After Franco

by Stanley Meisler

January 2, 2016

A little more than forty years ago, after the death of the despicable dictator Francisco Franco on November 20, 1975, the world’s media began augmenting or opening their news bureaus in Spain. Editors feared that the death would unleash a second Spanish civil war. I became the first (and last) Madrid bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.

That war never came. Most Spaniards had become too mature and educated and wise for another awful conflagration like the one that decimated Spain and presaged the Second World War. They now longed to take their place among the democratic nations of western Europe.

The path to democracy was led in a remarkable way by two men who turned their backs on the teachings of the fascist dictator who had empowered them. The surprising leaders were young King Juan Carlos and his young Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez. They moved slowly but surely, taking steps forward and backward, somehow making every decision, no matter how wrenching, seem inevitable by the time they made it.

When Franco died, it was hard, for example, to envision a Spanish government legalizing the Communist Party. Franco had railed against these Reds for many years; Spain had to protect itself constantly from the danger of these demons. Yet, when Spain legalized the Communist Party in April 1977, most Spaniards knew their government had no choice. Spain would never be accepted as a European democracy if it refused a place in its electoral campaigns and on ballots to the Communists.

A few weeks after Franco died, several theaters began showing movies that had been banned by the Franco dictatorship. The marquees would declaim “Finally, after forty years” before setting down the name and star of the film. One night I went to see Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” his 1940 satire mocking Adolph Hitler. Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber and a dictator named Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Hitler.

Towards the end of the movie, the barber is mistaken for Hynkel-Hitler and forced to address a rally of thousands of Nazi-like party members. Chaplin steps to the microphones and delivers a powerful exhortation for liberty, democracy, peace, and brotherhood. “The hate of men will pass,” he says, “and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people, and so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

In the past, when I had seen the movie, I had found the speech a tad too much, marred by moments of false sentiment. But, when Chaplin spoke this time, this audience suddenly arose as one. They applauded and cheered and joined his cry for liberty. Chaplin’s words thrilled Spaniards with intense meaning. Their life under a fascist dictator cleansed the speech of any false sentiment. This wonderful outburst in a movie theater evoked one of the most stirring moments in my long career as a foreign correspondent.

There were many obstacles on the way to democratic government. Nine leftist lawyers were massacred in their office soon after Franco died. Rightist thugs harassed editors and poured acid on Picasso prints in galleries. Despite the death of Franco, ETA, the extreme Basque separatist party, refused to halt its killing of police officers and local officials. The army invoked old Francoist regulations to shut down plays that offended military officers. And, in the most fearful days of all, a contingent of paramilitary Guardia Civil seized the parliament and its deputies in February 1981 while a Francoist general declared a state of emergency in the region of Valencia and ordered his troops into the streets, ready to march on Madrid.

The plotters had been deluded into believing that King Juan Carlos would support their coup. But the King, donning his uniform as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, ordered all soldiers back to their barracks. In a dramatic television address to the nation after midnight, Juan Carlos said, “The crown...cannot tolerate any action or attitudes by those who aim to interrupt by force the democratic process determined by the popularly ratified Constitution.”

The coup attempt dissipated, and millions of Spaniards marched and cheered in the streets of the country a few days later in demonstrations of support for democracy and the King. In retrospect years later, the attempted coup took on the air of a cockamamie comic opera interlude in the relentless transition from dictatorship to democracy. But it was a happening that frightened many Spaniards during its hours of life.

Even before the coup attempt, most foreign editors felt sure that Spain was not heading for a second civil war but stood ready instead to take its place as a quiescent and prosperous west European country like all the others. Many papers pulled out their staff correspondents and left bureaus in the hands of stringers, The Los Angeles Times shut its office completely and dispatched me to Toronto to open a new bureau there. To turn an old sea saying on its head, I told a luncheon of American businessmen, “all the rats are leaving because the ship won’t sink.”

Leaving Spain was difficult, for it had been such a good time to be a foreign correspondent. Spanish democrats hailed our work. A theory arose that foreign correspondents helped the transition to democracy by holding a mirror up that showed Spanish officials what their actions looked like to the rest of the world. William Chislett, who covered the transition as part of the bureau of the Times of London, cited this theory several years ago in an analysis of the foreign press that he wrote for the private Foundation of the Spanish Transition.

