Franco Crusader Saviour?

Franco: Crusader and Saviour?
The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936; on April 1, 1939 it was officially over. This marked the end of the Second Republic (1931-39), which had made a valiant if misguided effort at coming to terms with the country’s past.

The Second Republic had attempted too much, too quickly and with too much passion. As a result it got caught up in the maelstrom of Spanish history and, without being able to extricate itself, got trapped in a terrible, fratricidal war. 

The outcome was a return to the past, to a nation that was once again unitary although far from united. Under General Franco, the Nationalist uprising of 1936 had defeated the legitimately elected Second Republic and paved the way for resurgent conservatism.

More power was now invested in one individual, Franco, than at any time since 1812, when the first constitution had put an end to absolute monarchy. Force had the “virtue” of eliminating the political and social “problems” that had undermined the Second Republic.

The result was a “unified” country or, as the Nationalists preferred to proclaim, borrowing from the Falange hymn, Cara al sol (“Facing the sun”): España una, grande, libre (“Spain one, great and free”). No more regionalism, no more radical claims for land, no more liberalism, republicanism, socialism, anarchism, freemasonry, and above all communism.

What came after the Civil War was a thorough cleansing of republican Spain, the equivalent of the 16th-century limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”). Spain had recovered its purity, its Catholic soul, thanks to Francisco Franco, crusader, conqueror, saviour!

These were not idle expressions. The language of religious wars and conquest was an essential part of that glorious past which fired Nationalist fervour. Perhaps nothing better epitomises this association with the past than the official press communique released before Franco’s victory parade (ironically called the Parade of Peace) in Madrid on May 19: General Franco’s entry into Madrid will follow the ritual observed when Alfonso VI, accompanied by the Cid, captured Toledo in the Middle Ages (Preston 329).

**The Cid in fact did not accompany Alfonso VI when the latter entered Toledo triumphantly in1085. It’s no more than an attractive legend, and in this case useful propaganda.

At the same time, celebrations were to be held in the towns and villages throughout the country commemorating the “Crusade” and its historic significance. In Toledo, for example, medieval jousts took place in which a knight challenged all the knights of the city in the name of God, Spain and Franco! 

The Civil War was portrayed by Nationalists and the Catholic Church not only as a crusade but a reconquest also! A reconquest of Spain’s Catholic heritage, the enemy this time being communists, liberals, freemasons etc. rather than the Moors/Muslims (whose descendants –Moroccan mercenaries– were ironically used to bolster the Nationalist forces).

Franco himself entered a bedecked Madrid on May 18th (Ascension Day that year), symbolically mounted on a white horse. On the following day he took the salute at the parade, against a background of historically symbolic flags from all corners of the country. 

These included the banner of the battle of the Navas de Tolosa (1212), the standard draped over the tomb of the Cid (1043?-1099), and the royal standard from the conquest of Granada (1492)! The parade lasted five hours.  In addition to Nationalist regulars, Falangists*, Carlist **militia (requetes) bearing large crucifixes, and Spanish legionnaires, there were Italian soldiers, Portuguese volunteers, Moroccan mercenaries and members of the German Condor Legion, all receiving prominent placement in the march past.

Only one thing spoiled the celebration … it rained! Even so, the Nationalist spin doctors had an explanation for that:The sun which so often embraced the skin of those heroes did not want to tire them today during the Parade of Peace. As for the dictator, he stood smiling, soaked by the fresh baptismal water of a Spring that will mature the wheat of the cereal fields of Spain (transl. from Suero 37)!

*The Falange, a right wing Spanish party with fascist overtones, created in 1933. In 1937, it was amalgamated with the Carlist Monarchist Traditionalists to form the FET y de las JONS, which in turn were absorbed into the all-embracing Movimiento Nacional or Movimiento, headed by Franco.
**Carlism: a holdover from the civil wars of the 19th century between supporters of Isabel II and Charles/Carlos, claimant to the Spanish throne following the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833.

The theatrical spirit of the parade was far from spent. On the next day, Franco attended a thanksgiving service (Te Deum) celebrated by Cardinal Gomá at the basilica of Santa Barbara. Entering under fronds of palm leaves, and to the roll of artillery fire and the peal of bells, Franco was received by church dignitaries resplendent in all their pomp.

Inside, the choir from the medieval Benedictine monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos chanted a Mozarabic hymn for the reception of princes (Preston 330). Surrounded by a sea of historic banners –the battle flag of Las Navas de Tolosa and the standard of the Battle of Lepanto, for example– Franco handed over to Cardinal Gomá his sword of victory and in turn received the cardinal’s solemn blessing.

