Franco: A Personal and Political Biography
Stanley G. Payne, Jesús Palacios Tapias
Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 2014, ISBN: 9780299302108; 584pp.; Price: £31.95
Date accessed: 4 June, 2023
Stanley G. Payne needs no introduction. He has a well-deserved reputation as an excellent historian who has produced, among other publications, perhaps the best guide to the study of European Fascism (A History of Fascism, 1914–45). He is also the author of numerous books on Spain, some of them real landmarks in our knowledge of that country’s modern history. Payne started publishing in the decade before Francisco Franco’s death in November 1975, and in the years since his work has greatly contributed to our understanding of a period deliberately obscured by the legacy of the dictatorship (1936–75). With this, he has greatly contributed to the rebirth of civil society in democratic Spain. What is more, Payne has trained several generations of historians of Spain, many of whom continue to produce high quality works on a variety of topics. Payne’s co-author, Jesús Palacios, is a journalist and historian (in that order), well known in Spain, where he has a wide circle of admirers and friends, many of whom come from the right and far right. This position has allowed him, for example, to be the first historian to enter the archives of the Francisco Franco Foundation; it is here that the dictator’s personal documents – in what constitutes a fairly irregular arrangement – remained until recently under lock and key. In recent years Payne, too, has cultivated a wide array of contacts among conservative and far-right circles, both inside and, mostly, outside Spanish academia. He is, for example, a friend of Carmen Franco, the dictator’s daughter (on whose testimony he relies heavily throughout this book), and he has written prologues for, or endorsed the works of, controversial authors such a Pío Moa. This doesn’t mean that Payne bites his tongue in front of these people; nor does he endorse their opinions outright. In fact, his determination to say what he thinks, even if inconvenient to many, is legendary. For example, just recently, Payne explained in front of Carmen Franco and other far-right personalities that the Caudillo did indeed want to enter the Second World War and that his supposed his efforts to save Jews during that conflict are a myth.
As the book under review demonstrates, both Payne and Palacios write well; are precise and judicious with their material; and put forth a strongly conservative interpretation, both methodologically and ideologically. In methodological terms, this book is an example of the most classic political history. The cultural and social background of the dictatorship occupies a secondary position in the narrative, which focuses mainly on the deeds of its titular subject. In many ways, this book, while diametrically opposed in ideological terms, is similar in conception to the equally massive and also excellent biography of the dictator written by Paul Preston two decades ago.(1) Both books are often complementary, and both are a must read for any serious student of the subject.
Preston’s vision of Franco is clearly hostile, and this hostility extends to his analysis of the political right, particularly during the torturous life of the Spanish Second Republic (1931–39). Payne’s and Palacios’ vision is exactly the opposite. They make of the left the main culprit in the drama of the Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and even – here Palacios the journalist seems to take over – of many of the problems of the country in more recent times. There are in the book a few gibes against the Socialist Party (PSOE) governments of the 1980s and 1990s. The overall result is that the Franco portrayed by Payne and Palacios is less the cunning and ruthless man depicted by Preston than the smart and hardworking Army officer who became the Caudillo (leader) as a result of, and sometimes as the preferable option to, the serious shortcomings of Spain’s democratic and/or leftist politicians since the 1930s. This is the book’s ultimate argument, and logically, where its biggest faults reveal themselves. Put differently, this biography is stronger when talking about Franco himself – on which the authors write with knowledge and precision – than when attempting to deal with the larger context in which the dictator ruled; indeed, it is here that they demonstrate a clear ideological bias. By way of disclosure, I should point out that Payne’s and Palacios’ approach is precisely the opposite of the one I employed when writing my own biography of the dictator.(2) No doubt this fact influences, and probably prejudices, how I see the book under review.
