Franco, Fascism and the Falange – Not One and the Same Thing

by Norman Berdichevsky (Sept. 2008)

The long term misunderstanding and simplification of RIGHT vs. LEFT terminology in political discourse is responsible for the misconception that “The RIGHT” with its emphasis on traditional, nationalistic, conservative or religious values is inevitably a step in the direction of the FAR RIGHT “ending in Fascism.” Yet history has demonstrated that both political extremes share a basic common appeal to the “masses” and depend on a collectivist ideology that glorifies abstractions such as “The Nation,” “The People,” “The Throne” or “The Working Class.”

On the eve of World War II, various so called “Right Wing” authoritarian regimes of the conservative, traditional, national and religious type (always considered by the Left to be “proto-Fascist”) in Ethiopia (Emperor Haile Selassi),  Austria (the “Clerical-Fascist” regime of Engelbert Dollfus and Kurt Schuschnigg), Poland (General Jozef Pilsudski and his successors), Yugoslavia (General Simovic and his supporters in the armed forces) and Greece (Ionnas Metaxas), all stood up and opposed Hitler and the Axis forces that threatened to blackmail, intimidate and subjugate their nations. All these leaders were labeled as “Fascist” by Soviet and Left-Wing propaganda up until the German invasion of the USSR in 1941.

The Spanish Civil War has frequently been portrayed as an epic struggle between the forces of the LEFT (variously identified as progressive, liberal, socialist, internationalist, democratic and “anti-Fascist”) and the RIGHT (labeled reactionary, conservative, religious, and “anti-democratic”).

In American political discourse, “Fascist!”  is the ultimate epithet bandied about and frequently hung around the neck of those who value constitutional safeguards, parliamentary traditions, have deep seated religious convictions or believe in a strong military stance to defend the United States or RESOLUTELY opposed Communism.  

Of course, the only reluctance to use the term “Fascist” by a large segment of Left-Liberal opinion in America today is where it is most strikingly accurate – Islamo-Fascism, a term that describes the enemies we, Western civilization, Israel, Spain, Denmark and democracies from India to Australia and even moderate Arab/Muslim states such as Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon currently face. China and Russia face this same threat as well but prefer to ignore it and pretend that it is only directed against Israel or the Western and capitalist societies. 

During the latter part of General Franco’s long 35-year rule, more and more speculation revolved around the question of who or exactly what type of regime would succeed him. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Franco survived World War II as well as the isolation of his country by the Allies, who at first considered him a remnant of the Fascist states aligned with the Axis powers. Franco, however, was a military man whose career in the army and arch-conservative views propelled him to lead the uprising against the Republic, but he did not establish a political party nor did he express open support for any of the various Catholic, conservative, monarchist and fascist parties who rallied to his cause. In order to understand both what happened during and after the Spanish Civil War, it is necessary to distinguish between the coalition of forces that supported both sides in the conflict.

Franco’s supporters were divided between those who hoped for a return to the monarchy, rival wings of the Bourbon dynasty, moderates, conservatives and the Fascists. The Fascist but anti-monarchist forces of the Falange Española (Spanish Phalanx), had been founded by the extremely popular (and handsome) “martyred leader” (executed by the Republican forces) Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (son of the dictator who ruled the country following World War I), wanted a republic, modeled after Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and claimed to be the hero of Spain’s poor and dispossessed. He appealed to the working class and stressed that they had his full sympathy and understanding of the oppressive role played by the monarchy and landed aristocracy.

Many conservative supporters of the church, military and monarchy were concerned as much by the leader of the Falange, Jose Antonio, (always referred to by his admirers and followers by his first names only) as by the Marxists and their myriad anarchist and socialist parties. The moderate conservative right, monarchist and centrist parties that opposed the Leftist “Popular Front” in the elections in 1936 refused to enter into an electoral alliance with the Falange which stood isolated.

