Forty Years After Franco’s Death

A young American male traveling in Spain in the early 1960s, as I was and did, would notice that women did not sunbathe topless on the country’s beaches the way many did on the French Riviera. There weren’t even any bikinis. An American who lived in the country explained to me that the body-covering one-piece swimsuits I saw everywhere were “required.” I was also told that a couple holding hands in the street could be arrested if a policeman spotted them. Yet the tapas bars were filled by men and women, mostly young, in the small hours of the morning. There was laughter and singing. Wine flowed.

The streets of Madrid were the cleanest of any major city in Europe. They also felt the safest, in whichever neighborhood you ventured at whatever hour.

Abortion was a crime, but at that time it still was even in the liberal democracies of England and the U.S. The notion of same-sex “marriage” wasn’t on any mind, at least not a sane one.

If you lingered in the country, you learned that certain organizations were banned (Masonic lodges were an example), but there simply was not the palpable feeling anywhere in Spain of the fear and suspicion that saturated the atmosphere in Communist East Europe if a person had reason to go there and could obtain a visa.

 Gen. Francisco Franco (1892-1975)

Gen. Francisco Franco (1892-1975)

Nor did you see around you the distracted, harried look of men who are concentrated on making money or trying to. A siesta after the big daytime meal was still customary. Friends running into each other would easily “waste” an hour catching up on their news.

One other thing about Spain in those days: I was not yet Catholic, but when I went into a church to look at it, there were always persons praying. If a Mass was going on, the church was crowded.

I know what existed in France between 1940 and 1944 when the unholy trinity of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was replaced as the national slogan by Work, Family, Country. I also know about Gen. Juan Ongania’s valiant effort to stem the “immoralization” (his word) of Argentina, 1966-70. However, the only personal experience of Christian social order I’ve had in my lifetime was my periodic visits to Spain in the early 60s. My memories of it are indelible. How to sum them up?

It wasn’t as if the Spanish government of the time self-consciously modeled its programs and policies on what used to be known as papal social teaching. That really only happened in one place in the twentieth century: Austria under Engelbert Dollfuss when Pope Pius XI was virtual co-chancellor. In Spain in the 60s it was more a matter of life feeling natural, secure, somehow protected. Of course I say this in hindsight, but what I see now is that Spain then had a government intent on enabling individuals to get to Heaven if only by reducing the risk of their damning themselves. In other words, it did not operate according to the liberal notion of freedom as the “right” to do whatever is humanly possible.

Everything about Spain began to change, and to change fast, after November, 1975, forty years ago this month. That is when Gen. Francisco Franco, Spain’s ruler since 1939, died. How fast was change? Within two years a friend of mine, the well-known Cuban-American priest, Rev. Enrique Rueda, was mugged in broad daylight on a main thoroughfare in downtown Madrid. Father was wearing his collar.

Recent travelers to Spain tell me it can be difficult today to find a weekday Mass outside the major cities. Many churches give the appearance of being padlocked – permanently shut for want of clergy and worshippers.

If you polled Spaniards today, asking them which they preferred, life in the country now or during the years 1939-75 when Franco ruled, who can doubt the vast majority, including those who remember the safe streets and young persons acting modestly whether they liked it or not, would answer “now”? Of course they would. Ever since the Garden of Eden men have preferred to live according to their own will instead of God’s, and for two centuries under government whose laws reflect the preference instead of being designed to buttress His.

Juridically, during all the years of Franco’s rule, Spain was a monarchy. He governed as Regent, but the Spanish people knew him as the Caudillo. Liberal media in the U.S. and elsewhere were always careful to explain that Caudillo was the Spanish equivalent of Fuhrer. It was insofar as both words can be translated as Leader, but to Spaniards of the time the word was no more sinister than “Boss” used to be to Americans when our big cities were still run by machine politics.

The “Boss” comparison is a pretty good one. One thinks here of, for example, Richard M. Daley, Democratic Boss of Chicago in the 1960s and the last U.S. politician of limited ambition we shall probably ever see. More modern politicians, beginning with Jimmy Carter running for the local school board and continuing with Barack Obama as he headed for the Illinois state legislature, have dreams of the White House dancing in their head from the very start of their careers. All Richard Daley wanted was to be mayor of Chicago.

As Boss, he set the rules by which the political life of the city was run, but having set them he also abided by them. As long as anybody belonging to the machine did the same he could count on City Hall. If he represented a certain part of town on the city council, its garbage would be picked up without fail, snow removed expeditiously from its streets, new equipment provided for a park playground if needed, corruption of the police in the local precinct kept within tolerable limits, and so on.

