Franco and facism

The Guardia Civil arresting dissenters in the streets of Barcelona.


The 1812 Constitution of Cadiz was dissolved as soon as King Ferdinand VII was reinstated as monarch of Spain in 1814. He began to supress all the liberalist ideals embodied in its creation and jailed many of its writers and supporters. All Spain’s possessions in the New World were lost during his reign, and historians consider Ferdinand to be one of the worst kings in Spanish history. He had no regard for the sacrifices made by the ordinary Spanish people to force the French out and give him back his crown. He has been described as cowardly, grasping and vengeful and when he died in 1833, Spain was plunged once more into Civil War which saw twelve successive coups during the next sixty years, reducing the economy of Spain to agriculture alone with a few landowners controlling the wealth of the whole country.

From 1874, Carlists and Anarchists began to oppose the monarchy in Catalonia, where the poverty was particularly acute. This eventually led to the Tragic Week in Barcelona in 1909 when republicans went into the streets to protest against the conscription of reserve troops to be sent to Africa. These were poor agricultural workers who could not avoid being shipped to a war they did not want.

The workers called a general strike, and the army and Guardia Civil were called out to put down the rebellion. The final cost was eight dead amongst the army, and over a hundred civilian casualties. Whilst the rest of the world wasted millions of lives during the First World War, the Spanish wisely remained neutral, but after the war the working classes joined with the military in an effort to rid themselves of a corrupt central government. They were largely unsuccessful until a coup put Miguel Primo de Rivera in power as a dictator. He resigned in 1930 and was followed by a succession of dictators during whose tenure King Alfonso XIII realised that there was no support for a monarchy, and he called for municipal elections in 1931. The Socialists, Republicans and Liberals won almost all the seats, and established the Second Spanish Republic. King Alfonso left the country knowing that Spain no longer wanted a king.

After anti-clerical violence in Madrid and the south west, which was brutally put down by the army and the police,  the workers union (CNT) called several strikes, which led to confrontations with the Guardia Civil in the streets of Seville which threatened to  bring down the government. The elections of 1931 saw gains by the Republicans and Socialists which strained the political climate further. When the Great Depression arrived in 1931 the Spanish government gave parcels of land to the rural populations so that they could feed themselves and brought in an eight hour

working day. In December of that same year, Liberalists revised the constitution to make the country secular, closing many of the Church-run schools and charities and angering the Catholics.

Two years of unrest followed with open violence in the streets and elections that brought in radical governments which undid whatever policies the previous ones had made. In 1936 the then Prime Minister, Santiago Casares Quiroga, received word that the military generals were considering a coup. In an effort to defuse the dissent, he moved the army commanders to remote postings.

General Francisco Franco.    Picture, La Sexta.


Francisco Franco to the Canaries, Manuel Goded Llopis to the Balearic Islands and Emilio Mola was moved to Pamplona. José Antonio Primo de Rivera was put in prison in mid-March in order to restrict the Falange (Facist) party.


Mola immediately began planning the coup from Pamplona and Franco sent a cryptic message to Casares hinting that the army was disloyal, but rebellion could be avoided if he were made commander of all the armed forces. Caseres ignored it, and were it not for a bizarre chain of events the whole Spanish Civil War could have possibly been avoided. Franco had the respect of the army, especially the African Army known as the Legion, who were the most feared, fanatical soldiers in Spain’s fighting forces. Franco had been their commanding officer for years, and they were devoted to him. But Franco was in the Canaries, nearly a thousand miles away.


It was at this point that the future of Spain would be decided in Simpson's restaurant in the Strand.  Douglas Francis Jerrold was a devout Catholic and the editor of the English Review, a very prestigious London magazine, with many of the greatest authors and thinkers of the day contributing to its pages. Jerrold was also a British intelligence officer, and in a meeting at Simpson's with Louis Bolín, the London correspondent for the right-wing Spanish newspaper ABC, they decided that Franco should be brought back from the Canaries to Tetuan in Africa to be reunited with his troops.

Major Hugh Pollard.

