BOOK REVIEW / The folly of appeasement: Franco: A Biography by Paul Preston, HarperCollins pounds 25

Frank McLynn
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:02

THE CONTRAST between high-level peasant cunning and stupefying intellectual mediocrity has been the hallmark of many 20th-century political leaders. In this biography of Francisco Franco Bahamonde, a massively researched book which is also highly readable, Paul Preston puts that contrast at the centre of his attempt to solve the enigma of the caudillo.

'The banality of evil' is the obvious, if overworked, phrase that comes to mind when contemplating the mild- mannered, fluty-voiced near-dwarf who is his subject. Franco never had a profound thought nor uttered an interesting sentence, yet the apparatus of terror and repression with which he cowed Spain for nearly 40 years was unparalleled outside Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia.

Like Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Franco was a provincial who came to supreme power young. His formative influences were his native Galicia and army service. Preston makes much of the retranca (roughly, cynical peasant pragmatism) of the gallego, of whom it is said that if you meet him on a staircase you cannot be certain whether he is going up or down. Morocco, where Franco learned his military craft, taught him to treat all opponents as benighted barbarians.

Despite his meteoric rise as commander of the Spanish Legion in Morocco, Franco was always an indifferent captain, but his lacklustre performance in the Spanish Civil War was partly calculated: he could have finished the war in 1938 but preferred to fight long, slugging battles so that the Republican Army would be totally annihilated. Franco must shoulder much of the blame for the devastated state of Spain in 1939. The total of casualties, 600,000, equalled that of the American Civil War.

Contrary to popular belief, Franco did not initiate the Nationalist rebellion which began the Civil War but, typically, joined in after it had gained early successes. In 1936 he was seeded a mere fifth in the Nationalist hierarchy, but then luck - which Napoleon insisted was, in the end, the only thing that counted in war - lent a hand, as it so often would until his death in 1975. The civilian leaders Calvo Sotelo and Primo de Rivera were both early casualties of Republican firing squads; Franco could have rescued Primo de Rivera in a prisoner cartel but preferred to see a rival out of the way. His military superiors, generals Mola and Sanjurjo, both died in mysterious plane crashes, possibly the result of sabotage by Franco's agents. Franco also had the military commander of Grand Canary assassinated in 1936.

He won the Civil War because he had superior Italian troops and German planes, because the Republican opposition preferred faction fighting - anarchists against 'bourgeois' republicans, communists against Trotskyists - and because of Britain's shameful appeasement, even after Axis submarines sank British ships. Preston concludes: 'The Anglo-French policy of Non-Intervention . . . was a farce which favoured the Nationalists at the expense of the Republic and appeased the fascist dictators. It was described

by one Foreign Office official as 'an extremely useful piece of humbug'.'

Preston's merciless dissection of

the official Francoist 'Crusade' line on the Civil War is brilliant. He

points up the myriad lies and poisonous propaganda - for instance, about Guernica and the 'heroic' defence ofthe Alcazar at Toledo, where the Nationalists deterred attack by the simple expedient of taking women and children hostage - that Franco and his sycophants used to rewrite history. The humbug of Franco's claim to be fighting a crusade for Christianity was all too successful. Catholics and conservatives fell for it with all the intellectual insight of the Three Stooges - and many still do.

While correcting dozens of mistakes by earlier Franco biographers, some mere hagiographers, Preston also nails the most successful lie in the Francoist canon - one swallowed whole by Churchill - that it was the caudillo's statesmanship and perspicacity that kept Spain out of the Second World War. In fact Spain's neutrality had nothing to do with the skill or vision of Franco but stemmed from circumstances beyond his control. Mussolini's entry into the war had made Hitler wary of another impecunious ally and he could not afford the high price in African 'conquests' that Franco was demanding as his condition for entry. Above all, the Civil War had left Spain exhausted and devastated, and the Allies had a stranglehold over desperately needed food and fuel.

When Franco sent his Blue Division to fight with the Wehrmacht on the Russian front, he was, as ever, fortunate that the Soviet Union did not retaliate with a declaration of war. If Stalin had responded rationally to this hostile act (he declared war on Japan in 1945 for far more trivial reasons) the Allies would have had no choice after the defeat of Germany but to clear out the nest of Falangist vipers in Spain.

After surviving for two years while Britain and the United States dithered about what action to take against Spain, Franco came into his own in the Cold War. As a 'bulwark against communism' he became 'our sonofabitch'. The lease of air bases to the US in 1953 consolidated his power. For the last 20 years of his life he had an easy run, though after 1959 he left day-to- day administration and the economy in the hands of Lopez Rodo and the new technocrats. Preston points out that it was they who wrought Spain's economic miracle, encouraging foreign investment and tourism, for which, naturally, the caudillo (whose own economic ideas never got beyond a primitive autarky based on agricultural self- sufficiency) took the credit.

Preston also answers the question every student of dictators must pose: how did Franco maintain his power? He did it, Preston argues, by constructing a pyramid of privilege and corruption. His top generals were allowed to make millions from shady business deals, their officers in turn got their cut, and so on down the line. In this way the entire structure of military power was co-opted by the caudillo and depended on his survival. This system also allowed Franco to indulge his favourite hobby of manipulation, playing one faction off against another.

In short, there is not a single important question about Franco that Preston does not answer convincingly. And he sees through the cascades of Francoist lies at every point. This is a superb biography that should be read by everyone, and particularly by those who still cling to the idea that 1930s appeasement was a credible policy.

(Photograph omitted)

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