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The Last Nazi [1]

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In September 1947, Luíz Hildebrando de Horta Barbosa wrote a letter[2] to his countryman, Oswaldo Aranha, who was then serving as the lead delegate for the Brazilian delegation to the newly formed United Nations. Mr. Aranha had previously been Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Minister and a vocal proponent of joining the Allied Powers and taking an active part against Nazi Germany[3], while Mr. de Horta was the President of the Brazilian Friends of the Spanish People (ABAPE[4]) an organization that had provided assistance and relocation to Spanish refugees from their country’s civil war. Mr. de Horta suggested that the United Nations should deal with the “Spanish situation” and that anti-fascist Brazilians had expressed the desire to “liberate the Spanish people from the yoke imposed on them by the Nazi-Fascist invasion”[5] and to restore a democratic republic.

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The Brazilians were particularly annoyed because the General Franco’s regime continued efforts to keep tabs on Spanish exiles in their country and demands to have them repatriated. These continued at least until 1949, when the Spanish consul in Bahia attempted to identify 47 Republican exiles living in Fortaleza. Local Brazilians were infuriated by these efforts to take away “their Spaniards” and by the idea of the firing squad that awaited them should they return to Spain[6].

Aranha filed the letter away and, wisely, never acted upon it. The war-weary people of the Allied Powers had no stomach for another war, and the governments of Europe were more worried about rebuilding their devastated countries and bankrupt economies. Only the United States had the men, money and guns to go after Franco; but already in 1947, the Truman Administration had bigger headaches than overthrowing a minor dictator in an impoverished country who had never done more than flirt with Hitler and Mussolini. In January, the Communists had taken over in Poland; while by May, the situation in Greece and Turkey had deteriorated to the point that Congress authorized $400 million in funds[7] to stop the spread of Soviet influence in Europe.

Yet Mr. Franco’s regime remained an embarrassment: Spain was pointedly excluded from membership in the new United Nations and did not join until December 1955. By that time, Franco’s dictatorship had been reformed: “anti-Communism” had become more relevant than “anti-Fascism” and Spain had naval bases the US wanted. “Reformed” in name only: although the extrajudicial killings had ended in 1945, the machinery of state repression still had tens of thousands of political prisoners working in slave labor gangs[8] under brutal – often fatal – conditions[9]. The Lower Guadalquivir Canal was constructed by 10,000 prisoners over a 22 year period, while Franco’s monument to himself in the Valley of the Fallen[10] – a hybrid of the Kehlsteinhaus[11] and Lenin’s Tomb – took 18 years and with a disputed number of prisoners working on the project[12].

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And so Europe was left with its embarrassing little problem on its periphery, hoping that it would simply go away if ignored. Largely it did; after 1954 Franco behaved himself, which is relatively easy when you’ve liquidated all of your opponents. In the West too, memories of the horrors of fascism receded; and as the Cold War progressed, we became so used to dealing with Third World dictators that one more hardly mattered. In 1975, Franco had the decency to finally die in his bed – unlike the majority of his victims – and with the transition to democracy, everyone hoped that the dark, murderous legacy could simply be swept under the rug. But of course that is impossible: so traumatic an experience inevitably impresses itself deeply onto the soul of a people.

Franco´s legacy in Spain remains enormously ambiguous and it is almost impossible to have an open discussion with a Spaniard regarding El Generalissimo and the Civil War. The country remains starkly divided between Nationalists and Republicans and a large third element who prefer to remain ignorant of their own history to avoid coming to any uncomfortable judgments about their past. That is to be expected: “history is written by the victors”[13], the dead are silent. For forty years, Spaniards were told over and over again from their earliest school years that Franco had saved Spain, Franco was God’s Chosen One to combat Jewish Bolshevism and atheist Free Masonry. It is perhaps the most successful, secular, mass propaganda campaign in history, and continues to bear fruit 40 years after the dictator’s death.

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There are very few outright open supporters of El Caudillo – though they can still be seen on the anniversaries of the General’s death[14] and that of Falangist founder José Antonio Primo de Rivera, waving the Spanish flag with the fascist coat of arms and making the Nazi salute. Yet there are many ordinary Spaniards who will defend the General’s actions tooth-and-nail. This apologia[15] invariably begins with “I don’t personally support Franco, but…” and then proceeds to explain that 1. the Caudillo was the least bad option available to Spain at the time; and 2. It all turned out alright in the end.

While ambivalence may be the natural state of affairs for a Galician like Franco[16], it is not beneficial for the country: almost no aspect of domestic or even international politics in Spain is free of the taint of franquismo making the necessary renovation of the country next to impossible. Franco’s death solved one problem; but all the beneficiaries of 40 years of franquismo in government and industry remained, and they were not keen on giving up their status or wealth[17]. The xenophobic monopolism and crony capitalism that characterized Franco’s economy through the 1970’s[18] has receded due to the impositions of the European Union and to the genuine creativity and industriousness of the Spanish people. But the profound corruption by which the regime maintained social stability continues to this day: it had no trouble successfully making the transition to democracy.