Matters progressed, and they recruited a Catholic officer called Major Hugh Pollard who had been a press officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary during the uprising in 1919 and had produced s string of “fake news” periodicals, including a bogus Irish Bulletin, the news-sheet for the Irish Republicans. He was teamed with an ex-MI6 operative called Cecil Bebb, and the two were presented with a blank cheque to finance the operation signed by Juan March, the owner of ABC. Together they hired a Dragon Rapide aircraft at Croyden airport, and at Jerrold’s suggestion they took along Pollard’s daughter and friend as “cover.”  Bebb piloted the aircraft to Teneriffe, where they landed on the 11 of July 1936. They had been given the name of a doctor to contact who would pass a coded message to Franco.

By the 12th, the aircraft was in Casablanca with Franco on board. Franco sent a cable to Mola saying that he thought that there was insufficient support for the coup. Mola, who was in the last stages of organising the coup, threw the letter on the floor in rage. Bebb flew Franco to Gran Canaria, seemingly to attend a funeral, but his real mission was to install General Orgas, another conspirator, as military leader of the Canaries. Franco was still doubtful of support, but any incident could lead to uncontrollable war and the spark was provided by the murder of a police officer by Falangists in Madrid on the 14th. A wave of reprisal killings started and the government did nothing to stop the slaughter or arrest the killers. As soon as Franco learned of the reaction in Spain, he realised that the killings had given him all the support he needed and cabled Mola in Pamplona to tell him that he was committed to the overthrow of the government.

Franco kissed his wife and daughter goodbye, and joined Bebb and Pollard who flew him to Tetuan where he was reunited with his troops and immediately began preparations for a coup on the mainland. When they landed at six in the morning, Franco was ecstatic and told the two Englishmen that “One day people will know what you have done. Today I have no words to express my gratitude.” 

It has never been established whether Bebb and Pollard were acting with British government’s approval, but Pollard became MI6 station chief at the British Embassy in Madrid for the duration of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War.   

Pink areas were held by the fascists and blue by the government.


Much of the Spanish navy and merchant fleet had remained loyal to the Republican government, so messages were sent to Hitler and Mussolini who were sympathetic to Franco’s fascist cause. Germany sent a fleet of Junker 52 transport aircraft to carry troops whilst Italy supplied bombers. General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano arrested unsympathetic officers in Seville so that Franco’s African army could land there  and they quickly took control of Seville and Cádiz. 

Government forces still held Málaga, Jaén and Almeria and a bloody battle took place in Madrid which ended with the army defeated. Weapons were released to the civilian population who stopped the army taking over in Barcelona and Valencia, but allowed the formation of splinter groups of anarchists who controlled Aragón and Catalonia. The government ended up controlling the central and east coast areas of Spain and Asturias and Cantabria in the north. The coup had split the army down the middle, with around 90,000 troops loyal to the government and 80,000 with the rebels. Volunteers added around another 100,000 to each side and as the fighting became more intense, both sides began conscripting from the areas they held to increase their ranks.

 Finally, by the end of 1936, foreign troops began arriving. The International Brigades who fought with the government, and the Italian CTV, the German Condor Legion, and the Portuguese Viratos, joining the army rebels. By April 1937, there were around 360,000 fighting with the government, and about 290,000 fighting with the rebels. Both sides continued with aggressive recruitment until by Christmas 1937 they had the more or less the same number of troops; 700,000 each.

What set this conflict apart from others was the level of atrocities each side inflicted on the other. In the early days of the war the Catholic Church and particularly the Jesuits were targeted by government loyalists who blamed many of the country’s problems on the power of the church. Around 7,000 clergy were murdered as well as thousands more lay people and pro-Catholic police. This hardened the church’s support for Franco’s forces and caused thousands to alienate themselves from the clergy, whom they saw as traitors.  When Franco brought the Legion to the mainland he unleashed a savage brutal hoard on the population. Summary executions and torture were their normal operating procedure against soldiers, civilians, women and children. When Franco led them in Africa, a visiting general made an inspection of the Legion and was horrified to see that every man stood to attention with the severed head of a tribesman impaled on his bayonet. The torture and murders committed by the Legion continued long after the fighting had stopped. 

