Francisco Franco was a Spanish dictator, General and leader of the conservative Nationalist military rebellion in the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 until his death in November 1975, Franco was the authoritarian head of state of Spain, when he used the title ‘El Generalissimo’.
Born to the Military
Born in El Ferrol, Spain in 1892, Francisco Franco was the son of a navy postmaster and being from a military family became a soldier, graduating from the Toledo Military Academy in 1910. Despite his slight size, he proved to be a courageous soldier and in 1913 was posted to Morocco where he participated in the Rif War – a conflict between Spain and the Moroccan Rif Berbers.
"I am responsible only to God and history"
In 1923 Franco married Carmen Polo, daughter of a wealthy merchant family. During this time the young officer’s reputation within the military was becoming increasingly recognised, and was indicated by the fact that King Alfonso XIII of Spain sent a representative to the wedding.
By 1926 Franco was appointed brigadier General of the Spanish army, who, at the age of 33, was the youngest Europe had ever seen and by 1928 was awarded the position of commander of a new military academy in Zaragoza, Aragon. The position involved him visiting similar army academies in France and Germany.
Franco’s early support of military dictatorship
Franco endorsed the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, a wealthy Spaniard who had held the position of captain-generalship of Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia after the First World War. Miguel Primo de Riviera was a military official who was appointed Prime Minister by the King and from 1923 – 1930 was dictator in Spain.
In 1934 Franco became involved in overturning an anarchist-led strike in Spain, defending the solidity of the conservative government led by Niceto Alcala-Zamora. Alcala-Zamora served as prime minister of the Second Spanish republic from 1931 – 1936, proclaimed when King Alfonso XIII left Spain following municipal elections when republican politicians won the majority of votes.
Alcala-Zamora’s cabinet included several other radical right-wing figures, including Manual Azana who replaced Alcala-Zamora as Prime Minister in 1931. Instigated by Azana, an electoral coalition and pact was signed in 1931 by the Popular front party and other various left-wing political organisations for the purpose of contesting that year’s elections. During this time instability between political groups was rising in Spain and violence heightened when the conservative parliamentary leader Jose Calvo Sotelo was assassinated in retaliation for the murder of the Spanish police lieutenant Jose Castillo. It was under the pretext of Calvo’s death that Franco and his collaborators initiated their rebellion.
The Spanish Civil War
In 1936 civil war broke out after Franco and the military failed in overthrowing the Popular Front government. It was during this time that Franco became the leader of the Nationalists and began a protracted war with the established Popular Front government. This bloody Civil War saw loyalist left-wing supporters of the government fight the right-wing rebel forces for control of Spain. What became notable for the ‘passion and political division it inspired’ led to the death of thousands of Spanish citizens on both sides of the political divide. By 1939 Franco’s Nationalists emerged victorious, thus ending the Civil War. Anyone associated with the losing Republicans were persecuted by the Nationalists.
Franco’s authoritarian regime
In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War General Francisco Franco established his dictatorship which endured until his death in 1975.
Franco quickly developed a reputation for being a harsh and vindictive leader. The persecution of Franco’s political opponents, many of whom were executed, starved or overworked, continued until 1944 when several pardons and amnesties were granted in Spain.
From left to right: Karl Wolff, Heinrich Himmler, Franco, Serrano Súñer (Spain's Foreign Minister)
On the outbreak of World War II, Franco declared the neutrality of Spain, despite Adolf Hitler’s attempts to change his mind. During negotiations with Hitler, Franco demanded control of French Morocco, Gibraltar and several regions of Algeria in any postwar settlement. In 1940 after the defeat of France, Franco and Hitler met at Hendaye, France, to resume negotiations with Hitler requesting that his own forces link up with Spain’s launch an airborne attack on Gibraltar. Franco refused remarking that Germany would not win the war. It later emerged that Hitler had remarked in response that he would ‘rather have his teeth pulled out without an anaesthetic than meet that man again!'
Although Franco did consider invading Gibraltar whilst Britain was at war with Germany he never went through with it after he was advised that Britain would invade and take control of the Canary Islands.
Franco’s restoration of the monarchy
In the aftermath of WWII Franco came under considerable pressure to restore Spain’s monarchy. By 1947 the Spanish monarchy was technically restored despite Spain having no king. In announcing a vote to establish his position, a referendum confirmed Franco as lifetime regent. Without the restoration of an actual monarch, it was during this time that, under Franco’s supervision, a young Juan Carlos, the grandson of Spain’s last ruling king and the future King of Spain, began his education. In 1969 Franco announced that when he died he would be replaced by Juan Carlos.
Franco with President Eisenhower, Madrid 1959
Genreal Franco’s popularity in the US
Due to his strong hatred of communism, Franco was popular in the United States and in 1953 El Generalissimo signed a settlement allowing the US to establish four air and naval bases in Spain and in return, the National Atlantic Treaty Organisation secured Franco’s regime from foreign invasion. At this time the American President, Richard Nixon, toasted Franco and even on the General’s death stated: “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States”. The New York Times printed “Nixon Asserts Franco Won Respect for Spain”, 1975)
Franco’s trade and military alliance with the US also meant that Spain’s dire economic situation, a consequence of its isolation from the international community, improved considerably.
Franco’s final years
In 1973 Franco gave up his position as Prime Minister and remained only as head of state and chief commander of the military. During his final years, various organisations competed for position to control Spain’s future, although Franco made it clear that Juan Carlos de Borbon was to be his heir as ruler. In 1974, due to increasingly ill-health, Juan Carlos replaced Franco as Acting Head of State. El Generallissmo did briefly resume his position as Head of State but a year later fell ill again. After a long battle with Parkinson’s disease Franco fell into a coma and on November 20 1975, at the age of 82, he died.
The transition to democracy
Following Franco’s death Spain began the ‘Spanish transition to democracy’, an era advocated by King Juan Carlos. King Juan Carlos also assisted the development of the current political system in Spain, which his father, Don Juan de Borbon, had also supported since 1946.
The transition did not however come easy as not only did far-right ‘Francoists’ enjoy considerable support within the Spanish Army, but much of Franco’s left-wing opposition distrusted King Juan Carlos, believing he owed his position to Franco.
Nonetheless a transition to democracy did occur and within two years of Franco’s death almost every remnant of his tyranny and repression had been removed.
Although there are many Spaniards, particularly those who suffered who seek to remove official recognition of his regime, there are some, albeit a minority, who maintain some admiration for Franco. An ‘admiration’ that stems predominantly from the economic success that Spain experienced in the latter part of Franco’s regime, which saw the standard of living rise for many Spaniards.
The legacy of Franco does remain however; both in Spain and abroad, and will continue to remain wholly controversial, with the fascist dictator’s shadow still haunting many Spaniards today.
Valley of the fallen | Valle de los caidos