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Post-war Europe:
Spain 1945-53

How did the political system work in Franco’s Spain?

Although there were always ‘fascistic’ elements to the government of Franco’s Spain, it would be an oversimplification to merely attach the label ‘fascist’ in the hope that this somehow explains things. (see activity ‘was Franco a fascist?) Franco was to rule Spain for nearly 40 years until his death in 1975. During this time Spain underwent significant changes and the regime evolved accordingly. But some fundamentals did remain the same.

Firstly, Franco was a dictator; the Caudillo, with powers comparable to Hitler and greater than those of Mussolini. (Preston Franco : 275) Secondly, Spain was a single party state. In Franco’s Spain, the single party was a loose coalition, of which the fascist party, the Falange, was only a part. The Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (FET de las JONS) was the only legal political entity in Franco’s Spain. Alongside the Falange, it was comprised of influential conservative figures from the army, the Catholic Church and monarchists. Throughout Franco’s rule, the relative influence of the various constituent groups or ‘families’ within this coalition or Movimiento Nacional fluctuated, but all groups were normally represented in the Spanish cabinet. One of the key reasons for the longevity of Franco’s regime was his ability to maintain a rivalry between these coalition groups with the permanent goal of securing his own position.

Thirdly, Spain under Franco had no democratic institutions. The Cortes established in March 1943, was an assembly created to represent the ‘important’ interests in Spain, what Franco described as ‘organic democracy’. The Cortes did not have the right to initiate legislation or to vote against the government; it could only approve laws presented by the executive. Two thirds of the representatives were directly appointed by Franco or by one of his ministers and the other third were ‘elected’ by Falangist groups from approved lists of candidates. The representative nature of the Cortes did become broader over time, but met rarely and always approved the legislation submitted to it.

Fourthly, Franco’s Spain was a highly centralised state with power vested in Madrid. The regime abolished regional government and passed laws against the use of the Basque and the Catalan languages. In addition, the Catholic Church became once again the official religion of Spain and central to the national education system.


The other key political characteristics of Franco’s Spain were the strict control over the media which did much to enhance Franco’s personality cult and the absence of basic human rights which made open dissent a hazardous occupation. Over 200,000 passed though the prison system during Franco’s rule, 2% of the total male population. (Giles Tremlett – Ghosts of Spain: 41) Along with this anti-liberalism, Franco’s other main political characteristic was his trenchant anti-socialism. But unlike his other political views or his anti-Semitism and obsession with free-mason conspiracies, his opposition to socialism would make him powerful international friends during the Cold War.

How did Franco survive the defeat of the Axis powers?

Franco remained hopeful of an Axis victory right up until VE-day. Even after then, Franco’s support for the ideals of European fascism was undiminished. The Spanish state provided one hundred active German Nazis with new identities and political asylum. (Preston ‘Franco’s Nazi Haven’ - History Today, July 1997, pp. 8-10) In December 1943 Franco had told the German ambassador that he not expect his regime to survive defeat of the Axis powers. (Stanley Payne – The Franco Regime 1946-76 p.343) Indeed, in 1945, with Spain denied entry into the United Nations and subject to an international economic boycott, the prospects for Franco seemed bleak.

Politically Franco faced threats from all sides. In March 1945, Don Juan de Borbón (right), the son of Alfonso XIII, produced his ‘Lausanne Address’ calling on Franco to abandon power in favour of a constitutional monarchy. In response, a senior group of monarchists went as far as to nominate the members of a provisional government and to draft the text of the decree to restore the monarchy. And from the other extreme, Franco faced full-scale guerrilla war led by Republican exile ‘maquis’ in the north and east. Socio-economically, the late 1940s are known in Spain as the ‘años de hambre’, the years of hunger. This was a time when there were no cats and dogs on streets, as they either died of starvation or were eaten. In the cities there were daily power cuts, cigarettes were sold one at a time and the rural poor ate boiled grass and weeds. Real wages in 1951 were a mere 60% of their 1936 level. (Knight - The Spanish Civil War p.120) The problems were exacerbated by Franco’s fascistic inspired economic policy of autarky which provided an ideological basis for Spain’s isolation but prevented any steps towards the much needed modernisation of the economy. The result was that industrial production in 1948 was no better than 1929 levels. (Carr – Modern Spain p.156) In the end, were it not for imports from Peron’s Argentina, full-scale famine would have been likely. (John Hooper, The New Spaniards p.13)

The reasons why Franco survived these most difficult of years goes some way to explaining why Franco was able to stay in power until his death in 1975. We can identify four distinct explanations for his survival in this period.

Firstly, the international community, although generally hostile, was unwilling to take action to remove Franco. For the British Foreign Office, Franco may have been an ‘unfortunate anomaly’, but he was also unlikely to give up power without plunging Spain once again into civil war.  Spain was not under threat from Stalin’s encroachment from the east, but if Franco was removed the Spanish left would be the most obvious beneficiary. As Churchill argued, ‘should the Communists become master of Spain, we must expect the infection to spread very fast though Italy and France’. (Preston, Franco p.521) As the Cold War began to take hold, the regime’s fascistic origins and Franco’s enthusiastic support for Hitler and Mussolini was quietly forgotten. What mattered now was Spain’s strategic position and Franco’s well-documented, fervent anti communism. Allied non-intervention after the war helped Franco, just as it had during the civil war.

