Forging a Dictatorship in Spain

How Franco tailored fascism to his country by stealing from every major political movement.

Photograph of General Franco with winter cloak.
Francisco Franco with a winter cloak.

Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa/Wikimedia

Excerpted from Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G. Payne and Jesús Palacios. Published by University of Wisconsin Press.

The Nationalist military chieftains who elevated Francisco Franco to supreme power may initially have thought of their leader as a sort of primus inter pares, but this notion did not accord with Franco’s ideas. Though careful in his treatment of leading subordinates, whom he allowed considerable autonomy, he exercised full personal power and firm authority over the military command from the beginning, so that some of those who had voted for him were taken aback by his sweeping, and often distant and impersonal, use of authority.

During his first months in power, Franco concentrated on military affairs and diplomatic relations. Politics had been proscribed, with all the rightist forces supporting the new regime, and only the Falange—Spain’s original “fascist” movement—engaged in proselytism, though it was careful not to get in the way of military administration. There was little in the way of political development, however, such matters remaining in the inexperienced hands of Franco’s brother Nicolás, head of the general secretariat of the chief of state. Nicolás had been a competent naval engineer, but in government he quickly morphed into a self-indulgent bureaucrat. He had no particular ideas, other than to safeguard his brother’s power. There was some talk about the need to organize a “Francoist Party,” but this seemed hopelessly artificial and too reminiscent of late dictator Primo de Rivera’s “Patriotic Union.” Franco considered the Primo de Rivera regime his chief precedent, but he kept in mind that the regime had failed for lack of political and institutional development, and he knew that he must avoid such a fate. But how?

An important development was the arrival of Franco’s wife, Doña Carmen’s brother-in-law Ramón Serrano Suñer, who entered the nationalist zone on Feb. 20, 1937. On the eve of the civil war, Serrano Suñer was moving toward the Falange, hoping to bring much of the youth from the conservative Catholic party, Confederación Espanola de Derechas Autónomas, or CEDA, with him. Arrested in Madrid, he sat helplessly in prison while his two brothers were executed. A severe ulcer, however, gained his transfer to a hospital, whence, with the help of confederates, he managed to escape dressed in women’s clothing. Doña Carmen was extremely fond of her youngest sister, Zita, and of her brother-in-law. Amid the wartime housing shortage, the couple, together with their four children, were immediately invited to move into the small upper floor of the episcopal palace in Salamanca where the Francos lived.

Serrano Suñer was politically experienced and astute, much more sophisticated than the naval engineer Nicolás Franco, and he soon replaced him as Franco’s chief political adviser. Like most Spaniards of his era, Franco was strongly family-oriented, and in the uncertain early months of his dictatorship, he trusted family members more than anyone else. Increasingly, members of Doña Carmen’s extended Polo family came to the fore in his entourage.

Earlier, Franco had been impressed by the idea of Catholic corporatism and in 1935 had carefully noted the updating of Carlist doctrine in Víctor Pradera’s El Estado Nuevo, which called for a new Spanish monarchy, but he concluded that these approaches were too right wing and lacked broad mass appeal. Something more dynamic and up-to-date was needed. By the time Serrano arrived in Salamanca, he found that Franco “already had the idea of reducing the various parties and ideologies of the movement to a common denominator. He showed me the statutes of the Falange on which he had made copious marginal notations. He had also made comparisons between the speeches of [late Falange leader] José Antonio and of Pradera.”1

Unlike Nicolás, Serrano had a plan of his own, which largely, though never entirely, coincided with Franco’s own ideas, and he proposed to create what can be most simply described as a sort of institutionalized equivalent of Italian fascism, though it would be more identified with Catholicism than fascism, whatever the contradictions such an identification entailed. This would mean building a state political party, based on the Falange. As Serrano later put it, traditionalist, monarchist Carlism “suffered from a certain lack of political modernity. On the other hand, much of its doctrine was included in the thought of the Falange, which furthermore had the popular and revolutionary content that could enable Nationalist Spain to absorb Red Spain ideologically, which was our great ambition and our great duty.”2 It is doubtful that either Franco or Serrano had ever read the early-19th-century theorist Joseph de Maistre, but they implicitly agreed with his conclusion that the counterrevolution was not the opposite of a revolution, but rather was an opposing revolution. The revolutionary dimension of their counterrevolution would be provided by a kind of fascism.

The Falange had swollen enormously from no more than 10,000 members to several hundred thousand, but its principal leaders were dead, slain by leftist repression in the war. The second rank who stepped to the fore lacked talent, prestige, or clear ideas and were divided among themselves. They realized that all indications were that the country was moving toward some kind of major new political organization, and in February they had negotiated terms of a possible fusion with the Carlists, the only other significant paramilitary and political force in the Nationalist zone. The Carlists, however, were ultratraditionalist Catholics, who were extremely skeptical of fascism, and a merger could not be achieved.

