An evening with General Franco

One of the strange, perhaps dubious, pleasures of lockdown is straying into obscure Freeview channels while looking for something different to accompany the next cup of coffee. I suspect PBS America (Freeview 91) comes into that category. This is a site for curate’s egg documentaries, rather like some aspects of Channel 5. Sometimes they are a waste of electricity, sometimes they can be rather good, indeed educational. PBS America has its share of US military history but it does not really compare with the Yesterday channel’s obsession with World War 2. It is pretty good at looking at the wider world beyond the US.

On Saturday they devoted an entire evening to Franco’s Spain under the banner of “The Truth about Franco; Spain’s Forgotten Dictatorship”. If he is forgotten, it is surely because he is a contender for the title of Western Europe’s most boring twentieth century dictator as well as the one that reigned longer than anyone else. The five hour special threw up most of the recurring marks of dictators: egocentricity, nepotism, a tendency to murder large numbers of fellow-citizens, seeing the press as enemies of the people and public admiration of other dictators. One of the (British) historians referred to Franco as “a cunning idiot,” with passing reference to the current American President, which made me wonder if and where this documentary had been aired across the pond.

Over the past decade I have been urging people to think about current politics while reflecting on 1930s European history. While at our best we have serious arguments about policies and strategies as to how we can make our countries and our world better within a democratic framework, there have been increasing signs of democracy itself being under threat. It is not that we are cursed with leaders in the mould of Hitler, Mussolini or Franco, but I think Brian Klaas in his 1916 study “The Despot’s Apprentice” with his view of Trump and his ilk got it right. His sub-title is “Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy”. Donald Trump, he says, is not a despot as such but his words and deeds are clearing the way for despots yet to come.

How the coronavirus ultimately contributes to the dilution of democracy remains to be seen but it is a godsend to leaders who want to avoid accountability and merge their own priorities with “the national interest.” While I have little problem in settling for a tag like “alternative centre-left,” conventional left versus right distinctions break down in the face of the polarities of liberalism and authoritarianism. The history of the 1930s can help us identify dictatorships but just as important for those who live through the next decade is thinking about what resistance to authoritarianism might require of us. It took a long time for resistance to Franco to make any headway!

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • I am reminded of what my sister told me about the time she visited Gibraltar many years ago as part of an SS Uganda trip . A friendly taxi driver took her and her friends on a little tour of the place The taxi driver was an old bear of a man and as he was driving kept muttering, ” Franco ‘e no good.”
    Franco nearly bankrupted Spain not once but twice.

  • David Warren 27th Apr '20 - 3:07pm

    I worked with a Spanish guy who grew up under the Francoist regime. He hated the man and what he did to the country.

    His upbringing in a police state clearly shaped him and although quite outspoken he got nervous about challenging those in authority. Fortunately Spain has moved on to be a healthy democracy.

  • A friend of mine who worked in Spain during the Franco era tells me,” like all these people if you were peace loving and kept your thoughts to yourself he was fine.”

  • Steve Comer 28th Apr '20 - 9:05am

    PBS America is often worth a look in the schedule. They televised the series on the Vietnam War, and also a very interesting three-parter on Italian Americans. Its a bit like Sky Arts, you get weeks where you hardly watch anything, then weeks when there are several things to watch.

    I saw one episode of the Franco series a few weeks ago, yet annoyingly when I looked for others on the schedule they were all the same episode I’d already seen. At least running them one after the others avoid that problem, and I hope to catch up on the other three episodes.

    I think Trump is probably the least of our problems in terms of the rise of the strong man leader(and of course they are all men) with highly authoritarian tendencies . Trump is at least term limited, but Orban, Erdogan, and Putin aren’t leaving office anytime soon, and all have been moving towards dictatorship, plus of course we have the looming threat of Salvini, Le Pen, and Willders in the background.

  • Ian
    My friend wasn’t a Catholic but as a British expat he knew not to get involved in the politics of the place. I did know someone who was in the International Brigade, he was a staunch Labour Party man. In his last days while suffering from cancer he stood for election. I am dodging the undertaker he said.

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