October 27, 2006


Franco has always been a rather interesting figure. The Spanish Civil War consumed the powers and lives of many of Europe's leading intellects during the 1930s- George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, not to mention the political encounter between Stalin and Hitler but Spain over the next forty years was relegated to the side of European history by events both in Germany and then in Russia. Professors Preston and Vinas at the British Academy last year conducted (you can listen to the whole discussion by clicking on the ear at the bottom of the page) a fascinating seminar on what we do and don't know about the man at the centre of this period in Spanish history- General Franco.

Franco was undoubtedly a dictator but his status in European history beyond that is a little more fragile. What Preston and Vinas point to is Franco's roots within Spanish society- this was not a conventional Fascist (whatever that might mean) but a traditional Spanish rightwinger with added murderous impulses. He was styled as a second El Cid and then later hoped to become through tagging onto the second world war a second Charles V. Stripping away the propaganda they concentrate on what historians know and think about Franco.

What they leave us with is a very interesting portrait for the modern world- for while the kinds of dictatorships left by Hitler and Mussolini have largely faded away- the kind of dictatorship that Franco had has curiously become more relevant. Whether in the Middle East, in South East Asia or in South America the phenomenen of a strongman who stands behind traditional values and uses traditional iconography to support him, is a very common one and curiously it may be that as we enter the 21st Century an understanding of Franco may do more to help us understand what is happening in the wider world than an understanding of the other major dictators of the 20th Century. Spain seems once again to be the centre of the modern world- just as it was in the dark decade of the 1930s.

LATER AFTER THE COMMENTS (Its been pointed out in the comments that the last line means that I think Zapatero's Spain could collapse into dictatorship- what I mean is that 1930s Spain should become a focus for study again- present day Spain seems to me very stable. Apologise for any confusion caused- such are the perils of writing without fully engaging the brain!)


Anonymous said...

A rather omminous sounding last line!

Gracchi said...

Well the world is very ominous if you live in one of those types of dictatorships.

Anonymous said...

I quite agree, but the thought that Spain under Zapetero would be in a position to succumb to such a dictatorship now seems a little far-fetched.

Wayne Woodrow said...

In spite of having written an excellent biography of Franco, Paul Preston is a self-admitted anti-Franquista and is prominent on the far left of Spanish Civil War historians. You might wish to dig a little deeper before accepting what Preston says. Keep in mind too that he has fashioned a brilliant academic career out of Spain and its civil war and he could not have done so if he had chosen a more rightward path. Not that I would dare impune his motives.

I am not defending Franco but would like to see him treated a bit more fairly. In spite of being a military moron in the opinion of many, he managed to soundly win all three wars in which he engaged. He came out of the Moroccan uprising a general and he crushed the Asturian uprising. His success in the Civil War is surely not in question although his military skills and lack of daring continue to be questioned even now.

Remember that he did not do too badly as a political leader either and doubtless would still be leading Spain if he were alive today.

Oh yes, one more thing, he kept Spain out of World War II.

Wayne Woodrow

Gracchi said...

Ok yes I agree Zapatero isn't going to lapse into Franco- that's not what I'm arguing- I'm trying to suggest that other countries in the world have Francoist versions of dictatorship which are not too unlike what happened in Spain ie they aren't fascist but are authoritarian rightwing dictatorships.

Wayne, Franco's victories in the civil war as Anthony Beevor shows were more political than military. As an effective military commander he was constantly under attack from both the Germans and Italians. As for his leadership during the World War, he was according to the sources in my judgement and many historians desperate to get into the war but the Germans didn't want two incompetent allies having already got one (Italy). As to being a political leader- he was a skilled political leader- noone doubts that- whether he was a good one depends on whether you regard that epithet as a moral one or a token of efficiency. He stayed in power and was skilfull at manipulating others so on that level he was good but he also tortured and murdered many so on that level I'd disagree.