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The transition to democracy left Spain with many unresolved political problems. The compromise Constitution of 1978 was necessarily a charter full of compromises. It contained many provisions that the citizens of Spain might not have accepted if they had not been under the shadow of the recently deceased Caudillo. The structure and functions of the autonomous communities were opposed both by regional leaders, who wanted more decentralization, and by the officers of Franco’s military, who were violently opposed to any decentralization at all. So much so that they staged an abortive coup in 1981. The legal system and capital-labor relations[19] were all heavily influenced by the franquista system then in place, and remain so to this day. The existence of ETA was a legacy of post-war resistance to Franco, even though the terrorist group lost all pretenses to legitimacy when it continued its campaign of terror after 1978. The situation in Catalonia is also a holdover of Franco’s repressive policies, though the roots of the problem predate the dictator. The landscape of Spain’s economy still reflects the Franco era, despite 35 years of privatization, with many flagship Spanish companies having been created or nationalized[20] during the dictator’s regime: Repsol[21], Iberia, Telefónica, SEAT, CASA, Endesa, and Navantia. And the Amnesty Act of 1977 makes it impossible for civil society to resolve the issues of the past.

Today, there is a growing consensus among Spaniards that the compromise of ’78 has reached its useful limits and that serious constitutional reform is necessary for the country to solve its problems and fulfil its promise. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on how to deal with them. Franco’s legacy – whatever it was up until 1975 – is today a drag on Spain’s development even as Peronismo retards the political development of Argentina[22]. Europe’s last Nazi may be dead, but his spirit has not been put to rest.


Sources and Notes

[1] The term “Nazi” (National Socialist) and “fascist” are used interchangeably and they are both subsets of the extreme authoritarian nationalism in vogue from 1919 to 1945 in Europe. Both were ultra-conservative, right-wing ideologies; both incorporated elements of left-wing phraseology while utterly rejecting the ideology of the left; both rejected Western liberalism and democracy. Where fascism placed more emphasis on corporatism and the nation, National Socialism worshipped a racially superior people ordained with a divine mission. In this sense, the early years of Franco’s regime – with his mantra of Holy Spain, the historic destiny of the Spanish people to be the sole preservers of Catholicism, and the fight against the Jew Bolshevik – reeks more of German Völkisch nationalism and anti-Semitism, than it does of Italian fascist corporatism and its focus on the greatness of the Roman Empire, rather than a racial ideal.

[2] Carta de Luíz Hildebrando de Horta Barbosa, presidente de ABAPE para Oswaldo Aranha, presidente da Assembléia Geral da ONU, Rio de Janeiro, 19 set. 1947. Arquivo Oswaldo Aranha.

[3] Mr. Aranha was also instrumental in helping Jewish refugees from Europe find refuge in Brazil from 1942 onwards.

[4] Associação Brasileira dos Amigos do Povo Espanhol

[5] “…os antifascistas brasileiros desejavam que o povo espanhol fosse livrado do jugo que lhe foi imposto pela invasão nazi-fascista…”

[6] “Sórdida traição. O irmão Tomaz, da Ordem dos Maristas quer entregar a Franco os fugitivos espanhóis (…)… Manobra para repatriar 47 vítimas do terror franquista, entre as quais se encontram mulheres e crianças. Um falangista de batina que gosta de fuzilamentos.” Jornal Diário do Povo, 26 December 1949

[7] President Truman signed the Public Law 75, aka the “Truman Doctrine” on the 22nd of May 1947

[8] Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister during the Second World War, reflected in 1939 that captured Republicans where not “

[9] No one knows how many political prisoners died on the work gangs from exposure, malnutrition and epidemic diseases because the Spanish government still refuses to release the archived records.

[10] Technically, the Valley of the Fallen was rededicated to the victims of the Civil War on both sides, but you would be hard pressed to find any Republican who would agree to that designation. It remains very much the “Valley of the Fascist Fallen and the Slave who Died Building It”. N.B. Author’s opinion; however, what is documented is the request of numerous family members of deceased Republicans whose requests to have their remains removed from the Valley were ignored.

[11] “The Eagle’s Nest”, the mountain resort in Obersalzburg built for Adolf Hilter’s 50th birthday in 1939

[12] Anywhere from 20,000 to 243 prisoners may have been forced to work on the monument, depending on the source. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the work was started in 1940 and records from that period regarding Republican prisoners are in many cases absent, of questionable authenticity or still archived and unavailable (see #7 above).

[13] Attributed to Winston Churchill, but almost certainly of Greek or Roman origin

[14] Both died on November 20th, separated by 39 years.

[15] Apologist  – noun – A person who argues in defense or justification of something, such as a doctrine, policy, or institution.

[16] There is an old Spanish saying that if you meet a Galician on the stairs, you can never tell if they are coming or going.

[17] Franco’s family, for example, accumulated anywhere from 350 million to 600 million euros.

[18] Tom Lewis,  “Structures and Agents: The Concept of “Bourgeois Revolution” in Spain,” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Studies, Volume 3, 1999

[19] For example, trade unions are financed by government contributions and by capital (la patronal), not by workers. Whose interests can you expect them to represent when push comes to shove? In the 1960’s, in an effort to win social stability and some degree of legitimacy with Europe and the US, Franco allowed unions to reform after their post-war abolition. Since most of the previous union leaders had been liquidated or exiled, so the new leaders were generally politically acceptable candidates. This structure is typical the recommended fascist policy of the “vertical trade union”, organized to eliminate class struggle by joining workers and owners in the same organization, all supervised by the state.

[20] Franco created the a state-owned industrial holding company, the National Industrial Institute (INI) to promote Spanish industrial development in 1941after the country was cut-off from the rest of Europe after the fall of the Axis powers until 1954/1955.

[21] Repsol is a merger of CAMPSA (1927 – Miguel Primo de Rivera) and REPESA (incorporated 1948).

[22] To be fair, Peronísmo is more pernicious, as there is today an active peronista government in power, whereas Franco’s legacy is more institutional and cultural than actively poltical.

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