How the Mainstream Right Developed a Soft Spot for Francisco Franco

The Francoist regime is one of the few fascist governments that mainstream politicians and writers feel comfortable praising publicly. They shouldn’t: on top of anti-communism, antisemitism was also central to Francisco Franco’s reign of terror.

General Francisco Franco accompanied by the army minister, General Antonio Barroso (right), reviews the troops on May 7, 1958. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Every so often I’ll look up what certain twentieth-century intellectuals said of Francisco Franco. I’m always struck by how many of them were fooled by him: they swooned, like innocent debutantes, when the blue-shirted Falange marched past. To my mind, this “Franco test” is for the political right what the Stalinist show trials were for the Left — it is hard to really admire those who failed it. Can you guess who said the following?

I saw that Franco had made a heroic and colossal attempt to save his country from disintegration. With this understanding there also came amazement: there had been destruction all around, but with firm tactics, Franco had managed to have Spain sidestep the Second World War without involving itself, and for twenty, thirty, thirty-five years, had kept Spain Christian against all history’s laws of decline! But then in the thirty-seventh year of his rule he died, dying to a chorus of nasty jeers from the European socialists, radicals, and liberals.

Those were the words of the famed Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It is often said that Solzhenitsyn had personal reasons to loathe the NKVD, his country’s secret service, and any government, like the Second Spanish Republic’s, that looked to it for support. But Solzhenitsyn — who never hesitated to praise the KGB’s Vladimir Putin — was by no means the only darling of the Right to fail the Franco test.

Evelyn Waugh came out firmly in favor of the nationalist side: had he been Spanish, he said, he’d be fighting for General Franco. Taking a retrospective view, William F. Buckley said that Franco had stayed on too long, but he celebrated his skill in keeping Spain outside World War II. Buckley called him “an authentic national hero” who had saved “the Spanish soul” from a grotesque regime of “visionaries, ideologues, Marxists, and nihilists.” Such statements can still be heard on the religious right, though now usually muttered rather than exclaimed.

For this reason, Paul Preston, Britain’s leading expert on Francoist Spain, has often remarked that his critique of Franco must proceed from first principles. He can’t simply take for granted that Franco was bad; he must establish even the most basic premises. His new book, Architects of Terror, examines the so-called “Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy” from which Franco’s inner circle believed they had to save Spain. The White Terror was greater in scope than the Red Terror — roughly fifty thousand people were killed by the Republican side, while a hundred fifty thousand, if not more, were killed by the nationalists. But Preston shows that Franco’s terror was also characterized by an especially vicious, paranoid style. Its victims were pathologized, as though they were cancerous cells on the body politic. Defending Catholic Spain thus meant, in theory, rooting out the “conspirators,” while in practice, it meant piles of innocent corpses.

A Cult of Violence

Architects of Terror contains six biographical chapters on the “theorists” who disseminated the notion of a conspiracy and the generals who implemented the massacres it justified. The rogues’ gallery consists of the following people: General Emilio Mola, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, the police officer Mauricio Carlavilla, the poet José María Pemán, the press liaison Gonzalo de Aguilera, and Father Juan Tusquets. Preston also provides two framing chapters: the introductory chapter outlines Franco’s own belief in the contubernio; the closing chapter shows how key members of the Franco regime continued to propagate it well into the 1970s.

The rebellion was fought in the interests of traditional elites whose privileges were threatened by social reform, but the belief in a Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy gave the rebels ideological coherence. They believed their privileges were threatened, not merely by the Republic itself, but by freemasons and Jews. The business mogul Juan March published the reactionary newspaper Informaciones.

Preston cites a typical editorial it ran during the February 1936 election. “German Jewish emigres,” it stated, “have made Spain the international centre for boycotting Hitler’s Germany which is saving Europe from the Asiatic red hordes.” Edited by a member of Acción Española, it reached fifty thousand households every day. In a crucial moment, March stepped in to guarantee the financial future of the coup organizers in the event that they failed. He gave General Mola, one of the key plotters, enough money to send his family to Biarritz; Mola is supposed to have said, “For the Fatherland, I’m ready to risk my life but not my bread and butter.”

