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Franco, Dear

More a Hindenburg than a Hitler.

By From the December 2013 issue

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Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936
By Jeremy Treglown

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $30) 

When Generalissimo Francisco Franco finally died at the age of 82 after ruling Spain with an iron hand for 36 years, a Barcelona wag fretted that, “if even Franco can die, it could happen to anyone!” The consequences of the Caudillo’s death were far reaching. As had been long promised, a constitutional monarchy was restored and Spain quickly and—at least compared to former Communist states after the break-up of the Soviet empire—painlessly evolved into a parliamentary democracy with a vibrant, multi-party political life. The ripples of change were felt far beyond Spain’s borders. On a visit to London a few years after the dictator’s death I discovered that one of my favorite Italian restaurants, Frank’s on Jermyn Street, had re-christened itself Franco’s (the long-time proprietor’s real given name) now that it was no longer politically incorrect. Fortunately, the name change had no effect on the cuisine, which is still excellent; Franco’s version of Fettuccine alla Carbonara, for example, remains a masterpiece of elegant simplicity.

Closer to home, American acquaintances who had started vacationing in Spain during the Franco years began to complain that the streets of Madrid, Seville, and Barcelona were no longer as safe as they used to be, although, when pressed, they had to admit that ordinary Spaniards were probably a bit safer in their own homes…midnight visits from the authorities being less frequent and less feared. Actually, the “opening” of Spain had begun long before Franco’s death, with a gradual lessening of state terror and censorship coupled with a slow but steady improvement in living standards for most Spaniards, especially during the latter half of Franco’s rule. Simultaneously, the Caudillo deliberately laid the groundwork for transition—once he was dead and gone, of course—to a workable democratic model. And that transition occurred without a second civil war, mass violence, coups and counter coups, or crippling disruption of the Spanish economy. Indeed, Spain’s current economic ills are due almost exclusively to the “democratic” corruption of elected, post-Franco political cronies and their backers and the rush to create a welfare state along Scandinavian lines, which doesn’t work all that well in Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries, much less in Mediterranean nations such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

No one in his right—much less left—mind wants to live in a dictatorship, but for some reason Franco and his regime stopped short of total catastrophe, of the mass madness and ruinous aftereffects of Soviet Communism, Chinese Maoism, German Nazism, and even Italian Fascism. While British writer and critic Jeremy Treglown, a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, is primarily concerned with, in the word’s of his book’s subtitle, “Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936,” the story he tells sheds considerable light on Spain’s political and economic evolution as well. Along the way, it also offers a wide-ranging yet accessible introduction to major 20th century Spanish authors, poets, artists, dramatists, and filmmakers whose work is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. Of particular interest is his account of the Academia Breve de Crítica de Arte, founded in 1942 by the talented, cultivated Eugenio d’Ors and a handful of other Spanish cultural leaders, “in many ways supporters of the regime—though artistically radical, they were politically conservative,” but who fostered promising contemporary artists, including many younger compatriots whose artistic style and political orientation would have meant exile, imprisonment, or even death in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia. Even in the harsh early years of the dictatorship, Mr. Treglown tells us, the

biennial exhibitions and the Museum of Contemporary Art were crucial in supporting living artists, whatever their politics, and in opening the eyes of those who saw the work on display. Who, reading…Fernández del Amo’s moving memo about what he wanted from a museum of contemporary art, would guess that it was written not only under but for the Franco dictatorship?

This sort of cultural inclusiveness was possible because, while it came to power in a bloody civil war with mass atrocities committed by both sides, the victorious Spanish regime—and the dictator who personified it—were drastically different in perspective, motivation, and background from men like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Mussolini. Franco was a solid son of the traditional Spanish middle class, staunchly Catholic and fiercely devoted to his concept of Spain and the Spanish identity. His father was a career naval officer and he himself would become the youngest general in the Royal Army, earning a reputation for calm courage as a combat leader in Spanish Morocco. To use a German analogy, he was more of a Hindenburg than a Hitler, and, if there is one thing Francisco Franco was not, it was an ideologue.

Indeed, as soon as he had consolidated his grip on power, he marginalized the Falange, the fascist-style ideological arm of the Nationalist movement. Instead, he favored a mix of fellow military men (to keep order) and technocrats (to revive a backward, crippled economy). Where Nazis and Communists were obsessed with shaping a Master Race or Heroic Soviet Man, Franco was interested in restoring what he saw as traditional Spanish values. Thus, even at its clumsiest and most brutal, his rule never had the smothering effect on Spanish cultural, economic, and social life that regimes driven by fanatical theorists wed to unattainable—and evil—visions of Utopia invariably do.

A prime example of Franco’s pragmatism was his successful avoidance of entering World War II on the side of the Axis. By stalling, quibbling, and making what he knew were impossible demands, he kept Spain neutral and so exasperated Adolf Hitler that the Führer is reputed to have said that he would rather have a tooth pulled than engage in another round of negotiations with Franco. And when Falangists and other Spanish zealots called for a crusade against Bolshevism, Franco allowed them to form the “Blue Division,” a rightist equivalent of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to recruit individual Spanish volunteers interested in fighting communism on the Eastern Front. Most of them never came back, thus ridding the wily Caudillo of thousands of potential opponents from the right.

As for Spanish artists, Mr. Treglown relates that, at one of the Spanish national biennial exhibitions,

a group of nervous officials stood with [Franco] in front of some pictures by Tàpies [a radical modernist]. “Excellency, this is the revolutionaries’ room,” one of them is said to have explained. “So long as this is how they carry out the revolution,” he cheerfully replied.

Some of the most moving pages in this thoughtful and well-written book deal with the efforts of individual Spaniards, often at the local level and working in the interest of history rather than politics, to account for some of the thousands of “missing” casualties in the mass revenge slayings that marked the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Alas, with the passage of time and generations, interest on both sides of the political divide is waning. In a symbolic closing passage, Mr. Treglown tells us about Marina Gómez, the great granddaughter of one such victim. After the death of her grandmother, “Marina remained hopeful that there might be another attempt to find where her great-grandfather is buried, and we stayed in touch. I last contacted her in the summer of 2012, but she had just had a baby, her first, and no longer wanted to talk about the past.”

For better or worse, in an era obsessed with the here and now, the past has a way of burying itself. 

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.