From Rebel to Caudillo: Franco's path to power

Providence seems to have smiled on Franco's path to power. But to what degree did the Spanish general manipulate that good fortune?

For obvious reasons, few historians, and even fewer respectable ones, write favourably of Hitler and Mussolini. In contrast, General Franco, despite being often bracketed among the fascist dictators, has not been short of a good press. In fact, sympathetic interpretations of Franco's record are usually based on ignorance or distortion of two features of his regime. The first is the so-called 'social peace' that he imposed on Spain after the alleged anarchy of the 1930s. It is frequently forgotten that this was achieved at the cost of forced labour camps, mass exile, prisons, torture and executions. In this regard, Franco stands comparison with the cruellest dictators of the century. The second premise for pro-Franco conclusions concerns Spain's neutrality in the Second World War. Admirers of the Caudillo attribute this to his skill and foresight in keeping out of the clutches of the Axis. However, recent research indicates ever more strongly that Franco was anxious to be part of a future fascist world order and was prevented by economic and technical obstacles from taking Spain into war.

The two crucial misrepresentations over stability and neutrality have been compounded by Franco's longevity. By living until 1975, he was able to work at his image as 'Sentinel of the West', Cold Warrior par excellence and the bulwark of western defence. However inadvertently, he presided over the Spanish economic boom of the 1960s. While Hitler died in the bunker and Mussolini on the gallows, their crimes fresh in the popular mind, Franco died in bed, a feeble grandfather figure, and the beneficiary of a loaded chronological comparison. Yet if parallels between the dictators are confined to the more appropriate period before 1943, the similarities far outweigh the differences.

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