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 …