The Caudillo set the rules by which the political life of Spain was run, and having set them he abided by them. This is the opposite of a tyranny. Under tyranny the citizen doesn’t know where he stands. The rules are not clear. Everything happens according to the passing mood of the tyrant. A tyranny is not a form of government. It arises to replace weak government or in the absence of any – anarchy.

Let’s compare Franco to a contemporary of his, the genuine tyrant Joseph Stalin, and to do so where it matters most: the question of who will live and who will die. Franco understood that civilization must sometimes resort to lethal force in order to defend itself. Defending Christian civilization is what he and fellow generals were doing when in 1936 they revolted against the Red republic that had replaced Spain’s monarchy in 1931 and become ever more radical and anti-Catholic over the years. Thus began the conflict known to the outside world as the Spanish Civil War, but called the Crusade by Franco and his fellow Nationalists.

We’re going to ignore the Crusade here. I once wrote about it in From the Housetops. We’re also going to ignore Franco’s own understanding of the Faith except to say it probably couldn’t be simpler or less “pastoral.” There was nothing “theological” or nuanced about it. It was what he was taught as a boy when he was catechized, and that was that. If you lived according to what he was taught, you stood a chance of making it at least to Purgatory. If you lived otherwise, going to Hell was more likely.

What interests us is that fighting the Crusade, and also the maintenance of Christian social order after the Nationalist victory in 1939, sometimes required the execution of spies, revolutionaries, and other malefactors. As commander of military forces in war and Caudillo later, Franco always insisted on reviewing the file of anyone sentenced to death, and also that he be the one who signed the death warrant. It was important to him because shooting a man is no small thing. However guilty he might appear, he deserved to have his case reviewed and the sentence carried out on the order of legitimate and identifiable authority.

Now read any biography of Stalin you want. According to all of them, he could spend hours signing death warrants with thousands of names on a single warrant. His victims weren’t even numbers to him. They were, to recall a famous phrase of Lenin, eggs that had to be broken in order to make the omelet of the Revolution. Their deaths were necessary to the state (that is to say Stalin) in order to terrorize the population into unquestioning submission.

Sometimes when Stalin finished signing death warrants, he would watch a movie and drink vodka with cronies, making sure the cronies drank more than he did. More than one of these men would himself be shot a few hours later, the vodka having loosened his tongue to the point of his uttering some faint criticism or perhaps repeating an anti-regime joke he’d heard. Stalin didn’t care for merriment except his own, as when he ordered his cronies to make fools of themselves by jumping and dancing in place until they fell down.

Not drinking with him could also be dangerous. To refuse or hold back could arouse the suspicion that you harbored subversive thoughts you feared might surface in your cups.

Stalin was a mass murderer, the number of his victims perhaps reaching 20 million. Franco’s greatest achievement was to save Spain from a government that was already radically socialist and becoming, under pressure from Moscow, economically and politically subject to Stalin.

His next greatest achievement was keeping Spain out of World War II. It wasn’t simply that she was spared worse material destruction than she’d already suffered during the fight against the Reds. Spain, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland (all neutral in the war) did not experience the social dislocations and moral revolution that defeat brought to the rest of Catholic Europe, or not as quickly as the rest.

For years after the war, Spanish independence and self-sufficiency was important enough to Franco that he successfully resisted the adoption of measures that would move the country toward integration into the economic globalism that was then nascent. This slowed Spain’s “development,” but also helped keep her Catholic for another generation.

Alas, the best of men age. Not simply do their own powers begin to fail, if they live long enough they lose the help of their ablest and closest collaborators. In Franco’s case, it was the help of his prime minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, assassinated in 1973 by Basque terrorists.

Had he outlived Franco, as it was supposed he would, the Admiral would be the one to go to the airport to greet a young Prince Juan Carlos, see him installed as monarch, and then keep him under his wing for at least several years, ensuring the survival of some portion of the Franco legacy. That didn’t happen. Even the statue of Franco that stood in his own home town in Galicia was taken down years ago. Spain is now just another of the EU Mediterranean countries – Portugal, Italy, Greece – despised by economically efficient northerners except when they want to live a little and head south for vacation.

Poor Spain. I haven’t been back since Franco died. If someone offered me a free trip, I’m not sure I’d accept. My fear is that seeing today’s Spain with my own eyes, while at the same time seeing with my memory’s eye the Spain of a half century ago, would break my heart.