William F. Buckley Jr., the late founder of this magazine, used to tell a story. In 1962, let’s say, a foreign reporter in Madrid approached a man on the street. “What do you think of Franco?” he asked. The man looked around furtively and motioned for the reporter to follow him. They went to the central train station, where they boarded a train for a remote town. In this town, they boarded a bus, going deep into the countryside. At some point, they got off and rented a canoe.
They paddled to the middle of a lake. There was no one in sight. There was scarcely a bird overhead. Once more, the Spaniard looked around furtively. Then he leaned in to the reporter and whispered, “I like him.”
Do you like him? Do you like Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975? What to think about Franco is an important matter to settle, especially for conservatives, I would say: As an important figure of the Right, he is often thrown in our face. He is a particular challenge for the Catholic Right, I would say: Franco was the embodiment of Catholic rightism.
He was a dictator, and that should settle the matter, as we are good liberal democrats. But does it? There are dictators and there are dictators, and mature people acknowledge degrees. Anyone who thinks that a dictator is a dictator should consult a Cuban who lived through both Batista and Castro. Or an Iranian who experienced both the shah and Khomeini. Or a Chinese person who lived under Mao — survived Mao — and then could breathe more easily under his successors.
We now have a biography that is a huge gift to anyone wanting to know what to think about Franco. The book is co-authored by Stanley G. Payne and Jesús Palacios. About the latter, I know little: He is a veteran historian and journalist in Spain. In 2008, he and Payne conducted extensive interviews with Franco’s daughter, his only child, Carmen. Those were published in a book called “Franco, mi padre.” Professor Payne is an American, born in 1934. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. He is one of the foremost historians of Spain in the English language. When it comes to his peers, I can think of two Britons: Raymond Carr and Hugh Thomas.
Reviewing an earlier book by Payne, Carr said, “Its tone is gruff, its learning staggering.” Payne’s learning is indeed something to behold, almost intimidating. I had a personal encounter with him once. I was astonished at the wide array of facts at his command — and even more at his cool ability to evaluate them.
His new book with Palacios is called “Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.” I might add a third adjective: “military.” There is a fair amount of military history in this work, particularly in the chapters on the Spanish Civil War. Payne and Palacios had rare access to the Franco archive, plus the coup of those lengthy, leisurely interviews with Carmen. The authors are loaded for bear.
In their preface, they say, “There are many accounts of Franco, but the most extensive biographies are strongly polarized between extreme positive and negative portraits.” They, on the other hand, will aim for balance and objectivity. As far as I can tell, they have succeeded. It seems to me they write with genuine detachment, over their 600 pages. At the same time, they are not bloodless or sterile.
Do they have politics, these authors? I’m sure they do. You and I do. But they do not wear their politics on their sleeve.
Still, I read a few passages and thought, “No one left-of-center could have written that.” Let me give you an example. In 1975, the last year of the Franco dictatorship, eleven Basque and other terrorists were sentenced to death for their murder of policemen. Payne and Palacios write, “These sentences occasioned the biggest international campaign against the regime ever waged by the European left, some of whom exhibited greater indignation over the punishment of these killers than they had, for example, over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia or would, subsequently, over the Communist genocide in Cambodia.” I don’t know about you, but I have almost never met anyone on the left who could say or write those words.
When Franco is wrong — or pretentious or self-deluded — the authors call him on it. But they also call out his critics, when they are wrong. The authors puncture many myths about Franco, be those myths large or small. In at least one instance, they do so with humor (whether intended or not): “[Franco] has frequently been denounced as the general who led a Fascist coup d’état against a democratic republic, but this allegation is incorrect in every detail. The only accurate part of this claim is that he was a general.” As I see it, Franco did enough that was damnable: You don’t have to make things up.
What is most damnable about him? In a 36-year dictatorship, there is a lot to choose from. But I am especially repulsed at his relations with Hitler. Franco did not enter the war, full bore, but he played footsie with Hitler and supported him. He said, appallingly and crazily, that the Nazis were fighting “the battle that Europe and Christianity have long hoped for.” In 1942, he said, “The liberal world is going under, a victim of the cancer produced by its own errors, and with it is collapsing commercial imperialism and financial capitalism, with its millions of unemployed.”
Franco hated Anglo-American democracy, at least for a time. He also hated capitalism, along with Marxism. He invoked the phrase “social justice” frequently — as often as any “progressive” politician does today. His economics were statist and stultifying. Fortunately for Spain, he learned to liberalize.
This liberalization was admirable, you might say. What else was admirable about Franco? Well, there was his personal life, or private life. His father had been a cad and a brute, who abandoned the family. Franco apparently determined to be very different. He was a completely devoted husband and father. Also, he had a possibly unique aversion to corruption. He went around his palace turning off lights, to save energy. He was maybe the poorest dictator in history. He amassed less wealth in 36 years than some do in 36 days. I mean that seriously.
At the end of their book, the authors have a chapter called “Conclusion: Franco in the Perspective of History.” They do their summing up and toting up, recording the good and bad of Franco. He was the most dominant figure in Spain since Philip II, they say. They further cite Alan Bullock’s famous study of Hitler, which ends with a description of Germany in ruins. Bullock calls on the classic expression “If you seek his monument, look around.” And what was around Franco when he died? A Spain immensely improved since he took it over. That is not excusing, or all-excusing, of course.
This book is a tome, and may give you more than you want. It is not beach reading. Rather, it is The Record. And the authors know so much — about Franco, Spain, and history at large — you can hardly begrudge them the time they take.
They give you the grand sweep and minute details. Here is an offbeat fact: In 1926, Franco acted in a silent film. (That was better than a talkie, because Franco’s speaking voice was high and soft, the object of mockery.) Sometimes the authors put Franco “on the couch,” which is to say, they indulge in some psychologizing. But they are never stupid about it. This is rare in history-writing, I find.
So, what do I think about Franco (not that you asked)? A proper answer would take several pages, but I will spend a paragraph or two. I think, first and foremost, that he was a dictator — but, again, that is not the end of the question. I think it fortunate that he won the civil war, thus sparing his country the nightmare of Stalin-style Communism. There was no democratic alternative, as Payne and Palacios make clear. They also make clear that, in the first years of his dictatorship, he engaged in standard dictatorial repression: political killings and the like. That is forever a black mark on his record. Then there is his dalliance with Hitler.
If I had my way, Franco would have won the civil war and found a way for a transition to something like democracy — with some speed. When Britain’s George III heard that the American George, Washington, was planning to give up his commission as commander-in-chief, he remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Franco was not a Washington. But there are very few of those.
Early on, Franco said he would go nowhere after power except to the grave. He kept his word. It must be acknowledged, though, that, after World War II, his dictatorship got tamer and tamer. It must also be acknowledged that he managed a pretty nifty transition to a royal of his choosing and grooming, Juan Carlos. From there, it was a fairly short step to constitutional monarchy. Spain’s fate in the middle of the 20th century could have been far worse than it was.
I’m afraid that Franco is that dread thing, “complex.” He will frustrate a desire for black-and-whiteness. Churchill said that, if he himself had been a Spaniard, he would have supported Franco.
You can forget everything I have said — except this: The new biography by Stanley G. Payne and Jesús Palacios will tell you what to think about Franco. Even better, it will tell you how to think about him. That is a huge gift to an interested reader.