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The Tragedy Of Franco’s Spain

Peter Hitchens: He beat the Communists, thank God, but he was not a good man

I’ll be leaving on Friday morning for the Benedict Option book tour in Spain. I am really excited about it, thanks to all the reading I’ve been doing about Spanish history these past couple of weeks. Thanks to the readers who recommended reading historian Stanley Payne. He really seems to be balanced in his appraisal of the Spanish Civil War, which was a tragedy the dimensions of which I had never imagined until I started reading, and watching the 1983 Granada television documentary (which is on YouTube — please watch it!).

I’m so very glad I read this afternoon Peter Hitchens’s First Things review of a new biography of Gen. Francisco Franco, who defeated the Republicans in the civil war, and who ruled as dictator until his death in the 1970s. Hitchens, as you may know, is a Christian and a conservative. He recognizes that had Franco not won, Spain would almost certainly have fallen under left-wing dictatorship, and been no better off — and perhaps worse off.

But he also recognizes that Franco was not a good man, and that there’s really no way for Christians to get around that fact. Here, Hitchens talks about how Solzhenitsyn admired Franco as the man who saved Spain from Communism. Hitchens says one can understand why a man who had suffered as Solzhenitsyn had under Communism would draw that conclusion. However:

But should these reasonable resentments be allowed to blind conservatives and Christians to crimes committed by their own side or those claiming to be on their side? I cannot see why. We are no more free to make excuses for the indefensible acts of “our” side than those on the left are to make excuses for theirs. If we do, we risk behaving as foolishly, and with the same sort of self-deception, as the fellow-travelers who defended Stalin’s empire as a new civilization, and later made excuses for its excesses. Infatuation on the rebound, the force that pushed ­Solzhenitsyn into the arms of Franco, seldom works out well—in politics or in life.

Hitchens makes an important point here. Note the distinction between preserving something and saving it:

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. The Spanish Christian civilization that Solzhenitsyn admired had been preserved but not saved. It crumbled into a heap of dust and spiders’ webs immediately after the caudillo made his final journey from his stuffy palace to his gigantic, hubristic tomb at the Valley of the Fallen. If Franco had been the preserver of Christian Spain, it is interesting to go there now and see how completely it has disappeared. Every element of the 1960s, from sexual liberation to ­marijuana, swept across Spain and, above all, Madrid, not long after ­Franco’s last breath. If he had truly been the preserver of faith and restraint, would they not have survived him in better condition?

The key question:

What should Christians do about politics? How do we defend what we love without making false alliances with cynical powers?


I’m not going to tell you how Hitchens handles that question. Read the whole thing.  Coming at the end of all this reading about the Spanish Civil War that I’ve been doing, the Hitchens review made me feel deeply the tragedy of the war for Spain. There’s no way you can read the final paragraph of that review and be at ease with the mutual contempt rising between Left and Right in America today. Towards the end of Part I of that British documentary, an old man who had fought on the Nationalist (Franco) side said that by 1935, on the eve of civil war, both Left and Right just flat-out hated each other. That hate stretched out for decades.

There is simply no way for Christians to read about what the Left was doing to Spanish Catholics before the civil war, and to believe that the wrong side won that conflict. George Orwell, himself a socialist who went to Spain to fight for the Republic, saw firsthand what the Spanish Communists, under Stalin’s direction, were capable of. Hitchens acknowledges that a communist-ruled Spain — and we should be under no illusion that the Spanish Republic would have been anything but a phony “People’s Republic” had the Nationalists lost — might easily have meant the Church’s annihilation, as well as the annihilation of much of Spain’s cultural patrimony. And yet, that victory came at a terrible cost. Franco was merciless to his enemies, even in victory:

When we consider men such as Francisco Franco, and are tempted (as even I have been) to make excuses for them because they seem to be on our side in one thing, we make a serious mistake. Do not, if you can possibly avoid it, take that path. It leads into a long and dark valley.

The book, by the way, is Franco: Anatomy Of A Dictator, by Enrique Moradiellos.

UPDATE: Reader Reditus (who is Latino) writes:

I get the strong feeling reading these sorts of things that Anglo and culturally Protestant authors have very little sense of how much clerical and anti-clerical forces hate each other in the Latin mind, to the point of de-humanizing the other side. I’ve known leftists and I’ve known people whose families have participated in right wing coups in Latin America: both sides for better or for worse have “clear consciences”. Then again maybe we in the English-speaking world expect better from our rulers and history. I don’t see anything wrong with that, it’s admirable on one level. But I don’t think it’s particularly “more Christian” since once you enter the realm of war and politics, often it becomes and issue of what you have to do vs. what you should do. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be like that but no one has devised an alternative yet.

I sense from the comments below that some people don’t grasp that I am glad that Franco won the war. But that does not mean that he and his regime were without sin. Surely being morally realistic in our judgment of the war and its aftermath requires us to recognize that. Same with Pinochet in Chile. In post-communist Czechoslovakia, the Catholic anti-communist dissident Vaclav Benda, who went to prison under the Communists, was widely criticized for defending Pinochet for saving Chile from Communism. I think Benda’s stance was entirely justified … but that does not make the Pinochet regime angelic.



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