50 years ago yesterday, the Spanish dictator General Franco died. After running a recent article here on the history of the ongoing Catalan crisis in the country, we therefore thought one on life under Franco may be of interest.
General Francisco Franco (more commonly known as Franco) ruled Spain as a military dictator from 1939 up to his death in 1975, leading a brutal regime under which hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were killed and many more imprisoned and tortured. Yet this era of Spanish history, that was right on our doorstep, is often barely covered in Britain’s history lessons.
Franco took control of Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War, in part thanks to support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the army and the Catholic Church. He skilfully held together the various Nationalist groups which were fighting for power, whereas the opposition, the Republicans, were divided and unable to cooperate well together.
Franco used fear as a way to control the people of Spain. Many of those who supported the Republicans during the civil war fled from Spain, and of those who remained, many were rounded up and tried through military courts, often being put to death as punishment for fighting on the “wrong” side. Regional differences were oppressed by banning the use of languages such as Catalan and Basque, which meant that some of the regions which may have wanted to achieve independence from the rest of Spain, and therefore Franco’s rule, were less able to use their own language as a way to encourage a sense of independent identity and separation. Similarly, Franco discouraged the learning of other European languages as a way to reduce the population’s ability to understand what was happening outside of the country. In most non-English speaking countries, English language films and TV programmes were subtitled in the local language, helping people to learn English from a young age, whereas in Spain, films were generally dubbed into Spanish which had the secondary benefit that changes to the script could be made which fitted better with the Franco regime’s propaganda. A famous example is within the film Casablanca, where lines were entirely changed to make it appear that a character supported the Franco regime.
It is often considered that oppression was a theme of life in Spain for normal people. It is true that there were strict rules of social conduct, many based on Catholic morality. Homosexuality was strictly illegal, and homosexual people were jailed, sent to camps or locked up in mental institutions. Contraception was strictly banned – even pet animals could not be neutered. Women were expected to be home-makers and couldn’t even work outside the house or travel without their husband’s permission. Dissenters of the regime were treated brutally, and life for those who wanted to see change could be extremely dangerous.
At the same time, for anyone who stuck to the rules, the country was generally a safe place to live. Crimes such as theft and personal attacks were unlikely, and people talk about being able to walk around cities late at night without any fear. This was because anyone who was caught by the feared police force – the Guardia Civil – would not be treated lightly. Indeed, even 50 years after Franco’s death, the Guardia still inspire fear in those who cross them, and being stopped by them on the roadside often means having a machine-gun pointed at the driver! Scary stuff, especially for those who weren’t raised in a culture of armed police!
Franco died on the 20th November 1975 following a series of heart attacks, and over the next few years a democratic system was put into place. Political prisoners began to be released and, slowly, changes to the Catholic culture and laws have brought Spain more in line with the rest of Europe. However, nearly every Spanish family has stories – either first hand, or passed down to grandchildren – of their experiences under Franco, Western Europe’s last military dictator.