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Anatomy of a Dictator

by enrique moradiellos
i.b.tauris, 264 pages, $30

Not long after the successful Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944, Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain, removed a photograph of ­Adolf ­Hitler from his desk in the Pardo Palace in Madrid. He promptly replaced it with a portrait of Pope Pius XII. Did he keep the Führer’s image in a safe place, just in case he had misread events? We cannot know, but it would not have been surprising. The ­caudillo trimmed his sails very carefully to the prevailing winds.

General Franco had at one stage longed to join the war on the side of Berlin, hoping to seize both Gibraltar from Britain and a large slice of North Africa from Pétain’s prostrate, disarmed France. But he hoped to do this safely at the final minute of war, just as the last shots were being fired. In the meantime, he would pretend to be “non-belligerent,” in case of surprises. This is all quite normal for politicians. But in his heart, Franco undoubtedly preferred Hitler to any of his enemies, including the democracies. In 1942, his close comrade and chosen heir, Admiral Carrero Blanco, had noted in a confidential memorandum that Spain had a “decided wish to intervene on the side of the Axis, inasmuch as it fights our natural enemies that are this complex of democracies, Freemasonry, liberalism, plutocracy and communism, weapons with which the Jewish power tried to annihilate Christian civilization.” Can Franco and his chief ­really have been unaware of the Hitler state’s long persecution of Christians, notably Catholic ones? Yet they still saw the Third Reich’s foes as their “­natural enemies.”

Franco’s mixture of covert Hitlerism and opportunism—and the zig-zags it caused—are fascinating. In 1940, Franco had publicly proclaimed that “the war has taken a bad turn for the Allies and they have lost it.” He had by then already covertly joined the Axis, signing a secret protocol during his meeting with ­Hitler at Hendaye, at a time when Hitler’s pact with the communist Stalin was still very much in force. After Hitler broke that pact and invaded the USSR, Franco was quick to send what would become an army of 47,000 Spanish troops to fight alongside the Nazis in Russia. There, they swore personal oaths of loyalty to Hitler, and took part in the starvation siege of Leningrad. Franco spoke emotionally of “this moment, when the German armies lead the ­battle for which Europe and ­Christianity have for so many years longed, and in which the blood of our youth goes to join that of our comrades of the Axis as a warm expression of our ­solidarity.”

That warm expression ended in 1944, when Franco judiciously pulled his soldiers out of the war against Stalin, after nearly three years fighting alongside young Germans taught from their schooldays to scorn Christ as a “Jewish Swine.” But he did not do so because he realized at last that his ally was not in fact a defender of Christendom. He did so because the war had taken a bad turn for the Axis. It was time to regroup; it was as crude as that. In the words of the Spanish historian Salvador de Madariaga, an old-fashioned liberal who fled Spain rather than be engulfed in the horrors of civil war: “Franco’s political strategy is as simple as a spear. There is no action of his that is not directed towards his consolidation in power. . . . [T]he only thing that Franco believes in is Franco himself.”

Oddly, this gray, harsh, cruel, dull, and unromantic man has somehow become a cause, rather than a person. And it is not a good cause. Franco provides an object of hate rather than love, a target for denigration rather than admiration. Such targets are very useful for those of us who like to take our consciences out for walks in public. This is mainly because he won. His beaten Popular Front opponents, in many ways equally cruel and quite possibly even more intolerant, have the romantic luster of the defeated. The half-educated intellectual’s attitude to the Spanish conflict is ­beautifully summed up by Tom Lehrer in his musical lampoon of leftism, “The Folk Song Army.” Lehrer sang, “Remember the war against Franco? / That’s the kind where each of us belongs. / Though he may have won all the battles, / we had all the good songs.” Unromantic, and repulsive but icily successful, Franco had one giant positive distinction: He was a skillful soldier. And he had one unavoidable negative virtue: His opponents were at least as bad, and possibly worse.