I don't think there is anyone who sees him as a military buffoon- rather the opposite I think- many see him as an incredibly intelligent spin doctor and soldier- a kind of dictatorial Wesley Clark if you like rather than a Douglas Haig.

With regards to Preston and his career, I think there is lots of money to be made in revisionism as well- I prefer to examine what people say and their evidence before I impugn their motives. Having been through academic history programs- they are tough and to have got a PhD and a Professorship often though not always demonstrates a certain mastery of the sources- sources with which I am not familiar and given that I have no Spanish am not likely to be familiar with.

Gracchi said...

Having said that and just having looked at your blog I'd be interested in viewing what you say about the issues over the coming months.

Anonymous said...

I quite agree yet again - sorry i am being a rather rediculous pedant but now I have started... - I only take issue with the final phrase "Spain seems once again to be the centre of the modern world- just as it was in the dark decade of the 1930s.". It suggests that Spain is in a position whereby it may lapse into dictatorship again. But it is a facile point I make on what I consider a very good post!

Gracchi said...

Ah yes I see what you mean- the thign is when writing at 7 in the morning one gives one's phrases the meanings one is thinking. SO what I thought was that 1930s Spain should be the centre of attention not present day Spain- yes it does a sound a bit ridiculous. Thanks for the correction- I'll add a bit to the end noting that you were right just so someone else doesn't think I think there is an army in Morrocco about to come over. Thanks for the sympathetic comment though- its always nice.

edmund said...

Iect too would be interested in your blog- You may well be right and I agree Peter Preston is radically leftwing though that's really just a statement of the obvious-even radical leftwingers can be right sometimes.

I would say what would one disagree with in the post(as opposed to comments) about Franco? It all seemed very unexceptionale

I would also add if Franco was so desperate to win wars how come he didn't just take over Gilbratur?

How many traditionalist strongemn in the world are there? They mostly seem to me very untraditioal eg Kim il jong, Chavez, Assad ect

Gracchi said...

Right Franco's demands on Hitler were much wider than Gilbralter- I think risking a war with admittedly at the time a weakened by still powerful country would have been to go to far for him. Had Britain actually been invaded then no problem. One of the things that Preston raises is that the Spanish army were hideously unequipped- only having a day's worth of ammunition around for example.

To your other point how many traditionalist strongmen are left- well quite a few of them are around I would say- Putin springs to mind amongst others like some of the guys in the stans and even in the Middle East- say the Sultans of Oman. Obviously there are differences and I don't want somebody turning up here to say there are- but there are also simularities.

Anonymous said...

Good point - But the religious dymanics are very different today. Franco greew out of the Catholic Church, whereas someone like for instance, Musharraf, has a very different relation to the religious establishment.

Gracchi said...

Yes agreed- there are very different religious dynamics at work- I'd never seek to be less complicating than possible but there are simularities across even so.

edmund said...

So in other words Franco was "wiling" to help HItler about as much (if not less) as Turky was wiling to help the Uk-not willing to do anything but scavage the remains-ie not willing to lift a finger to actualy help without a cripping bribe

Also though this is a separate point I would add that a Republican/ miltantly socialsit/ stalinist Spain wouldh ave probaly been less use because its military (even more rubbish than Francos which as you rightly point out was not impressive) would have been crusehd under foot by Hitler-and the Uk and hence the alies would have bene in a much worst strategic position

I agree there are some traditoia strongmen left- I was just htinking aloud how few of them are really traditional. Putin has some resembles though his arguably more Mussolin than Franco or at least like the polish regime of the 30's , (ie n0ot that traditional) while the most sucessfull0are actual monrh es rathe than the self conscously traditoist revivialist strongman like Franco or Pinochet-though they're undoubably somewhat related

Gracchi said...

I think the point about Turkey is fair.

As to republican Spain- yes a communist Spain would have been a problem. Would Spain have been an issue had there been no revolt by Franco- had he and his allies chosen to play by Parliamentary rules- we'll never know.

As to your last point, I agree with you and there are difficulties- I suppose Musharref is an example or East Asian tyrants.