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A Seemingly Ordinary Man


by Paul Preston
Basic Books, 1,056 pp., $37.50

On July 18, 1936, a group of right-wing officers of the Spanish army rose in rebellion against the legal government of the democratic Second Republic. The conspirators hoped for a sharp, short, military takeover. The resistance of working-class organizations and of some of the government security forces, particularly in Madrid and Barcelona, meant, however, that the attempted coup became a civil war. By the autumn of 1937 the war was going badly and on September 21 the leading military conspirators met in a hut on an airfield near Salamanca to consider the situation. As experienced soldiers they agreed that if the war was to be won, there must be a single command—a military necessity which the leaders of the Republic refused to recognize to their cost—and that General Francisco Franco must be made generalísimo, commander in chief of the rebel forces, which called themselves Nationalists. Franco enjoyed unparalleled prestige in the army; he was commander of the army in Africa, the best fighting unit in the Nationalist army which he had brought over from Morocco at great risk and against professional advice. He was backed by Germany and Italy, which supplied the Nationalists with the sinews of war.

General Kindelán, commander of the air force, argued that political command of the rebellion should be “annexed” to military command. On September 28 Franco was named Chief of the Spanish State and of its government. “You have placed Spain in my hands,” he declared. Like a Roman emperor he had been elevated to supreme power by his military commanders. But Kindelán intended these powers to be temporary, wartime emergency powers that would lapse with victory. Franco would then be replaced by Don Juan, the son of King Alfonso XIII, who had been driven from the throne when the Republic was installed in April 1931. Sometime, perhaps in the early spring of 1937, Franco saw the possibility of prolonging a temporary mandate into the indefinite future; it was to last until he died in his bed in November 1975.

Professor Preston, in an immensely impressive book of some eight hundred pages, traces Franco’s rise to power and his use of power, once granted, to perpetuate it. It is a blow-by-blow narrative account which Preston makes clear is not a history of Francoism as a regime but a political biography of Franco himself.


The central problem of Francoism is to explain how a man whom the more intelligent of his early collaborators dismissed as a garrulous second-rater clung to power by manipulating the divisions among them in the interests of his ambition. Preston sees Franco’s ambition as rooted in deep insecurity both personal and social. Son of a broken home—his father deserted his pious mother for a schoolteacher—and painfully conscious of his modest origins—he was to marry above his social station. Bullied at school, physically unimpressive, described to Hitler as a “pipsqueak,” he relished and assiduously cultivated the adulation of Spaniards who were thirsty for a national hero. His main qualification was that he had been an outstandingly brave and efficient soldier in Spain’s “dirty” colonial wars of the 1920s in Morocco.

The victor in the civil war, he was blessed by the Catholic church as leader of a crusade to save Christian civilization. Preston argues that like virtually all dictators, he came to see himself as his propaganda machine presented him—the providential leader granted by God with the exceptional powers of the charismatic leader, the Caudillo, the Spanish equivalent of the Führer and the Duce, who had saved his society from barbarism and disintegration. Hitler and Mussolini also saw themselves as providential saviors of their respective societies. But their styles differed from Franco’s. The Caudillo surrounded himself with the ceremony of the ancien régime court. He preferred the annual military parade to the elaborate theatrical production of the Nuremberg Partei tag. It is inconceivable that he would have presented himself to the press as Mussolini did, laboring bare-breasted in “the battle for wheat.” His taste can be seen in his habit of entering church under the palium, the canopy held over his head, surrounded by his bishops as the kings of Spain had done before him. This was part of what Preston calls the choreography of the regime, which he describes in great detail.

To understand Franco’s Spain one must realize that the Nationalist victory in the civil war was the victory not of the Falange movement founded in 1933 as a Spanish version of European fascism, but of Catholic, conservative Spain over the liberal Spain of the Second Republic. Franco, as Preston observes, could make “vaguely” fascist noises, in particular to flatter his Italian and German allies. But they were not deceived: they soon saw him for what he was, a conservative who preferred the legitimacy granted and consecrated by the blessing of the Church to the ideology of the Falange. Franco’s cast of mind was derived from a traditional conservative vision of Spanish history, a vision brought up to date by the authoritarian monarchists in the 1930s as a weapon to fight the liberalism of the democratic Republic. In this view, modern liberals, heirs of Protestant heretics and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, were the enemies of the “essence” of Spain, the United Catholic Spain forged by the Catholic kings, Ferdinand and Isabella. The defeat of Spain by the US in 1898 had robbed Spain of the remnants of its colonial empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The “Disaster,” as it was called, was, Franco alleged, the work of unpatriotic liberal party politicians who had betrayed a valiant army in Cuba. Hence Franco’s determination, repeated in speech after speech, that political parties, the essential instrument of a democratic polity, must never be allowed to reappear to destroy the patria.