Jose Antonio had stepped on too many toes by his justifiable criticism of scandal and corruption among parties of all shades. His calls for social justice for the Spanish working class, small farmers and agricultural workers led to charges by the Catholic and conservative Right Wing Press that he was a “Bolshevik” to which he responded that all those wealthy Spaniards who valued luxuries and their petty whims more than the hunger of the people were the real Bolsheviks –“the Bolshevism of the Privileged” and added oil to the fire by proclaiming “In the depths of our souls there vibrates a sympathy toward many people of the Left who have arrived at hatred by the same path which has led us to love – criticism of a sad mediocre, miserable and melancholy Spain.” 

Mussolini had been a Socialist in his youth and shown anti-Catholic sentiments during the first ten years of Fascist rule. Similarly in Spain, the Catholic Church was suspicious of the Falange and its street violence and the populist appeals of Jose Antonio. The ultra-reactionary Carlist movement that was still popular in much of the Basque Country, Aragon and elsewhere in the Northern part of the country and had supported a return to an absolute monarchy, ridiculed the Falange, its ultra-modernism and its “intellectuals”, notably Jose Antonio. The Carlists were opposed to all liberal or “modern” reforms, supported a rival wing of the Bourbon dynasty, opposed female succession to the throne and maintained its own militia known as the Requetés and a political party, the Comunion Tradicionalista. During the war, the Requetés mocked the amateurish and undisciplined nature of the Falange which they viewed with contempt. Their view was supported by the Army general staff under Franco who generally assigned the Falange units to the rear guard sectors.

Jose Antonio created a movement in cooperation with the more proletarian-based syndicalist movement known as the JONS (Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista), and appealed to the Spanish working class by attacking what he called “the social bankruptcy of capitalism.” He explained that a socialist victory at the polls and a Socialist regime in Spain would be “the equivalent of a foreign invasion.” To avoid this, employers and workers must be united in a system without exploitation or class struggle. The new state would draw its inspiration from traditional Spanish values, morality, the guiding spirit of the Church to which he paid lip service, but most of all, strive to regain Spain’s imperial destiny and its old “soul” – heroic, sober, austere yet generous, knightly (but not aristocratic!) and Castilian.

Neither Jose Antonio nor Franco used any anti-Semitic rhetoric in their propaganda, although some of their followers did, as the Nationalist forces came to rely more and more on military aid from Nazi Germany and a Mussolini who had forced himself to go along with the racist anti-Jewish ideology of Hitler in order to cement the Axis alliance. The Falange had successes too during the war. They succeeded in welcoming into the party ranks tens of thousands of Spanish workers from the factories, shipyards and mines of the industrial areas of the country that had previously been the major centers of Communist and Socialist strength. Nothing better illustrates the appeal of the Falange to the same working class electorate as the Far Left.

The young dynamic leader of the Falange was, like his father, a great admirer of Great Britain and spoke fluent English. He has been repelled by Hitler on his one visit to Nazi Germany in the Spring of 1934 and regarded the Nazi officials he met with as depressing and rancorous. Had he lived, a major struggle between him and Franco would probably have been inevitable. Unlike the dour Franco, Jose Antonio was an accomplished orator, intellectual and parliamentarian. His execution by Republican forces in 1936 was a grave mistake.

The Falange was left leaderless after the execution of Jose Antonio by a Republican firing squad. The realization that their movement was beginning to wither away, caused some would-be leaders of the Falange to scheme at outflanking or deposing Franco and pushing Spain into joining Nazi Germany in World War II. By the end of the war however, the movement had been deprived of any real power in the state and Franco had come to regard them as an impediment to improving his image abroad.

Jose Antonio represented the more human face of the Spanish “Right” and had come to deeply regret the scourge of Civil War that was tearing Spanish society apart. He had supported the coup of the generals to replace what he believed was a failed chaotic Republic but he had begun to weigh more and more the possibility that only a compromise with the forces of the Left would save Spain from savagery and destruction. Even before the Civil War, he had toyed with the idea of somehow forming a coalition with the Socialists. Among his last papers written in prison before his execution was a proposal to form a unity government of pacification and reconciliation in which Socialist leader, Indelicio Prieto, would be given the portfolio of Minister of Public Works.

