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Rebuilding Europe:
Spain 1953-75

Why was Spain in crisis by 1957?

‘In retrospect, 1953 may be seen as the high point of Franco’s political career, a moment of triumph with the forces of the Nationalist coalition united around him. Before the end of the decade, whilst his survival could hardly be threatened, he would find himself no longer entirely in control, forced to abandon the Falange and leave the detailed management of economics and, by extension, politics to expert technocrats’ (Preston p.635.)

By 1953 Franco’s position was apparently more secure than at any point in the previous decade. The onset of the Cold War, and in particular its intensification during the Korean War, ended the period of Spain’s total international ostracism. In November 1950, Spain received a $62m loan from the USA as part of the European Co-operation Administration despite not belonging to the Marshall Plan.  The 1952 decision to allow Spain membership of UNESCO was followed up in December 1955 with full membership of the United Nations. Successes in international relations stood in stark contrast to continued economic weaknesses. Per capita meat consumption in 1950 was only half what it had been in 1926 and bread consumption only half what it had been in 1936.  Shortages and corruption was so bad that families were forced to pay black market prices double those in the shops. For the very poorest in the south of Spain, conditions were so bad that families, and even whole villages, packed up their belongings and headed to the industrial cities of the north. With nowhere else to live, they built barracas (shacks) out of what ever materials they could find. The shanty towns that grew up on the edge of the big cities had no running water or sewerage and it could take years before electricity was provided.

By 1957, the regime was virtually bankrupt, inflation was heading for double figures and there was evidence of serious discontent amongst students, workers and the younger, more radical members of the Falange. In addition, the year previously Franco, the man who had once dreamt of a great African empire, had been forced to grant independence to Spanish Morocco.

How did Franco stay in power?

Repression and exile continued to be an important means of controlling those on the left and Franco’s Machiavellian balancing of the various conservative interest groups in the government Movimiento (see previous section) continued to keep the right in check. This was increasingly difficult after the international agreements of 1953 when the common foreign enemy which had united the various groups within the Movimiento disappeared. Franco was getting old and showing signs of this. Most of his time was taken up by hunting and fishing trips and spending time with his grandchildren. The political divisions that opened up between the Monarchists and the Falange reflected the different competing agendas for Spain after Franco.  Franco’s resolved the problem by bringing a third group (the Opus Dei technocrats) into the political equation that seemed to provide a series of policy solutions to Spain’s economic crisis. It also helped that he kept the question of his succession open for as long as possible until he finally named Juan Carlos his heir in 1969.

Franco, ese Hombre 1964

A hagiographic propaganda film directed by José Luis Sáenz de Heredia and written by José María Sánchez Silva.

Described by Paul Preston as a ‘skilful piece of work’, the film portrays Franco as a national saviour, the ‘man who forged twenty-five years of peace’. It was a considerable box office success and still attracts significant viewing figures and pro-Franco comments on YouTube.


 Strict control of the media and Falangist propaganda continued to reinforce the regime, but even taken together with coercion, Franco would have had little chance of survival had the 1960s not been characterised by an unprecedented period of economic growth.

Why was there an economic boom in the 1960s?

February 1957 Franco reshuffled the cabinet and brought in Alberto Ullastres Calvo (Trade) and Mariano Navarro Rubio (Finance) – a new breed of technocrats. The key characteristics were their proven ability in academic or professional life and membership of or sympathy with the secretive Catholic sect Opus Dei.

Opus Dei

Founded in Spain in 1928 by the priest St. Josemaría Escrivá (right), Opus Dei is an organisation within the Catholic Church. In 1960s Spain, Opus Dei tried to address fact that industrialisation and urbanisation tends to lead to the growth of liberal ideals and anti-Catholic sentiments.  It was argued that if devout Catholics could supervise economic growth they could control it in order to safeguard Catholic values.  In popular imagination Opus Dei is largely associated with the practice of mortification of the flesh and evil monk of the popular novel and film The Da Vinci Code.

The Stabilisation plan of 1957, was designed in the short term to tackle in inflation and balance of payments deficit and in the longer term to break with the Falangist policy of autarky, which had so restricted the possibility of economic growth. Public spending was cut, wages frozen, credit restricted and the peseta (the Spanish currency) was devalued.  The short term economic goals were achieved with the inevitable social costs that result from a dramatic cut in people’s real earnings.  Unemployment reached nearly 35% in 1959-1960. (Sheelagh M. Ellwood, Franco, p. 187 (2000) Pearson Education) But the early 1960s the Spanish economy entered a period of sustained economic growth that at 7% per annum was faster than any non-communist economy with the exception of Japan.

For apologists of the regime, the economic growth was the direct beneficial consequence of ‘Franco’s peace’ and the Stabilization Plan. But if the Spanish economy made significant progress in the 1960s it was largely because it had so far to go.

