- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

Seventy years ago, a rebellion against democratic Spain broke out. It was a dress rehearsal for what became World War II. The civil war began July 17, 1936. It ended March 28, 1939, with the surrender of the republican forces and the ascension of Gen. Francisco Franco, 43, as head of state. Five months later, World War II broke out. Spain remained neutral even though Franco’s sympathies were with Adolf Hitler. Or were they?

Franco stayed out of the war even though he was pressed to join by Hitler at their meeting in Hendaye, France, Oct. 23, 1940. Thus Spain was able to recover from a civil war which, according to Hugh Thomas’ monumental history, “The Spanish Civil War,” was responsible for 200,000 war dead and 130,000 executions by both sides, comparable to 6 million Americans killed. Franco, as the self-styled caudillo, remained prime minister until he died Nov. 20, 1975. Spain’s political system changed from a harsh personal military dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy. The transition was peaceful, without bloodshed. A democratic Spain may not have been Franco’s intention but it happened.

Perhaps it was, more or less, a peaceful transition because in the last Franco years there was an easing of the dictatorship. The Spanish word for dictatorship is dictadura. The last syllable dura means hard. Popular choice as early as 1959 had amended the word to dictablanda.

Counterfactual history might say World War II would have had a different outcome had Franco allowed Spain to become Hitler’s base, With Gibraltar in Nazi hands, the Mediterranean would have been closed to the British fleet. Fortunately that didn’t happen. But staying out of the war did not diminish Franco’s unpopularity among those democratic publics who somehow could tolerate Joseph Stalin’s murderous Moscow trials and even participate in communist united front groups. George Orwell put it well: “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.”

If there is one universally agreed concept it is that Franco was noncharismatic. Nor did he generate charismatic support. Charisma or no, he was able to keep Spain from flying apart. Regionalist tendencies were strong. Catalan and Basque nationalism are still powerful undercurrents. Franco brought all regions back into Spain by force, ending their dreams of autonomy.

Looking back at the 1920s and 1930s, we see the rise — and fall — of charismatic leaders and/or demagogues; Benito Mussolini, Hitler, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Ataturk, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Huey Long, Mao Tse-tung. The nearest to such a type in Spain of the pre-Civil War era was Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the old dictator, and his charisma, if any, is postmortem. Jose Antonio was killed by the Spanish Republicans shortly after the outbreak of the civil war.

So how was Franco, a man whose politics and opinions were unclear when he took power in 1936, able to become Spain’s dictator, apparently with no commitment to any of his military peers or rightist politicians?

Franco was born Dec. 4, 1892, the second of five children. He was a small child and remained small: 5 feet, 3 inches tall as an adult. His birthplace, El Ferrol, site of a Spanish naval base in the northwest corner of Galicia, was a small town, 20,000 population, with few alien cultural influences to disturb its Gallego-Catholic ambiance. There seems some agreement he had an unhappy childhood.

His father, a naval paymaster, has been described as a bibulous amorist with little taste for family life. He deserted his wife in 1907 and secured a transfer to Madrid, where he set up a second home with a mistress. He lived to see his son become El Caudillo of Spain. Franco’s biographers agree Franco avoided meeting with his father, though lived in Madrid. In fact, he did not attend his father’s funeral, seven years after Franco became Spain’s ruler.

Franco was a graduate of the Infantry Academy in Toledo, which he had entered at age 15. He did everything he could upon graduation in 1912 to get assigned to Morocco, then a Spanish protectorate. And there he made his reputation in a war with the Moroccans, which lasted from 1909 to 1927.

Losses on both sides were heavy, but Spanish officers were willing to take their chances because they could win either la caja o la faja, a coffin or a general’s sash. Franco spent 15 years of his life in Morocco. In the encampments, there was a saying about Franco: “ni una copa, ni una mujer, ni una misa” — no liquor, no women, no Mass. His wedding to Carmen Polo, 11 years his junior, was delayed twice because of his military duties.

Franco moved rapidly up the ladder. At age 34 in 1926, he became a brigadier-general and at age 43, he became chief of the Central General Staff. There is little question his advancement was due to merit since his family was without status or upper-class affiliation.

Franco’s anti-communism didn’t prevent him from maintaining friendly and commercial relations with Fidel Castro, whose forebears came from Franco’s part of Galicia. And on Franco’s death, Cuban flags were ordered to fly at half-mast.

In a land so divided, so torn, so multi-polarized, so regionalist, so unconsensual, the existence of the state depended entirely on the military. Where did Franco fit in?

Franco was one of the few dictators in modern times who emerged out of war and as a professional soldier who fought for power to the very top. Hitler, Mussolini and Antonio Salazar (of Portugal) had to win over or neutralize the national armed forces to come out on top. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were primarily civilians who politicized the military for their own strategic ends.

Franco lacked in charisma but tried to create something akin to it. If the Falange (Phalanx) is sacred to somebody, Franco takes on its mantle in the name of Joseantonismo. If the church is sacred to somebody, he goes to Mass regularly. If the monarchists speak up, he is for the monarchy. If modernization is wanted, he brings in Opus Dei technocrats. If people want trade unions, go right ahead with your Hermandades Obreros Accion Catolica, Worker Brotherhoods of Catholic Action. But don’t get carried away with a mission.

If you want to listen every afternoon to anti-Franco radio broadcast propaganda in Spanish from what was once Communist Czechoslovakia, no problem. Franco’s aim was to depoliticize the Spanish people as far as Spain was concerned so his authoritarianism could function unhindered.

Today Spain is a leading European democracy, its democratic roots have deepened though it has been a victim of Islamofascist terrorism. Seventy years ago, Spain seemed headed for dissolution, eternal war and even a sort of mass suicide. Whether its regeneration is due to Franco or some internal strength in the Spanish people remains to be seen. The real question after seven decades is: Was Franco Spain’s savior or an impediment to its democratic advent?

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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