Francisco Franco biography
Francisco Franco was born Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco Bahamonde in El Ferrol, Spain, in 1892. Franco’s father was an officer in the Spanish Naval Administrative Corps, and his mother was a conservative, upper-middle-class Roman Catholic. The previous four generations of Franco’s family, and his elder brother, were naval officers, and Franco himself seemed destined to follow that path. Reduced admissions to the Naval Academy, however, forced him instead to enlist in the army, and in 1907, when he was just 14 years old, Franco entered the Infantry Academy at Toledo. When he graduated three years later, he volunteered for active duty in the campaigns in Spanish Morocco and was stationed there in 1912.
In 1913, at age 20, he was promoted to first lieutenant and served in an elite company of the Moroccan-based Spanish cavalry. Franco was a quick study and a born commander, and he soon won a reputation for complete dedication to the profession and the troops under his command. In 1915, Franco became the youngest captain in the Spanish army, and in 1920 he was chosen to be second in command of the Spanish Foreign Legion (he took full command in 1923; he also married Carmen Polo that year, and she would give birth to a daughter, Carmen, three years later).
During the Moroccan campaigns, the Foreign Legion played a key role in subduing the Moroccan rebels and bringing the insurgency to an end, and Franco’s role in the suppression made him a national hero. In 1926, at age 33, he became a brigadier general, and just two years later he was named director of the General Military Academy in Saragossa, which found him visiting military schools in Germany and France.
A Sea Change in Spain
In 1931, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, under the pressure of his country’s sagging economy, agreed to hold democratic elections. It was the first time in nearly 60 years that free elections were allowed in Spain, and the people voted overwhelmingly for a republic and Spain’s monarchy was finished. Alfonso decided to go into exile to avoid large-scale violence, and he left the country in April 1931.
The leaders of the new Spanish republic initiated a major military reform, and Franco’s career was briefly sidetracked, as the General Military Academy was dissolved and Franco was placed on the inactive list.
Though he was a loyal monarchist, Franco accepted both the new regime and his new status in stride, and when elections gave conservatives control of the republic in 1933, Franco’s command was reactivated and he was promoted to major general in 1934.
Rising Through the Ranks
Francisco Franco’s ascension through Spain’s military accelerated in October 1934, when he was called in to quell a bloody uprising of Asturian miners, a group representative of left-wing causes. His success in this operation made him a national figure, and in May 1935 he was appointed chief of staff of the Spanish army. Once in place, he began strengthening military institutions and emphasizing discipline in the ranks.
Following a slew of scandals, the Spanish parliament was dissolved, new elections were scheduled for February 1936, and the left eventually prevailed. The new government could not stop the crumbling Spanish social and economic structure, however, and the country found itself immersed in anarchy. Franco requested that the government declare a state of emergency, but he was refused, stripped of his chief of staff position, and sent to an insignificant command post in the Canary Islands. From his new post, Franco watched Spain’s political system disintegrate, but he refused to join any movement against the government. By July, though, he finally decided to join the rebels.
The Spanish Civil War
On July 18, 1936, from the Canary Islands, Francisco Franco broadcast his manifesto announcing a full military rebellion, and the uprising began on the mainland that same morning. Within 24 hours he was firmly in control of the Spanish army, and he soon advanced toward Madrid, which was held by the republic. As the troops approached the city, seeing Madrid as the symbol of the leftist government about to be toppled, the movement’s leaders decided to choose a commander in chief. Franco was the obvious choice, and he became head of state of the new Nationalist regime on October 1, 1936. But the rebel government did not fully seize the reins of the country immediately, and the Spanish Civil War would last for more than three years.
In April 1937, Franco unified of the Falange Española (Mussolini-inspired Spanish fascists) and the Carlists (another right-wing group) with other small right-wing parties and from them formed the Falange Española Tradicionalista (which became the regime’s official political face), and Franco was appointed the group’s leader. Emulating the tactics of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, oversized posters of Franco were displayed all over Spain, emblazoned with the slogan, "One State! One Country! One Chief! Franco! Franco! Franco!"
With superior military strength and continual assistance from German and Italian troops, Franco’s Nationalist Army slowly began to take control of Spain, region by region. Once Badajoz and Bilbao fell, Franco focused on finally taking Madrid, eventually doing so on March 31, 1939, and April 1 marked Franco’s complete and unconditional victory.
Franco intended to restore Spain to its former glory once the Civil War came to an end, but he soon discovered his country to be as economically damaged and politically divided as ever, and the outbreak of World War II only five months later made his government’s grasp on the country even more tenuous. Franco was ideologically sympathetic to the Axis cause, but he initially declared Spanish neutrality in the war. In June 1940, he met with Adolf Hitler and said he would bring Spain into the war on Germany’s side in return for certain concessions. Hitler was either unable or unwilling to meet Franco’s terms, and Franco’s government thenceforth tentatively sided with the Axis powers while cautiously avoiding direct diplomatic and military commitment to their war effort.
Spain again declared complete neutrality in 1943, but the declaration came too late for the Allies to treat with any amount of significance. While the Allies weren’t impressed and the newly formed United Nations ostracized the Franco government, Franco’s calculated wartime diplomacy did manage to keep his regime and possibly Spain from being toppled along with the Axis powers. And the ostracism came to an end when tensions between the Soviets and the West ramped up at the height of the Cold War, and Franco was then seen as one of the world’s foremost anticommunist figures.
After the war came to an end, Franco, traditionally pro-monarchist, found himself under pressure to restore the monarchy. So in 1947, Franco announced a referendum to establish Spain as a monarchy while at the same time confirming himself as lifetime regent. The following year, Franco began supervising the education of Juan Carlos, the future king of Spain, at the age of 10 (in 1969, Franco would officially name Carlos as his successor upon his death).
Franco ruled at arm’s length, but with total self-confidence, and he began liberalizing domestic policies and softening some of the powers that would normally be associated with a police state. Also, in 1943, Franco changed the status of Falange Española Tradicionalista (the state party) from a “party” to a “movement,” and with the switch much of its original quasi-fascist identity was lost. These changes, paired with his strong anticommunist image, made him popular with the government of the United States, and in 1950 Spain was asked to join the United Nations. Further, in 1953, Franco signed an agreement that brought his regime under NATO protection from foreign invasion. (That same year, the Vatican confirmed the church's recognition of Franco's legitimacy.)
By the 1960s, Spain was experiencing a period of expanded economic development and further advancement in progressive domestic policy, and Franco was viewed more as an elder statesman than as a fascist dictator. The 1960s also marked a decline in Franco’s health, and he announced that after his death, Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of Spain’s last ruling king, would be his successor and would maintain the basic structure of his administration.
But after Franco’s death in 1975, at the age of 83, Juan Carlos moved to dismantle many institutions of Franco’s system and revived the democratic constitutional monarchy system from the pre-Franco days, essentially wiping Spain’s slate clean of much of Franco’s influence within three years of his death.