Critics draw attention to the fact that the Spanish Miracle (Desarrollo) benefitted from a wider European boom that largely fuelled the backward Spanish economy. Foreign investment was attracted by the low cost of labour and the lack of civil rights that the authoritarian regime guaranteed. 

Northern Europe’s expanding middle class provided significant foreign exchange earnings with their spending on package tour holidays on the rapidly developing Spanish Costas. And Spaniards working in the service sector abroad, most of whom were either political or economic exiles, sent home remittances of one third of their earnings to the families left behind.

By 1973 there were 750,000 Spaniards working in Germany and France. (Carr p. 157) By 1964 Spain had ceased to be the list of UNO ‘developing nations’ and when the Desarrollo ended with the world oil crisis of 1973, Spain was the world’s ninth biggest industrial power.

Taken from An economic history of modern Spain Joseph Harrison – Manchester University Press 1978.

Why were the consequences of the economic boom paradoxical?

If the ambition of the Opus Dei technocrats was secure Franco’s authoritarian regime, they were successful in the short-term. The most prominent of the technocrats López Rodó argued that if Spain could achieve a per capita income of $2000 then social tensions would disappear. During a decade of unprecedented economic growth the number of Spanish homes with washing machines increased from 19% to 52%,  those with fridges from 4% to 66% and those with cars from 1% to 10%. Average incomes almost tripled during the 1960s, so that López Rodó could boast ‘never had so much been achieved in short a time’. (Carr p.161)

As with the authoritarian communist regimes of Eastern Bloc during the same period, economic growth helped to generate both loyalty from a new elite class of administrators who had successfully passed the state examination system (oposiciones) and political indifference amongst the great majority. The end of shortages and availability of consumer durables, combined with a culture of evasion to produce the main political objective of the Franco regime, apathy. As literacy levels began to improve, ‘kiosk literature’ and romantic ‘photo novels’ found a mass market ready to escape the trials of everyday Spain. 1950s Spain had more cinema seats per capita than any other European culture and this influence was quickly replaced by massive influence of state controlled television which reached 90% on the population by 1970 compared to only 1% a decade earlier.

Television in Franco’s Spain

Televisión Española (TVE) was established as a state monopoly in 1956. As with all media it was subject to censorship which in the case of television was stricter than most. Plans for making television programmes had to be approved by an advisory commission made up of officials from the church, the army etc. And before programmes could be aired they were previewed by a censor who would require cuts to be made. Cuts were likely to be made for political or moral reasons.

The Billy Wilder film, The Lost Weekend (right) was censored by a Dominican monk who ordered the following to be cut:

  1. Kiss at point of farewell

  2. When he steals the woman’s handbag, eliminate the shots in which she and her companion behave with excessive affection.

  3. Kiss and conversation while holding one another. Temper the kiss.

The same censor also recommended changes to a French comedy film because it ridiculed the Gestapo and Hitler. Cf. John Hooper, The New Spaniards p.363


Football offered a similar means of escape and was fully exploited by the regime. Its popularity was enhanced by the success of the national team in the 1964 UEFA European Nations Cup and Real Madrid who were European Cup finalists on eight occasions in the period 1956-66, six times winners. As football loving Franco asserted, with Match of the Day and TV most of my subjects ‘have nothing to complain of’. (Carr p.164)

Real Madrid 1960-61

One of the most significant economic consequences of the Desarrollo was the increased gap between the richest provinces of the north and the poorer south. Provinces such as Badajoz and Granada had per capita incomes well under half of the Basque province of Vizcaya. (An economic history of modern Spain Joseph Harrison – Manchester University Press 1978 p.166) By 1970, 70% of homes in Madrid had television sets, compared to only 11% in Soria. (Carr: 157) A second significant consequence was the rapid urbanisation of Spain. In 1940 half of the active population had worked on the land, by the time of Franco’s death the Spanish were largely city dwellers with a similar percentage of agricultural workers as their French neighbours.

It could be argued that the economic growth designed to protect Franco’s regime, undermined the very social structure and cultural mindset that helped create the regime. Falangist’s had glorified the peasant farmer and traditional class structure of southern Spain, but the urbanisation of Desarrollo did much to destroy this. Falangist propaganda may have denigrated the moral turpitude of the liberal democracies but Spain’s economic revival depended on the remittances of Spaniards living in these democracies. These Spaniards generally came back home eventually (see table 48 above) and they brought with them ‘dangerous’ liberal ideas and attitudes. Education reform had a similar effect. The modernization of the Spanish economy required the young to be better educated than ever before, but by the late 1960s a radical Marxist subculture had emerged in the universities. Perhaps the best illustration of the paradoxical consequences of the Franco economic reforms was the policy to encourage tourism after 1959, the year when visas were abolished. The tourist boom was essential to the Spanish economic miracle, but is was not only made possible by the unrestricted development of the Costas, but also by a willingness to accept the liberal mores of the northern European holiday makers whose presence and example was an anathema to the values of traditional catholic Spain.