The second reason for Franco’s survival was his control over the Spanish state which provided both a compliant media and the extensive machinery of coercion. The Catholic Church was a loyal supporter and though its monopoly control of education did much to reinforce the regime. The Falange, although less significant after the war, still played an important role in organising spontaneous mass demonstrations of support. With the defeat of the Axis powers, Franco’s propaganda machine went into overdrive rewriting the history of the war and Spain’s role within it. Franco was now proclaimed as the ‘Caudillo of Peace’ and the end of the war was ‘Franco’s Victory’. According to the newspaper ABC, Franco must have been ‘chosen by God’ for ‘when everything was obscure, he saw clearly and sustained and defended Spain’s neutrality’. (Preston Franco p351) When Don Juan de Borbón made his dangerous Lausanne Address, censorship ensured that nothing was reported in the Spanish press. Although the civil war was officially over, Franco’s Spain remained on a war footing in order to counter the subversive threats from within. In the state budget of 1946, 45% was dedicated to the police the Civil Guard and the army ‘the apparatus of repression’. (Preston Franco p.549)

The third reason is very much to be explained in terms of Franco’s personality, which gave Franco a curious mixture of acute political adroitness and messianic blind faith in his own survival. Even the most critical commentators will grant that Franco had a remarkable ability to strengthen his own position by judicious and carefully balanced use of his powers of patronage. For example, when the great powers met at Potsdam with threatening plans to democratise the Axis countries and their allies, Franco responded by reducing the influence in his cabinet of the pro-Axis members of Falange. One of the key appointments saw foreign minister Lequerica with his reputation of ‘being more German than the Germans’ (Payne – Franco and Hitler p.253) replaced by the monarchist Martín-Artajo who was charged with producing a liberal sounding bill of rights, Fuero de los Españoles (1945). It did nothing to weaken Franco’s own position but was one of a number of measures designed to create favourable foreign perceptions.  Franco’s personality also exhibited a fatalistic belief in his own destiny to govern Spain. Not only was he not going to give up, more importantly he would show no signs of giving up, Franco ‘has skin like a rhinoceros’ bemoaned one British Foreign Office official.

‘The monumental egotism that lay at the heart of his being enabled him to shrug off the demise of his erstwhile benefactors Hitler and Mussolini as matters of little significance relative to his own providential mission’ (Preston, Franco 532-33)

The worse the news, he once advised, the bigger one must smile. ‘I will not make the same mistake as General Primo de Rivera’ Franco said ‘I don’t resign. For me, it’s straight from here to the cemetery’ (Preston Franco 546) He kept a photograph of the mutilated body of Mussolini (see right) as a reminder of his fate if he failed to hold on to power.  It helped that he lived in a megalomaniac’s fantasy world, where Spain’s energy problems would be solved by synthetic gasoline and the British Labour Party’s landslide election victory was brought about by the votes of 12 million freemasons.

‘Perhaps because there was always an element of fantasy about what he did, he was able, without a backward glance, to create a new goal, his own political survival, which he interpreted and projected publicly as a life and death struggle for the very soul of Spain.. (Preston, Franco 532-33)

So when Franco brazenly consistently denied after 1945 that he had expected Spain to join the Axis powers during the war, it is impossible to say whether Franco was lying or had come to believe his own propaganda. This can make it difficult for historians to make objective judgments on Franco.


TOK – Ways of knowing

How can we know why people in the past acted the way that they did?

Why did you decide to study history for your IB Diploma? Are you certain about your reasons? If asked why you chose to study history, would you give the same answer at a university entrance interview as you would to your friends? If you were asked in ten years time, would your answer still be the same?  We often read historical accounts which lay claim to know why decisions were made or what an individual in the past intended to achieve. In the light of the observations about Franco above, make a list of the difficulties of knowing for certain why people in the past acted the way that they did.

The final reason for Franco’s survival was perhaps the least tangible, but most long-lasting.  In Spain the legacy of the civil war resulted in prevailing concern to maintain peace at almost any cost. The civil war had left deep social and cultural scars, attempts to remove Franco, risked reopening these scars plunging Spain into a renewed civil war.   Spain had been in the words of Paul Preston, ‘traumatized. This legacy does much to explain the attitude that has dominated Spanish life until very recently, el pacto del olvido, the pact of forgetting. To live in the present one must be prepared to forget.

By a variety of means then Franco survived. And more than this, by the beginning of the 1950s, Franco’s position was becoming secure.  Domestically, the threat from Republican exiles had receded and an accommodation had been reached with the monarchists. Don Juan de Borbón’s son, Juan Carlos was to succeed Franco but Franco was to retain responsibility for future King’s education. Internationally, first moves towards reintegration came with a Concordat with the Vatican and as the Cold War intensified so also did Spain’s potential usefulness to the USA. With the 1953 visit of President Eisenhower and the resultant Pact of Madrid, an agreement was reached with the United States to give Franco considerable financial aid in return for the establishment of four U.S. military bases in Spain.

Essay writing skill – the importance of the PEE paragraph.

Good paragraph construction is essential to any effective essay. Each paragraph should contribute a distinct point that contributes to your answer to the question set.  The section above answers the key question ‘How did Franco survive the defeat of the Axis powers?’ The paragraphs follow a very common pattern for writing essays in history of making a big point in the first sentence, which is then explained and illustrated with examples. (PEE) A good test of how well you have planned your essay, is to ask yourself whether you can reduce the whole essay to just the first sentences (big points).  If an essay is well planned you should be able to reduce it to a relatively small number (say 4 or 5) of big points or first sentences.


  • Write down the four big points of the essay ‘How did Franco survive the defeat of the Axis powers
  • Which of the four big points is the weakest or least persuasive? Explain how you have reached this conclusion and suggest how it might be improved.
  • With a partner write two new essay plans for the same question. One of you should make three big points and your partner should make five. The new essay plans should include the same content as the original essay.



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