For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Franco Regime and Contemporary Spain

By Kurth, James | Modern Age, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Franco Regime and Contemporary Spain


Kurth, James, Modern Age


SOME 75 YEARS AGO--long ago and far away--there occurred an event almost totally forgotten today but that at its time and for decades thereafter captured the attention and haunted the memory of most of the Western world--the Spanish Civil War. The war began on July 18, 1936, when General Francisco Franco proclaimed a military uprising to overthrow the Spanish Second Republic and in particular its Popular Front government. (1) The Spanish Civil War went on for three terrible years (almost three hundred thousand Spaniards were killed), with the Franco forces being aided by both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and with the Republican forces being aided by the Soviet Union and the legendary "International Brigades." It was out of this epic conflict that Ernest Hemingway wrote his moving and memorable novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), about an American academic who fought on the Republican side (and who was played by Gary Cooper in the equally moving and memorable film version of the book).

The Spanish Civil War came to an end with Franco's decisive victory in March 1939, and it was followed almost immediately by the outbreak of that even greater epic conflict, the Second World War, in September 1939. That war brought about the equally decisive defeat of Fascist Italy and also Nazi Germany, and for a couple of years after 1945, it seemed that Franco's Spain would also soon be swept away. But the Franco regime--confounding the hopes and expectations of liberals, democrats, and socialists throughout the West--survived and even thrived in Spain for another 30 years, ending only with Franco's peaceful death in November 1975.

Whatever the great and obvious problems of contemporary Spain, most Western liberals and socialists take it for granted that the Franco regime was an altogether reprehensible system, a dictatorship that was not only politically repressive, economically exploitative, and culturally retrograde, but also one that can properly be identified as fascist to boot. The grand consensus of liberals and socialists has always been that nothing good can be said about the Franco regime and certainly that there is nothing positive that can be learned from it. On the contrary, the regime was so terrible that it is now an object of scorn, so much so that the Socialist Party, during its rule from 2004 to 2011, engaged in the systematic destruction of virtually all the many monuments and artifacts of the Franco era, which were once so common throughout Spain. (2)

Even contemporary conservatives and Catholics today find little positive about the Franco regime. They know that their counterparts in previous generations once supported and praised Franco and his system, but now they find this view of earlier conservatives and Catholics to be an embarrassment, and so they have accepted the liberal-socialist consensus. Franco and his supporters may have decisively won on the actual battlefields of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, but they have certainly lost on the mental battlefields of the memory and history of Spain since the 1990s.

This essay will present a view different from this long-standing and now widely held liberal and socialist consensus, a consensus that now includes most contemporary conservatives and Catholics as well. Our view is one that has much in common with that of the conservatives and Catholics of earlier generations, but it also takes into account how Spain has evolved and changed during the more than thirty-five years since the end of the Franco era, arriving finally at its troubled condition today.

Any contemporary evaluation of the Franco era must address three charges that have been central and prevalent in Western opinion about Franco and his regime, ever since its origins in the Spanish Civil War seventy-five years ago:

(1) Franco and his regime were fascist;

(2) Franco was an ally of Hitler during the Second World War; and

(3) Franco's regime was economically exploitative, politically repressive, culturally retrograde, and altogether bad for Spain. …

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