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How Franco Made It

The Franco Regime: 1936–1975

by Stanley G. Payne
University of Wisconsin Press, 677 pp., $30.00


Professor Payne is a man of few illusions. He has a profound contempt for utopian politics and a marked distrust, if not distaste, for the left in general. He would seem to regard Franco’s dictatorship as a deserved punishment for the follies and failures of democracy in the Second Republic of 1931. He argues that the sudden eruption of mass politics polarized Spanish society and that by 1936 the government of the Popular Front, elected by a narrow majority in February 1936, was in the process of becoming a prisoner of the revolutionary left. This completed the contrary process by which the right became counterrevolutionary. When Calvo Sotelo, the leader of the counterrevolutionary right, was assassinated by government agents on the night of July 12–13 there was, Payne argues, little alternative for the right but to take up arms against what was rapidly on the way to becoming a totalitarian regime of the left. The last attempt to satisfy the outraged right and to turn it from violence—Premier Martinez Barrio’s offer on the telephone to General Mola, organizer of the military conspiracy, of a national government—came too late. The center, that utopia of moderates like Professor Payne, had dropped out of political life; only the extremes of right and left remained and they had no alternative but to fight it out to the finish.

I have deep respect for Professor Payne’s scholarship but I have never shared all his views. Perhaps it is a sterile exercise to hold “views” on what might have happened if the Republic had won the Civil War. Would the victorious Republic have created a totalitarian regime dominated by Communists, as ruthless in the physical elimination of its opponents as Franco proved to be of his? Professor Payne has no doubts:

It is difficult to conclude that the result [of a Republican victory] would have been political democracy. The revolutionary war-time People’s Republic was not 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.

Democracy was impossible for the time being. Franco’s solution was “very far from optimal”; but an evolutionary authoritarianism “was in a certain sense about as much as the Spanish could expect from the impasses into which they had maneuvered themselves.” The alternative offered by the Popular Front, Payne insists, was equally unattractive.

These are harsh judgments, and I think unnecessary ones. It is perfectly legitimate to attempt to understand the motives that impelled officers to revolt against the Popular Front government in July 1936; it is another thing to justify them by accusing the Republican government of “latent” authoritarianism. Professor Payne might have made more of the Popular Front government’s recourse to the old Spanish custom of manipulating electoral results after the elections of February 1936: scarcely a democratic proceeding, it is true, but hardly “authoritarian.” “Latent” authoritarianism is a doubtful concept. One must ask what historical events made a latent tendency manifest and here there is room for dissent. Above all, it was the defensive reaction of the politicized masses to the right-wing military revolt of July 18 that handed over the government to the “authoritarian” left. This was a process that—including prison massacres—has its parallels in the French Revolution and the Carlist wars in Spain. As Frederica Montseny, the anarchist minister in the “revolutionary” government formed in November 1936, repeatedly insisted: “It was the generals’ revolt that gave us the revolution we wanted but could not make ourselves.”

Professor Payne is on firmer ground when he criticizes the partisanship of the Popular Front. He argues that anti-fascism existed in strength in Spain, whereas fascism proper was represented only by the relatively unimportant, if violent, Falange of José Antonio Primo de Rivera; the revolution of October 1934, which polarized opinion in Spain, was “formally directed against ‘fascism’ at a time when fascism scarcely existed in Spain.” In fact it was directed against a democratically elected government, however “fascist” its policies and ultimate intentions appeared to the left. In a typical but justifiable aside on the arrest of the Falange leaders in March 1936 Payne writes that the “leaders of all the revolutionary left groups could have been similarly prosecuted with equal justification.”

It was the weakness of this one-sided authoritarianism of the Popular Front government that infuriated the right. I interviewed a number of Franco’s generals after the Civil War, asking them all why they had joined the rising of July 1936. I was impressed by the unanimity of their replies: the “collapse of public order” in the hands of a feeble but partisan government.

As one would expect from the historian of the Falange, Professor Payne’s treatment of the Falange—for example José Antonio’s ambiguity about the use of violence—is authoritative. But it was not fascism in the form of the Falange that mounted the right-wing uprising of July 18; the Falangists were enthusiastic amateurs. The professionals were the conservative counterrevolutionaries and the military conspirators, a handful of generals including, late in the day, General Franco, who was characteristically cautious in committing himself to a risky enterprise. It was the younger officers who embraced these risks without hesitation. Azaña, with the wisdom of hind-sight, remarked that it was soldiers under sixty who were “a national danger.”1


All this forms the prolegomena to the body of Professor Payne’s impressive work. His aim is clearly stated. It is to write a political history of the Franco regime. He devotes a great deal of attention to comparisons with other political systems: Turkey, Italy, the Balkan states, Bonapartism, and so on. These essays in taxonomy are fashionable but futile. They add little to our understanding of Francoism. It is my profoundest conviction that authoritarian political systems can truly be understood only by intensive study of their activities at the local levels for such studies reveal the mechanisms of compliance as they function in daily life.2

There is no great mystery about the grander outlines of Francoism, and very little has been added to the analysis, made by Juan Linz in the 1960s, that it was a conservative, authoritarian system with limited pluralism, limited ability to mobilize its supporters, and lacking a coherent ideology, except in its earliest stages. No political man is an island unto himself and soldiers are rarely original political thinkers. The Caudillo patched together what he always insisted was a “unique” political system, with borrowings from Italian fascism, from traditional Carlism, from Catholic corporativism, from the authoritarian monarchists of Acción Española, and in his later years from the so-called “technocrats” with their recipes for the economic modernization of Spain.