Did Franco fix the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest?

After negotiations to join the European Community collapsed in 1962, Franco’s Spain depended on cultural outlets like sport to bolster its international status.

Unexpected victory in the 1968 Eurovision song contest served a similar function. However, a documentary in 2008 by Spanish film maker Montse Fernandez Vila claimed that Franco had the voting rigged, she argues ‘the regime was well aware of the need to improve its image overseas ... When you look at all the parties they organised and how Massiel was transformed into a national heroine, you realise it was rather over the top for a singing competition. It was all intended to boost the regime.’


It has been argued that the economic transformation of Spain in the 1960s made the peaceful transition to democracy possible. This suggests that Opus Dei failed in its ambition to protect traditional Catholic interests in Spain. But what was the alternative, would Franco’s regime have survived as long as it did without the economic transformation? This is the paradox of Franco’s Spain. The dictatorship only survived by overseeing the social, economic and (importantly) cultural transformation of Spain that meant that the dictatorship was unlikely to survive Franco’s death.

The language of history - can people other than historians write history?

Did the Bikini save Spain?

In 1959 the Mayor of Benidorm on the Costa del Sol, Pedro Zaragoza, was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church for signing a municipal order that allowed the wearing of the fashionable two piece swimsuit the bikini. In 1950s Spain excommunication meant the end of an individual’s career. After a nine hour Vespa ride to Madrid and an audience with Franco, Zaragoza secured the support of the Caudillo and the patronage of his wife Carmen Polo who later became a regular visitor to Benidorm. The excommunication process was dropped. The bikini stayed.

‘Some see this, at least symbolically, as a defining moment in recent Spanish history…The tourists had the power to outface the Church. They brought not just their money, but the seeds of change. They also brought the fresh air of democracy. There was no turning back... General Franco was there at the key moment. Without the bikini there, quite possibly, would have been no modern Benidorm and, in fact, precious little tourism at all’

(Giles Tremlett - ‘How the Bikini saved Spain’, Ghosts of Spain p103)

Discussion questions

Giles Tremlett is a journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian.  Why is the story of Pedro Zaragoza’s nine hour Vespa ride to Madrid so central to Tremlett’s account? How else might you expect has account to be different to that of a professional historian?

Which is the more significant turning point in Spanish history, Franco’s decision to allow bikinis on the beaches of Spain or his decision to reshuffle his cabinet in 1957? How did you reach your decision?

Does Tremlett think the decision to allow bikinis was an important turning point in recent Spanish history? Give reasons for your answer.

What makes a professional historian different to other people who might write about the past? Are these differences positive things?

1969-1975 - What was Franco’s legacy?

[Franco is] a complete cynic, interested only in keeping power as long as he lives, and indifferent to what may happen after he dies. He is said to keep folders on his desk, one marked “problems which time will solve” and the other “problems which time has solved”, his favourite task being, it is said, to transfer papers from one folder to the other”. (The British Ambassador, Sir Ivo Mallet in 1956 quoted in Preston p. 648)

 When Franco died in 1975 Spain stood alone in Western Europe as the only remaining authoritarian regime that owed it origins to pre-war fascism. As we have seen, in many respects Spain had been radically transformed. But for all the social and economic changes, the state and laws were fundamentally unchanged from the system established at the end of the civil war.

Franco remained Head of State until his death and was his own Prime Minister until 1972.  Politically, the Organic Law of 1967 extended participation in the political system to the heads of families, but otherwise the constitution was still firmly rooted in the concept of ‘organic democracy’ where the Cortes represented not political parties but interest groups drawn from the monarchists, the army, the church and the Falange. In 1967 Franco warned reformist elements who were to succeed in introducing limited liberalisation of the press that ‘If by contrast of opinions somebody is seeking to establish political parties, let him know that will never return’. (quoted in Carr p.168)

In addition to this anti-democratic legacy, the Spanish state in the early 1970s clearly reflected the deeply conservative influence of Franco. Women in Franco’s Spain, for example, were legally second class citizens. Amongst European states only Turkey had a comparable degree of institutionalized discrimination against married women and ‘on several counts the status of wives in Turkey was actually higher’. (Hooper p.126) The basis of the relationship between men and women was the concept of permiso marital. Without her husband’s permission, a wife could not, for example, take a job, open a bank account or even travel any significant distance without her husband’s approval. On becoming married a Spanish women gave up control of any property she owned to her husband, which also became the case for anything she came to own during the marriage. And although adultery was a crime punishable for both men and women with up to six years in prison, it was generally only a crime for men if the affair became public knowledge. In addition, there was no divorce in Franco’s Spain and contraception was illegal.

