In the late 1970s, as Spain was shedding dictatorship for democracy, the future Socialist prime minister Felipe González said that his aim in politics was to turn “our country into a society similar to that of our neighbours” in western Europe. To Spanish ears, this goal was more noble and ambitious than it sounds today.
For most of the 20th century, Spain had seemed to outsiders — and to many of its own people — a country defined by backwardness and failure. After 1898, when Spain lost its colonies of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico in a war with the US still remembered as “the Disaster”, the author Ramón del Valle-Inclán declared bitterly, “Spain is a grotesque deformation of European civilisation.”
Few if any Spaniards nowadays would make such deprecating comments about their country. Spain is fully integrated into the family of western democracies. It enjoys a standard of living unimaginable in the first half of the 20th century, and it boasts world-class companies such as Inditex, the fashion group, and Banco Santander, the nation’s largest bank.
True, the political scene is polarised and the problem of Catalan secessionism is acute. After parliamentary elections due by the end of this year, it is conceivable that a rightwing government will come to power relying on the support of Vox, an upstart hard-right party that evokes memories of the dark decades of Francoism. However, similar trends are visible from Austria and Italy to Sweden, suggesting that even in the matter of rightwing populism Spain today simply conforms to wider European patterns rather than being an outlier.
Two new books, Nigel Townson’s Penguin History of Modern Spain and Paul Preston’s Architects of Terror, do a fine job of narrating Spain’s development since 1898 and reminding us of the violence and fanaticism of Francisco Franco’s 1939-1975 dictatorship, especially in its first two decades. Townson and Preston rank among the world’s leading English-language historians of modern Spain, and their books are ideal for general readers as well as being thoroughly researched and scholarly.
Townson, who teaches history at the Complutense University of Madrid, performs a welcome service in taking the story of modern Spain up to the present day. It allows Townson to place in an enlightening historical context such turbulent episodes as the Catalan push for independence in 2017 and the corruption scandals that have beset Spain’s political parties over the past three decades.
One theme of his book is that Spain may not, in fact, have been so different from other European countries up to 1975. In the democratic era, Spanish historians have carried out much pioneering research on the period between 1898 and the civil war’s outbreak in 1936. Synthesising this scholarship, Townson contends that the familiar story of a land of economic backwardness, social immobility and political immaturity is somewhat exaggerated.
In the first half of his book, Townson provides lively character sketches of men such as the novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and the radical politician Alejandro Lerroux. He pays particular attention to the 1923-1930 rule of strongman General Miguel Primo de Rivera — “the least researched period of modern Spain”. Townson makes the valuable point that it is difficult to explain the demise of the democratic Second Republic, which lasted from 1931 to the military uprising of July 1936, without taking into account the way that authoritarianism replaced liberalism under Primo de Rivera in the 1920s.
Townson is tougher than some historians on the Second Republic’s shortcomings, arguing that Spain’s democratic parties were sharply divided, pursued incoherent economic policies and did little to root out patronage. Even when passing the 1931 constitution — one of the most progressive in Europe to that date — they “did not establish a truly national framework, one that could accommodate the great majority of Spaniards”, including conservatives.
After Franco’s death, the great achievement of the political classes, including communists and Catalan regionalists, was to write a new constitution in 1978 that finally achieved national reconciliation, or something very close to it. That settlement now looks in need of an update, not only because of the revived Catalan question but because of other problems such as a partly politicised judiciary and the excessive power of party bosses in the political system. “The greater vigilance provided by a free press and relatively independent judiciary failed to extirpate the clientelism and corruption that had hitherto characterised politics in Spain,” Townson writes, “making democracy little different in this respect to other regimes of the 20th century.”
Preston, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, is the author of numerous excellent books on 20th-century Spain, especially the civil-war era. In his latest work, he concentrates on the disturbing truth that one of the extreme right’s justifications for the 1936 uprising and destruction of democracy was a supposed “Jewish-Freemason-Bolshevik conspiracy” against Catholic Spain and its traditions.
Preston organises his book around the lives of six strikingly unsavoury characters. The policeman Mauricio Carlavilla wrote “ludicrous or demented” tirades asserting that “Satanism is the hinge that connects communism with homosexuality”. The priest Juan Tusquets was “obsessed with finding Freemasons even under the serviettes”, as one contemporary commented. The poet José María Pemán, defending Franco’s terror in “blood-soaked harangues”, compared the civil war to the Reconquista, the medieval Christian campaign to expel the Arabs who invaded Spain in 711.
Gonzalo de Aguilera, a Francoist press spokesman in the civil war, was a half-English, polo-playing reactionary who proclaimed, “It is damnable that women should vote. Nobody should vote — least of all, women.” Finally, Preston recounts the savagery of two civil war generals, Emilio Mola and Gonzalo Queipo de Llano.
As Preston writes, Franco believed fervently in the Jewish-Masonic conspiracy theory. In a 1945 speech, he asserted that Spain was under attack from a “Masonic superstate” that controlled the world’s press and radio stations as well as politicians in western democracies. Curiously, Franco had applied to join the Masons in 1924 and was turned down. Preston observes that his later obsession with Freemasonry may have been a way of taking revenge.
Preston’s book is an essential reminder, as he puts it, of “how fake news contributed to the coming of a civil war”. Thankfully, such fevered fantasies belong almost entirely to Spain’s past. Despite all the undoubted challenges it faces, Townson strikes the right note in writing that “Spain today is a stable, prosperous democracy” — similar to its neighbours, as González hoped, but with its own distinctive and appealing identity.
The Penguin History of Modern Spain: 1898 to the Present by Nigel Townson, Allen Lane £30, 576 pages
Architects of Terror: Paranoia, Conspiracy and Anti-Semitism in Franco’s Spain by Paul Preston, William Collins £30, 463 pages
Tony Barber is the FT’s European comment editor
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