SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Franco: Biography of the Myth’ by Antonio Cazorla Sánchez

Antonio Cazorla Sanchez

General Francisco Franco, also called the Caudillo, was the dictator of Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. His life has been examined in many previous biographies. However, most of these have been traditional, linear biographies that focus on Franco’s military and political careers, neglecting the significance of who exactly Franco was for the millions of Spaniards over whom he ruled for almost forty years.

In this new biography Antonio Cazorla Sánchez looks at Franco from a fresh perspective, emphasizing the cultural and social over the political. Cazorla Sánchez’s Franco uses previously unknown archival sources to analyse how the dictator was portrayed by the propaganda machine, how the opposition tried to undermine his prestige, and what kind of opinions, rumours and myths people formed of him, and how all these changed over time. The author argues that the collective construction of Franco’s image emerged from a context of material needs, the political traumas caused by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the complex cultural workings of a society in distress, political manipulation, and the lack of any meaningful public debate. Cazorla Sánchez’s Franco is a study of Franco’s life as experienced and understood by ordinary people; by those who loved or admired him, by those who hated or disliked him, and more generally, by those who had no option but to accommodate their existence to his rule.

The book has a significance that goes well beyond Spain, as Cazorla Sánchez explores the all-too-common experience of what it is like to live under the deep shadow cast by an always officially praised, ever-present, and long-lasting dictator.

Cover art and blurb from amazon

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I saw Franco: Biography of a Myth on the shelf and grabbed it while collecting other Franco books. Reading the little blurb on the back cover which states the book is part of a series of ‘engaging, readable and academically credible biographies’, I thought it would be worth a read. Then I read the chapters headings – Military Hero, Saviour of Spain, Man of Peace, Moderate Ruler, Bestower of Prosperity…. and I wondered what I had stumble onto. No one, other than those, let’s say, fanatical about Franco would use any of the terms to describe a man who killed and controlled with enjoyment. It was going to be hard to give a decent review after reading just the contents pages.

Biography of a Myth starts off with a an introduction, an overview of the man himself, and facts and perceptions of his rule. An excerpt from the book of Luis Bolin, Spain’s once-tourism minister, shows how opinion of Franco was perceived by those who believed in him – His ambition was to serve. All thoughts were for the people. He wished to improve the lot of the working man and the position of the middle classes, both of which had so many times been deceived by Republican promises…. This about a man who condoned the swift punishment of said people in the south of Spain, in an example detailed just one page earlier. This is a book written not from simply the facts, but the facts as they were handed down to the people.

The first chapter tells of Franco’s time in the army, not just as a man good at what he did, but as a man of opportunistic timing. The chapter talks of right up until the day civil war began, with Franco’s ‘crude opportunism’ and through a series of accidents, how his name would quickly become feared, when it could have easily been another man leading the charge in war. The second chapter tells of the civil war from the Nationalists point to view as Franco swept through the country, and how the propaganda machine was already at work. Franco’s name was kept out of stories where possible, instead focusing on others, or local heroes in publications. Once he was proclaimed Head of the Spanish State and Commander and Chief of the Army did the news stories change, to anoint him the illustrious Caudillo General Franco. People could only believe what they heard and all that was carefully planned. Each story on his victories was selected and mistakes neatly erased. History was already being written by those who decided what the future would believe. The book also touches on the sanitised versions of events printed in international news.

The book goes on to talk of the delicate peace created after the civil war. With starvation of the traumatised public, and corruption and ineptitude, these things didn’t hurt Franco, as underlings took the blame. Publications in ensuing years, including a 1947 article which claimed Franco had too been a victim of the Nazis, helped to preserve Franco’s prestige. The years described in chapter four, through the fifties and sixties, describes Franco as ‘a walking skeleton that refused to go into the closet of European history.’ Franco needed American and European opinion to sway in his favour, and propaganda was written to suit. As a result, through trade and negotiations, Spain was allowed to flourish, all based on what people knew of the man himself. The chapter titled ‘Moderate Ruler’ may ring true if you consider Franco a man with absolute power, and no idea what to do with it.

Chapter five talks of the calmer years under Franco’s reign as the country began to prosper, and his belief he had a successor in the form of Prince Juan Carlos, who would carry on his vision after his death. But with factions starting to speak out in the mid to late sixties, such as ETA, Franco’s grip on the nation, and the opinion of the people, started to wane.  Only with his death in 1975 did opinion change as new stories would emerge, giving a more realistic picture of Franco and his reign, as freedom to discuss the past opened wide. Perceptions are also opened, with details of publications made since his death, of who wrote what and why, and what perceptions are like today, based on propaganda.

When I started reading this book, I thought I was going to get a mouthful of Franco love, but Biography of a Myth is not that straight-forward. It swings between those who loved and hated Franco, though does brush over atrocities at an astounding rate (perhaps because it could be a subject for another book). The information on Franco is not new; anyone who knows anything of Franco’s history will find themselves in common territory. This book does spear off in a new direction, away from the likes of Paul Preston’s magnificent biography, but would make a good read for anyone looking for a different point of view. This book doesn’t talk about Franco from one side or the other, it talks of Franco through perceptions during his reign. In the end, the book tells us something we all know – history is the opinion of the winners.

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