In the last interview conducted with him by an American reporter, Jay Allen, he responded to the charge that Falangist troops had committed atrocities against Republican soldiers and civilians. Jose Antonio was shocked by this news and replied that he would like to believe that it was not true, but if it were, it meant that his followers were leaderless and had been mislead under great provocation. He declared that if indeed General Franco was “a reactionary,” he would withdraw the Falange from the conflict. After the Civil War, Franco had a great Monument to the Fallen constructed in the Valle de los Caídos outside of Madrid. He had Jose Antonio’s body interred there as a way of capitalizing on the Falange leader’s popularity and obscuring the conflict between them. Today, one may still view the funeral vaults of Franco and Jose Antonio that glare at each other across a wide hall.  

During the Spanish Civil War, Franco assumed the status of Commander-in-Chief (Generalisimo), and adopted the title of Caudillo (leader). He merged the rival groups of the Nationalist coalition into a “National Movement” with the title of Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (abbreviated as La FET de la JONS), or simply El Movimiento Nacional. The National Movement became the only legal political entity in Spain during the remainder of Franco’s rule until his death in 1975. The Falange had a major influence in the movement at its inception but its leaders were gradually reduced to a mere token presence and then almost thoroughly eliminated by the time of Franco’s death.

All the constituent groups of Franco’s “National Movement” maintained their identity, however, but unreservedly supported the slogans of España Una, Grande y Libre (One Great and Free Spain) opposed to any divisive separatism by the recalcitrant “regional nationalists” of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Franco tiptoed among the elements of the National Movement, assigning them influence and posts in his cabinet according to his mood at the time, with the intention of balancing them so as to have everyone in doubt where he stood on a successor to the regime.

The Falangists caused concern to supporters of Franco and those who hoped for a return to the monarchy. They believed that much of Jose Antonio’s rhetoric about tradition and the Church were a mask to hide his ambition. The Falange had modeled itself as a popular Fascist movement, complete with a uniform (blue shirts) and a penchant for street demonstrations. Its youth movement taught respect for all the traditional virtues and values of Spanish civilization. It aspired to a return of Spain’s glorious status as a world power. Readers of Spanish are referred to the memoirs of Luis Olero, whose book, Al Paso Alegre de la Paz, (On the Happy Road Of Peace), is a satirical tragic-comical look at the pedagogical “truths” and heroic, almost supernatural, virtues and austere morality of General Franco and Jose Antonio, inculcated by the Falangist youth movement.

The Franco regime endured thanks in part to food supplied by Argentina’s General Peron, and managed to get through the extremely difficult first post-war years. To diminish Spain’s Fascist image, the Falange was accorded less and less influence in the government, but its economic policies prevailed for a long time, with priority given to rural development and self-sufficiency, coupled with the stern morality of a nineteenth century and ultra-Catholic view of parent-child and male-female relationships. Ironically, Jose Antonio was not a prude and had once declared that his favored vision of the country was of “a Spain in a short skirt.” In spite of a “tight-lid” on morals kept by the Franco regime, conventional attitudes were weakened by a growing flood of migrants from rural Spain to its big cities that continued unabated from the mid-1950s.

Economic realities, continued urbanization, a growing realization that a Fascist Spain would be totally out of place in Western Europe and that Spain would benefit enormously from membership in NATO and the European Community, led Franco to further moderation of his tight political, economic and social controls. Real prosperity resulting from amazing economic growth throughout the 1960s and 1970s led to increasing unrest and further pressure to remove Spain from its self-imposed isolation and to change the unreal view of itself as a great power with a noble imperial past.