As an example, Chislett described the case of the banning of a book written by the young historian Angel Viñas a year after the death of Franco. The Ministry of the Treasury had published the book as an academic study of the use of the Spanish Republic’s gold during the civil war. Viñas proved that the gold had been used to buy arms from the Soviet Union in legitimate sales. The Spanish Republic had no other choice, for the western democracies of Britain, France and the United States had refused to sell any to Spain even though Franco’s insurgents were openly supported by Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.

The analysis seemed straight forward. But there was a catch. Viñas’s thesis completely contradicted a myth of Franco. He had insisted year after year that the Soviet Union had stolen the gold from Spain and therefore owed it to Franco’s government. Crying out against El Oro de Moscú was a favorite tactic of Franco even though he and a few of his associates knew that the gold had been used for legitimate arms purchases from Moscow.

When panicked ministry officials realized that the book obliterated a bugaboo of Franco, they stopped sale of the book and tried to confiscate the copies already distributed. This banning aroused the editors of some of the new democratic newspapers and led to a flurry of editorial denunciations. James Markham of the New York Times and I joined the fray with articles describing the brouhaha, and the ban was lifted in a few weeks.

After the transition to democracy, Viñas moved on to an extraordinary career, both as a ranking diplomat for the European Commission and as one of Spain’s most distinguished historians. His long list of insightful books include a four-volume history of the Spanish Republic during the civil war as well as revealing studies of the Franco dictatorship, including its secret agreements with the United States during the Cold War. I have long regarded him as a friend and benefitted a great deal from his thoughts and guidance when he served as the European Commission’s ambassador to the United Nations while I covered the UN for the Los Angeles Times.

In the last few years, he has become troubled by the failure of a large number of Spaniards to accept the brutal, repressive and fascist nature of the Franco regime. Instead, as he put it in an article, “a neo-Francoist inspired version of the past is still circulating.” Under this version, which bears no relation to the truth, Franco rebelled against the democratic republic because he had no choice, accepted Nazi German and Italian fascist aid during the civil war only to counteract Soviet Communist aid to the republic, and devoted his energy afterward to developing a strong Spanish economy.

On the eve of the 40th anniversary, Viñas’s latest book was published: La Otra Cara Del Caudillo : Mitos y realidades en la biografia de Franco (The Other Face of the Caudillo: Myths and realities in the biography of Franco). Caudillo is an old Spanish word meaning “chief” that Franco adopted as his title just as Hitler used Führer and Mussolini Il Duce.

Viñas makes it clear that his book was provoked both by a remark by Mariano Rajoy, the conservative prime minister of Spain, that Franco had ruled with no more than “an authoritarian regime” and by recent biographies that tended to downplay the brutal aspects of the Franco dictatorship. Viñas was clearly worried that Spain was losing touch with the reality of its history.

In his usual manner, Viñas lays down a stream of evidence in the new book, mainly of little known official documents and other primary sources, to reach his conclusions. And his conclusions are devastating. “It appears clear,” Viñas writes, “that Franco did not maintain himself in power only due to terror. But neither should its use be underestimated.” The military was his essential support, Viñas says and adds, “To call his regime in the 1940s and part of the 1950s merely ‘authoritarian’ is to ignore his use of fascist methods, including the most abominable of all, repression.” Viñas reminds readers that whatever Franco declared was officially and permanently regarded as the supreme law of the land. He concludes that Franco was “a fascistic military dictator, with Nazi tendencies, whose actions were radically different from those emphasized in these biographies.”

The anniversary of the death of Franco made me think once more about the role of the foreign correspondents during the transition to democracy. It probably was kind of minor. The banning of Viñas’s book on the gold of Moscow would have been lifted even without the stories in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Nothing was going to stand in the way of the relentless drive of young historians like Viñas. Nothing was going to stand in the way of the force of the young Spanish politicians and bureaucrats and journalists and lawyers and businessmen and teachers yearning and powering for a democratic country like the rest of Western Europe. Spain appreciated but did not need outside help for its smooth march to democracy.

Nevertheless, I do not intend to argue whenever a Spaniard extols the role of correspondents like myself in the transition. It is a very rare and pleasant thing to find a country that admires the foreign journalists who once worked there.

January 2, 2016
Washington DC

see also:
The Star-Crossed Basques
March 15, 2000

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