Thirty years ago, on 20 November 1975, Spain’s dictator General Francisco Franco died. The last of the dictators from the 1930s, he left behind him 36 years of terror and misery.
Franco made a name for himself as commander of the Spanish army during its bloody colonial war in Morocco in the 1920s and in putting down the Asturian miners’ revolt in 1934. Two years later he was one of the leaders of an army rebellion against the left wing Republican government.
The Civil War which followed ended in 1939 with the country devastated, hundreds of thousands dead and Franco in control.
Support from the West, the economic transformation of Spain in the 1960s and the subsequent peaceful transition to democracy after Franco’s death have created the impression that somehow his regime was not fascist, or at least different from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In reality, Spain suffered under its own form of military-clerical fascism which, especially in its early years, was just as brutal as Hitler’s or Mussolini’s regimes.
Yet despite massive repression people would eventually fight back, an experience that is often forgotten when recalling this terrible period in Spain’s recent history.
During the Civil War, Franco’s military strategy was based on a slow and systematic destruction of the enemy, rather than ending the war quickly. His aim was the annihilation forever of what was termed the “anti-Spain”.
In territory occupied by his armies anyone known for their left wing ideas, such as a union member who had refused to grovel to the boss or the priest, was shot.
At least 100,000 were executed. Once the war ended thousands more were slaughtered and hundreds of thousands were imprisoned.
Between 1940 and 1942 alone it is calculated that 200,000 people died as a result of executions, mistreatment and hunger caused by the new regime’s economic policies. Over 400,000 fled into exile — 9,000 of them would later perish in Nazi death camps.
But such terror cannot be understood by citing figures alone. Daily life for the defeated was unbearable. Punitive legislation meant that personal property of the defeated could be confiscated, however miserable. The loss of your house, or a small plot of land, or even a sewing machine, could mean absolute destitution. Those identified as “reds” were denied work and harassed.
Life was particularly harsh for women. During the war “red” women were subjected to summary executions and rape by advancing fascist troops. With husbands and sons dead or in prison and without work (married women were not allowed to work under the new regime), thousands of women were forced to turn to prostitution, cynically confirming fascist propaganda that all “red” women were “whores”.
Meanwhile, in a particularly gross example of official state hypocrisy, the regime tried to enforce its Catholic fundamentalist views on the family.
This blanket repression was accompanied by propaganda which presented the “reds” as sub-human and not really Spanish. Racist pseudo theories and the harsh treatment of opponents parallelled that of the Franco’s Nazi allies.
Franco became dictator largely by chance. He was a mediocre military strategist and leader, but he was astute and cold-blooded enough to hold on to power. He headed a coalition of reactionary interests, of which the army and the church were particularly prominent.
However, it is wrong, as the Communist Party argued for many years, to portray his regime as lacking a social base. Apart from his ruling class backers, a mass of state functionaries and devout Catholics provided Franco with an important source of support.
His regime came to power thanks to massive aid from the fascist powers and due to the British and French ruling classes’ refusal to help the democratically elected government. Faced with the spectre of social revolution in Republican Spain, Europe’s rich and powerful preferred a Franco victory.
After the Civil War the regime survived not only through the extermination of its enemies, but above all because of the support it received from these same Western democracies — especially the US, which saw Franco as a bulwark against communism.
Once the Axis powers had been defeated in the Second World War, it was the church, rather than the only political party, the Falange, that played a pivotal ideological role in sustaining the regime.
Under the all-pervasive umbrella of “National Catholicism”, the church totally controlled education and public morals. It preached and helped enforce total acceptance, as god given, of class differences and unfettered exploitation. And it made sure that women were legally subordinated to men.
Franco also set out to eliminate all vestiges of any culture or symbol that was not truly “Spanish”. Thus the Basque and Catalan languages and culture were totally repressed.
Above all, Franco’s regime aimed to guarantee unhindered exploitation of the working class. A fascist charade of “vertical unions”, which included both workers and bosses, made sure that discipline was maintained. Wage levels and working conditions, already poor by Western European standards, plummeted, while profits soared.
Despite appalling repression, fear and demoralisation, there was opposition to the new regime. In the late 1940s Communist-led guerrillas held down tens of thousands of troops for several years before being smashed. During the 1950s there were a series of worker and student protests.
But it would be the economic boom of the 1960s that laid the basis for a new mass opposition to the regime. Franco was persuaded by his economic advisers from the elite Catholic Opus Dei to end the policy of autarky (self-sufficiency) which was now blamed for ruining Spain’s economy.
During the following decade the country was transformed into a modern urban and industrial society. The boom, often held up by his apologists as one of Franco’s greatest achievements, was sparked off because Spain’s economy was opened up to foreign investment and tourism. It had little to do with any great foresight by the dictatorship.
Most importantly, the change in economic policy coincided with the biggest boom in the history of capitalism.
Many of the new generation of workers began to demand improvements in working and living conditions. By the late 1960s there was a growing strike wave throughout the country and the organisation of new democratic unions, workers commissions.
The regime responded by trying to repress the movement with mass arrests and torture, thus ending the very limited “liberalisation” of the mid-1960s.
But by now many workers were confident of their strength and refused to be cowed. By the early 1970s Spain had one of the highest strike rates in the world, despite strikes being strictly illegal. The strike movement also increasingly called for an end to fascism.
In the Basque Country, the emergence of the ETA guerrilla group also challenged the regime’s authority.
The revolution in Portugal, where the overthrow of a similar regime in 1974 had led to widespread political radicalisation, was just as much a dire warning for the Spanish ruling class as it was an inspiration for the opposition in the streets. Spanish capitalists wanted to protect their profits and were eager to enter the European Common Market. The continuance of the dictatorship was an obstacle to both.
The transition to democracy, which culminated with elections in 1977, was on the basis of a pact between the more intelligent members of the regime and the opposition.
It was a pact that left much of the Francoist state machinery in place and allowed a veil to be drawn over nearly 40 years of political crimes. The Communist Party, the most important opposition party since the Civil War, played a central role in ensuring that the mass mobilisations did not undermine this new hybrid democracy.
It was a modernised Socialist Party, backed by millions of dollars from the German social democrats, and not the Communists who benefited most from this deal. The radical left became demobilised and disoriented.
In recent years a new generation of anti-capitalists has emerged in Spain. They are faced with the task of both building on the traditions of struggle that so marked their parents’ generation and, above all, of making their own unique contribution to rebuilding a militant left.
Andy Durgan is a member of the En Lucha socialist group in Spain and was a historical adviser to Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom. Go to www.enlucha.org (in Spanish)