While Nicolás continued to handle routine administration of political affairs, Franco decided—strongly encouraged by Serrano—to establish a partido único, a single, unified state party. Matters were brought to a head by turmoil in the Falangist leadership between April 16 and 18, as two dominant factions literally came to blows, leaving one dead on each side. By April 18, the sometime ship mechanic Manuel Hedilla, acting head of the party, was elected its new jefe nacional by a narrow vote. While that was going on, Serrano supervised the drawing-up of a decree of political unification, officially announced on April 19.

This established the Spanish Traditionalist Phalanx (Falange Española Tradicionalista, or FET) as the new state party (a state party being standard “in other countries of totalitarian regime,” according to the decree), arbitrarily fusing the Falangists and Carlists. The Twenty­Six Points, the fascistic doctrine of the Falange, became the creed of the new party and hence of the state, but Franco emphasized that this was not a final and fixed program and would be subject to modification and development in the future. The new political structure would not rule out an eventual monarchist restoration, for Franco specified that “when we have put an end to the great task of spiritual and material reconstruction, should patriotic need and the wishes of the country support it, we do not close the horizon to the possibility of installing in the nation the secular regime that forged its unity and historical greatness,” taking care to term it “instauración” of a more authoritarian monarchy, as distinct from restoration of the parliamentary monarchy.3 This was not at all a matter of the party taking over the state; rather, the state was taking over the party. A few years later, that would make all the difference concerning the future of fascism in Spain.

All remaining political organizations were dissolved and their members were expected to join the FET, of which Franco named himself the jefe nacional. The organization would have a secretary-general, a political council as executive committee, and a broader national council, all these personnel to be appointed by the national chief. Five days later, the Falange’s raised­arm fascist salute was made the official salute of the regime (to be abandoned only in 1945). The key Falangist insignia and slogans were also taken over: The dark-blue shirt, the greeting of “comrade,” the red-and-black flag (first adopted by anarchists), the symbol of the yoked arrows (from the Catholic monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, who had unified Spain nearly half a millennium earlier), the anthem “Cara al Sol” (“Face to the Sun”), and the slogan “¡Arriba España!” (“Upward Spain”).4

The goal was to develop a partido único of a semifascist kind, though not as the mere imitation of the Italian or any other foreign model. In an interview in a pamphlet titled Ideario del Generalísimo, published soon afterward, Franco declared that “our system will be based on a Portuguese or Italian model, though we shall preserve our historic institutions.” Later, in an interview with the daily Spanish newspaper ABC on July 19, 1937, he reiterated that the objective was to achieve “a totalitarian state,” though the example he evoked was the institutional structure of the Catholic monarchs in the 15th century. As he put it rather ambiguously in an interview with the New York Times Magazine in December 1937, “Spain has its own tradition, and the majority of the modern formulas that are to be discovered in the totalitarian countries may be found already incorporated within our national past.”

The function of the new FET was, in Franco’s words, to incorporate the “great unaffiliated neutral mass” of Spaniards, for whom doctrinal rigidity would not be desirable. Two months before the unification, Franco had declared that, “The Falange has not declared itself fascist; its founder declared so himself.” Thereafter, the custom within the Nationalist zone, especially among the press in the first months, of calling the Falangists and some other groups “fascists” was abandoned. All that Franco had been willing to admit before the unification was that the supposedly nonfascist character of the Falange “does not mean that there are not individual fascists … within it.”5 In the month following the unification, he had to reassure Catholic bishops that the FET would not propagate “Nazi ideas,” a particular concern of theirs.6

Nonetheless, partly under the influence of Serrano Suñer, Franco’s language became somewhat more “fascist” during 1938 and 1939. In the draft of his speech for July 18, 1938, commemorating the second anniversary of the National Movement, he applied the adjective fascist to his regime and, more extravagantly, to the Catholic monarchs, but decided to delete it from the final version. The official statutes of the party, promulgated on Aug. 4, 1937, structured a completely authoritarian and hierarchical system. Franco’s role was defined in Articles 47 and 48:

The Jefe Nacional of F. E. T., supreme Caudillo of the Movement, personifies all its values and honors. As author of the historical era in which Spain acquires the means to carry out its destiny and with that the goals of the Movement, the Jefe, in the plenitude of his powers, assumes the most absolute authority. … It is up to the Caudillo to designate his successor.

