The Franco Regime: 1936–1975
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.