Franco’s Victory Was Necessary, But Ultimately Meaningless
Things were “diferente durante los años de Franco!” Carmen assured me. “Los calles eran muy seguros. ¡Muy seguros! No como ahora con los jóvenes en los calles con las drogas y sin trabajos…” and so on.
When I arrived in Spain for my semester abroad, my Spanish skills had accumulated over two years of rust, and I worried they would be longer in coming back to me than I could afford to wait. Thankfully, my host mother was a beautiful, 50-something divorcee named Carmen who spoke not a word of English and seemed to have signed up to house international students more out of a desire for companionship than for any financial incentive. Every night, she would serve dinner and then spend the next two hours speaking to me in Spanish with the rapidity of a fútbol announcer. It was sink or swim for me, and eventually I swam.
When she began waxing nostalgic for Spain’s right-wing (some would say fascist) dictator, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975 and apparently kept the streets safe and free of drug-addled jobless youth, however, I was taken aback. How, I wondered, could this free-spirited woman who didn’t even attend weekly Mass be on the side of the colorless, puritanical Catholic authoritarians who served as the antagonists of Pan’s Labyrinth and For Whom the Bell Tolls?
As I continued exploring Spain and reading about the Spanish Civil War, I began to reconsider my opinion of Franco, and the question of whether I’d have fought for his Nazi-supported Nationalists or for the Soviet-supported Republicans began to weigh upon me. On Thursday, in what is perhaps the Spanish government’s most final and unambiguous repudiation of Franco’s legacy yet, the dictator’s remains were removed from their grand resting place at the Valley of the Fallen, supposedly a monument to those who died on both sides in the Spanish Civil War, and re-interred next to those of his wife at a family cemetery in Madrid. The issue of Franco’s grave had divided Spaniards along partisan lines for years. The center-right People’s Party had tacitly favored leaving the Generalissimo where he lay, while the Socialists, who currently control the government, vocally demanded that he be removed and painted anyone who disagreed as by implication a crypto-Falangist.
When I visited Franco’s former tomb, I understood more fully than ever the ideology (or, more accurately, faith) that drove him and his faction and continues to inspire those who still mourn his regime. The experience made me ambivalent about his proposed exhumation. Franco was buried behind the altar of a massive basilica, hewn into the side of a mountain by a labor force composed partially of prisoners of war. Between side chapels dedicated to different branches of the Spanish military hung massive tapestries depicting scenes of apocalyptic warfare from the Book of Revelation. For the first time, I saw why Franco’s supporters referred to the civil war as “La Cruzada.” As one of the traditionalist Catholic meme pages I follow so unambiguously put it, Franco’s rebellion was nothing less than “open war against Satanism.”
The equation of communism with Satanism is no understatement. Whittaker Chambers certainly believed that when he referred to communism as “man’s second oldest faith,” with a creed first articulated when Satan whispered to Eve, “Ye shall be as gods.” For evidence, one need look no further than the actions of the Spanish Left, who gained Orwell’s approval when they burned churches and slaughtered priests, or the militant atheism of the Soviet Union, which certainly would have been replicated in Spain had Franco been defeated.
The idea that a Republican victory would have resulted in a stable, social-democratic Spain is bunk. Any apparent moderation or liberalism was a carefully crafted deception designed and executed by Stalin’s Politburo to further its diplomatic goals and trick soft-hearted Western liberals into opposing Franco.
Peter Hitchens has suggested that maybe “if Franco had lost, a Stalinist Spain would have been loyal to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, joined the Axis in 1940, and tipped the balance in favor of Hitler at a decisive moment,” and that is certainly a possibility. Another is that World War II would have ended with an Allied victory, but that among those victorious allies would have been a Soviet puppet state in Western Europe, complete with gulags and Stalin-esque purges that would have made Franco’s White Terror, which killed an estimated 100,000 people, look like amateur hour. We barely made it through the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Spanish Missile Crisis might have destroyed us all.
For these reasons, I’ve come to the same conclusion as Rod Dreher: if I had to choose a side, I would have fought for Franco, but only because his enemy was evil incarnate.
I believe equally strongly, however, that in the end his victory accomplished nothing. If Franco was fighting for traditionalist Catholicism against the forces of modernity, then he failed to preserve what he’d fought so hard to protect. “When he went, everything he stood for turned to dust, like a mummy exposed to fresh air after thousands of years sealed beneath a pyramid,” Hitchens writes. In the end, Franco couldn’t stop the Cultural Revolution. After all that bloodshed, repression, and censorship, the best that can be said is that what would have happened in the ’60s happened instead 20 years later with a slightly more punk-rock flavor. In fact, he may have done more harm than good. To this day, Spanish Catholicism and conservatism are, in the minds of many Spaniards, tainted by Franco’s legacy.
I imagine the same will be said of Donald Trump in relation to American conservatism and Christianity (especially evangelicalism). Both men were paranoid, uncouth, illiterate, fickle, disdainful of the rule of law, and far too comfortable with dictators. Both were embraced by their nation’s traditionalists as a way of stemming the tide of cultural (for Trump) or literal (for Franco) Marxism. Franco succeeded for a few decades. Without limitless powers of state repression or anything like Franco’s clarity of purpose, I doubt Trump will accomplish even that much (though his massive roster of conservative judicial appointees might help).
In my mind, the debate over Franco’s legacy dovetails perfectly with the current squabble between the intellectual camps of Sohrab Ahmari and David French. Neither side particularly appeals to me. The Ahmari-ites seem to favor a hazily defined American integralism that would undoubtedly have no more success than Franco’s regime at changing hearts and souls. The French-ists take the opposite approach, insisting upon the “profound harmony between Christianity and…Enlightenment” ideals of individual freedom and secular government, even as the governments founded on those ideals threaten to throttle Christianity.
The latter approach frightens me. Dark days are ahead as the death of God leads inexorably towards the death of man and the dismantling of the seemingly self-evident truths that have sustained our civilization since its inception. This will be an age in which, to quote G.K. Chesterton, “[f]ires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four” and “[s]words will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.” And yet, if American orthodox Christians were to draw those swords and kindle those fires as their Spanish counterparts did in Franco’s time, what would they gain?
At the time of Franco’s burial, the unmistakable message of the basilica that served as his tomb was that Satan’s minions had been vanquished and the Caudillo could enter eternal rest secure in the knowledge that he had saved Catholic Spain. After his exhumation last week, the message for us is that the Christendom that endured from Constantine until the middle of the 20th century cannot be preserved, certainly not by force. If we try, we’ll only make things worse.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.