General Francisco Franco, shortly before his death, greeting the crowds. Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Spain and me

David Smith on why the years following Franco’s death will always hold a place in his heart

Whenever I have taught, I like to open up to students at the end of a course, let them fire away with whatever is on their minds. Not before the last class, because we have a course to cover, right? Otherwise I’ve seen Visiting Profs like me end up telling life stories rather than teaching. “So what’s the most memorable story for you?” asked Joanna, who’d just bagged a job at a major news magazine, as we ended the term at College Park, home of the University of Maryland.

“Spain,” I replied, to her genuine surprise. “Spain, always in my heart.”

It triggered a remarkable process that has always reminded me of what, and how much, was at stake for our forebears in world war two

The collapse of the old Soviet Union, I’d seen from Moscow. The final independence chapter of the British Empire, I witnessed in Zimbabwe. Wars, from Lebanon, to Ethiopia, to Iraq, to Colombia, watched first-hand. And then there were the deaths of two Popes, within 33 days, as a young Vatican correspondent. Oh, and the impeachment of a sitting US President, for sex in the Oval office, during many years in Washington DC. Surely much bigger stories. Yes, for sure.

Yet. Yet Spain. Joanna’s face raised the question, she didn’t need to ask. Why?

You see, it was the summer and autumn of 1975, I was a boy correspondent for Reuters fresh out of University, on my first posting abroad. And Europe’s last Fascist dictator, confrere of Hitler and Mussolini, died on our watch. And the tumultuous death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, a pint-sized dictator who ruled with such an iron fist (I know, a hackneyed phrase of yesteryear, sorry), well it triggered a remarkable process that has always reminded me of what, and how much, was at stake for our forebears in world war two. Democracy or dictatorship. Freedom or subjugation, or worse. The right to be heard, or the certainty of being silenced.

From the moment I arrived in Spain, conflict reigned. Fresh off the boat, yes I took a ferry to Bilbao, in the heart of the Basque country, I visited a human rights lawyer in San Sebastian. That morning, as we talked, he received a telex informing him that one of his clients, one Angel Otaegui, faced “pena de la muerte,” the death sentence, for the alleged murder of a corporal in Franco’s notorious Guardia Civil. Little did I know, as I rang the Reuters office in Madrid with the news, ever the earnest new boy, that Franco’s final chapter had started.

They machine-gunned Otaegui to death a few weeks later, alongside four other Basque separatists, after trials before military tribunals that made a mockery of defence. Franco wanted to use the “garotte” for executions, a metal collar that, once tightened, either strangled the victim or snapped the spinal cord. But such was the outrage, when an executioner admitted it had taken a while for a previous victim to die that way, that the dictator ordered the firing squads. I recall a British tabloid producing a front page black box with the headline: “Spain RIP.”

A few days later el Caudillo, Franco the strongman, appeared before a huge crowd in Madrid, his regime still capable of bringing out folks with cash and free food, to rally support after countless countries withdrew their ambassadors in protest, making Spain a pariah. I remember the old man’s weedy, high-pitched voice. “Arriba Espana!” Hard to feel a nation rising, however.

And then within days Franquito, Frankie boy (he was apparently despised by classmates at the military academy, hence the disparaging nickname), the Supreme Leader of Spain fell seriously ill. One week, when we attended his doctor’s press conferences, we were told he had 22 bleeding ulcers. The following week it was down to just 11. You must be kidding, Sir. Right to the end, the dictatorship played with the truth, as Franco had from the day he launched a bloody civil war in the name of defending Christian civilisation, Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists at his side, none of them exactly God-fearing. The truth, I saw, in the eye of the beholder of course. Because the truth was, I learned: all sides were guilty, always are, in a civil war.

So Spain is in my heart because of the extraordinary process that followed Franco’s death, in my time there. Yes, I saw his Fascists rally, right hands raised, at the Valley of the Fallen, the mausoleum to their own dead outside Madrid, on the day he died. Yes, I saw his Guardia Civil kill demonstrators even after his death. And for sure seeing King Juan Carlos sworn in, Franco’s chosen heir, schooled in his ways, made you wonder: whither Spain?

Right to the end, the dictatorship played with the truth, as Franco had from the day he launched a bloody civil war in the name of defending Christian civilisation

But then the images abound of a society that knew where the destination lay after nearly forty years of Franquismo. I waited outside Madrid’s Carabanchel prison one wet, Saturday night to see Communist leader Marcelino Camacho released after years in jail, for his beliefs. “I carry no grudge, just great hopes for all of us,” he said. I watched the young Socialist leader Felipe Gonzalez, whom I’d met when he was living underground, emerge from the dark, into a nascent democracy. “Let’s not fight over the past, but let’s battle over the future,” the future Premier told us.I had the privilege of joining foreign veterans of that civil war, members of the International Brigades that fought Franco for the Republic, as they returned to their battlefields, old men by then, but reminding us of how Spain symbolised the do-or-die struggle for Europe in the 1930s.

Spain has had a hiccup or three in the 46 years that separate us from Franco’s death. Consider an attempted military coup, the seizure of the Cortes, the Parliament, which I saw, much more serious than it looked. An economic crash, make it two, maybe three, of those. And how many times have the Catalans, or the Basques, threatened the break-up of the state? 

Yet. The big picture surely lies in the peaceful transition to democracy. Yes, democracy alive and well, and noisy, on the right as well as the left. If Spain’s elections are often inconclusive these days, it’s because there’s no longer one voice, that of the dictator, but so many.

These days I have a son living in Valencia, a splendid city that was once refuge for the Republican government in the civil war, thankfully its historic centre spared destruction when Franco used Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Valencia is thriving, everything from its music to its delicious paella, to its strong local government, confronting political corruption. I love the fact that at every corner you hear the local Valenciana language, taught I’m told in every school. Because yes, even that was banned under Franco.

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