Pablo Picasso had left Spain before the war to live in Paris, France, where he had been named Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum. His last visit to Spain had been in 1934 and he had not returned since. In 1937, during the height of the war, the Government asked Picasso to paint a large mural for the world fair in Paris. He was not particularly enthusiastic about the commission and made a few sketches, but he heard about the bombing of Guernica and the poet Juan Larrea visited Picasso and urged him to paint the atrocity. Picasso was still unmoved until he read George Steer's account of the bombing in The Times and then he began work on the picture we all know. The painting went on tour to raise money for Spanish war relief and to draw attention to the Civil War.  It now hangs in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. 


Hitler did not want to become involved in a full scale war just yet, but urged Mussolini to loan Italian troops to the fascists. The Italians were as bad as the Legion, and during the fighting for Málaga committed atrocities against unarmed refugees fleeing the war. Hitler allowed German volunteers to fight in the notorious Condor Legion led by Lothar von Richthofen, the brother of First World War fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen. The war provided an excellent opportunity to try out his newly designed aircraft before he turned them upon Europe.  The most notorious use of the Condor Legion was the bombing of Guernica on 26th April 1937.

Franco had other kinds of help during the war. Torkild Rieber was the chief executive of Texaco, and a great admirer of the fascist cause. He was not particularly anti-Semitic, but appreciated the efficiency of German organisation. He had signed a deal with the Spanish government before the war to be Spain’s exclusive oil supplier. When Franco began the coup, Torkild changed sides and met with him in August 1936 and agreed to supply the dictator with oil and fuel to run his army. When it came to payment, he knew that the general had no money, and generous to a fault, offered unlimited credit. Franco never forgot Rieber’s generosity.

The world press never questioned where the oil needed to run Franco’s army was coming from. Germany and Italy were oil importers and could not be the source. US neutrality laws forbade offering credit to warring nations and also banned supplying them with even non-military goods. Texaco’s tanker captains would leave Port Arthur in Texas with papers to deliver oil to Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Antwerp, but in mid Atlantic opened sealed orders to change course to ports in Spain controlled by Franco. Worse was to follow when ships began carrying other war-related items that the Texaco did not normally deal in.   

The FBI questioned Rieber about his deals, and fined Texaco for associating with a warring nation, but President Roosevelt was reluctant to be drawn into the conflict and left it at that. Texaco, however, went to war on Franco’s side. Only now have records been uncovered that show the extent of Texaco’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Rieber and his agents gave information to the fascists about tanker movements supplying the Government troops. Hitler had not only supplied Franco with a modern air force and tanks, but he had lent him his U-boats to hone their tactics on Republican oil tankers.

During the war and after, Texaco received $20 million for their services to Franco, but by then Rieber was busy selling oil to Adolf Hitler. He met with Herman Göring in 1940 and delivered a message from Hitler to Roosevelt inviting him to support a plan for a European union led by Germany which would welcome trade with the United States. Roosevelt rejected the offer. After the fall of France, one of Rieber’s friends, a German agent called Gerhardt Alois Westrick threw a celebratory party in the Waldorf Astoria attended by many of the major industrialists along with Rieber. The British secret service had been watching, and leaked it to the American press, causing uproar.   He was sacked by Texaco in 1940 for supplying German agents with information, but he went on to a string of well-paid directorships and deals.

Franco made Rieber a Knight of the Grand Cross of Isabella the Catholic, one of Spain’s highest honours. He was also made chief buyer for the Spanish petroleum company Cespa.  Rieber was portrayed in Life Magazine as an innocent victim, whose only errors had been to dine with Westrick and lend him a Texas Co. car.  

Ju 87 Stukas of the Spanish  Nationalist Air force.