It was a fitting marriage of minds: a reactionary Christian institution that yearned to rechristianise Spain in its image and an individual who dreamed of emulating the Spanish heroes of the past. It was also a marriage of convenience, a symbiotic relationship between a church that proclaimed the message of the Prince of Peace and a military leader whose religious sentiment was upheld by an idealised image of a powerful, imperial Spain, similar to that created by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel.

The Franco regime imitated the coat of arms of Ferdinand and Isabel, which included the yoke and arrows adopted by the Falangists as their emblem.

Coat of Arms of the Franco Regime. Yoke bottom left, arrows bottom right.

The  Nationalist propaganda machine worked full time showering accolades upon their leader in those early days. The 5ft 3″ (160 centimetres), portly, balding, socially awkward caudillo with a soft, high pitched voice, was transformed into a divinely favoured superman.  Acclaimed as a messenger from God, saviour, judge, sentinel, the crusader of the West, invincible warrior, father, Franco basked in the glow of sycophantic exaggeration.

The following seems like a caricature but was typical of the kind of drivel that could be read: And in this crucial moment of destiny, here comes a man called by God … there descends from a plane a man, a Spaniard, a soldier.  Greetings, controlled enthusiasm, seriousness, joyful, resolved tension, quick gestures, a clicking of heels and spurs … And the history of the world suddenly changes, and Spain is saved from the abyss (transl. from Sueiro 43-44).

Another example: Summary, compendium, synthesis of the Race of yesterday that vibrates today and is projected into the future… Living incarnation … Man of steel that Spain dreamed of: Renowned warrior with a generous and simple heart who has redeemed –forever– our patriotic land… Bearer of the banners of glory of the heroes of the past: the Cid Campeador, don Gonzalo de Córdoba, don Juan de Austria, and with them –warrior and believer– you are the new doer of deeds for Immortal Spain… Defender of our Catholic Faith… (transl. from Sueiro 45). 

A final example: an editor of the Barcelona  newspaper La Vanguardia Española acclaimed Franco as the Caudillo of the West, the only truly great man of the twentieth century, a giant by the sides of such dwarves as Churchill and Roosevelt! (Preston 626). The list could go on.

Over the 36 years of Franco dictatorship, political, economic and social conditions evolved rapidly, both internationally and nationally. Franco survived as caudillo until his death, refusing to step down.  He insisted his onerous task was divinely sanctioned and would end only when God relieved him of those duties.

He believed himself a great man, a self-image constantly reinforced by state propaganda. Fossilised in the past, he took his leave of the nation with words –to be addressed to the people as his political testament after his death– that reflected an unchanging and uncompromising attitude: do not forget that the enemies of Spain and of Christian civilisation are on the alert (Preston 779). 

In the world community, the majority did not forget that Franco was the enemy of freedom and in the end denied him the glory of international respect. When he died on November 20, 1975, his funeral was attended by very few foreign dignitaries.

There were representatives of almost 100 foreign countries, but the only head of state was his fellow dictator, General Augusto Pinochet of Chile. That sums up the little esteem Franco enjoyed on the international stage.

August 24, 2018: Franco still generates fierce disagreements. A decree to disinter his body buried in the massive mausoleum he had built in El Valle de Los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen) north of Madrid has provoked considerable discussion. For more, read

October 24, 2019: After almost 44 years, Franco’s remains were finally removed by helicopter from the Valley of the Fallen and transferred to El Pardo-Mingorrubio Cemetery, just north of Madrid, where he was buried next to his wife, Doña Carmen, in the family mausoleum. The transfer fulfilled a campaign pledge made by the Socialist Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, shortly after coming into power in June 2018.

The exhumation follows sixteen months of wrangling, with the Franco family and sympathisers mounting a heated attack against the proposed disinterment. Permission was finally granted by the Supreme Court for the transfer on September 24, 2019.

At the cemetery, a Mass was celebrated, led by the priest Ramón Tejero Díez, ultraconservative son of Antonio Tejero, the former Civil Guard who attempted a coup against the Spanish Government on February 23, 1981 (known simply as F-23).

The exhumation has received wide publicity. For more, simply google: Franco exhumation.

Barton, Simon   A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Ellwood, Sheelagh    Francisco Franco London, New York 1995
Gibson, Ian        Fire in the Blood: The New Spain London 1992
Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford  Franco: A Concise Biography London 2000
Preston, Paul    Franco London 1995
Shubert, Adrian  A Social History of Modern Spain  London 1990
Sueiro, Daniel & Diaz Nosty, Bernardo  Historia del Franquismo Vol 1, Madrid 1986
Tremlett, Giles Ghosts of Spain New York, Berlin 2008
Spanish Coat of Arms under Franco: