Francisco Franco

Francisco Franco Bahamonde was born in El Ferrol, in the province of Galicia, on December 4, 1892. He was descended from a long line of naval officers but was unable to enter the naval academy, so he entered the infantry academy in Toledo and subsequently volunteered for service in Morocco. This campaign was the beginning of a distinguished military career as the young Franco showed great courage, leadership ability, and professionalism. He gained rapid promotions through combat duty and became a brigadier general at the age of 33, the youngest general in Europe at that time.

In the 1920s, Spain was divided between supporters of the traditional monarchy and those who wished for a modern, republican form of government. Franco was clearly identified with the monarchy and the nationalist conservatives, so when the Republicans came to power in 1931, they closed the General Military Academy that Franco had headed since 1928. His brother-in-law was a leader of the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights, a Catholic nationalist party that gained a majority in the government in 1933 and restored Franco to high position in the military.

Franco became a specialist in suppressing worker demonstrations and rebellions in Morocco as he countered the influence of liberals and leftists in the armed forces. When the Popular Front, a coalition of left and center parties, was returned to the government in 1936, Franco was posted to the Canary Islands. He moved to Morocco, however, to command rightist forces as political polarization worsened and Spain descended into civil war. From Morocco, he contacted the fascist governments in Germany and Italy to request military assistance.

By late 1936, the Nationalist factions in the Spanish Civil War had designated Franco commander in chief of the army and then chief of state of the insurgent regime. He responded by saying that «his hand would not tremble» until he had achieved victory, not only in the civil war, but in restoring Spain to the social structure of previous centuries. In order to accomplish his program—the elimination of political parties of the liberals and the left, the development of prosperous industry, and the re-Catholicization of all Spain—Franco organized a new party called the Falange that united previous rightist groups. All other parties were outlawed or dissolved and their members invited to join the Falange.

With the assistance of Italy and Germany, Franco led the Nationalists to victory in the civil war against the Republicans by 1939. Though Soviet leader Joseph Stalin sought influence over the forces of the left, their situation was ignored by the governments of Western Europe. Franco secured his position by dealing harshly with his foes and setting up a tightly controlled corporate state. Franco kept Spain out of World War II despite his previous alliance with Germany and Italy, even going so far as barring German chancellor Adolf Hitler from using Spanish territory to launch an attack on British-held Gibraltar. His inactivity put him in a better position to promote good relations with the United States and other Western nations after the war. The development of the cold war furthered this trend, as Western regimes overlooked Franco’s excesses at home to secure his cooperation in the struggle against communism. In 1953, he signed an official concordat with the Vatican and a 10-year pact with the United States.

The decade of the 1950s was quiet politically, but Spain was facing a severe financial crisis by 1957, forcing Franco to open the economy to more interaction with other European countries, as stipulated in a Stabilization Plan in 1959. The new policy was very successful in promoting the growth of the economy, but this very growth began to undermine Franco’s social goals. Franco encouraged material achievement in the hopes that more prosperous people would not question political restrictions so much. Exchange with other countries, however, led many toward the secularism and cultural modernism of the rest of Europe. By the time of Franco’s death, the old rural, conservative, Catholic society that had brought him to power was largely gone.

Franco is considered one of the more successful dictators of the 20th century for his nearly 40 years in power. Though his plans to reinstitute traditional cultural and spiritual values ended in failure, his attempts to modernize the economy were a success. Franco died on November 20, 1975 after a series of illnesses and surgeries.

A young American male traveling in Spain in the early 1960s, as I was and did, would notice that women did not sunbathe topless on the country’s beaches the way many did on the French Riviera. There weren’t even any bikinis. An American who lived in the country explained to me that the body-covering one-piece swimsuits I saw everywhere were “required.” I was also told that a couple holding hands in the street could be arrested if a policeman spotted them. Yet the tapas bars were filled by men and women, mostly young, in the small hours of the morning. There was laughter and singing. Wine flowed.