Above all he learned he failure of the benign and well-intentioned dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923–1930) under whose rule Franco had made his military reputation in the Moroccan wars. Thus he never sought to reform an army which he knew to be inefficient and overloaded with officers; he remembered that Primo’s army reforms had alienated army support and precipitated his downfall. Without that support Franco knew he had no chance of survival. It was the generals who, at an aerodrome near Salamanca in October 1936, elevated him to supreme power as generalissimo and head of state. It was the generals who, with occasional misgivings, kept him there.

The main achievement of Payne’s book is his detailed analysis of the significance of the periodic reshuffling of the ministerial teams that accounted for the overt political life of the Francoist state. Having eliminated the vanquished of the Civil War (i.e., to put it broadly, the liberals and the left) from public life, Franco was left with the task of balancing in his ministries the constituent elements within the regime—Falangists, Carlists, orthodox monarchists, army officers—so that no one group could threaten his hold over the system as a whole. It was his success in this balancing act that allowed him to boast, “Spain is easy to govern”; so much so that he could get away from the chores of government on long hunting and fishing trips.3

The second achievement is Payne’s analysis of the role of the “fascistoid” Falange and its steadily diminishing role in the regime. In the spring of 1937 Franco had unified into a single movement the two parties that provided the main civilian support for the Nationalist cause: the Carlists, whose Navarrese troops were the elite corps of his army, suffering heavy casualties, and whose traditional Catholicism Franco respected, although he rejected their dynastic claims; and the Falangists, whose enthusiasm he exploited and whose political program gave military rebels a temporary clothing for their political nakedness, although its heady mixture of social radicalism and foreign totalitarianism made most generals uneasy. During Franco’s support of the Axis and while he still believed in the possibilities of a victorious new order in Europe, Falangism flourished; the early recruits were so numerous that the supply of blue shirts ran out. Indeed, if Hitler had won the war Franco would have presided over a regime as “fascist” as was compatible with his deeply ingrained respect for traditional Catholic values. After a war won by the Allies, all attempts to make Falangism a political reality, whether as a syndical organization or as the preponderant element in the political life of Spain, fizzled out.

Serrano Suñer, Franco’s brother-in-law and the best political brain in Nationalist Spain, wanted the Falange to have a prominent place in the new regime in whose planning he had been influential during 1937; in 1942 he was ditched. José Luis de Arrese, as secretary general of the movement, tamed its radicalism and domesticated it as a bureaucratic instrument of government. Too late, in 1956, he tried to re-establish its National Council as the centerpiece of the regime. Franco was aware that most of his military colleagues and his prelates detested the influence of the Falange; but he would not throw the Falangists out of the system, if only because they were a convenient counterbalance to the military monarchists. The Falange was too deeply encrusted in the regime to be drastically downgraded in order to please the generals and the bishops. As Franco himself remarked—for he was capable of disconcerting asides—at least the Falange was an effective “propaganda claque” that organized the crowds who applauded his speeches.


Payne has a striking chapter on the Civil War as a crusade in defense of Catholic civilization. It was this defense of Catholic values that Franco used to legitimize his rule. The enemies were the “three internationals”: Freemasonry, Communism, and liberalism, all engaged in a vast conspiracy to destroy Spain and its “permanent” values, its “essence.” The Caudillo’s obsession with Masonry remained to the end the most bizarre feature of his mental world, so much of which was filled by the commonplaces of nineteenth-century anti-liberalism. The enemies of Catholic Spain he had defeated in the Civil War; he ruled by right of conquest. During the heyday of “National Catholicism” in the 1940s and 1950s Spain became the most rigid confessional state in the West, experiencing an unprecedented religious revival. Professor Payne, I imagine, regards the statistics of priests’ vocations—one thousand per annum in the mid-1950s—as a more reliable guide to the nature and efficacy of this mission-inspired revivalism than the impressions of poets and novelists. Yet it is in works like Años de Penitencia by the poet Carlos Barral with its description of his “sordid” schooldays that one can sense the suffocating religiosity of National Catholicism.4

  1. 1

    The modest role of the Falangists in the rising comes out clearly in J. Ma Fontana’s Los catalanes en la guerra de España, an account of a young Barcelona Falangist. The military conspirators of the Barcelona garrisons—all young officers—regarded them as “an additional chorus, never as a force.”

  2. 2

    Our understanding of the Civil War has been enriched if not transformed by local studies (e.g., of Cordoba, Alicante, Aragon, and Navarre) and by studies of individual institutions as they functioned day by day rather than by the description of political struggles at the apex of political life (e.g., the study of the Defense Junta of Madrid in Julio Aróstegui and Jesus Martinez, La Junta de Defensa de Madrid, Comunidad de Madrid, 1984). One of the weaknesses of the historiography of Francoism is the relative paucity of such local and institutional studies other than those made by social anthropologists.

  3. 3

    These absences from Madrid alarmed his entourage, particularly his cousin, whose records of Franco’s conversations contain repeated warnings of the dangers of the Caudillo’s hunting and fishing trips. For this see Francisco Franco Salgado, Conversaciones privadas con Franco (Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1976), passim (Madrid, 1976).

  4. 4

    My wife and I visited Ronda during a “mission week” devoted to celebrating National Catholicism, I think in 1950. Appalled at the atmosphere, we placed penciled slips with “Down with Franco and the Church” under the ashtrays in cafés. On returning to our hotel our luggage had been broken open and we were interviewed by what I imagine was a member of the political police. We were told to “behave like ordinary tourists” or leave Spain. One dreads to think what would have happened in similar circumstances in the USSR—perhaps an illustration of Professor Payne’s observations on the comparative mildness of Francoist repression.

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