During his early years in power, Generalissimo Francisco Franco led Spain into a level of starvation and disease unknown since the Middle Ages. Some 200,000 people died of starvation in the years (1940-1944) ensuing Franco’s triumphal but false declaration on 31st December 1939 that the problems in Spain were over because, “huge amounts of gold have been found in Spain.” It wasn’t clear whether he actually believed these claims about gold discoveries but Franco was prone to such swindles: the Austrian Albert von Filek convinced the dictator that he could make petrol from water and a secret plant extract. He was allowed to build a factory on the River Jarama and for a long time, Franco believed that his own car was the first to run on this new fuel.
His longevity, however, eclipsed these early erraticism and brutality. He positioned himself as a staunch anti-Communist, and won vital support and aid from the United States; the fact that his three foreign visits were to Hitler, to Mussolini and to Salazar were quickly forgotten. Finally conceding that he knew nothing about economics, Franco transferred economic management to technocrats who led Spain into Años de Desarrollo, the years of development from 1961 to 1973, when the Spanish economy grew faster than any nation in Europe.
Although he more and more delegated power as his health deteriorated, the old dictator proved to be as vindictive as ever even in his final days. In 1975, when faced with a Communist movement, he issued a harsh ‘anti-terrorist’ law and ordered that their leaders be arrested. Three were sentenced to death. Fifteen European countries recalled their ambassadors, and there were demonstrations and attacks against the Spanish embassies in Europe. Mexico demanded Spain’s expulsion from the UN. Ignoring calls for clemency from the pope and many governments around the world, Franco went ahead with the execution.
On 1st October 1975 — 39th anniversary of his ascent to power — Franco made his last public appearance. On the balcony of the Palacio de Oriente in Madrid, he appeared, looking very frail, and having difficulty speaking. He veered into his usual cliches, blaming the problem in Spain to a leftist Masonic conspiracy of politicians, terrorists, and communists. More touching was his goodbye to the crowd, in tears and with both arms raised. From this moment on his health was in terminal decline; exposure to winds on the balcony induced pneumonia and then a heart attack. Intestinal haemorraging and three operations followed.
The Spanish radio began playing mournful music. Newspapers, which until recently had been enthusiastically reporting El Caudillo’s good health and rigorous physical activities, began running daily maps of Franco’s body, as though it were a war zone, with arrows pointing to vital organs and other positions under siege. The press offered capital sums for photographs of the dying dictator; his thirty-two physicians refused, but it later turned out that his son-in-law, the Marqués de Villaverde, took one snapshot after another. The Marqués still insists that he never intended to distribute those photos and that the photos, which finally appeared in La Revisita in 1984, were stolen from him.
In theatrical gesture rather out of keeping with a life of decisiveness and iron will, Franco died protractedly and chaotically. In the US, his death was erroneously announced by ABC, prompting many parodies. ‘How difficult it is to die,’ whispered Franco but the old dictator was being kept alive by life-support machines at the insistence of the Marqués de Villaverde, who was also the family doctor. It was only on 20th November 1975, after thirty-five days of struggling against death, that the dictator’s coterie allowed him to depart. (The mummified right arm of St Teresa of Avila which always travelled with him, was on his bedside table).
Almost half a million people filed past his body, and El Caudillo was buried at the Valle de los Caídos, Franco’s own monument to his victory in the Civil War. Millions of Spaniards watched the ceremony live on television, as the man who had ruled them for 40 years was lowered into the ground. Although it can be said that Franco’s Spain had already ceased to exist even while he was still alive, now the four-decade long national nightmare was finally over. The last obstacle to a modern, democratic Spain was gone, but its transition would be bumpy, as we shall see tomorrow.