Payne, and to a lesser extent Palacios, have written widely about the role of the Spanish Army in politics. To speak of politics in Spain before the Second Republic (and, I would argue, during the Republic and much later as well) is to talk about caciquismo, the influence peddling and electoral corruption that the king, Alfonso XIII (1902–31), as well as both the Conservative and Liberal parties, used to control public life. Yet, in this book the Army in general, and Franco in particular, seem to be unburdened by the environment, practices, and effects of this corrupt political system. The result is that Franco’s meteoric rise from second lieutenant in 1912 to brigadier in 1926 (described in the chapter ‘The youngest general in Europe’) appears solely as the product of the brave and bright young man’s exploits. This explanation is not new; Franco, his minions and others, endorsed it and publicized it long ago. There is however another explanation for the young officer’s rise: the king’s meddling in military affairs, the creation of networks of patronage among senior officers and, as a result of an interaction between these two factors, the exuberant dispensation of promotions and favors to the officers fighting the colonial war in Morocco. Indeed, Franco, as the authors indicate, was the youngest general that the colonial war produced, but he was not – and this is mentioned nowhere in the book – the officer who rose fastest through the ranks during this period. That honor went to the less celebrated (now but not back then) José Sanjurjo, a soldier who in barely 13 years (1912–25) went from being an obscure captain to a lieutenant general, a Marquis, and finally, a double recipient of Spain’s highest military medal, the Laureada. (Franco did not receive this honor until 1939, when he rather immodestly awarded it to himself). Sanjurjo was soon called the Caudillo of Spain. Other officers, Franco included, were occasionally, though less prominently, referred to by the same title. Royal patronage to Franco, Sanjurjo and other officers, continued until the very end of the monarchy, in April 1931. Payne and Palacios have little to say about this.
Payne has argued before (3) – and now makes the case even more clearly – that those most responsible for the destruction of the Republic were the republicans themselves, since they lacked both realism and a democratic sense. There is much value in this analysis, and in fact there is no doubt that if General Franco became the Caudillo it is because the political crisis of 1936 made that possible. It is easy to agree with Payne and Palacios that the republicans’ at times rabid sectarianism made it easier for Franco and his fellow plotters to garner social support for their attempted coup. It is even reasonable to agree with the authors that Franco did not want to revolt in 1936, that he went ahead because he saw no better option (whether for the country, for himself, or for both is a matter of debate). However, blaming the republicans without describing what the enemies of the Republic – a faulty albeit democratic regime – were doing and saying could easily result in an unbalanced analysis. The same can be said about the nature and evolution of the violence that preceded the July 1936 uprising. Perhaps, as Payne has long argued, the left was more responsible than the right. Perhaps, as many other authors believe, the Government could have done more to stop the killings, strikes, and burnings of religious buildings. But does this mean, as Payne and Palacios argue, that the Government had lost all legitimacy by the eve of the coup? Does this justify a war that every day for nearly three years produced more victims and far more damage than all those terrible days of the spring of 1936 put together? Moreover, Payne and Palacios go further by denouncing the February elections as fraudulent and thus totally invalid. For these authors, this means that the Popular Front-backed Government was, again, illegitimate. This is an old argument of the far right, and it is completely false. While it is true that the elections in two provinces – Granada and Cuenca – were very irregular, perhaps even completely fraudulent, this does not invalidate the whole ballot or the thin but clear victory of the left. Democracy has always been evolving and certainly has never been perfect, even less as clean as its enemies sometimes hypocritically demand (only to negate it and destroy it). Consider, for example, the United States from the presidency of George Washington to that of Lyndon B. Johnson: does the fact that African Americans, both as slaves and as disenfranchised citizens, could not vote render the whole story of American democracy for over a century and a half invalid?
There are times in this book when the authors extend to Franco and his regime the full benefit of doubt. Here are two examples. The first is the Pazo de Meirás, the dictator’s palatial private residence in his native Galicia, that was, according to the dictatorship and the dictator’s family, a popular ‘gift’ (p. 213). Local residents might disagree about how voluntary this ‘gift’ was and how its acquisition was carried out. The second example is more serious because it deals with a human life. Julián Grimau, the Communist leader arrested and executed in 1963, may or may not have had a criminal ‘chekist’ past in Barcelona during the war, but the authors give full credence (page 405) to the official version that his injuries under police interrogation were the product of his attempt to escape through a window. Maybe the handcuffed man did indeed jump into a chair and then open the window and throw himself into the emptiness to commit suicide or, even worse, to embarrass the police? Or perhaps his captors went a bit too far in their session of torture? At any rate, Payne and Palacios are sure of the official version. I am not.
