The Modern Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco

End of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid
End of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid, 1939

Looking for an example of a modern, western Civil War that led to an authoritarian regime?  Look no further than the EU’s Spain in the 20th century. Francisco Franco rose to power during the Spanish Civil War and then ruled over Spain for 36 years from 1939 until his death in 1975. With the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, his Nationalist forces overthrew the democratically elected Second Republic. He proclaimed himself El Caudillo (The Leader), and proceeded to censor the press, take over the judiciary, ban the Basque and Catalan languages, make Catholic the national religion, and established a secret police to spy in its citizens.

Francisco Franco was a career soldier who rose quickly through the ranks, becoming general at only 33. When Spain’s left-leaning government began to weaken, Franco joined other generals in a right-wing rebellion. He led the uprising against the elected leftist government causing the Spanish Civil War, then took complete control when he won. He then presided over a brutal authoritarian regime in which tens of thousands were imprisoned or executed. How could a democratically elected government be overthrown during a Civil War in a modern European nation?

Francisco Franco y Bahamonde was born in a small coastal port on the Atlantic. The men in his family had served in the navy for generations, and the Franco was expected to follow in the family business. Franco enrolled at the Infantry Academy in Toledo, graduating in three years with below-average grades.

The ambitious Franco volunteered to fight a Muslim insurgency in then Spanish-occupied Morocco. He was stationed in north Africa from 1912 until 1926. Franco impressed his commanders with both his boldness and brutality.  He received a number of promotions and married Carmen Polo y Martínez Valdés, from a wealthy merchant family. Franco’s growing reputation was even recognized by King Alfonso XIII, who sent a delegate to their wedding.

At 33, Franco became the youngest general in Europe and given command of the Spanish Foreign Legion.   

Under Franco, the Tercio de Extranjeros developed a reputation for swift brutality. He encouraged the torture and killing of prisoners.   When the legion left a Moroccan rebel village, nothing remained but burnt foundations and the corpses of men, women and children.  Two years later, he was named director of the Military Academy in Zaragoza and returned to Spain.

Meanwhile, King Alfonso XIII governed Spain as a military dictatorship.  In 1931, the king agreed, under duress, to allow democratic elections. It was the first time in sixty years that free elections had been allowed in Spain. When the Spanish people voted overwhelmingly for a republic over monarchy, Alfonso was forced to go into exile and the Second Republic was born.

The winning, left-leaning government passed measures that reduced the power of the military, the Catholic Church, and wealthy entrenched elites. A Socialist Manuel Azaña became prime minister. Franco was reprimanded for publicly criticizing the new government’s actions.  His Military Academy was shut down, he was demoted, and sent to an out-of-the-way post in the Balearic Islands.

But the new government could not quell the growing divide between left- and right-leaning peoples within its borders. The country was wracked by a deep, often violent political demonstrations and street fighting.  When new elections were held in 1933, a new more right-leaning government took control. As a result, Franco returned to a position of power. 

The new government used Franco and his troops to ruthlessly suppress a miners’ strike in the Basque region. The right-wing approved of Franco’s actions and in 1935, the Minister of War, appointed him Chief of Staff.  In this post, Franco promoted nationalist officers and purged the army officers of Second Republicans.

Prior to the election in 1936, right-wing parties and factions in Spain coalesced and formed The National Front.  Manuel Azaña then established a similar coalition of left-wing political forces, calling them The Popular Front.  The Spanish people voted in January 1936.  The Popular Front received 34% of the vote and the National Front received 33% of the vote.  The Popular Front proclaimed victory and formed a new government.

The conservative National Front refused to accept the election results and Spain began to slip into chaos.

The Popular Front government upset conservatives by granting amnesty for all political prisoners. They introduced economic reforms that taxed the wealthy aristocracy. They granted greater regional autonomy, ended political blacklists, and provided compensation for renters historically oppressed by wealthy landowners.

The wealthy responded by transferring vast sums of capital out of the country to offshore accounts. This created an economic crisis, the value of the peseta plummeted. With inflation rising, workers demanded higher wages, leading to a series of strikes. Franco was once again marginalized to a minor post, in the Canary Islands. He joined with other high-ranking Spanish generals, led by General Emilio Mola, in planning to overthrow the government in a coup.

President Azaña offered Nationalist General Mola the post of Minister of War, but the National Front was unwilling to compromise.  Azaña then gave orders for arms to be distributed to all left-wing organizations. In July of 1936, General Mola proclaimed a nationalists revolution.  

