Forty years ago, I was a student in Spain. It was the year Francisco Franco died. I didn’t know that I was going to be journalist, but I was interested in history, and especially fascism, which seemed at the time to be transitioning from current events to the realm of history.
Hitler and Mussolini had provided military support to put Franco into power during the Spanish civil war (1936-39). Later it became clear that Franco, for all of his faults and cruelty, was much cagier than those two. He had a sharp survival instinct. He “supported” the Axis during the first years of WWII, but told Hitler, with much regret, that his country was too devastated from its civil war to allow the Nazi army to pass through Spain and close Strait of Gibraltar, shutting off the British from the Mediterranean, and from the vital oil from the Middle East. Hitler was incensed. He went back to Germany, fulminating to his aides that Franco was a damned “Jesuit.” He then turned to Plan B, his disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union.
So you could make a case that it was Franco, perhaps as much Churchill or Roosevelt or Stalin, who won the war for the Allies. As the war progressed, Franco was smart enough to distance himself from the Axis powers as they began to lose. In the 1950s, he took advantage of Spain’s strategic position, the same one that interested Hitler, and forged a strategic embrace with the United States. By the time I was there, I was listening to Phillies games on the radio station from the American army base outside of Madrid, in Torreon. Franco was the last ’30s-era fascist, and he died of old age.
I went with a couple of Spanish friends to his funeral. It was in a desolate monument in the mountains, Valle de los Caidos, built in the ’40s by prisoners from the losing Republican army. When his casket was carried through the crowd, thousands of arms raised in a stiff-armed salute, and the multitude sang Cara al Sol, the hymn of the Falange, the party of Spanish fascism. I thought they were saying good-bye, and that fascism was dead. I was convinced, like many of us when we’re young, that progress was linear.
A couple of years later, I was living in Quito, Ecuador, teaching English and writing fiction. And I remember wishing that I could have lived in Europe between the wars, when an entire continent was sliding toward catastrophe and everything seemed so much more gripping. The 1970s seemed dull. We had energy crises, stagflation, Watergate, the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Terrorists hijacked the occasional plane. Tame stuff, by comparison.
I guess I should have watched what I wished for. We’re back to interesting times, to put it mildly.
A few years back, on one of my bike rides with my Spanish friend, we spent a night in the southwestern city of Caceres. There I saw the name of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, martyred founder of the Falangist movement, etched into a church wall. This was banal in the ’70s, but surprising to see forty years later. As you can see, fresh blood-colored paint is dripping from his name.