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.

Whether it was deliberately prolonged or not, the long war consolidated Franco’s grip on power. It allowed him, in April 1937, to create what came to be called the Movement, Spain’s only legal political organization, by forcing the unification from above of the ultra-Catholic Carlists and the Falange, which was committed to an anticapitalist, anti-Marxist, fascist program of counterrevolution.

This combination of incompatibles was the brainchild of Serrano Suñer, Franco’s brother-in-law and an admirer of Mussolini’s Italy. He conceived of the Movement as a totalitarian party committed to seizing power. Franco saw the Movement solely as a basis for his own power and came to resent Serrano Suñer’s pretensions and those of his “young Turks.” He was aware that his generals regarded the Falange as a gang of corrupt Andalusian adventurers, opposed to the monarchist restoration they hoped for, while the Catholic church, which provided the essential legitimization of the regime, rejected totalitarianism as incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

In a brilliant book the Spanish historian Javier Tusell has demonstrated how Franco’s rise to power was built on the divisions within the Nationalist coalition2—divisions between monarchists, the generals, and Falange in the 1940s and 1950s and between the Catholic proponents of economic liberalism and Falangist economic interventionists in the 1960s. In the crisis of the regime after 1969, moreover, divisions emerged between aperturistas, for whom only a gradual process of democratization from above could ensure the survival of the political elite, and the intransigent hard-liners for whom any change, as Franco’s éminence grise, Admiral Carrero Blanco, put it, was like giving a drink to a reformed alcoholic. In dealing with all these factions Franco exercised what the lawyers of the old monarchy had called “the moderating power,” managing conflict among them in the interests of his own survival.

Catholic conservatives and the generals in government blocked every attempt to create what they called a partido unico, a one-party state. In Germany the party captured the state; in Spain the state captured and emasculated the party. The Falange organization, as Preston acutely observes, provided Franco with supporters who “had nowhere else to go” and who could bring out the crowds to greet the Caudillo on his political tours. They were left in control of the regime’s trade unions, the “vertical syndicates,” which, by combining employers and workers as national producers in a single organization, were intended to end the class struggle, the allegedly inevitable consequence of liberal capitalism. In this central task the Falange was to fail. Rather than a successful corporatist experiment in class cooperation the syndicates became a means of disciplining a hostile working class and providing jobs for bureaucrats. Its anti-capitalist “revolution” failed. In Emilio Romeo’s bitter words, the Falange became “the incense burner” of the neocapitalism of the 1960s and 1970s.


The core of Preston’s book lies in the three hundred pages he devotes to Franco’s policies during World War II and after. Here as elsewhere he shows a dazzling command of the relevant documents and he has fresh and valuable insights into Franco’s propensity to rewrite history in his own favor. Franco was prepared to enter the war, Preston argues, on the side of the Axis, his allies in the Civil War. He did not do so because Hitler would not pay his price—an empire in Morocco at the expense of the Vichy government. Spanish intervention, Hitler concluded, “would cost more than it was worth,” and he came to despise Franco as a Jew asking too much for too little. Preston argues Franco had no choice but to remain on the sidelines. Above all an allied naval blockade could have starved Spain of essential supplies. However, Franco’s image makers cast him as the prudent statesman whose skills had saved Spain from the disasters of war.

Nevertheless his overt sympathy and assistance to Germany during the war (which, almost to the end, he believed Germany would win) landed him on the wrong side in the peace. The victorious allies excluded Spain from the United Nations on grounds that it had a fascist regime installed by Hitler and Mussolini. To gain acceptance in the postwar international order Franco, the allies said, would have to dismantle the Falange and establish a government based on popular consent. The Caudillo then turned diplomatic ostracism into a propaganda triumph: he was, he said, defending Spain’s dignity and independence against an international conspiracy of Freemasons and Communists.

His aim, however, was to escape from the doghouse into international respectability. That he succeeded was owing not only to his diplomatic skills, considerable though these were, in wooing Catholic support in Congress and in driving a wedge between the US and the Western democracies, but also to the coming of the cold war. In the late 1940s the Pentagon decided that his resolutely anti-Communist regime would provide air and naval bases should the Soviet armies crash through an enfeebled France. The State Department was aware of the anti-Francoist sentiments of its Western allies; but these must not be appeased, Dean Acheson said, at the expense of US interests by continuing what Senator Taft described as the idiotic policy of ostracism. President Truman detested Franco as a persecutor of Protestants; both he and Dean Acheson put military necessity above democratic solidarity. The result was the agreement of 1953, which gave the US air and naval bases in return for economic and military aid.

Franco could now stage another propaganda triumph: the greatest democratic power on earth had accepted him as an ally at his own valuation as The Sentinel of the West; and he had made no concessions to US demands that he liberalize his regime. When, in December 1959, President Eisenhower embraced Franco in Madrid, the Caudillo exclaimed, “Now at last I have won the Civil War.” The Republicans who had been defeated in that war never forgave the United States for granting Franco a domestic triumph, and the Spanish left has inherited their resentments in the latent anti-Americanism that emerged in the debate during the 1980s on whether Spain should join NATO. What Spaniards who welcomed this apparent triumph did not know was that Franco, who had so long posed as the defender of Spain’s sovereignty, had, in the secret protocol to the Bases Agreement of 1953, sacrificed that sovereignty to the military requirements of the United States.

An even more striking example of the conversion of a concession to necessity into a triumph of image making is provided by Franco’s abandonment of the closed economy of autarky. This policy had reduced Spain to the “years of hunger” in the 1940s—they are eloquently described in Camilo José Cela’s best novel, The Beehive—and brought the country to the verge of international bankruptcy by 1958. In 1957 the so-called technocrats of Opus Dei, the Catholic secular institution whose members combined personal piety with the teachings of the Harvard Business School, advocated opening Spain to the international market and foreign investment as part of a program introducing orthodox neocapitalist economics to Spain. Franco, still committed to primitive economic nationalism, resented this advice as the work of foreign advisers who did not understand that the patria needed paternal, interventionist government; but with the peseta in trouble he gave in. When the new policies produced an unparalleled economic boom he claimed the credit for “Franco’s peace.” He relished quoting statistics, pointing out Spain’s per capita GNP growth was exceeded only by that of Japan; Spaniards could now buy more cars, telephones, and refrigerators.

There can be no doubt that prosperity gave the regime a new lease on life. Between us, Gerald Brenan and I visited most of the Spanish provinces between 1949 and 1950. Everywhere we detected the sullen resentment of poverty and bitter criticism of the corruption that a highly regulated economy inevitably fosters. In the 1960s what Brenan calls a “revolutionary” atmosphere—a palpable exaggeration—had given way to a passive enjoyment of unaccustomed well-being. Whether this was less a consequence of the regime’s development plans than a mere reflection of the European boom may interest economic historians but was irrelevant to Spaniards.

Yet the new prosperity affords a notable example of the unintended consequences of political choices: Spain became a market-oriented consumer society, increasingly similar to and envious of the democratic societies of Western Europe that surrounded it. Such a society did not fit the political straitjacket of Francoism. Franco had already in 1956 warned that “breezes from foreign shores [on the radio and TV and in the cinema] are blowing through our windows, corrupting the purity of our environment. The poison of materialism and dissatisfaction has reached the threshold of our homes.” The process of transition to democracy after his death was the adjustment of the political structure to the demands of a modern society permeated by foreign influences.


Franco’s strategy for political survival was based, first, on the persecution and exclusion from public life of those who did not accept the legitimacy of his rule and, second, on manipulating the divisions among those who did. Francoism was not a monolithic political structure but a Byzantine maze of political clans each competing for their own share of political power. Preston describes Franco’s “Machiavellian” ways of balancing the rival clans in his government so that no one clan could challenge his monopoly of power; in fact he had no alternative given the heterogeneous nature of the Nationalist coalition. He was not, as Preston suggests, an “Asian” despot but a conventional soldier in politics; his personal habits were frugal and austere, his model of society military. His subjects, like rank-and-file soldiers, should, he thought, obey the orders of their officers under the supreme command of the Generalísimo. If they did not they could be shot as mutineers.

Apart from foreign affairs, Franco increasingly delegated powers to his ministers and by the 1970s they ran the day-to-day affairs of government. José Antonio Girón, the long-lasting Falangist minister of labor, complained that the dictatorship of one had degenerated into the dictatorship of eighteen ministers. Franco let them ramble on in government meetings until the small hours of the morning. He seems to have lacked the ideal chairman’s capacity of forcing a decision on ministers who pursued conflicting policies: thus the attempts of the relatively liberal minister Manuel Fraga to loosen the censorship of the press and the theater in the 1960s were stymied by conservatives on grounds that Fraga was pandering to pornography.