Franco was, and still is, loathed in much of Spain and around the world as the embodiment of a particular kind of evil. People enjoy disliking him. He did not make it hard to do so. He looked pathetic, like a Pekingese dog—with his podgy face and large soulful eyes—but he had his enemies murdered or crammed into prisons, where they were forced to build grandiose monuments to their conqueror. He was an uncultured bore who ­hardly ever said or wrote anything interesting in his life, or showed any great interest in the thoughts or writings of others. He had no personal library. No doubt he was a distinguished man of action, and he possessed the virtue of courage. The wiser figures among his Republican opponents recognized his military skills from the beginning. But better men have also possessed these qualities, used them for more attractive ends, and lived more abundant lives. Francisco Franco’s main pleasure in his declining years was to sit on a sofa with his wife and watch television, apparently anything that was on, but especially soccer. Even when there was no soccer available, it is hard to imagine that the censored TV output of his cramped and narrow state was an intellectual or artistic feast. Sitting and endlessly gazing at the flickering screen during one lengthy soccer tournament brought on a bout of phlebitis—one that almost killed this survivor of so many dangerous battles.

Franco cannot escape the taint of his associations. Unignorable pictures exist of him at Hitler’s side, not as a reluctant or necessary companion but—and this we now know for certain—as a grateful ally. Unavoidable archives show him as a mean-­spirited, embarrassing bigot, seething with mania about Freemasons and Jews. Although his animosity against the Jews eventually faded into the background once word of Auschwitz began to get out, it could in any case find little outlet in a country where Jews were already in very short supply, for one reason or another.

If anyone wants to admire or excuse him—and the temptation can sometimes arise in the conservative Christian breast, as we shall see—the late caudillo’s life offers little encouragement. He simply is not admirable. He went far further than merely defeating the enemies of civilization. He himself became such an enemy and consorted with people who were little short of demonic. My enemy’s enemy is not, in fact, my friend. Though he may possibly be my ally, I do not have to like him.

Yes, he had won a desperate war against those who would have brought the methods of the Gulag and the Lubyanka to Madrid. The problem was that he had allied with evil forces to do so and had shown no great reluctance to embrace these horned and clawed allies. Rather the opposite. His defense would be easy enough, had history stopped in 1939. The Spanish Republic of 1936 was a danger to freedom and to Christianity. If Franco had lost the war, there is no reason to suppose that Spain would have been better or more ­gently governed than it was under his leadership, and the Church would certainly have been terribly persecuted, if not actually stamped out of existence. We need not theorize about this. The behavior of the Republican side toward its opponents, on the territory it actually held, is unquestioned and well documented. Its profound totalitarianism was exposed above all by the socialist George Orwell, who recorded his narrow escape from the GPU and its servants in Homage to Catalonia. The communists would certainly have dominated any victorious Republican government had Franco been defeated.

But the question has another side because, alone of the dictators of the 1930s, Franco survived into the modern age. By sheer force of personality, he governed a large and fractious country for almost forty years. Long after the cultural revolution had polished off social and moral conservatism across the rest of Western Europe and North America, Franco’s state carried on, almost unchanged. Those who disliked the wave of 1960s revolt were compelled, whether they liked it or not, to try to see some good in him.

But was Franco ever really the ally of conservatism? Or did he in fact help to destroy it by associating it with the crudest sort of repression? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we now learn from a recently translated memoir, saw the dictator as an ally. He had more excuses than most. He was reacting, rather wildly, against his youthful Soviet passion for the Red Republic, an enthusiasm which must have seemed especially mistaken after his years in the camps of the NKVD. He wrote:

I saw that Franco had made a heroic and colossal attempt to save his country from disintegration. With this understanding there also came amazement: there had been destruction all around, but with firm tactics Franco had managed to have Spain sidestep the Second World War without involving itself, and for twenty, thirty, thirty-five years, had kept Spain Christian against all history’s laws of decline! But then in the thirty-seventh year of his rule he died, dying to a chorus of nasty jeers from the European socialists, radicals, and liberals.

Enrique Moradiellos, in a concise and sharp-edged analysis of Franco as man and leader, and of the regime he headed, shows that Solzhenitsyn’s position simply cannot be sustained when measured against the reality of the caudillo’s long rule.

