El Cid and Francisco Franco
Something for the weekend. The theme song from the movie El Cid (1961). The theme and the etchings at the beginning of the film I find very evocative of Spain and Spanish history.
I have always loved this film for many reasons: the acting is of a high level (in spite of, or perhaps because, Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston cordially detested each other); I find medieval Spain and the Reconquista inherently fascinating; the film has scenes of compelling beauty, as if painted sequences from a medieval manuscript have been brought to life; and, of course, it is simply a rattling good retelling of the legend of El Cid. However, the background story of the film is just as fascinating as the film itself.
Filmed on location in Spain, the film had the enthusiastic support of dictator Francisco Franco, including the use of thousands of Spanish troops in the battle scenes. Franco fancied himself as a modern El Cid, and the film fit right in with his belief that Spain was a great nation that had saved Christendom from the threat of expansionist Islam in the days of El Cid and Communism and Arnarchism in the time of Franco.
Even the scenes of El Cid fighting with muslims as allies in the film would have been congenial to Franco as he had used North African Morrocan Regulares during the Spanish Civil War. (Republican propaganda blasted Franco for bringing the Moors back to Spain.) The film portrayed El Cid as the hero who saved Spain from a foreign menace and unified Spaniards. That is precisely how Franco viewed himself.
The reality was somewhat different for both men.
Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, born into a noble family in Castile, made his way in the violent world of Eleventh Century Spain by his wits and his sword. Born in 1043, he fought in his first battle in 1057, and by 1079 was an experienced general, winning for Castile the battle of Cabra against the Moorish Granadan army. Running afoul of King Alfonso VI of Castile, he took service for several years in the Moorish kingdom of Saragossa. (Politics in medieval Spain made strange bedfellows, and it was not unusual for alliances to cut across the religious divide of Christian and Moor.) Under the Cid’s brilliant leadership Saragossa was held against assaults from enemy Moorish and Christian armies.
The Islamic fundamentalist movement, known to history as the Almoravids, began an invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 1086, sending wave after wave of black garbed Berber armies into Spain. At the great battle of Sagrajas, a combined Christian army under Alfonso VI was decisively defeated by Almoravid and local Moorish forces. El Cid was probably at this battle leading a contingent on the Moorish side. The battle and its aftermath effectively stalled the Reconquista for several generations.
In the aftermath of Sagrajas, Alfonso recalled El Cid from exile, realizing that he now needed the services of the best general in Spain. Leading combined Christian and Moorish forces, El Cid took the Moorish city of Valencia in May of 1094. Although technically a vassal of Castile, El Cid was now a king in all but name. After three years of peace, Valencia was besieged by the Almoravids, with El Cid dying from an arrow to the heart while fighting in the siege. Valencia fell to the Moors in 1102, with the Cid”s wife Jimena fleeing to Burgos with his body. Valencia would not come under Christian rule again for 125 years.
From the bare facts of his life it is somewhat difficult for me to see why Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar became a national hero, but become a national hero he did. His title of Cid was awarded to him by admiring muslims, the term meaning lord/master in Arabic (sayyid). He was often called El Cid Campeador, campeador being campi doctus, doctor of the camp, a reference to his mastery of the military art. His contemporaries regarded him as the greatest knight who ever lived, and since his time every generation of Spaniards have thrilled to his, mostly, fictional exploits, as legends became clustered about him even before his death, and minstrels and poets began to make him a myth before his corpse was cold. My favorite El Cid legend is well represented in the film:
Between the time of El Cid and Francisco Franco, the Moors were expelled from Spain, Spain became a unified monarchy, and, in the Sixteenth Century, Spain bestrode the world as the greatest power on the globe. Then Spain’s long and painful decline set in. When Franco was born in bleak Ferrol, Galicia, Spain had become a joke on the world stage. The mighty Spanish empire had largely vanished and would soon completely vanish as a result of the Spanish-American war in 1898. Spain spent the nineteenth century riven by civil wars, military uprisings and periods of stagnant peace under an utterly corrupt parliamentary regime with rigged elections. The glory that had been Spain seemed utterly gone, leaving Spain a backward backwater of history. Franco’s family had produced naval officers for six generations for Spain, and they had been eye witnesses to the decline of Spanish power.
Franco’s mother Maria was a pious Catholic and a very good woman. Franco’s father Nicolas would eventually rise to be an Admiral in the paymaster service of the Spanish navy. He was also a freemason and a “free thinker”, as well as being a drunk and a skirt chaser. He deserted his wife in 1907 and moved in with his mistress in Madrid, with whom he would cohabit for the rest of his life. Franco, justifiably, took his mother’s side and all her life was her defender and support. His father made disparaging remarks about Franco throughout his life. When he died in 1942, Franco made certain he was buried with full military honors, but Franco did not attend his funeral. I think the emotional distance that was a constant feature of Franco’s life may have partially stemmed from this traumatic breakdown in his family.
