For a recent edition of our Everything You Wanted To Know podcast series I spoke to Professor Paul Preston about the Spanish Civil War, which pitted the Spanish Republic against the Nationalist rebels led by Francisco Franco, who would go on to rule Spain until 1975.
One question I put to Preston – that frequently arises in discussions of Franco – is whether or not he was a ‘fascist’. It’s not a simple question to answer, because, as he explained, “it gets us into the whole area of what ‘fascist’ means”.
“If people are looking for a quick and easy insult to those on the right, then fascist, is your go-to term,” he says. “If you’re asking an academic political theorist what constitutes a fascist then you’d have to say Franco isn’t.”
Listen to the full interview, in which Paul Preston responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the conflict that tore Spain apart from 1936–39
But that’s not intended to let the Spanish dictator off the hook. “I caused quite a stir in Spain a few years ago when asked this question,” Preston recalled, “and I said Franco wasn’t a fascist … he was something much worse.
“What I meant by that is that the only absolutely indisputable fascist leader is Mussolini and the only indisputably fascist regime is Mussolini’s regime. And, there are so many ways in which Franco is different.”
How, then, was Franco “much worse”? Preston argues that Franco was a “deeply conservative” man who, having previously served with the Spanish Army in North Africa, “had the mental furniture of a Spanish colonial officer”. This had seemingly imbued him with a shocking disregard for human life.
“In one of the very first interviews that he did at the beginning of the war, he said ‘I’ll soon control all of Spain’. The journalist, an American called Jay Allen, said, ‘Well that means you’d have to shoot half of Spain’ and Franco replied, ‘If that’s what’s necessary, that’s what will be done’. Now I don’t think Mussolini ever planned on shooting half of Italy.”
In the early months of 1939, victory for Franco’s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War became inevitable. The elected Republican government began planning peace negotiations – only for a treacherous army commander to derail their hopes for an end to violence…
Ultimately though, whether or not Franco was a fascist, is a ‘technicality’ in Preston’s view. As he points out, Franco was extremely close to Mussolini and Adolf Hitler – who both provided critical aid to his forces during the Spanish Civil War – and was “so much part of what will become the Axis”, although ultimately wouldn’t officially join the alliance.
And Preston believes it’s fair to describe those ranged against Franco, as ‘anti-fascist’. “Why did the International Brigades come to Spain? Franco was so close to Hitler and Mussolini and their ambitions that his opponents, especially from outside Spain, were saying ‘We have to stop fascism in Spain because if we don’t, next, it will be Paris being bombed. And it will be London being bombed.’ So in that sense, it’s not so much that Franco was a fascist, but the opposition to him was very much anti-fascist.”
Paul Preston is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. His books include The Last Days of the Spanish Republic (William Collins, 2016)