Mola, on whom Preston bestows the epithet “the Killer in the North,” had served in Morocco, where he honed his talents for cruelty. When he became leader of the Nationalist forces in northern Spain, he wiped out suspected Republican sympathizers with the same glee he had exterminated Rif tribesmen. Like Franco, he believed in the veracity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, read Father Tusquets’s polemics, and subscribed to the Bulletin of Geneva, published by the Entente Internationale contre la Troisième Internationale. He became convinced that the Spanish Communist Party was an instrument of nefarious Jewish influence. During the Civil War, he gave his troops carte blanche to wage terror. Even as the Francoists were claiming nothing had happened in Guernica, Mola took to the radio promising to annihilate Bilbao next.

Preston calls General Queipo de Llano “the Psychopath in the South.” Queipo de Llano betrayed the Republic, conquered Seville for the rebels, and mounted a campaign of extermination that killed over forty thousand people in Western Andalusia and Extremadura. He became known for his insane violent fantasies, which he broadcast in radio transmissions from Seville to the rest of Spain. These broadcasts were extremely lurid and often included sexual language of such impropriety that they had to be censored.

“General Queipo de Llano describes scenes of rape with a coarse relish that is an indirect incitement to a repetition of such cases,” wrote Arthur Koestler, who had met him. Officially, instead of saying that people were “repressed” or “killed,” the Francoists used euphemisms such as “justice was done” or “the law was applied.” Queipo de Llano, in spite of his aides’ sedulous efforts, couldn’t stay on script. Instead his extemporaneous broadcasts routinely collapsed into semicoherent pornographic celebrations of violence. His rants often seemed buffoonish, as if he were in a state of constant intoxication. The historian Gerald Brenan recalled one particular broadcast:

Then [Queipo de Llano] would turn to his staff and say, “I can’t read this. Is it five hundred or five thousand Reds we have killed?” “Five hundred, mi general.” “Well, never mind. Never mind if this time it’s only five hundred. For we are going to kill five thousand, no five hundred thousand. Five hundred thousand just to begin with, and then we’ll see.”

Such statements, Brenan wrote, seemed comical at first but were “horrifying when we realised the mass executions that were going on all round him.”

Left-Wing Satanism

Preston’s most vivid portrait is of Gonzalo de Aguilera y Munro, the Conde de Alba de Yeltes. Though Aguilera didn’t participate in the killings or propagate the contubernio idea, as one of General Mola’s press liaisons, he justified the repression to foreign correspondents. Educated at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, he spoke several languages; his plummy English in particular endeared him to visiting journalists, who would call him “Captain Aggie.” He was a retired cavalry officer, enjoyed a polo game, and he’d speed between front lines in his Mercedes, looking for beautiful women to pick up, while telling whichever correspondent that happened to ride shotgun that the “reds” were natural-born slaves fit only to toil and perish.

He told one reporter that shoe shiners ought to be executed. “My dear fellow,” he said, “it only stands to reason! A chap who squats down on his knees to clean your boots at a café or in the street is bound to be a Communist, so why not shoot him right away and be done with it? No need for a trial — the guilt is self-evident in his profession.”

One of the chief promoters of the contubernio theory was Mauricio Carlavilla. During the regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera, he worked for the secret police, infiltrating “subversive” circles, while writing paranoid pamphlets in his free time. His meager intellect, which might’ve precluded other career paths, made him a natural (if overenthusiastic) agent provocateur. It seemed as though he might be booted out of the police for personal corruption, but survived with a reprimand and benefited from Mola’s appointment as director general of security in 1930.

On Mola’s orders, he began compiling a report on the Spanish Communist Party. Giving into every fixation possible, he elaborated his “findings” with pure fabulism. His report seems to have entrenched Mola’s own paranoia, who sent it to the Entente in Geneva. Later, it became the basis for Carlavilla’s first book, El comunismo en España, which was soon followed by a string of even more unhinged screeds — one of them reportedly selling more than a hundred thousand copies.

“Only knowledge of freemasonry, the slave of Judaism, provides the key to the real aims of Socialism,” Carlavilla opined. Statements like that were cited in the Carlist press as though they were truisms. He seems to have become increasingly obsessed by what he perceived to be a global conspiracy of socialist homosexuals. At one point, he claimed to have proof that Manuel Azaña, leader of the opposition, was homosexual, and in 1935 he involved himself in a plot to kill him. He wrote books with titles like Sodomitas and Satanismo.

