Book Review: La otra cara del Caudillo
Ángel Viñas has a long and distinguished record as a historian who does exhaustive archival research. He is also known for having strong convictions and for expressing them in a direct manner, both about the Franco regime and fellow historians. These are traits that the reader will find again in his new book. Like similar recent works on Franco, this book appeared last year to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the dictator’s death (November, 20, 1975). (Full disclosure: I am the author of another biography: Franco: the Biography of the Myth, Oxon/New York: Routledge, 2013). And without doubt, in both content and tone, this is one of the more openly hostile towards Franco. However, Viñas’ hostility is not limited to his subject: he also has plenty to say about historians who either do not share his ideas or who, according to him, are too timid in their critiques of Franco. This is why, apart from the dictator, the main target of his criticism is another biography by Stanley Payne and Jesús Palacios, Franco. A Personal and Political Biography (2014).
What is truly new in this book is the discovery in the archive of the Royal Palace of important information about Franco’s business transactions during the war and afterwards that has allowed Viñas to point out, in my opinion quite convincingly, Franco’s corruption. Put differently, he has demonstrated that the dictator amassed significant amounts of money and properties during the war by trafficking in coffee and cigarettes, among other items. What Franco did—black-marketing, pocketing public funds, and stealing from various victims—was not very different from what many of his fellow generals, politicians, and businessmen did during and after the war. In other words, Viñas has demonstrated that Franco was very much a typical crook of his time. As in the case of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, it is likely that his corruption will bother both his supporters and other conservatives in Spain quite a bit more than the deaths of hundred of thousands of people. Certainly, this is the aspect that has most attracted the attention of the general public in Spain who have been buying Viñas’s book.
Most controversial is how Viñas interacts with the reader and how he portrays other people’s work. His style is very informal, highlighted by the rather blunt way he criticizes other historians. As we already have pointed out, the worst of Viñas’ attacks is directed at Stanley Payne and Jesús Palacios, not just at their biography of Franco but also at the authors themselves. I will not comment on personal attacks. However, there is no doubt that Payne and Palacios have produced a book that is extremely forgiving of and at times openly apologetic of Franco. They systematically give the benefit of the doubt to the dictator and too often accept as true the regime’s official versions of events. This is, to say the least, a curious attitude when analyzing a dictatorship. Perhaps Payne and Palacios think that this one was better or less bad than most others. But that is a big perhaps.
As often happens with biographies, most of what Viñas has to say about Franco has been said before, some of it by Viñas himself. Such is the case with the description of the regime’s manipulation of the past, the use of theories about leadership (Führerprinzip), the role of the Army in the regime, and the dictator’s pro-Nazi policies, later hidden after the Axis defeat in 1945. In addition, Viñas repeats the theory he first introduced in his La conspiración del general Franco y otras revelaciones sobre una guerra civil desfigurada (2012), that Franco was directly involved in the death of General Amadeo Balmes in the Canary Islands in July 1936. Viñas presents Balmes´ death as an assassination that made it possible for Franco to start his rebellion against the Republic. Balmes’ death has always been regarded as suspicious because of the manner in which it transpired, its timing and because it gave Franco a perfect alibi to leave Santa Cruz de Tenerife to attend the General’s funeral in Las Palmas. It is from Las Palmas to Morocco that Franco flew in a pre-arranged chartered British plane to take command of the rebellious Spanish colonial army. However, I still believe (even at the risk of looking gullible in Viñas’ eyes) that what he calls proofs are no more than very interesting, and quite plausible, hypotheses. I doubt that any court could rule in Viñas’s favor purely on the basis of the evidence available.
In conclusion, Viñas has written a polemical book that helps to expand our knowledge of Franco, the man and the ruler. We know that Franco was a murderous tyrant and that he, more than anybody, contributed to Spain’s wartime ruin and postwar misery. We know that Franco was vaguely corrupt and, particularly, that he allowed people around him to steal with impunity. But we always thought that this was simply Franco’s strategy: to control people by reminding them everyday, sometimes very explicitly, that they owed him. What Viñas has discovered is even sadder: Franco was just another thief in a country where they reproduced like flies feeding on the corpse of a destroyed, traumatized nation. The self-proclaimed Saviour of Spain was a well-rounded scoundrel. Perhaps it takes Viñas’ acerbic prose to convey this most fully.
Antonio Cazorla Sánchez is a Professor of History at Trent University in Canada. He is the author of numerous books on 20th century Spanish history, including Fear and Progress: Ordinary Lives in Franco’s Spain (2009).