(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Francisco Franco was once a pariah in the Western world. A brutal dictator, he came to power through war, leading the Nationalist insurgents who wiped out Spain’s brief experiment with republican government during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. Cruel and remorseless towards his enemies, Franco established a rigidly authoritarian regime in Spain, replete with fascist trappings modeled on the example of his wartime allies Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Yet during World War II, Franco stayed neutral, thereby rendering an indirect, but invaluable, service to the Western democracies. In the postwar years Franco’s Spain, fiercely anticommunist, came to be seen as a pillar of defense. In the 1950’s, the United States negotiated a bargain with the dictator that allowed the basing of American bombers on Spanish soil. In his last years Franco presided over a rebirth of prosperity in Spain, and its economic reintegration with Western Europe. By the time he died, there were those who argued that Franco, for all his faults, had proved a largely beneficent actor on the world stage.

Paul Preston in FRANCO: A BIOGRAPHY takes issues with this revisionist view of the dictator. Writing with an authority born of years of studying modern Spain and exhaustive research on his subject, Preston maintains that Franco was a cunning opportunist who subordinated the needs of his people to his own lust for power. Preston makes an impressive case that Franco’s neutrality in World War II was a result of his demanding too high a price for belligerence from his Axis friends, rather than any diplomatic foresight. He demonstrates that economic prosperity came to Spain only after Franco was forced to abandon his own eccentric policies. While certain to excite controversy, Preston’s FRANCO will long stand as the definitive study of an enigmatic dictator.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. January 26, 1995, p. B2.

The Economist. CCCXXIX, November 27, 1993, p. 98.

History Today. XLIV, May, 1994, p. 56.

Library Journal. CXIX, October 1, 1994, p. 88.

London Review of Books. XVI, March 24, 1994, p. 11.

National Review. XLVI, November 7, 1994, p. 72.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, November 17, 1994, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. C, February 19, 1995, p. 37.

The New Yorker. LXX, October 17, 1994, p. 116.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, September 5, 1994, p. 97.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 22, 1993, p. 3.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, October 30, 1994, p. 4.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Few historical episodes stir as much passion as the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. The war represented the breakdown of an intensely polarized society. Rightists based in the army launched a rebellion against the left-wing government of the Spanish Republic. The ensuing struggle, brutally waged by both sides, devastated Spain and cost the lives of more than 600,000 people. The Spanish Civil War would be notable as yet another moral disaster of the Iberian Peninsula, but it did not remain an internecine brawl. It was quickly internationalized, and absorbed into the wider political currents of the 1930’s. The fascist powers of Germany and Italy championed the authoritarian crusade of the Nationalist insurgents, while the Soviet Union came to the defense of the beleaguered Republic. The Spanish agony became a tragedy into which outsiders read foreign meanings. The war was used as a martial laboratory for the great powers, and German and Soviet “advisers” experimented on the dusty plains of Castile with the weapons and tactics that would be unleashed to greater effect during World War II. The Spanish conflict early on came to be regarded as the opening phase of the general war all too many people anticipated in the tumultuous 1930’s. Hence thousands of idealists traveled to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic, and against the Nationalists aligned with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Others, more frightened by Joseph Stalin’s Russia than Hitler’s Germany, or shocked by anticlerical atrocities in the Republic, thrilled to the steady advance of the Nationalist conquistadors. To a remarkable degree, the struggle became a Western as well as a Spanish civil war.

As a consequence, few accounts of the Spanish Civil War are unbiased. In Great Britain and the United States, most historians have favored the cause of the doomed Republic. The ghosts of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway still dominate the Anglo-American memory of the Spanish conflict. Although both of these men wrote unsparingly of the moral and practical failures of the wartime Republic, they nevertheless enshrined its brief and embattled career as a theater of romantic heroism. Francisco Franco, the dour and portly general who commanded the Nationalist armies that overwhelmed the republican experiment in Spain, comfortably fit his traditional billing as the villain in this exemplary drama. The occasional British or U.S. hagiographer of the caudillo invariably founders on the icy rock of his implacable ruthlessness. Even a figure as unlovely as Francisco Franco, however, must ultimately command our attention, and with it some measure of guarded respect. Victor in a bitter war, contemporary and associate of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco managed to weather the storm of World War II and outlast by decades both his friends and enemies, ruling Spain until his death in 1975. Perhaps perversely, Franco ended his days as the most successful member of his generation of 1930’s tyrants. After maintaining his exhausted nation’s neutrality in World War II, for which he earned the undying gratitude of Western statesmen such as Winston Churchill, Franco gradually escaped international isolation. The onset of the Cold War highlighted Spain’s strategic importance. Franco’s determined anticommunism made him an acceptable ally for the United States, which in the 1950’s began leasing military airfields in Spain. Finally, the man who gave the fascist salute to Adolf Hitler endured to preside over the economic rebirth of his homeland, and its reintegration with the Western community of nations. In the years since his death, a few conservative voices in England and the United States have gone so far as to assert that Franco, for all his cruelty, was ultimately a benefactor to his nation and the West.

Paul Preston’s authoritative Franco: A Biography provides a welcome reappraisal of the Spanish dictator’s life and accomplishments. Preston brings impressive credentials to the task. He has spent years studying modern Spanish history, and is the author of numerous books on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. The result of Preston’s labors is a massive tome that refutes the arguments of recent apologists for the dictator. Preston presents a damning portrait of Franco as a man and as a leader. The Franco who emerges from his pages is a talented but fundamentally mediocre man, who, through luck and guile, aggrandized himself at the expense of a nation. In fundamental harmony with the traditional Anglo-American historiography of the Franco years, Preston’s book brilliantly transcends it. Preston makes no secret of his own political sympathy with the battered Republican movement in Spain, but he refuses to allow this to obscure his scholarly accomplishment. His book is solid academic history, not a polemic. He exhaustively researched Franco, and painstakingly documents all his assertions. Preston’s special grace is to ground conventional wisdom on Francisco Franco firmly in fact.

Preston also endeavors always to be fair to Franco, and he does not begrudge him credit for his virtues and his successes. Preston never allows his study to degenerate into the record of a monster. His Franco is always a fully rounded and comprehensible human being. Ultimately however, Preston is unable to fully capture the essence of Franco’s character. As he trenchantly remarks, Franco remains an...

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