German involvement in the War eventually totaled 16,000 people, though only 10,000 were fighting at any time. German losses were only around 300.  By the end of the war, 56,000 Nationalist aviators, seamen, infantry and artillery had been trained by the Germans, who gave them 600 planes and 200 tanks. Hitler had spent around £43,000,000 aiding Franco, but he had ironed out all the problems in his new army and was now ready to use it elsewhere. Franco donated the entire production of six Tungsten mines to Germany in return for their aid. Italian involvement was in sympathy with fascist ideals, but Mussolini had just conquered Ethiopia and wanted his navy to control the Mediterranean. Italian warships took part in the bombardment of the Government ports of Málaga, Valencia and Barcelona.  Italy went on to provide Franco with 660 planes, 150 tanks and 800 artillery pieces and hundreds of thousands of rifles and ammunition. The numbers of Italian army in Spain would amount to 50,000 men at its peak.

There were those countries which were supposedly neutral, but aided Franco. Portugal, allowed the passage of war materials from Lisbon to Nationalist controlled areas, essentially providing logistical support for Franco’s troops. A token force of 20,000 Portuguese fought with the Nationalists throughout the war as volunteers. Ireland was also officially neutral, but around 600 Irishmen fought with Franco’s troops as the “Irish Brigade” led by Eoin O’Duffy of the newly formed Fine Gael.

Aiding the Government forces was the Soviet Union, even though it had signed the Non-Intervention Agreement with the League of Nations, it clandestinely supplied them with weapons and eventually became their only supplier. Something like 600 to 800 aircraft were given to the Government along with over three hundred tanks over 1,000 artillery pieces. Stalin’s “Operation X” was designed to aid the Republicans, but in effect the weapons were old and ineffective in combat. Stalin never sent more than 500 troops at any time, but his aid was to be paid for in gold. The famous Moscow gold was shipped to Russia in two convoys, one of 176 tonnes transferred through France, and 510 tonnes directly to Russia. The Republicans had control of all Spain’s gold reserves and this was not the only payment for help that they made.

France feared that with a fascist regime in Spain, and fascists in Germany and Italy, it would be encircled by enemies.  French Prime Minister, Léon Blum, wanted to help the Republicans, but his own government and the British Government, pursuing an appeasement line, persuaded him not to. After a 20,000 strong pro-Republican rally in Paris 1936, Blum was warned not to intervene by the Germans. In August 1936, he was forced to sign the non-intervention agreement. Nevertheless, Blum secretly sent fighters and bomber aircraft and the engineers and pilots needed to fly and maintain them across the border into Spain.

Franco’s troops gained the city of Teruel only to lose it again to the Republicans. In early 1938. Franco launched a new offensive heavily backed with German and Italian air support and recovered the city. By April the same year Franco’s forces had split the government forces in two with a push to the Mediterranean and the government sued for peace. Franco would not accept terms, only unconditional surrender.

 The government launched an all-out attempt to reconnect their forces, but Franco took control of the battle personally and the Republicans were beaten back. Government forces suffered a huge setback when England signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler and destroyed any hope of an anti-fascist alliance. From then on the outcome of the war was a forgone conclusion. Just before the turn of the year, Franco launched a massive assault on Catalonia and took Tarragon, Barcelona and Girona and by the end of February 1939 only Madrid was held by the government, and the United Kingdom and France recognised the Franco regime.

The declaration that the war was over, signed by Francisco Franco.

Madrid fell, and on the 1st of April Franco declared the war over in a radio broadcast. But that was not the end of the war for Spain. Franco did not forgive his enemies.

The Republicans were arrested and imprisoned in their thousands, and more than 30,000 were executed according to some, but other sources put the figure more like 200,000 depending who you include in the accounting. Tens of thousands of others were used as slave labour for post-war construction projects. Around 500,000 fled the country for France and were interned in concentration camps in appalling conditions. When Germany invaded France, they were classified as political prisoners and turned over to the Franco government, who sent them to the Miranda de Ebro camp for “purification.” Some, along with other “undesirable” people, were sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

Saddest of all, around 30,000 to 35,000 children were evacuated from areas controlled by the republicans to various locations in the world, including the United Kingdom, Russia and Mexico. Many returned after the Second World War, but a few stayed in their adopted countries.