Perhaps the legacy that was to have the longest lasting influence on Spain at the end of the 20th century was Franco’s resistance to political devolution to the national regions of Spain, most notably the Catalans and the Basques. (see map of Spain above px) For Franco, the devolution of power to the regions by the Second Republic of the 1930s had been one of the very reasons why the army had felt the need to launch a coup d’état in 1936. Along with socialists and communists, the regional nationalists would have no place in Franco’s Spain. Strict restrictions on the use national languages of Catalan, Basque, Gallego etc. were only gradually lifted after 1945 and remained in force on radio, television and in the press until Franco’s death. However, by the late 1960s regional nationalism and protest against the suppression on regionalism was on the rise. In Catalonia this protest was largely expressed peacefully through cultural means. In the Basque country protest became associated with the terrorist group ETA which soon became caught up in spiral of violence which continues to the present day.


Euskadi Ta Askatasuna which in English means ‘Basque Homeland and Freedom’ is dedicated to achieving independence for the Basque country. ETA began its terrorist campaign in the late 1960s and despite the transition to democracy and the granting of significant regional autonomy to the Basque country, ETA continued its campaign against the Spanish state. In the late 1970s and early 1980s as many as a hundred people were killed every year in ETA attacks. The influence of the group has gradually declined since the 1990s and in March 2006 it declared a permanent ceasefire. Peace talks failed and ETA ended its ceasefire in June 2007. On the 50th anniversary of its founding in July 2009, an attack that killed two Guardia Civil officers in Majorca brought the total number of ETA killings to 828. At the same time there were more than 500 ETA prisoners in Spanish jails.

Franco’s last years were marked by rapidly declining health and the jostling for position amongst the Franco factions: the búnker (far-right) who resisted all reform and the aperturistas who promoted transition to democracy as a means of promoting their own survival. Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s loyal deputy became increasingly responsible for the day to day management of the country and facing the world oil crisis and unprecedented unrest from students, workers and Basque nationalists he resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures.

Luis Carrero-Blanco (1903-1973)

A hardliner, close political ally of Franco and opponent of reform, he famously said ‘To offer change to a Spaniard is like offering a drink to a confirmed alcoholic.’ Described by Paul Preston as Franco’s ‘alter ego’, he was appointed Prime Minister in June 1973.

His assassination by ETA in December the same year led Franco to comment, ‘they have cut my last link with the world’.  It also seriously undermined Franco’s attempts to ensure the continuation of the regime after his death.

Increasing criticism from the Catholic Church was matched with international condemnation of the ‘Burgos Trials’ of ETA members and show trials of underground trade unionists. After the assassination of Carrero-Blanco in December 1973, Carlos Arias Navarro became Prime Minister but little substantive could be achieved given the divisions within the cabinet and Franco’s regular hospitalisation.

Franco’s last significant action was to confirm five death sentences for ETA members in the face of worldwide diplomatic protests led by Pope Paul VI.

He died on November 20th 1975, exactly 39 years to the day after the death of José Antonio Primo de Rivera the founder of the Falange. Franco is buried opposite Primo de Rivera at the Valle de los Caídos.

Essay skills – whose point of view? Making judgments in history

The IB examiners are quite keen to set essay questions where students are expected to evaluate and analyse the rule of the leader of a single party state over a significant period of time. Typically you might be invited to ‘Assess the aims and achievements of Franco between 1939 and 1975’.

Leaving aside the epistemological problem of the historian claiming to ‘know’ what someone intended (see TOK box on page x) we are still left confronting a series of both practical and ethical problems.

The practical problem is how to answer such a ‘big’ question in the 50 minutes allowed for HL essays. Planning and selection of relevant supporting information are the keys to success. The question needs to be broken up both temporally and thematically. Temporally the essay must recognise that the aims of Franco the general at the end of the Second World War were not identical to those of the aging Caudillo in 1969. Thematically the essay must make judgements based on criteria that incorporate political, economic, social and cultural aspects of Spain during this period. A successful essay must therefore break-up Franco’s regime into manageable periods (as this book does) whilst making judgements on its successes and failures in Spain as a whole. It requires carefully selected examples to illustrate and support the points being made.

The ethical problem follows on from this need to make a judgement. The great English social historian E.P. Thompson was famous for urging historians to judge people in the past on their own terms, therefore avoiding ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.  If we are to judge Franco on the terms of his aims alone we cannot help but conclude with Paul Preston that ‘in terms of his ability to stay in power, Franco’s achievement was remarkable’. But Franco’s aims were also to resist democracy, punish dissent and subjugate women. Is the fact that he achieved these aims as well also to be judged a success? Again we can conclude with Preston that, ‘the human cost in terms of the executions, the imprisonments, the torture, the lives destroyed by political exile and economic migration points to the exorbitant price paid by Spain for Franco’s “Triumphs”’. (Preston p.786)




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