Born in El Ferrol, Spain, in 1892, Francisco Franco was a career soldier who rose through the ranks until the mid-1930s. When the social and economic structure of Spain began to crumble, Franco joined the growing right-leaning rebel movement. He soon led an uprising against the leftist Republican government and took control of Spain following the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). He then presided over a brutal military dictatorship in which tens of thousands were executed or imprisoned during the earlier years of his regime. Franco died on November 20, 1975, with country transitioning to a democracy.
Francisco Franco was born on December 4, 1892, in El Ferrol, Spain, a northwestern port city with a long history of shipbuilding. The men in his family had served in the navy for generations, and the young Franco expected to follow in their footsteps. However, the economic and territorial aftermath of the Spanish-American War led to a reduction in the navy, and after completing his primary education at a Catholic school, Franco was forced to enlist at the Infantry Academy at Toledo instead. He graduated three years later with below-average marks.
After an initial posting to El Ferrol, Franco volunteered to serve in Spain’s recently acquired protectorate Morocco, where the country’s native population was staging a resistance to occupation. Stationed there from 1912 to 1926, Franco distinguished himself with his fearlessness, professionalism and ruthlessness, and was frequently promoted. By 1920 he had been named second in command of the Spanish Foreign Legion, and three years later took full command. During this period he also wed Carmen Polo y Martínez Valdéz. The couple had one daughter.
In 1926, Franco’s role in suppressing the Moroccan rebellion earned him an appointment as general, which, at age 33, made him the youngest man in Europe to hold that post. Two years later he was also named director of the General Military Academy in Zaragoza, a position he would hold until three years later, when political changes in Spain would temporarily halt Franco’s steady rise.
Major Unrest and Power Shifts
In April 1931, general elections led to the ousting of King Alfonso XIII, whose military dictatorship had been in place since the early 1920s. The moderate government of the Second Republic that replaced it led to a reduction in the power of the military, which resulted in the closing of Franco’s military academy. However, the country was also wracked by a deepening, often violent social and political unrest, and when new elections were held in 1933, the Second Republic was replaced by a more right-leaning government. Franco thus returned to a position of power, which he wielded the following year in a ruthless suppression of a leftist revolt in northwestern Spain.
But like the Second Republic before it, the new government could do little to quell the growing divide between left- and right-leaning factions. When elections held in February 1936 led to a shift in power to the left, Spain slipped further into chaos. For his part, Franco was once again marginalized, with a new posting to the Canary Islands. Though Franco accepted what amounted to banishment with the professionalism for which he was known, other high-ranking members of the military began to discuss a coup.
The Spanish Civil War
Though he initially kept his distance from the plot, on July 18, 1936, Franco announced the Nationalist manifesto in a broadcast from the Canary Islands as the uprising began in the northwest of Spain. The next day, he flew to Morocco to take control of the troops, and shortly thereafter gained the support of both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, whose planes were used to shuttle Franco and his forces to Spain. Establishing his base of operations in Seville the following month, Franco began his military campaign, advancing north toward the seat of the Republican government in Madrid. Anticipating a swift victory, on October 1, 1936, the Nationalist forces declared Franco head of the government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. However, when their initial assault on Madrid was repelled, the military coup evolved into the protracted conflict known as the Spanish Civil War.
Over the next three years, the Nationalist forces—led by Franco and backed by right-wing militias, the Catholic Church and Germany and Italy—battled the left-wing Republicans, who received aid from the Soviet Union as well as brigades of foreign volunteers. Though the Republicans were able to resist the Nationalist advance for a time, with far-superior military strength Franco and his forces were able to systematically defeat them, eliminating their opposition region by region.
By the end of 1937, Franco had conquered the Basque lands and the Asturias and had also combined the fascist and monarchist political parties to form his Falange Española Tradicionalista while dissolving all others. In January 1939, the Republican stronghold of Barcelona fell to the Nationalists, followed two months later by Madrid. On April 1, 1939, after receiving an unconditional surrender, Francisco Franco announced the end of the Spanish Civil War. Sources vary, but many estimate the number of casualties resulting from the war as high as 500,000, with perhaps as many as 200,000 the result of executions perpetrated by Franco and his forces.
For nearly four decades following the conflict, Franco—who became known as "El Caudillo" (the Leader)—would rule Spain through a repressive dictatorship. Immediately following the war, military tribunals were held that led to tens of thousands more being executed or imprisoned. Franco also outlawed unions and all religions except for Catholicism, as well as banning the Catalan and Basque languages. To enforce his power over Spain, he established a vast network of secret police.
However, five months after taking control of the country, Franco’s rule and Spain’s position in the international community were further complicated by the start of World War II. Initially declaring Spain’s neutrality, Franco was ideologically sympathetic to the Axis powers and met with Adolf Hitler to discuss the possibility of Spain joining them. Though Hitler ultimately rejected Franco’s conditions—which he deemed far too high—Franco would later send some 50,000 volunteers to fight alongside the Germans against the Soviets on the Eastern Front as well as open Spain’s ports to German ships and submarines.
When the tide of the war began to turn against the Axis powers in 1943, Franco once more declared Spain’s neutrality, but in the aftermath of the conflict his former allegiances were not forgotten. As a result Spain was ostracized by the United Nations, placing significant economic strain on the country. However, circumstances changed with the advent of the Cold War; Franco’s status as a staunch anticommunist led to economic and military assistance from the United States in exchange for the establishment of military bases in Spain.
Later Years and Death
Over time, Franco began to relax his control of Spain, removing some of the restraints of censorship, instituting economic reforms and promoting international tourism while maintaining his position as head of state. In 1969, amidst a period of declining health, he also named his successor, Prince Juan Carlos, whom he believed would maintain the political structure that Franco had established and rule as a king. However, two days after Franco’s death on November 20, 1975, Juan Carlos I set about dismantling Spain’s authoritarian apparatus and reintroduced political parties. In June 1977, the first elections were held since 1936. Spain has remained a democracy ever since.
Valley of the Fallen
Francisco Franco was buried in a massive mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen, constructed by the dictator—with the use of forced labor—as a monument to the dead of the Spanish Civil War. In the decades since Franco’s rule, it has been the subject of frequent controversy, with many advocating for the removal of his remains. But amidst the often-fractured political environment in post-Franco Spain, the site remains more or less unchanged.
Though some have chosen not to look closely at the years of Franco's ascension and rule, many Spanish citizens have continued to push for the exhumation of mass graves, with the U.N. calling for an investigation into the whereabouts of those who went missing during the years of the conflict as well. Archaeologists have tried for some time to locate the remains of poet/playwright Federico García Lorca, who was executed by Granada-based right-wing forces in 1936.
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