Franco and the Spanish Civil War: Julius Ruiz Evaluates Franco's Role during the Conflict

By Ruiz, Julius | History Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Franco and the Spanish Civil War: Julius Ruiz Evaluates Franco's Role during the Conflict


Ruiz, Julius, History Review


On Friday 19 May 1939, General Francisco Franco stepped onto a raised platform on Madrid's most elegant thoroughfare, the Castellana. Above him was a triumphal arch with an inscription written in gold: 'VICTORIA, FRANCO, FRANCO, FRANCO'. After receiving Spain's highest military honour, the Grand Cross of San Fernando with Laurels, Franco, surrounded by government ministers and generals, presided over a five-hour victory parade of Italian and Portuguese 'volunteers' and 120,000 solders of the Nationalist army. The following day, he arrived at the Madrid Church of Santa Barbara to attend a Te Deum service held to celebrate his victory in the civil war. Under the approving gaze of Cardinal Goma, the Archbishop of Toledo and the Primate of all Spain, he prayed that God might grant him assistance to lead his people to 'full imperial liberty, for Thy glory and that of Thy Church'.

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Such scenes seemed unlikely in the spring and early summer of 1936. Franco had been approached by General Emilio Mola, the organiser of the military rebellion, and promised a significant role in the rising. Although Franco had been demoted from his post of chief of the general staff to a provincial military command in the Canary Islands by Manuel Azana's leftwing Popular Front government that February, his response to Mola was so ambiguous that conspirators gave him the epithet of 'Miss Canary Islands 1936'. As late as 23 June, less than one month before the rebellion, Franco wrote to the Republican prime minister, Casares Quiroga, offering his co-operation to restore 'order' on the Spanish mainland.

His caution about participating in such a risky venture as a rebellion was partly due to his personality. Born in Galicia in 1892, Franco shared the retranca or inscrutability of many born in that region. Nevertheless, his evasiveness also reflected his hope that the Republican government would call in the army--and of course himself--to 'save' Spain from internal threats to the nation such as Catalan and Basque nationalism and the left.

The Traditional Role of the Military

Franco's assumption that the military was the saviour of the Spanish nation had deep historical roots. Traditionally, the military's duty was to protect Spain against its external and internal enemies. This dual role was a feature of Spain's very first constitution of 1812 and was inserted into the army's Constitution of 1878 that was still in force in 1936. The military protected Spain against internal enemies in two ways. The first was by carrying out civilian policing duties, with its Civil Guard. The second was military intervention in civilian politics. A recurrent feature of Spanish political life for much of the nineteenth century was the pronunciamiento--the 'pronouncement' of the military against a government. But nineteenth-century pronunciamientos, unlike that of 1936, tended to be liberal in nature. The main internal enemy was the traditionalist Carlist movement, which would fight for Franco during the civil war.

Military conceptions of the internal enemy had therefore shifted to the right by 1936. This was as a result of two wars: the Spanish-American War of 1898, which saw the loss of the remnants of the old Spanish Empire, in particular Cuba, and the protracted colonial war in Morocco. The military blamed civilian government for the disaster of 1898 and increasingly saw itself as both the embodiment of the Spanish nation and the guarantee of its survival from internal enemies threatening Spain with dissolution, such as Catalan nationalists. It also saw itself as the basis of Spain's future revival. In 1923, general Primo de Rivera overthrew constitutional government with the promise of 'regenerating' Spain.

National revival was also to come from a new empire in North Africa. In 1906 international recognition was accorded to Spanish control of northern Morocco, though the Spanish colonial army only secured full control of the region in 1925 by brutally crushing resistance from the local tribes, even using chemical weapons. …

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