Solzhenitsyn can be excused to some extent because he had personally seen and suffered the bottomless cruelties of Stalin’s stupid utopia. Further, he had been exiled into a complacent, ignorant outside world in which those terrible things were denied, minimized, or excused in their own time by “European socialists, radicals, and liberals.” The Kremlin’s crimes were also forgotten with amazing speed by the same people, after they had been fully exposed ­beyond doubt by the final collapse of the USSR. Solzhenitsyn’s cold rage at the complacency of Western liberal intellectuals was entirely understandable. He half-wished that they could experience the Gulags, and hear for themselves, as prisoners, the harsh orders of the armed guards, “Ruki Nazad!” (“Hands behind your backs!”), as the captives set out on their daily trudge to hard labor. Those of us who came to grasp the evil of the Soviet utopia, and were met at every turn by patronizing academic smiles or contorted attempts at justification, often felt the same desire.

But should these reasonable resentments be allowed to blind conservatives and Christians to crimes committed by their own side or those claiming to be on their side? I cannot see why. We are no more free to make excuses for the indefensible acts of “our” side than those on the left are to make excuses for theirs. If we do, we risk behaving as foolishly, and with the same sort of self-deception, as the fellow-travelers who defended Stalin’s empire as a new civilization, and later made excuses for its excesses. Infatuation on the rebound, the force that pushed ­Solzhenitsyn into the arms of Franco, seldom works out well—in politics or in life.

As far as I know, neither the U.S. Supreme Court, nor the European Court of Human Rights, nor even some Canadian tribunal, has yet repealed or struck down the ancient law that Two Wrongs Do Not Make a Right. Let us consider for a moment the long-term outcome of Franco’s life’s work, and the question of the Spanish Civil War’s true significance in modern history. Of the two people known to me who fought against Franco in the International Brigades, one (who had shown extreme bravery, by the accounts of others) remained a hard, unapologetic Stalin loyalist to the day of his death. There was something oddly admirable in this and in the puritan austerity of his life and devotion. Yet it was also appalling that any human should live his life as a servant of such immorality. The other veteran was his opposite, a man of doubts and nuances, more or less sure his great cause had been mistaken. He even wondered aloud whether, if Franco had lost, a Stalinist Spain would have been loyal to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, joined the Axis in 1940, and tipped the balance in favor of Hitler at a decisive moment. They might, he feared, have been more pro-Nazi in practice than Franco. If this rather persuasive theory is correct, then the whole argument about the Spanish Civil War— the romantic belief that it was a vast historical moral struggle against Hitlerite evil, which the ­democracies shamefully betrayed—falls down.

Communists, of course, will do anything for their cause, as the ­Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact demonstrated beyond doubt. Their motives, especially when they are apparently doing good, are merciless and wicked, with their hearts set on a terrible aim. It matters to us that people do the right thing for the wrong reasons, precisely because we are not like the communists. So we must ask about Franco’s true motives, during his one arguably good action, in terms of international policy. Moradiellos is merciless on this point. What he in fact did was to set so high a price for full collaboration with the Third Reich that Hitler decided it was not worth his while.

One could argue that Franco, when he began his 1936 revolt against Spain’s legitimate but increasingly frightening government, sought help from Hitler and ­Mussolini out of unavoidable necessity. Where else could he turn? The danger was great, and there was little time. He might worry later about paying—or not paying—the debts he incurred. But his positive later behavior makes it impossible to pretend that he was ever a reluctant ally of the Nazis. I noted earlier that until it was clear Hitler was losing the war, Franco kept his portrait in a prominent place on his desk. He had no need to do so. But he did feel a need to remove it. For this information, we are indebted to the British ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, neither a radical nor a sentimentalist in foreign policy, who described the caudillo’s study in the El Pardo Palace as an “­unventilated shrine of self-­complacency.” Sir Samuel (who was the Hoare of the Hoare-Laval pact, that brief triumph of realism over ­idealism in the democratic diplomacy of the 1930s) also remarked, “My own view is that he is genuinely convinced that he is the chosen instrument of Heaven to save Spain, and any suggestion to the contrary he regards as ignorant or blasphemous.”