Are Franco, Francoism and the Falange just history now? Judging from the changes in many street names and the removal or neglect of statues and monuments to the Generalissimo, Jose Antonio and the Falange symbol of the ox yoke and bundle of arrows, the answer is: Yes! However, the Falange remains a political party, actually divided today into three factions (Falange Espanola y de las JONS (Spanish Falange of the Juntas and of the Nationalist Trade Union Offensive), Falange Española Auténtica (FEA, Authenic Spanish Falange) and the Falange Española Independiente (FEI, Independent Spanish Falange), each of which claims to be the “authentic” movement and the true successor to the legacy of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera). All of them ran unsuccessfully without winning a single seat in the last two parliamentary elections of 2004 and 2008 and together accounted for one percent of the vote.

Nevertheless, the inability of successive governments to halt the campaign of terror carried on by ETA (the Basque separatist movement) and the friction with Morocco over a host of political, economic and social issues as well as the presence in the country of almost 750,000 Muslims, some of whom are sympathetic to Al Qaeda, have led to a reaction that may ultimately benefit the Falange in spite of the movement’s present moribund status. Older Spaniards who grew up in the Franco era may not look back with nostalgia on many aspects of the regime, but are certainly growing increasingly uneasy over what appears to be Spain’s humiliation by the use of appeasement and the continually spiraling crime rate.

There is a National Association to Preserve the Legacy of General Franco that publishes a bulletin and tries to influence public policy by emphasizing his many achievements. It stresses his anti-Communism, active alliance within NATO, aid to refugees including many Jews fleeing Nazism, his social policies on behalf of the poor such as el menú del día (requirement in many restaurants to offer a four course lunch meal including beverage at a specially reduced price), providing government subsidized housing, price controls and “wise leadership in the transition towards democracy.” Most critics would dispute all of these claims and believe that the previous non-Socialist governments have not fairly accepted the responsibility of all parties for the crimes of the 1936 uprising, Civil War and the entire Franco period.

The successful transition to democracy that followed Franco’s death in 1975 was based partially on what has become known as “The Pact of Forgetting.” Both Left and Right agreed not to open old wounds from the Civil War and Franco period by seeking “revenge” or “justice.” The parties on the Left are well aware that Republican forces also committed occasional atrocities and that there was mob violence against the Church. Nevertheless, a recent spate of revelations depicting the brutality of the Franco regime towards Republican prisoners has whipped up emotions again.

The Falange splinter groups all reject any “apologies” for the Civil War and Franco period. Their positions on many issues of public policy are indistinguishable from the far LEFT in Spain. They regard themselves as representing “The Workers,” demand worker participation in the economy, celebrate the First of May and were all critical of the pro-American government of Popular Party leader Jose Maria Aznar for its “arrogance” and support of American policy in Iraq. They called for the immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops in Iraq. Like other conservative parties, they reject homosexuality and abortion and what they call “pornography” in the arts. They are in favor of strict controls on immigration and are against any measure to grant more autonomy to Spain’s distinctive regions. They would even rescind the rights obtained to use the regional languages in any public forum. They would fight Islamic terrorists, but not “as part of an American war,” and call for the cession of Gibraltar by Britain to Spain.

No less than the parties of the Left, they regard the Franco regime of 1936-1975 as having committed crimes, (by perverting the Falange program and suppressing the original high ideals of Jose Antonio). They have little sympathy left for the contemporary modern “liberal” Catholic Church in Spain and all are dubious or unhappy about the monarchy. The leveling and simplistic tendencies of modern journalism and many historians continue to speak of Franco, Fascism and the Falange and conservative Catholic traditionalists in one breath as “The RIGHT” as if they were the same thing and easy to differentiate from their “enemies” on the idealized “democratic,” egalitarian, collectivist, Marxist and communitarian “LEFT” of the Popular Front. Nevertheless, in Spain, as many places elsewhere, the two “opposites” frequently met in adopting views and policies and issuing appeals competing for the same “mass audience” that were remarkably similar and equally contemptuous and dismissive of middle class “Bourgeois” values, and democratic institutions based on limited government and parliamentary order.


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