But these are minor points in a larger narrative that, generally speaking, presents Franco in a better light than his critics – including this reviewer – have typically done. For example, while the latter group has described Franco’s attitude towards his enemies as one of cruelty and a determination to punish very harshly and exhaustively, Payne and Palacios present the dictator as a relatively clement man, both during the war (p. 205) and after, when he supposedly gave several amnesties to prisoners in the 1940s (p. 293). In reality those were partial pardons. Amnesty for the crimes supposedly committed by his enemies during the war had to wait until 1969, 30 years after the regime had given an amnesty to its own supporters, in 1936. In the case of the latter, the decree that made it official claimed that Franco’s followers were unlikely to have committed any crimes in the first place.
Payne’s and Palacios’ largely sympathetic narrative makes Franco’s regime less exceptional and more acceptable – a tendency that is most evident when they describe the dictator’s role in Spain’s post-war modernization. The argument, in essence, is that, thanks to Franco, Spain followed the same patterns of development as other Western European nations after the conclusion of the Second World War. But this is only partially true. While Spain did indeed follow that path, it embarked on it much later. Moreover, Spain’s development was achieved at a huge individual and social cost, unthinkable in a democratic regime. The years of hunger and mismanagement under the autarky, which lasted the whole of the 1940s, are summarized by the authors as follows: ‘From the time he took power, Franco pledged to develop his country and achieve prosperity, but at first this proved entirely beyond his grasp’ (p. 431). Yet which Western democratic leader would have stayed in power from 1939 to 1950 while his policies caused a famine that killed perhaps 200,000 people, not to mention economic stagnation – made worse after 1945 – that severely affected the majority’s standard of living? This is ‘normal’? Payne and Palacios celebrate the period from 1950 to 1975 as the ‘greatest sustained economic development and general improvement in living standards in all Spanish history’ (p. 431). Once again, this is only partially true, since it applies only to the period 1960–75. In the 1950s, Spaniards’ salaries lagged well behind inflation. There was an industrial take off, and the country recovered its pre-war economic levels between 1951 and 1953 (long after other Western nations recovered from the world war that ended six years after Spain’s), but this came only at the cost of more suffering among the wage-earning population. The benefits of the first years of progress stayed in few hands. Franco made it very sweet for capital, sure, but let’s not confuse money and property with the whole of Spain. For the majority of Spaniards, the first 20 years of Franco’s dictatorship were a period of misery that had little to do with the European ‘economic miracle’ and even less to do with the ‘social pact’ that sought to distribute the fruits of that miracle.
In the last pages of the book, which cover the last years of Franco’s life, the authors describe a country living in quasi-normalcy, with notable freedoms, including that of the supposedly barely censored press (p. 480) under an increasingly benevolent grandfather-like dictator. They even argue that schools during this period were better than those created by the ‘Socialists’ in the 1980s (p. 442). In the meantime, the opposition is assumed to have been either a pathetic copy of the equally ridiculous Italian and French leftist posturing or, worse, infiltrated and manipulated by the Communists (p. 402). Many would strongly disagree, including myself: this is certainly not the country I lived in. What I remember – and what I have been writing about ever since – is how the dictator, up to the last moments of his life, continued to threaten Spaniards by presenting himself as the only alternative to a repeat of the Civil War. In essence, that is what Franco was: a violent and self-obsessed man. I may not have realized this in 1975, when Franco had just died and I was a child growing up in a repressed and ill-informed country. But this is the conclusion I have reached after decades of reading – including Payne’s earlier work – researching, and thinking about the Caudillo and his regime. But those who read Payne’s and Palacios’ book could form a very different opinion.
- Paul Preston, Franco: A Biography (London, 1994).Back to (1)
- Antonio Cazorla-Sanchez, Franco: The Biography of the Myth (London, 2014).Back to (12)
- Stanley G. Payne, The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933–1936: Origins of the Civil War (New Haven, CT, 2006).Back to (3)