A naval career was denied to Franco due to the Spanish naval academy being closed from 1906-1913, a testament to the diminished size and importance of that branch of the service. In 1907 Franco enlisted as a cadet in the infantry school in Toledo. Commissioned in 1910, Franco spent the next 16 years mainly fighting in the savage Rif wars in North Africa. He became the second commander of the Spanish Foreign Legion. He earned a reputation for absolute fearlessness in battle, military professionalism and ruthless discipline. One story told about Franco during this period gives us considerable insight into the man. Franco was inspecting a platoon of the Spanish Foreign Legion when one of the legionnaires threw a bowl of soup in his face in protest of the poor quality of the rations. Franco said nothing, took out a handkerchief and wiped the soup away, and continued on with the inspection. After the inspection he said the man was quite right: the rations were poor and he ordered that they be improved immediately. He then ordered the immediate execution of the legionnaire who threw the bowl of soup at him for assaulting a superior officer.
Spain emerged victorious in the Rif wars, due in no small part to the efforts of Franco, who in 1926 found himself the youngest general in Europe. In 1923 he married his wife Carmen, like his mother a pious Catholic. He would lavish upon her, their daughter, and his eventual grandchildren, the love he displayed to few others in his life. His wife’s piety rubbed off on Franco, and from a fairly indifferent Catholic he became a fairly fervent one.
In 1934 Franco put down a socialist and anarchist rebellion in Asturias, his first major role in the ongoing tragedy soon to turn Spain into a charnel house. The rebels committed atrocities and Franco and his troops matched them in the shedding of blood to instill terror and break the back of the resistance.
The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 is one of the most controversial periods in modern history. It is also one of the most dishonestly covered. During Franco’s reign in Spain, the war was depicted inside Spain almost entirely as a glorious crusade for God and Spain in which Spain was saved from Communism and Anarchism. Leftist historians outside of Spain during Franco’s reign from 1939-1975 depicted him as a fascist who crushed valiant, albeit flawed, Republicans defending a revolution which promised social justice and freedom . Since the fall of Franco the Left version of the war has become a virtual catechism both inside and outside of Spain in most of the histories written about the war. This is sheer nonsense and cartoonish historical rubbish. A blog post can’t correct the historical record, but here are some basic facts.
1. Spanish politics in Spain prior to the Civil War went to extremes. The Left, Socialist, Communist and Anarchist, used blood curdling rhetoric threatening extermination to the social classes and groups that opposed them. The Church was a favorite target of the Left.
2. The Right, Monarchists, Catholics, and many Radicals and Centrists, increasingly lost what little faith they possessed in democracy and became authoritarian, with the home grown Spanish fascist party the Falange being only one manifestation.
3. Political violence, including ever increasing Church burnings, was a staple feature of Spanish life in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War and created an atmosphere of violence and hate that contributed materially to the onset of actual civil war.
4. When the Leftists were in power they routinely did their best to destroy the influence of the Church. Pius XI complained vehemently about this in Dilectissima Nobis in 1933. In addition to a political war, a culture war also raged between Right and Left.
5. Spaniards of all political stripes were convinced that conventional politics could not save Spain, but perhaps some violent convulsion could. A better world through a violent struggle was a commonplace theme for politicians of both the Right and the Left prior to the war.
6. When a portion of the military rose in rebellion in July 1936 against the new Leftist government, a wave of murderous persecution against the Church was unleashed in Republican regions outside of the Basque areas unrivaled since the French Revolution. Thousands of priests, brothers and nuns were put to death in bloodlettings that can scarcely be believed when read as cold history. This allowed the Nationalists to claim that they were engaged in a Cruzada (Crusade), and from the perspective of a Catholic who simply wanted his clergy not to be murdered and to be able to attend Mass freely, one can see how that claim seemed entirely valid.
7. Both sides in the war committed sickening atrocities and mass executions. Each side was determined that in the new Spain after the war their adversaries would be dead or impotent. Outside of the Basque regions, freedom was equally non-existent in Republican and Nationalist Spain, with the key exception that Catholics could freely worship in Nationalist Spain, something they could not do without risking their lives in the non-Basque areas of the Republic.
