view, not the least of which was “the willing and sincere acceptance of Francoism by a very broad spectrum of Spanish society.”

Indeed, some deeper reserve of resentment distorts Fusi’s “biographical essay,” which for all its protestations of objectivity is an almost venomous polemic. His profound antipathy is especially on display in the concluding chapter, where Franco’s terrible death agony—endured, as Fusi admits, with fortitude and dignity—is made to serve as a symbol for the dying regime. In light of this distasteful strategy, it comes as no surprise to learn that Fusi was born and has taught at two universities in the Basque Provinces. Clearly, he cannot forgive Franco for refusing to grant autonomy to that historically separatist and ethnically distinct region, or for punishing those who took up arms to advance the cause. Fusi indicts what he calls “the Spanish regime” because it created among Basques “a widespread feeling of revulsion from the very idea of Spain.”

It was late in the summer of 1968 that the Basque extremist organization, Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA—Basque Homeland and Liberty), turned to violence, in part, as Stanley Payne suggests in his exhaustively researched and authoritative study, because of the disorienting impact of rapid industrialization and secularization. After ETA gunmen shot down the head of the Brigada social (political section) of the police in Guipiizcoa, the Franco government resolved to make an example of the accused, 16 in number. The trial opened in Burgos in December 1970, but provoked unexpected and international sympathy for the terrorists. Fusi expresses enthusiasm for the anti-Franco demonstrations that spread throughout Western Europe; even spokesmen for the Roman Catholic Church—once among the regime’s strongest supporters—demanded clemency for the terrorists.

What continues to infuriate Fusi is the way in which Franco, unlike so many democratic leaders, refused initially to knuckle under to pressure. The court sentenced nine of the defendants to death and the rest to a total of 519 years in prison. By then, however, nervous government officials were counseling their chief to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment. Despite serious misgivings, he eventually agreed—and thereby emboldened his opponents. In 1973, ETA terrorists assassinated Luis Carrero Blanco, who had been Franco’s alter ego and second in command for three decades. And that same year they were joined by a new Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization known by the acronym FRAP.

In 1974, a two-member ETA team, aided by several communists, bombed a crowded Madrid coffee shop near national police headquarters, killing 12 people and injuring 80 others. Then, during the first months of 1975, terrorists killed eight police officers. The beleaguered security forces finally succeeded in arresting 11 ETA and FRAP members, whom the courts promptly convicted and sentenced to death in accord with the provisions of a new Anti-Terrorist Decree. Once again the leaders of the European left orchestrated a propaganda campaign against the Franco regime, exhibiting, in Payne’s words, “much greater indignation over the determination to punish these killers than they had . . . over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.” In a dramatic move that must have shocked and offended Franco, Pope Paul VI personally intervened on behalf of the convicted terrorists. This time, however, the Generalissimo did not back away. In a final display of the unemotional toughness for which he was known and feared during his service in Morocco and the civil war, he ordered that five of the killers be executed.

For reasons of his own, Fusi characterizes the Anti-Terrorist Decree as a “repressive measure” and cites with undisguised satisfaction the “outburst of revulsion across Europe and inside Spain” that greeted the lawful carrying out of the sentences. So blinded is he by his hatred of Franco that he is able to describe the Junta Democrática, organized in Paris in 1974 by the Spanish Communist Party, as “a potential democratic alternative” to the regime. More helpfully, Payne alerted members of the US House of Representatives to the fact that the Junta was a communist front organization.

Here as elsewhere, Payne’s judgment and command of Spanish history is superior to Fusi’s. A proponent of democratic politics and an admirer of King Juan Carlos’s successful disassembling of Franco’s authoritarian regime, he insists that the latter not be judged against some imaginary, and Utopian, democracy, but “in terms of historical alternatives that actually existed” in 1936. An evolutionary authoritarianism, he concludes, “was in a certain sense about as much as the Spanish could expect from the impasse into which they had maneuvered themselves.”

