How Bad Was Franco?

June 1, 2011 Topic: History Region: Spain Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

How Bad Was Franco?

If the best you can argue about your hero is "he didn't really murder all that many people," then it's not very firm ground to stand on.

 No, I'm not referring to actor James Franco. Instead, my attention was caught by a fresh dispute that has been triggered in Spain by the publication of its dictionary of national biography. Professor Luis Suarez, an admirer of Gen. Francisco Franco, has apparently written the entry for him. The eighty-six-year-old Suarez maintains that Franco was an authoritarian, not a totalitarian, leader. He also overlooks the fact that tens of thousands were murdered by his regime.

The professor has touched a neuralgic nerve. The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936-39 and served as a rallying cry for the international left, was the dress rehearsal for World War II. Both Stalin and Hitler intervened in it. It's certainly possible that had the communists won the war, they would have instituted an even bloodier reign than that of Franco.

The distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian leaders was emphasized in a famous article in Commentary in 1979 by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who was herself an expert on Latin America. Franco did purge the Republicans who had fought against his Nationalists, just as the reverse would have occurred had the Republicans won. It's also the case that the Franco regime melted away with his death and a transition to a democracy took place. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Kirkpatrick had to revise her original notion that while authoritarian regimes could become democracies, totalitarian ones never would. With the end of the cold war, the totalitarian versus authoritarian dispute largely went away, especially as China turns into some kind of weird capitalist hybrid regime.

In Spain, however, the Franco era remains a hot-button issue. Suarez seems to view Franco as a demigod. But it's more than a bit much to admire Franco. A certain kind of conservative—Patrick Buchanan comes to mind—appears to view Franco as a great figure, staring down the communist hordes. But this was a very slippery slope. It became an intellectually facile way of justifying a multitude of odious right-wing regimes that engaged in repression—the justification being that they were holding the Reds at bay.

Spain itself continues to come to terms with its past. Outrage over Suarez's old guard comments is fervent. He comes across as a dinosaur intent on rehabbing the past.

As the Guardian reports,


Suárez is an acquaintance of the Franco family and a senior figure in the Brotherhood of the Valley of the Fallen. The group, which takes its name from the controversial underground basilica where the dictator was buried in 1975, is actively opposed to the so-called "historical memory" movement in Spain, which has recently been searching for, and digging up, the mass graves of the victims of Francoist death squads.

For many years, Suárez was one of the few historians allowed by Franco's family to study the personal papers of the man most Spaniards recognise as having been the country's dictator for 36 years from 1939. In 2005, Suárez, after a career spent studying the 15th and 16th centuries, published a biography of the dictator.

"This is an objective study, with no value judgments," he told Spain's EFE news agency.

He claimed the term "dictator" was not used during Franco's lifetime. "An historian cannot use it," he said.


The problem with this kind of defense is obvious. It's defensive. If the best you can argue about your hero is on the lines of "he wasn't a dictator," or "he didn't really murder all that many people," then it's not very firm ground to stand on. This episode is no cause for concern. Instead, it suggests that Spain has moved on from Franco, while a few antediluvian admirers try to maintain him as their guidon and oriflamme.