This famous photograph was taken in September 1936 by Robert Capra who was at the Battle of Cerro Muriano. Its veracity has been challenged over the years because many staged photos were discovered from the same place and time, but its impact on the rest of the world outside Spain was huge, and it became the symbolic photo of the war until the 70’s. It was immediately claimed as propaganda by the right-wing falange party.


The final death toll for both sides during the war is unknown with any accuracy, but estimates put it around 360,000. Considering the uncertainty of wartime figures, and adding the atrocities committed during and after the war the figure could be nearer 2,000,000.

The violence, hatred and animosity that the war engendered split communities, families and created a legacy of bitterness that was not allowed to rest whilst Franco the dictator ruled Spain for the next 36 years.

In 1940 Franco ordered a mausoleum to be built at Cuelgamuros (Hang Moors) in the valley of San Lorenzo de El Escorial to honour the dead of both sides who were killed during the Civil War. The bodies of all combatants were disinterred from their wartime graves and reburied here over several years. What seems like a generous sentiment from Franco hid a sinister truth. The bodies were to be buried in a communal grave, conveniently obliterating all trace of the atrocities which had been committed by both sides. Families who knew roughly how and where their loved ones died now lost them forever, and the people who committed the atrocities could never be brought to justice.

The final evil horror, was that Franco used all the captured Republican prisoners of war as forced slave labour to build it. Hundreds died during its construction and they were interred there also.

When work begun on the mausoleum, a road had to be constructed to the site and the contract was awarded to two young brothers. José and Juan Banús Masdeu were the sons and grandsons of a family of builders who had been taught by their father. The family moved to Madrid, and when José was twenty-one, he and his brother started their own construction business. Their first contract was to build the road to the Valley of the Fallen and their entire workforce were prisoners of war used as slaves.  

José’s construction company went on from strength to strength and won many more government contracts before finally finding fame as the builder of Port Banús in Marbella.    

The Angel of Budapest

In 1942 Ángel Sanz Briz was sent to the Spanish embassy in Budapest as the first secretary of the Spanish legation. He had entered the diplomatic school in Madrid in 1933 after gaining a degree in law at the Central University of Madrid. Briz discovered that the German occupation army in Hungary was rounding up Jews to be sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz. The government of Miguel Primo de Rivera had revoked the Granada Decree of 1492, which ordered all Jews to leave Spain. Rivera's decree of 1924 granted all Sephardic  Jews the right to re-claim Spanish citizenship. (Sephardic is the Jewish word for a Spanish Jew) but unfortunately, the decree had been cancelled in 1930

The Hungarians were unaware that the decree had been overturned and Briz and the other embassy staff issued 5,200 fake papers to Jews in Hungary giving them free passage to escape to Spain. Briz bought houses with his own money where the Jews could live until they could leave for Spain.

Briz was ordered to go to Switzerland by Madrid when the Russian troops neared Budapest, but his replacement, an Italian called Georgio Periasca, continued issuing Spanish Visas and maintained the safe houses where the Jews could stay.

Sanz Briz tells his own story in the book by Federico Ysart called Los Judíos en España, and was featured in a Spanish television series inspired by the book Un español frente al Holocausto.


Picasso's Gurnica symbolizes the use of unreasonable force and brutality of the military when dealing with civilian populations during war. But the lesson remains unlearned and unheeded.

In the Guardian of the 15th December 2017 Martin Rowson used Gurnica to illustrate the bombing by Syrian and Russian aircraft during the Syrian Civil War. In an almost copycat situation to the bombing of Spanish villages by the Condor Legion, Rowson shows President Bashar al-Assad on a leash held by Vladimir Putin, whilst Donald Trump is indifferent to the blood spattering the walls and floor.


Rowson draws cartoons regularly for the Guardian and has written several books including graphic adaptations of The Waste Land and Tristram Shandy. His third novel, Snatches, was published in 2006 (ISBN 0-224-07604-3). It is a comic journey through history, focusing on the "stories of the worst decisions the human race has ever made". Stuff (2007), his last novel, is part autobiography, part history of his family and upbringing. He also drew original cartoons for the title sequence of the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.