Nationalist forces launched multipronged uprisings in conservative pockets across the country, beginning the Spanish Civil War.  Franco flew to Morocco and began transporting Spanish troops to the mainland. He would then made contact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to secure arms and airplanes. The Nationalist generals agreed that Franco should replace Mola as commander of the Nationalist Army.

Establishing a base of operations in right-leaning Seville, Franco began his campaign, advancing north and west. The operation put them in control of most of the western half of the country including Morocco, Seville and Aragon. After sealing the boarders with Portugal and France, Franco concentrated his forces on the left-leaning bastions of Barcelona and Madrid.  

Franco was then named head of the Nationalist government and Commander-in-Chief (Generalísimo).

Franco moved quickly to consolidate power. He secured the backing of the Catholic Church and sent his political rivals into exile.  He combined the fascist and monarchist parties into his right-wing Falange Española Tradicionalista, with Franco as party leader. Thousands of political prisoners of war would be executed rather than held in captivity.

Over the next 3 years, the right-wing Nationalist forces — backed by the Catholic Church, Germany and Italy — battled the left-wing Popular Front, who received aid from the Soviet Union and brigades of foreign volunteers, including Americans. Imitating the tactics of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, giant posters of Franco’s face were displayed on every wall all across Spain with the slogan:

One State! One Country! One Chief! Franco! Franco!

With superior military strength, Franco was able to eliminate the opposition region by region. German and Italian bombardments helped the Nationalists conquer Basque lands in 1937. In January 1939, the Popular Front stronghold of Barcelona fell to the Nationalists, followed two months later by Madrid. In April 1939, Franco received an unconditional surrender from Azaña. Sources estimate the number of civil war casualties was over half a million.

Many Popular Front leaders fled the country.  Military tribunals were set up to try those who remained, sending thousands more Spaniards to their death. Franco made Catholicism the only religion of Spain, banned the Catalan and Basque languages, censored the press, barred labor unions, and created a Gestapo-like secret police network to spy on its own citizens.

Though he received aid from the Axis powers during the Civil War, Franco stayed out of World War II, and declared neutrality.  He did meet with Adolf Hitler in 1940 to discuss Spain joining the Nazis.   Franco demanded that postwar he wanted control of Gibraltar, French Morocco, and parts of Algeria.  Hitler would not relinquish such hard-earned Nazi territory.

Hitler wanted his troops access to Spain to seize Gibraltar from the British.  Franco refused. Instead, he asked for arms so that Spain itself could capture Gibraltar. This time, Hitler refused   All Franco would do is send some 50,000 troops to fight with the Germans on the Soviet eastern front, and also opened his ports to German ships and submarines.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco
Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain

Following the war, Franco became known as El Caudillo (the Leader) and for nearly four decades would rule Spain with a repressive, single party, authoritarian regime. Franco developed a reputation as a narcissistic and vindictive leader. An estimated 200,000 political prisoners died as a result of starvation and executions.

In the aftermath of WWII, his former allegiances were not forgotten.

Spain faced diplomatic and economic isolation and was ostracized by the United Nations. However, with the advent of the Cold War, Franco’s strong anti-Communist bent made him popular with the United States.  In 1950, Spain was allowed to join the United Nations. In 1953, Franco allowed the U.S. to establish 4 air and naval bases in Spain. In return, NATO would protect Spain from foreign invasion. 

As Franco aged into his late 70’s, he tended to avoid daily political affairs, preferring instead to escape the capital to fish and hunt at his estates in the countryside.  In 1969, as his health began to decline, he handpicked Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of King Alfonso XIII, as his successor. Juan Carlos had spent a good deal of time alongside Franco and publicly supported the regime.  Franco believed the Prince would maintain the authoritarian government that Franco had established.

Franco died in 1975 at the age of 82, after suffering a series of heart attacks and falling into a coma. At his funeral, hundreds of his supporters wore the blue shirts of his Falange party and raised their fists in a fascist salute.  Franco was buried at Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos, a huge monument to the Spanish Civil War, built by Franco.  However in 2019, his remains were removed from the memorial and placed in his wife’s mausoleum.

Two days after Franco’s death, King Juan Carlos I set about dismantling Spain’s authoritarian government. Juan Carlos pressed for change immediately upon taking the throne, including the legalization of political parties. He did not follow Franco’s wishes as expected.  Within two years, almost every vestige of Franco’s dictatorship had disappeared from Spain.  The first post-Franco elections were held in 1977 and Spain has remained a democracy ever since.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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