The Magazine

Spanish Revision

What we know, and what we think we know, about Franco.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Franco and Hitler

Spain, Germany, and World War II

by Stanley G. Payne

Yale, 336 pp., $30


Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II

by Norman H. Gershman

Syracuse, 121 pp., $39.95

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Francisco Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War. But since his death in 1975 the perfunctory description of the Spanish dictator as a fascist, and the application of that label to his movement and resulting 46 years of governance, has appeared increasingly unpersuasive.

Franco was most certainly a man of the traditional Spanish right, and an exemplar of military rule--though not a typical "political general" such as had often been seen in that country. Rather, he was the counterrevolutionary product of a profound social crisis; yet his regime had little in common with those of Mussolini and Hitler.

Unlike them, Franco did not seriously imagine that his state would last forever, or attain some renewed and grandiose imperial power. He was fundamentally satisfied with the simpler aspiration of defeating the liberal, socialist, and anarchist revolutionaries who challenged the disintegrating political structure of 1930s Spain. The Francoist state party, the Falange, was a secondary partner in power to the army. And Franco never developed a consistent, much less radical, ideology, as did Mussolini and Hitler. Once victorious, Franco's government did not seek to recast Spanish culture as Mussolini's had in Italy or Hitler's had attempted in Germany. While Pablo Picasso, resident in Paris, made a career of his public Francophobia, the Catalan surrealist Joan Miró, who had been no less fervent a supporter of the defeated Spanish Republic than Picasso, returned to the island of Mallorca in 1940 and lived undisturbed.

In the last two decades of Francoist rule, beginning in the mid-1950s, insiders were encouraged to plan a careful economic, social, and political transition away from dictatorship, which was fully accomplished between 1976 and 1981. Franco groomed the Spanish prince Juan Carlos, a defender of democracy, to succeed him--this contrast with various Communist dictators is instructive--and Francoism passed from the historical scene, leaving behind almost nothing intrinsic to it.

Most famously, as described in Stanley G. Payne's new book, Franco did not repay the substantial aid that had been extended to him, from Germany and Italy, during the civil war by actively joining the Axis during World War II. His assistance to them was limited to the dispatch of a volunteer unit, the Blue Division, to fight on the Eastern Front, along with delivery of supplies to German submarines and other naval vessels, and minor intelligence and logistical help. In addition, in a much debated aspect of modern Spanish history, Franco's diplomats in Greece and Eastern Europe succeeded in rescuing Sephardic Jews, whose ancestry was Iberian, from the Holocaust.

Of the leading non-Spanish historians who observed Francoism directly, Payne, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, may be considered the last man standing. His work has always been founded on close examination of original sources, at which he excels, but has also lacked analytical depth. Although he has contributed little that is truly original, and his work is sometimes pedantic, impressionistic, and contradictory, he has become the doyen of Franco experts outside Spain, mainly reworking the same material since the appearance of his first book, Falange (1961). And fortunately, unlike his main rivals, the American Gabriel Jackson and the Briton Paul Preston, he has not succumbed to sentimentality about Stalin, the Soviet Union, and their deceitful "friendship" with the Spanish Republic. Rather, his earlier Yale volume, The Spanish Civil War, The Soviet Union, and Communism (2004), offered a sharpened critique of Soviet perspectives and practices in Spain.

But the author of Franco and Hitler has left one important matter incompletely addressed here. He has often treated the Falange more or less definitively as a fascist phenomenon, and while his contribution to the discussion of Spanish-German relations justifies doubts about this approach, he never fully resolves whether the Spanish general who said no to Hitler really emulated the rulers in Berlin and Rome. Rather, he describes the Franco regime as "a national authoritarian state .  .  . modeled, however loosely," on Italian and German totalitarianism. Payne does note, however, that while Franco repeatedly (and with unquestionable sincerity) expressed sympathy for Hitler and attachment to the global aspirations of the Axis, Hitler harbored a deep contempt for Spanish Catholicism.