Much of the blame for that impasse, as Payne demonstrates, must be assigned to the Second Republic that exercised political power from 1931 to 1936. The Left Republican-Socialist coalition government did its best to inflame public passions. Not only, for example, was it anticlerical, but its leader, Manuel Azaña, went so far as to proclaim that Spain had “ceased to be Catholic.” Moreover, it granted autonomy to the Basque Provinces and Catalonia, a move that alienated many of its most articulate defenders, including Jose Ortega y Gasset. At the same time. Republican officials were unable, or unwilling, to maintain even the semblance of public order. Between February 17 and July 17, 1936, there were 213 attempted assassinations, 113 local general strikes, and 228 partial shutdowns, with casualties numbering 269 dead and 1,287 wounded.

This was what Franco meant when, years later, he identified Spain’s “familiar demons” as “an anarchic spirit, negative criticism, lack of mutual cooperation, extremism and mutual enmity.” Yet even as the country wrestled with these demons, the always prudent general hesitated to join those of his fellow military officers who were preparing to rebel. Then, on the night of July 12-13, Republican police and socialist gunmen murdered Jose Calvo Sotelo, leader of the rightist parliamentary opposition. Five days later, Franco and a small coterie of military conspirators began the uprising that eventuated in three years of civil war.

Payne makes short work of the notion that that epic struggle pitted democracy against fascism. Within a matter of days, Azaña and the Left Republicans had handed power over to the revolutionary left, leading to the formation of Juan Negrín’s “People’s Republic” in 1937. This government was not, as Payne points out, “a liberal democracy, but was driven by powerful revolutionary forces determined to proscribe the other side altogether. Its mass political executions were as extensive as those by Franco’s supporters.”

Nor were Franco and his comrades fascists, although Payne does not deny that the Caudillo and his profascist brother-in-law Ramon Serrano Súñer presided over a “semifascist” regime from 1936 to about 1945. There were several reasons for this, including Franco’s dependence upon German and Italian aid during the civil war, his belief that the Axis powers would win the Second World War, and his undying hatred of communism. Furthermore, because he believed that a political “philosophy” of some sort would be necessary to the stability of a new form of government, Franco came to view Mussolini’s Italy as something of a model. He was always careful to insist, however, that the Falange (Phalanx), Spain’s native fascist movement, was sui generis.

Founded in 1933 by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, eldest son of the military officer who governed Spain in a dictatorial but benign fashion from 1923 to 1930, the Falange was a radical and nationalist movement. Thanks in part to the personality of Jose Antonio (as he is known), however, it was far less prone to violence than were other fascist movements. Indeed, it dutifully proclaimed its allegiance to Catholicism, even as it repudiated the clericalism of the right. Not that it mattered much, for the Falange never captured the Spanish imagination; in the elections of February 1936, it won only 44,000 votes, 0.7 percent of the national total.

The movement received an even greater blow when the Republican government executed Jose Antonio on November 20, 1936. No equally charismatic successor emerged, but even if one had. Franco had already resolved to subordinate the Falange to the Spanish state, and to use it to balance the power of other groups within what he soon began to call the “National Movement”: the military, the liberal monarchists, and the Carlists.

Despite some speculation in his concluding chapter about Franco’s borrowings from Italian fascism, Bonapartism, and other forms of authoritarianism, Payne believes, quite rightly, that Franco—who seldom traveled abroad—must be understood in Spanish and historical, rather than foreign and social-scientific, terms. The Caudillo, he writes, was “the last great avatar of the traditional Spanish national-Catholic ideology,” an ideology that began to take form during the long reconquest of Spain from the Moors and that eventually, by the 16th century, crystallized into the idea that Spaniards were God’s chosen people, charged with a world-historical mission. To reassert and update that ideology was Franco’s lifelong ambition.