Franco’s obsession with Freemasonry as an international conspiracy directed against the patria and its values was pushed, as Preston shows, to absurd lengths: but it had long been part of the intellectual baggage of conservatives. “Autarky”—the attempt in the 1940s to create in Spain an enclosed, self-sufficient economy—was as much an exaggeration of conservative protectionism as a product of Franco’s primitive economic notions or of fascist models. Franco’s dreams of restoring lost greatness through an “empire” in Africa had impressed conservatives frustrated by the impotence of the liberal state, which, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had permitted the destruction of the sacred unity of the nation by Basque and Catalan separatists.

Preston shows how Franco’s image builders reflected his essentially conservative vision of history by casting him as the reincarnation of El Cid, the medieval hero of the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, and as the political heir of Ferdinand and Isabella. This image could be aligned with the rhetoric of the Falangists by making the Catholic kings “totalitarians” avant la lettre, as absurd a distortion of history as Franco’s insistence that liberal politicians had sacrificed the Spanish army in Cuba to their party interests.

Like all dictators, Franco wished to be immortalized in stone. But whereas Hitler dreamt of a Berlin that would symbolize the dynamism of Nazi Germany, Franco chose as his monument the basilica of the Valle de los Caídos, the memorial to the dead of the Civil War, hewn out of solid rock and surmounted by a gigantic cross 150 meters high. It would link him to Philip II, the monarch of all monarchs he professed to admire most and whose monastery palace, the Escorial, rose nearby.

To the essentially anti-liberal world view that he derived from the conservative version of Spanish history Franco added the conventional creed of the Spanish officer corps. Patriotic officers had a higher duty than obedience to the legal civilian government. If that government, by its actions, imperiled the patria then the army must take over—the standard political theory of all military conspirators for whom the opinions of the officers’ mess were the expression of a Rousseauian general will. Franco’s hesitations in taking the decisive step of attacking the Republic infuriated the active conspirators; they dubbed him “Miss Canary Islands 1936.” Preston examines in clinical detail Franco’s career as a reluctant conspirator. He always hedged his bets—he liked, as he put it, to see the next card before playing his own—but his hesitations were justified. A previous coup in 1932 had failed; the army was divided, the militarized police force, the Civil Guard, doubtful.

When, after the Civil War, I asked Franco’s generals why they had rebelled on July 18, none of them advanced the official line that they had staged a preemptive strike against a planned Communist takeover. They said they could not continue to tolerate the Republican governments’ incapacity to maintain public order which left “government in the gutter”—the standard excuse for military intervention in politics. When, on July 13, 1936, Calvo Sotelo, finance minister of the dictator General Primo de Rivera in the 1920s and leader of the authoritarian right in the 1930s, was assassinated after he was arrested by the Republican Security Forces, there could be no drawing back. “The Patria,” Franco exclaimed, “has another martyr. We can wait no longer.” The Civil War had begun.

Professor Preston has no high opinion of Franco as a military commander in the Civil War. That he was not a strategic genius is evident; trained in colonial war, he had never commanded large units in battle. He learned on the job. His one strategic blunder, the refusal to turn on Catalonia after he had successfully broken the Republican front in Aragon in the spring of 1938, undoubtedly prolonged the war, as General Kindelán repeatedly told him. But Preston insists that Franco deliberately prolonged the war by employing a “slow” strategy of attrition in order to consolidate his political position on the home front. This view seems to me untenable. Preston claims that by turning aside to relieve the garrison of the Toledo Alcázar, in order to stage a “great propagandist coup,” he deliberately and knowingly sacrificed the possibility of ending the war by the capture of Madrid. This seems to me unlikely even if his generals warned him of the consequences of delay.1

Preston argues that the long slogging campaign between July and November 1938 to drive the Republican army back over the Ebro River was “strategically meaningless.” Even so it achieved the aim of any commander: “the physical annihilation of his enemy.” When Franco did finally advance on Catalonia, as the Republican general, General Rojo, who planned the defense, bitterly remarked, the Republican units simply left the front rather than fight. What is clear is that after late 1936 there was no way to an easy victory, as Mussolini, thirsty for an Italian triumph in his version of the guerra celere, maintained. The Republicans were a formidable force which had the advantage of controlling much of Spain’s interior; by striking out from the center of the country at the long peripheral front they could seize the strategic initiative, even if they would never manage to exploit it. Franco was excessively concerned with recapturing “liberated” territory lost to the Republicans. But Franco’s commanders, often outspoken in their criticism, would not have tolerated a deliberate prolongation of the war. Franco’s record as a general was, if not distinguished, respectable—perhaps five on a scale of ten.

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    I enjoyed unrestricted access to the army archives in the 1950s, and I detected no signs of a “slow” war of attrition, though admittedly battle orders do not reveal the strategic considerations that inspire them. The decision to move against Valencia was a mistake, committing Franco’s armies to a campaign across difficult terrain. General Aranda told me his advance was “like forcing toothpaste back into its tube.”The criticisms of General García Valiño, who earned the name “the grave digger” in the campaign, can be read between the lines of his Guerra de liberación (Madrid, 1949). For the military consequences of the “strategically useless” battle of the Ebro see General Rojo’s ¡Alerta los pueblos! (Buenos Aires: Aniceto López, 1939).

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