It was left to Serrano Suñer to develop the first steps of the FET and to conciliate and integrate the camisas viejas (literally “old shirts”), the activist veterans of the original Falange, of whom several thousand survived in the Nationalist zone. Newly instated Falange leader Hedilla had been expecting some sort of political unification, but also, naïvely, thought that he would be the leader of the new party. Instead, he was merely named the head of the Political Council, the central political committee. The unification was not popular with either the Falangist or the Carlist militants, but under the existing conditions of total civil war, the immense majority accepted Franco’s initiative. Nonetheless, Hedilla and a small minority of activists, while not rebelling overtly, manifested their recalcitrance. Hedilla was immediately arrested and later court-martialed and sentenced to death, though Serrano had Franco commute this to life imprisonment.7 Over the next weeks and months, hundreds of Falangists who showed a degree of defiance would be arrested. A report given to Franco at the close of 1937 listed a total of 568, of whom 192 were convicted by military tribunals. The FET became a reality, however much cognitive dissonance this generated.

By this point, Serrano had entirely replaced Nicolás Franco as chief political adviser, and he served during the greater part of the civil war as political coordinator of the new regime, living in intimate association with Franco. Not the least of his services to his brother-in-law was acting as a kind of lightning rod for critics, who sometimes blamed him for their political frustrations. Soon they would begin to dub him the generalissimo’s evil genius, the cuñadísimo (most high brother-in-law). This enabled Franco to sidestep much of the political criticism that inevitably developed. As Eberhard von Stohrer, the second German ambassador, put it:

Franco has very cleverly succeeded, with the advice of his brother-in-law, … in not making enemies of any of the parties represented in the United Party that were previously independent and hostile to one another, but, on the other hand, also in not favoring any one of them that might thus grow too strong. … It is therefore comprehensible that, depending on the party allegiance of the person concerned, one is just as apt to hear the opinion … that “Franco is entirely a creature of the Falange” as that “Franco has sold himself completely to the reaction” or “Franco is a proven monarchist” or “he is completely under the influence of the Church.”8

The regime’s Press and Propaganda Delegation (Delegación de Prensa y Propaganda) was organized in February 1937, even before the new political system had taken form, and though the cult of caudillaje was a state strategy, it was embraced by newspapers and by many notables and associations within the Nationalist zone. In 1937, the anniversary of his investiture, Oct. 1, was declared the annual Fiesta Nacional del Caudillo. The invocation “Franco, Franco, Franco” was made a slogan equivalent to the Italian “duce, duce, duce.” The style was clearly fascistic. Conversely, there was more stress on strictly military leadership, when compared with Italy, producing the slogan “The caesars were victorious generals.” Key aspects of the effort to achieve legitimacy were thus more praetorian or Bonapartist than fascist. All this may not have been either logical or consistent, but it proved pragmatic and effective in practice.

Franco thus became, as the slogan went, “the archetype of the Spanish fatherland,” the incarnation of national mission and destiny, and even more broadly, in the struggle against communism, he was projected as a savior of Western civilization.

With his personal authority consolidated, Franco had a tendency to become overweening in a manner quite different from his earlier political comportment. When he presided over meetings of the council of ministers, he talked more and more, pontificating about economic and other technical problems of which he knew little, sometimes to the irritation or amusement of his ministers. Victorious on almost every front and constantly praised by a bombastic propaganda machine, he had become convinced that his role was providential, far beyond ordinary leadership. By 1938 he was convinced that he was an instrument of divine providence, endowed with special powers. If that were not the case, how could his extraordinary career and triumphs be explained? No pragmatic empirical calculation could be sufficient to account for his phenomenal success.

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Excerpted from Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G. Payne and Jesús Palacios. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2014 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

1. R. Serrano Suñer, Entre Hendaya y Gibraltar (Mexico City, 1947), 31.

2. Ibid., 32–33.

3. Boletín Oficial del Estado, April 21, 1937.

4. For a detailed account of these events and of the history of the Falange in the early months of the Civil War, see S. G. Payne, Fascism in Spain, 1923–1977 (Madison, WI, 1999), 239–79.

5. Franco, Palabras del Caudillo, 167.

6. S, Martínez Sánchez, “Los obispos españoles ante el nazismo durante la Guerra Civil,” in Ferrary and Cañellas, El régimen, 23–64.

7. For some time held in solitary confinement in the Canaries, Hedilla would later be moved to internal exile on Mallorca in 1944, at which time both he and his wife received pensions. He was finally released in 1946, after which he was able to develop a career as a prosperous businessman. Carmen Franco insists that there had been nothing personal about it, that it was simply a matter of wartime insistence on complete discipline: “My father … was a great believer in discipline and this person broke discipline, but he never had any personal animus against him and always said that Hedilla had made a mistake but did not have bad intentions.”

8. Report of May 19, 1938, DGFP, D:3, 657–63.