But it was at this precise moment, as Moradiellos devastatingly describes, that Franco began to create the legend of himself as Hitler’s formerly reluctant ally, now the defender of Christendom. It was this carefully confected fantasy that beguiled poor Solzhenitsyn. Franco, as ­Moradiellos puts it, “bent to Anglo-­American demands, determined to survive the collapse of the Axis. And to this end he called on the anti-communism and Catholicism of his regime and began a propaganda operation designed to portray himself as ‘the sentry of the West’ and ‘the man who with skillful prudence had stood up to Hitler and preserved Spanish neutrality.’” His controlled press began blaming ­Serrano Suñer, Franco’s brother-in-law, occasional critic, and former foreign minister, for the policy of snuggling up to the Axis, which Franco had at one time enthusiastically shared. He also made his regime more ostensibly Christian, conservative, and monarchist—and less Falangist and totalitarian—by promoting a leading Catholic figure, Alberto ­Martín-Artajo, to the Foreign Ministry. But his real motive was the retention of power. As he told the monarchist General Alfredo Kindelán, “I don’t resign. For me, it’s straight from here to the cemetery.” 

This was a promise he fulfilled: Death alone could remove him. A man who had been the contemporary of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Churchill, and Roosevelt held doggedly on to power into the age of Gerald R. Ford and Leonid Brezhnev. When he went, everything he stood for turned to dust, like a mummy exposed to fresh air after thousands of years sealed beneath a pyramid. The Spanish Christian civilization that Solzhenitsyn admired had been preserved but not saved. It crumbled into a heap of dust and spiders’ webs immediately after the caudillo made his final journey from his stuffy palace to his gigantic, hubristic tomb at the Valley of the Fallen. If Franco had been the preserver of Christian Spain, it is interesting to go there now and see how completely it has disappeared. Every element of the 1960s, from sexual liberation to ­marijuana, swept across Spain and, above all, Madrid, not long after ­Franco’s last breath. If he had truly been the preserver of faith and restraint, would they not have survived him in better condition?

What should Christians do about politics? How do we defend what we love without making false alliances with cynical powers? Civil wars are generally disastrous for law, legitimacy, and religion. Elaborate formulas must be devised to forget or bury the recent past. In England, the restored King Charles II passed the marvelously named Act of Indemnity and Oblivion in 1660, in which the whole lawless period of Oliver Cromwell’s republic was legally forgotten. The U.S. must often wish it could come up with a similar formula to spread soft oblivion over the unending resentments of the defeated Confederacy. In Spain, they turned to the monarchy.

But that restoration, Christian in form if not in outcome, only underlined the origins of Franco’s “monarchy without royalty.” The caudillo had been careful to keep Spanish monarchists at a distance, or under his thumb. His rule was not Christian or lawful and could not possibly draw its authority from God, however much Franco might have liked it to. Its origins lay in violent rebellion against the legitimate government, always hard to square with scriptural views of authority. Franco’s state rested on a foundation of bayonets. The caudillo himself may have been inseparable from the relic of the incorruptible hand of Santa Teresa de Jesús, which accompanied him everywhere. But his government, in his own words to his tame parliament in 1961, was built on what he called “an armed plebiscite.” He explained that “a nation on a war footing is a final referendum, a vote that cannot be bought, a membership that is sealed with the offering of one’s life. So I believe that never in the history of Spain was a state more legitimate, more popular and most representative than that we began to forge almost a quarter of a century ago.” Surely, this strange formula, in which the shedding of blood is deemed superior to the casting of a peaceful ballot, shows how much Franco the Catholic was troubled by his lack of real legitimacy, and the impossibility of his obtaining it as long as he ruled.

Power is the opposite of love. This does not absolve Christians from fighting for, and more often against, armed power of one kind or another. But it surely means they must be very careful whom they aid, and whom they oppose. In general, the slide from civil peace to civil war begins when both sides become enemies instead of opponents, and then cease to listen to each other. It ends with the worst possible cruelty, because when brothers fight brothers, they have to strip away the very last and deepest restraints to draw the sword and strike the blow. Take the first step down that particular slope, and you will find it very hard to retreat. We should seek to exert our influence long before it comes to that. We are warned in the terrifying Epistle of James that “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” When we consider men such as Francisco Franco, and are tempted (as even I have been) to make excuses for them because they seem to be on our side in one thing, we make a serious mistake. Do not, if you can possibly avoid it, take that path. It leads into a long and dark valley.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.