There is little doubt, for example, that Franco viewed the civil war as a crusade in defense of Catholic Spain, a historical reprise of the Reconquista that the “Catholic Kings,” Ferdinand and Isabella, completed in 1492. Just as the reconquest was long and arduous it took 700 years—so the Generalissimo’s victory over the impious Republic demanded time and patience. Slowly and relentlessly he reclaimed Spanish territory, region by region, for the Faith. Which is not to say that he was a religious zealot. “I sought always to live and die as a Catholic,” he wrote in his farewell message to the Spanish people, and so he did, particularly after his marriage to the pious Carmen Polo in 1923. But for Franco Catholicism and Spain were always inextricably intertwined. Like the Catholic Kings again, he recognized that in a country characterized by the most extreme racial, political, and geographical diversity, a common faith alone could guarantee that unity without which Spain would not be great and hence could not act as the defender of Christian civilization.

Even Fusi understands that Franco, no less than Lincoln in our Civil War, regarded unity as a matter of life or death for the nation. Though he does not say so, he knows that when Ferdinand and Isabella married, they united Castile and Catalonia, Aragon being the least important of the Aragon- Catalonia-Valencia federation. “The dynasty was Catalan,” the great contemporary historian J.H. Elliott has written, “and it was Catalonia, with its busy seaboard and its energetic population, which played the preponderant part in the great overseas expansion of the Crown of Aragon.” In his fierce opposition to Catalan separatism. Franco signaled his determination to complete the task of unification that the Catholic Kings began. His regime, Payne reminds us, “was by far the most centralized in Spanish history.”

To accomplish this was not easy and though both Fusi and Payne deny that Franco was a cruel man, they agree that when duty dictated it, he could set aside all pity and personal sentiment. Fusi speaks of the “chilling side of his character” and Payne estimates that he ordered some 30,000 executions in the six years after the civil war ended in 1939. In this he undoubtedly modeled himself after the Duke of Alba, who attempted to subdue the rebellious Netherlands for Philip II—for the Faith and the central political authority. (Alba’s bloody deeds, like those of Franco, have often been exaggerated, but between 1567 and 1573 his “Council of Blood” did convict about 9,000 people and execute just over 1,000.)

Due to such historical experiences and to their fervent Catholicism, Spaniards understand—better, it seems, than most peoples—the timeless drama of sin and blood sacrifice. One has only to think, for example, of the powerful poetic tragedy Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca (whom the Nationalists shot in 1936) and the savage novel The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela (who fought for Franco). Or else consider what Franco said in a speech of 1940: “The suffering of a nation at a certain point in its history is no chance: it is the spiritual judgment which God imposes for a corrupt life, for an unclean history.”

This is an old-fashioned idea and Franco was an old-fashioned man, who, as Paul Gottfried recently observed, lacked any of this century’s interest in reconstructing humanity. For him, pre-World War I words such as heroism, self-discipline, and patriotism still held meaning, perhaps in part because Spain was not a belligerent. To those cynical moderns who scoff, he might have said with C.S. Lewis, “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” And to those who believe liberal democracy to be the only morally justifiable system of politics, he would surely have pointed to the disorder, hedonism, and materialism that so often accompany it. As Payne sums it up. Franco believed in “strong authoritarian government without political parties, and a program of modern economic development determined as much as possible by political and nationalistic priorities, with social reform a secondary by-product of economic growth.”

But there was another by-product of the extraordinary economic boom that Spain experienced during the 1960’s and 1970’s: the destruction of the neotraditionalist culture that Franco sought, no doubt quixotically, to maintain. Though he ultimately failed, he could take some comfort from the knowledge that he had saved Spain from anarchy and tyranny, while slowing the pace and moderating the effects of change. When a new government took charge in 1975, it was able to complete the “inevitable” democratization peacefully. Moreover, under the capable leadership of King Juan Carlos, the government showed a far more human face than it would have had a totalitarian form of democracy triumphed in the civil war. For a man who was born in the wrong century and who died with the mummified arm of Saint Teresa of Avila at his side, this was no small achievement.


[Franco: A Biography, by J.P. Fusi (New York: Harper & Row) $25.00]

[The Franco Regime, 1936-1975, by Stanley G. Payne (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) $30.00]