“Satanism is the hinge that connects communism with homosexuality,” he wrote. Freemasons were embroiled in that conspiracy too, of course, but they were, in their turn, controlled by a satanic Jewish sect based in Babylon. Despite his obvious fabrications, he became a hero to European reactionaries. The Nazis invited him to inspect their concentration camps, which he praised for penning up homosexuals, though he believed they might as well be liquidated en masse.

Father Tusquets, in Preston’s estimation, was probably the most influential peddler of the Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik theory. Born in Catalonia, he entered the priesthood, which seems to have fueled his obsession with “sects.” He suspected the freemasons of controlling a whole network of other, smaller groups: vegetarians, theosophists, rotarians, and nudists. Freemasonry, he believed, had been behind every calamity one could think of, including the Russian Revolution.

In that fevered state of mind he began conducting his own personal surveillance of masonic lodges. He boasted that he had intercepted letters sent to lodges in Barcelona, opening them by the use of kettle steam. He thus collected a huge index of suspected masons, which became the basis for his bestseller Orígenes de la revolución española. It explained that the Spanish Second Republic had been born from the machinations of a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy.

Tusquets translated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1932. His translation came replete with annotations explaining its relevance to contemporary Spain. This seems to have endeared Tusquets to Franco, who was happy to add to what must have already been a voluminous collection of contubernio literature. Tusquets befriended Franco and formed an especially close bond with Ramón Serrano Suñer, Franco’s second-in-command.

He thus became an important figure in the regime: with Franco’s encouragement, he supplied the rebels with his index of freemasons and began working for the Sección Judeo-Masónica, which operated under the Servicio de Información Militar. Franco believed fully in Tusquets’s theories, but others, even his fellow reactionaries, found his fixation on freemasonry somewhat excessive. Praising his “magnificent courage,” one Carlist nonetheless remarked that he was “obsessed with finding freemasons even under the serviettes.”

The people featured in Preston’s book had certain things in common. They unanimously believed in the truth of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, celebrated the Alhambra Decree of 1492 that expelled the Jews from Spain, and they blamed freemasonry for the loss of empire. Many of them — Mola, Queipo de Llano, Carlavilla, and Aguilera — had experienced the “pacification” of Spain’s overseas territories. The tactics used by the Army of Africa in exterminating Republican sympathizers were honed in colonial, take-no-prisoners warfare. Class conflict was stated in racial terms: the rural and industrial working classes were widely seen by landowners as inferior, colonial races. Aguilera, for instance, elaborated a theory that the introduction of sewers to proletarian neighborhoods had swelled the ranks of the “slave stock,” which he believed to be the root cause of the Civil War. The rebels thus fought an imperial campaign in the homeland.

Those who outlived Franco — perhaps especially José María Pemán, Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece — tried to reinvent themselves in the new era. That meant conveniently “forgetting” the extent of their collaboration with the Franco regime. Tusquets, Preston notes, had a curiously selective memory: he claimed that he had opposed Nazism, even though he had said that the swastika was “to be respected at least when it represents the new state of our well-beloved Germany,” and he kept forgetting that he had been a member of the Falange.

As ought to be expected of someone who popularized The Protocols, Tusquets had fabricated wild stories throughout his life. Preston approaches these yarns with a wry sense of humor that is typically English. He remarks, for instance, that it is “unlikely in the extreme” that Tusquets had a semipermanent group of bodyguards consisting of motorcycle-riding Catalan anarchists, who, inspired by his writings in the reactionary El Correo Catalán, successfully foiled masonic threats to his life.

Francoists in postwar Spain were of course not without supporters in polite society. For forty years after the return of democracy, former prisoners of the regime were still viewed as criminals. Till today, organizations dedicated to identifying the remains of those that the regime buried in unmarked mass graves face criticism from right-wing fanatics who draw equivalences between opponents of state-backed terror and its practitioners.

This rehabilitation of the Right is not unique to Spain. Grom Italy to the Eastern Bloc, defenders of the allies of Nazism have sought to rebrand their idols as heroes prone to forgivable excesses. Preston’s book — a thorough dismantling of any attempt to rehabilitate the Fascist right — provides useful ammunition to critics of the Right’s convenient forgetting of history. The only shame is how timely it is.