The streets of Madrid were the cleanest of any major city in Europe. They also felt the safest, in whichever neighborhood you ventured at whatever hour.

Abortion was a crime, but at that time it still was even in the liberal democracies of England and the U.S. The notion of same-sex “marriage” wasn’t on any mind, at least not a sane one.

If you lingered in the country, you learned that certain organizations were banned (Masonic lodges were an example), but there simply was not the palpable feeling anywhere in Spain of the fear and suspicion that saturated the atmosphere in Communist East Europe if a person had reason to go there and could obtain a visa.

Nor did you see around you the distracted, harried look of men who are concentrated on making money or trying to. A siesta after the big daytime meal was still customary. Friends running into each other would easily “waste” an hour catching up on their news.

One other thing about Spain in those days: I was not yet Catholic, but when I went into a church to look at it, there were always persons praying. If a Mass was going on, the church was crowded.

I know what existed in France between 1940 and 1944 when the unholy trinity of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was replaced as the national slogan by Work, Family, Country. I also know about Gen. Juan Ongania’s valiant effort to stem the “immoralization” (his word) of Argentina, 1966-70. However, the only personal experience of Christian social order I’ve had in my lifetime was my periodic visits to Spain in the early 60s. My memories of it are indelible. How to sum them up?

It wasn’t as if the Spanish government of the time self-consciously modeled its programs and policies on what used to be known as papal social teaching. That really only happened in one place in the twentieth century: Austria under Engelbert Dollfuss when Pope Pius XI was virtual co-chancellor. In Spain in the 60s it was more a matter of life feeling natural, secure, somehow protected. Of course I say this in hindsight, but what I see now is that Spain then had a government intent on enabling individuals to get to Heaven if only by reducing the risk of their damning themselves. In other words, it did not operate according to the liberal notion of freedom as the “right” to do whatever is humanly possible.

Everything about Spain began to change, and to change fast, after November, 1975. That is when Gen. Francisco Franco, Spain’s ruler since 1939, died. How fast was change? Within two years a friend of mine, the well-known Cuban-American priest, Rev. Enrique Rueda, was mugged in broad daylight on a main thoroughfare in downtown Madrid. Father was wearing his collar.

Recent travelers to Spain tell me it can be difficult today to find a weekday Mass outside the major cities. Many churches give the appearance of being padlocked – permanently shut for want of clergy and worshippers.

If you polled Spaniards today, asking them which they preferred, life in the country now or during the years 1939-75 when Franco ruled, who can doubt the vast majority, including those who remember the safe streets and young persons acting modestly whether they liked it or not, would answer “now”? Of course they would. Ever since the Garden of Eden men have preferred to live according to their own will instead of God’s, and for two centuries under government whose laws reflect the preference instead of being designed to buttress His.

Juridically, during all the years of Franco’s rule, Spain was a monarchy. He governed as Regent, but the Spanish people knew him as the Caudillo. Liberal media in the U.S. and elsewhere were always careful to explain that Caudillo was the Spanish equivalent of Fuhrer. It was insofar as both words can be translated as Leader, but to Spaniards of the time the word was no more sinister than “Boss” used to be to Americans when our big cities were still run by machine politics.

As Boss, he set the rules by which the political life of the city was run, but having set them he also abided by them. As long as anybody belonging to the machine did the same he could count on City Hall. If he represented a certain part of town on the city council, its garbage would be picked up without fail, snow removed expeditiously from its streets, new equipment provided for a park playground if needed, corruption of the police in the local precinct kept within tolerable limits, and so on.

The Caudillo set the rules by which the political life of Spain was run, and having set them he abided by them. This is the opposite of a tyranny. Under tyranny the citizen doesn’t know where he stands. The rules are not clear. Everything happens according to the passing mood of the tyrant. A tyranny is not a form of government. It arises to replace weak government or in the absence of any – anarchy.

