Art in the Time of Authoritarianism

Spain's Cultural Success Under Franco

The Valley of the Fallen: Franco's memorial to the dead, December 1956. (Dmitri Kessel / Getty)

Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936. By Jeremy Treglown. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 320 pp. $30.00.

Seventy-five years after its conclusion, the Spanish Civil War can sometimes seem like a river of blood that led inexorably to the sea of horrors that was World War II. But Spain’s battle was also a devastating conflict in its own right, killing approximately 500,000 people. The war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, pitted the Republicans, loyal to the existing government, against the Nationalists, a rightist rebel coalition led by General Francisco Franco. Franco’s initial coup failed but left the country militarily and politically divided. The Nationalists eventually won, and Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death, in 1975.

The war, so often misunderstood as a mere prelude to World War II, is also frequently miscast as a simple story of good versus evil, a fight between democrats and fascists. In fact, neither side in the struggle could honestly claim the mantle of democracy. Franco, of course, made no such attempt: he was proudly authoritarian. As for the Republicans, although they paid lip service to democratic principles and tried to practice them, their side devolved into disorder and lawlessness during the war, and anarchists and communists came to dominate their ranks.

Nor were the Republicans particularly virtuous from a moral standpoint. As the Nationalists were quick to point out, the Republicans assassinated almost 7,000 priests and nuns and killed roughly 2,500 prison inmates in the 1936 Para­cuellos massacres, a series of organized mass murders during the battle for Madrid. Franco’s forces, of course, committed their own share of atrocities and repression, both during and after the war. Both sides believed they had to be ruthless because most ordinary Spaniards were not that interested in fighting for either side and had to be coerced into doing so through fear and violence. In the first months of the conflict, 120,000 people volunteered to fight for the republic, and the Nationalists rallied some 100,000 volunteers; by the end of the war, the Republicans and the Nationalists had mobilized, largely through conscription, about 1.7 million and 1.2 million men, respectively. These figures suggest that the war involved not two Spains but three: two polarized blocs of true believers and a far larger body of people who just went along -- or were forced to.

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