8. The Republicans concentrated on making a revolution, while the Nationalists concentrated on winning the war. The Nationalists built a mass army which was professionally trained and led. The Republicans were amateurish in comparison, with Leftist, Communist and Anarchist politics usually taking a front seat to military matters, and sometimes breaking out into open warfare between Republican factions. Officers of the pre-civil war Spanish regular army who fought for the Republic tended to be viewed with great suspicion by their political masters, and they were often advised that their families would pay the ultimate penalty if they proved disloyal.
9. Franco was no military genius but a solid commander. He conquered the Basque regions and the other Republican regions in the north of Spain, and then split Republican Spain into two sections with an offensive that reached the Mediterranean south of Barcelona. He never panicked during the war and always maintained adequate reserves to crush Republican offensives, which were always futile bloody failures. Considering the fact that throughout most of the war the Republicans had the most productive and populous regions of Spain under their control, Franco’s victory was quite impressive.
10. The intervention of the foreign powers of Germany and Italy on the side of the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union on the side of the Republicans, was not the decisive factor in the outcome of the war. The foreign units and the international brigades attracted a lot of press attention at the time, but militarily they were not significant, with the exception of the German air transport units at the beginning of the war that flew Franco’s Army of Africa into Spain.
During the War Franco and the Nationalists referred to the Republicans as Reds and Anti-Spain, while the Republicans referred to the Nationalists as Fascists and the lapdogs of Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican. The truth of course was that both the Nationalists and the Republicans were representatives of a divided Spain, a Spain that collectively decided to go to war against itself. In the aftermath of the civil war, Franco got the opportunity to recreate Spain.
Massive executions followed the Nationalist victory, as no doubt they would have followed a Republican victory. It was a rare family in Spain that had not had a member murdered during the conflict. Most of the Republicans executed probably had engaged in crimes that warranted execution. The essential injustice of course was that the hands of the victors were just as blood stained and they would receive no justice before an Earthly tribunal. Many Republicans received long prison sentences. Most of the prison sentences were eventually reduced and the prisoners amnestied before serving their full sentences, and by the end of the Forties Spain had relatively few political prisoners.
During World War II Franco played a skillful cat and mouse game with Hitler, indicating in 1940-1941 that he was just itching to come into the war on the side of Hitler, but always making such intervention contingent upon impossible demands for German economic assistance to Spain. I think Franco clearly never had any intention of entering the war and simply strung Hitler along. Personally, Franco had no sympathy for the Nazis as he had no sympathy for any politicians no matter what they called themselves. (He often said that Spanish politicians had done their very best to destroy Spain.) No Jewish refugees were ever returned to Hitler and Franco ordered that they be treated as gentlemen. Some 40,000 fleeing Jews made their way safely through Spain during the war. Sephardic Jews in North Africa had helped fund the Nationalist cause in the civil war and Franco never forgot a favor or an offence. Allied airmen who crashed in Spain were not interned, as was normal procedure for combatants entering a neutral country, but given a good meal by the Spanish Air Force and driven to British controlled Gibraltar to get back into the war. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Franco sent a division to fight against the Soviet Union, the Azul (Blue) division. The division consisted largely of Falange volunteers officered by regular Army Spanish officers. Franco thus was able to say that he was helping Germany without getting involved in a war with America and England who could actually attack Spain. The Azul division was withdrawn by Franco’s order and returned to Spain in 1943. Spanish Republican exiles pressed the Allies to invade Spain and topple Franco, but due to his skillful balancing act between the Axis and the Allies, Franco ended World War II still in charge of Spain.
Franco would remain Head of State, responsible, as he liked to say, only to God and to History, for the next three decades. Under his oppressive regime Spain enjoyed a growth in prosperity unknown since the glory days of the Spanish Empire. Franco was pragmatic when it came to economics. When his initial attempts at economic autarky in the Forties and Fifties proved a miserable failure, in the late Fifties he promoted technocrats, many of them Opus Dei members, who steered Spain in a free market direction which proved enormously successful. Socially Spain under Franco was quite conservative, at least outwardly, with Franco letting the Church set the tone for public morals.
Franco found Spain divided and he left Spain divided. The Socialists who currently rule Spain seem to spend half their time attempting to remind Spaniards of what a terrible dictator Franco was, and passing legislation to commemorate the victims of Francoism. Of course they are silent as to the crimes of their ideological forebears. Books praising Franco, and there are a few, often end up on the best seller lists in Spain, showing that the Caudillo still has his admirers. Two Spains still exist side by side, and neither Franco nor his adversaries could solve the problem of a bitterly divided nation.
Like his hero El Cid, Franco is now part of Spanish history. God has judged him and history has begun a never-ending process of judgment on him. Like El Cid the Spanish will never forget Franco, whether they hate or love him, and I think he would have found that very pleasing.