His much-praised prudence disguised a habit of procrastination. He was reluctant to change his ministers, disliking “new faces.” He drove Carrero Blanco to distraction by his delay in naming Juan Carlos as his successor. “How long,” Carrero exclaimed, “it takes this man to give birth.” Isolated among his intimates in the Pardo Palace, afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, he lost touch. “You who are in the world,” he asked his ministers, “must give me names [for official posts]. I don’t know anybody.” But to the end the buck stopped at his desk in the Pardo; without his “green light” no major policy decision could be taken. His was a negative rather than a positive dictatorship, far removed from the vaunted dynamism of Mussolini or Hitler’s action for action’s sake.

The Spanish historian Angel Viñas talks of a “vacuum of power” at the center of Franco’s regime. Preston rightly sees in López Rodó, a much traveled professor of administrative law, the creator of the relatively efficient bureaucratic machine that replaced the ramshackle structure of early Francoism. Without it the economic policies of the 1960s which changed the face of Spain, and to which Franco had reluctantly given the “green light,” could not have been implemented.

Preston gives special attention to Franco’s long absences on hunting and fishing trips. Spain, the Caudillo remarked in one of his disconcerting asides—he was not devoid of a wry sense of humor—“is easy to govern.” By the 1970s that governability was in question.

Franco claimed to Vernon Walters, the American general and diplomat, that his legacy to Spain would be not the Valle de los Caídos but a prosperous middle class. This middle class provided Franco with his ministers and ran the administration, and it gave the regime essential social support. Its members viewed with alarm the failure of the official syndicates to contain the demands of the new militant working class, a product of the boom of the 1960s like the new middle class itself. By 1975 Spain had more strikes than any other European country. The Francoist regime hoped to attract the working class, huddled in the squalor of the new industrial suburbs, with the benefits of a welfare state; but no regime that is dependent on middle-class support can heavily tax its supporters. If the “tap of money” is turned off, as José Luis de Arrese, Franco’s housing minister, complained, no advanced social policy is possible. He put his finger on an insoluble dilemma.

The contradictions of Franco’s regime were symbolized in the Caudillo’s own death agony: he was plugged into every device of modern medicine, while his bed was covered with the mantle of the Virgin of Pilar, the mummified arm of Saint Teresa lay beside it. The sudden collapse of the regime after 1975 was, in my view, the result of a cultural failure in the broadest sense of the word. Its historical vision no longer carried conviction. No writer of distinction supported Francoism.3 The essential legitimacy conferred by the Church was steadily withdrawn after the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, a stab in the back Franco could not comprehend. After 1975, without these cultural props, Francoism survived, Preston concludes, as the property of a dwindling band of aging loyalists nostalgic for the 1940s.

Preston’s book, an unremittingly hostile portrait of Franco, will remain the standard biography for a long time. Franco himself emerges as a colorless figure, a bourgeois family man, with no private vices and no civic virtues beyond a military sense of duty and honor, addicted like his subjects to TV and football, his mind inhabited by the ghosts of the past and snatches of stale Falangist rhetoric. His ministers are presented, for the most part one-dimensionally, as servile hacks. Preston’s lack of any sympathy with Francoism is revealed in his language. Arrese, Franco’s favorite Falangist ideologue, is “oily,” “frenetically ambitious,” a “servile lackey.” Admiral Carrero Blanco, who ran Franco’s political office, was devoted to his chief “in a quietly servile way.”

The survival of this seemingly ordinary figure as ruler of a major European nation cannot be explained solely by Franco’s political skills, which were increasingly eroded, as Preston demonstrates, by age and disease. His survival can only be explained by the relationship between the regime and Spanish society. Apart from the savage postwar repression, the grinding poverty of the “years of hunger” in the 1940s precluded, for most Spaniards, all but a struggle for individual survival. In the 1960s came the anesthesia of the beginnings of a consumer society. In the final years the toleration of a semilegal opposition of monarchists, Christian Democrats, and Liberals combined with efforts of the illegal opposition of Communists and Socialists to allow a democratic alternative to be formulated and presented to the public. But by then the minds of the politically aware were concentrated less on evicting an archaic and aging authoritarian, who would soon die anyway, than on the problem “After Franco what?”

It would be absurd to argue, as some do, that Franco was the father of democracy; he opposed it to the end. But the society that had grown up under his rule could find no other resting place. Supported by Franco’s chosen heir, King Juan Carlos, the transition to pluralist democracy was made possible by the political skills of a Francoist apparatchik, Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, and his colleagues. Many of them were repentant “servile lackeys” under pressure from an opposition that represented the aspirations of a newly emerged civil society, a society that was, in large part, a product of the Francoist boom of the 1960s.

This Issue

November 17, 1994