Let’s compare Franco to a contemporary of his, the genuine tyrant Joseph Stalin, and to do so where it matters most: the question of who will live and who will die. Franco understood that civilization must sometimes resort to lethal force in order to defend itself. Defending Christian civilization is what he and fellow generals were doing when in 1936 they revolted against the Red republic that had replaced Spain’s monarchy in 1931 and become ever more radical and anti-Catholic over the years. Thus began the conflict known to the outside world as the Spanish Civil War, but called the Crusade by Franco and his fellow Nationalists.

We’re going to ignore the Crusade here. We’re also going to ignore Franco’s own understanding of the Faith except to say it probably couldn’t be simpler or less “pastoral.” There was nothing “theological” or nuanced about it. It was what he was taught as a boy when he was catechized, and that was that. If you lived according to what he was taught, you stood a chance of making it at least to Purgatory. If you lived otherwise, going to Hell was more likely.

What interests us is that fighting the Crusade, and also the maintenance of Christian social order after the Nationalist victory in 1939, sometimes required the execution of spies, revolutionaries, and other malefactors. As commander of military forces in war and Caudillo later, Franco always insisted on reviewing the file of anyone sentenced to death, and also that he be the one who signed the death warrant. It was important to him because shooting a man is no small thing. However guilty he might appear, he deserved to have his case reviewed and the sentence carried out on the order of legitimate and identifiable authority.

Now read any biography of Stalin you want. According to all of them, he could spend hours signing death warrants with thousands of names on a single warrant. His victims weren’t even numbers to him. They were, to recall a famous phrase of Lenin, eggs that had to be broken in order to make the omelet of the Revolution. Their deaths were necessary to the state (that is to say Stalin) in order to terrorize the population into unquestioning submission.

Sometimes when Stalin finished signing death warrants, he would watch a movie and drink vodka with cronies, making sure the cronies drank more than he did. More than one of these men would himself be shot a few hours later, the vodka having loosened his tongue to the point of his uttering some faint criticism or perhaps repeating an anti-regime joke he’d heard. Stalin didn’t care for merriment except his own, as when he ordered his cronies to make fools of themselves by jumping and dancing in place until they fell down.

Not drinking with him could also be dangerous. To refuse or hold back could arouse the suspicion that you harbored subversive thoughts you feared might surface in your cups.

Stalin was a mass murderer, the number of his victims perhaps reaching 20 million. Franco’s greatest achievement was to save Spain from a government that was already radically socialist and becoming, under pressure from Moscow, economically and politically subject to Stalin.

His next greatest achievement was keeping Spain out of World War II. It wasn’t simply that she was spared worse material destruction than she’d already suffered during the fight against the Reds. Spain, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland (all neutral in the war) did not experience the social dislocations and moral revolution that defeat brought to the rest of Catholic Europe, or not as quickly as the rest.

For years after the war, Spanish independence and self-sufficiency was important enough to Franco that he successfully resisted the adoption of measures that would move the country toward integration into the economic globalism that was then nascent. This slowed Spain’s “development,” but also helped keep her Catholic for another generation.

Alas, the best of men age. Not simply do their own powers begin to fail, if they live long enough they lose the help of their ablest and closest collaborators. In Franco’s case, it was the help of his prime minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, assassinated in 1973 by Basque terrorists.

Had he outlived Franco, as it was supposed he would, the Admiral would be the one to go to the airport to greet a young Prince Juan Carlos, see him installed as monarch, and then keep him under his wing for at least several years, ensuring the survival of some portion of the Franco legacy. That didn’t happen. Even the statue of Franco that stood in his own home town in Galicia was taken down years ago. Spain is now just another of the EU Mediterranean countries – Portugal, Italy, Greece – despised by economically efficient northerners except when they want to live a little and head south for vacation.

Poor Spain. I haven’t been back since Franco died. If someone offered me a free trip, I’m not sure I’d accept. My fear is that seeing today’s Spain with my own eyes, while at the same time seeing with my memory’s eye the Spain of a half century ago, would break my heart.