The general and dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975) ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death. He rose to power during the bloody Spanish Civil War when, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, his Nationalist forces overthrew the democratically elected Second Republic. Adopting the title of “El Caudillo” (The Leader), Franco persecuted political opponents, repressed the culture and language of Spain’s Basque and Catalan regions, censured the media and otherwise exerted absolute control over the country. Some of these restrictions gradually eased as Franco got older, and upon his death the country transitioned to democracy.
Franco: The Early Years
Francisco Franco y Bahamonde was born on December 4, 1892, in El Ferrol, a small coastal town on Spain’s northwestern tip. Until age 12, Franco attended a private school run by a Catholic priest. He then entered a naval secondary school with the goal of following his father and grandfather into a sea-based military career. In 1907, however, the cash-strapped Spanish government temporarily suspended the admission of cadets into the Naval Academy. As a result, Franco enrolled at the Infantry Academy in Toledo, graduating three years later with below-average grades.
After a brief posting back in El Ferrol, Franco volunteered to fight an insurgency in Spanish-controlled Morocco. He arrived in early 1912 and stayed there largely without break until 1926. Along the way, he survived a gunshot wound to the abdomen, received a number of merit promotions and awards, and took time out to marry Carmen Polo y Martínez Valdés, with whom he would have one daughter. At age 33 Franco became the youngest general in all of Europe. He was then chosen to direct the newly formed General Military Academy in Zaragoza.
Franco and the Second Republic
A military dictatorship embraced by King Alfonso XIII governed Spain from 1923 to 1930, but municipal elections held in April 1931 deposed the king and ushered in the so-called Second Republic. In the aftermath of the elections, winning Republican candidates passed measures that reduced the power and influence of the military, the Catholic Church, property-owning elites and other entrenched interests. Franco, a known authoritarian rightist, was reprimanded for criticizing the actions of those in charge and sent to an out-of-the-way post near El Ferrol. Moreover, his General Military Academy was shut down.
Nevertheless, Franco was brought back into the good graces of the government in 1933 when a center-right coalition won elections. The following year he deployed troops from Morocco to Asturias in northern Spain to suppress a leftist revolt, an action that left some 4,000 dead and tens of thousands imprisoned. Meanwhile, street violence, political killings and general disorder were ramping up on both the right and the left. In 1935 Franco became army chief of staff. When a leftist coalition won the next round of elections in February 1936, he and other military leaders began discussing a coup.
Franco and the Spanish Civil War
Banished to a remote post in the Canary Islands, Franco initially hesitated in his support of the military conspiracy. He became fully committed, however, following the assassination by police of radical monarchist José Calvo Sotelo. On July 18, 1936, military officers launched a multipronged uprising that put them in control of most of the western half of the country. Franco’s role was to fly to Morocco and begin transporting troops to the mainland. He also made contacts with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, securing arms and other assistance that would continue throughout the duration of what became known as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).
Within a few months, Franco was named head of the rebel Nationalist government and commander-in-chief (generalísimo) of the armed forces. He unified a base of support by securing the backing of the Catholic Church, combining the fascist and monarchist political parties, and dissolving all other political parties. Meanwhile, on the way north, his men—who included fascist militia groups—machine-gunned hundreds or perhaps thousands of Republicans in the town of Badajoz. An additional tens of thousands of political prisoners would be executed by Nationalists later on in the fighting. The internally divided Republicans, who murdered their own share of political opponents, could not stop the slow Nationalist advance despite support from the Soviet Union and International Brigades. German and Italian bombardments helped the Nationalists conquer Basque lands and Asturias in 1937. Barcelona, the heart of Republican resistance, fell in January 1939, and Madrid surrendered that March, effectively ending the conflict.
Life Under Franco
Many Republican figures fled the country in the wake of the civil war, and military tribunals were set up to try those who remained. These tribunals sent thousands more Spaniards to their death, and Franco himself admitted in the mid-1940s that he had 26,000 political prisoners under lock and key. The Franco regime also essentially made Catholicism the only tolerated religion, banned the Catalan and Basque languages outside the home, forbade Catalan and Basque names for newborns, barred labor unions, promoted economic self-sufficiency policies and created a vast secret police network to spy on citizens.
Though he sympathized with the Axis powers, Franco largely stayed out of World War II (1939-45) but did send nearly 50,000 volunteers to fight alongside the Germans on the Soviet front. Franco also opened his ports to German submarines and invaded the internationally administered city of Tangier in Morocco. Following the war, Spain faced diplomatic and economic isolation, but that began to thaw as the Cold War heated up. In 1953 Spain allowed the United States to construct three air bases and a naval base on its soil in return for military and economic aid.
As Franco aged, he increasingly avoided daily political affairs, preferring instead to hunt and fish. At the same time, police controls and press censorship began to relax, strikes and protests became more commonplace, some free-market reforms were introduced, tourism increased and Morocco gained its independence. Franco died on November 20, 1975, after suffering a series of heart attacks. At his funeral, many mourners raised their arm in a fascist salute.
Life After Franco
Back in 1947 Franco had declared that a king would succeed him, and in 1969 he handpicked Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of King Alfonso XIII, for the role. Though Juan Carlos had spent a good deal of time alongside Franco and publicly supported the regime, he pressed for change immediately upon taking the throne, including the legalization of political parties. The first post-Franco elections were held in June 1977, and, except for an 18-hour-long coup attempt in 1981, Spain has remained democratic ever since.