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General Franco: Saviour of Spain or War Criminal?

General Franco died thirty years ago, on 20 November 1975. For his supporters, his achievements were colossal. The greatest triumphs attributed to his genius were 1) winning the Spanish Civil War by dint of military sagacity and thus saving Spain from communism; 2) resisting massive pressure from Hitler and thus keeping Spain out of the Second World War; 3) guiding Spain through the tribulations of a massive economic blockade allegedly imposed by the Western Powers after 1946 because of envy of his unique political system; 4) overseeing Spain's economic growth from the late 1950s onwards and 5) laying the foundations for a future transition to a democratic constitutional monarchy.

For his democratic enemies, the truth was the exact opposite. Far from being the saviour of his country, Franco was a war criminal responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and Spain's economic ruin. Franco had won the Spanish Civil War with the help of Hitler and Mussolini and the acquiescence of Britain. His military skills were, at best, mediocre. The military coup of 1936 had provoked revolution rather than the other way around. After 1939, Franco obsequiously courted Hitler, offering to join the Nazi war effort in return for a share of the spoils. Spain was saved from further ruin only because Hitler could not afford to rebuild her economy or her armed forces and by the food and fuel diplomacy of the British and Americans. There was no blockade of Spain after 1946, merely mild diplomatic pressure on Franco himself. Far from masterminding his country's economic transformation, Franco had nearly brought Spain to its knees with his misguided policies of autarchy. The economic boom was to do with the international context and the policy changes imposed by the IMF. Far from planning the transition to democracy, Franco spent the last years of his life planning for the perpetuation of the dictatorship.

Inevitably, the dictator's death opened a tense and complex crisis. The Armed Forces, including the greatly feared Civil Guard, the police and thousands of armed Falangists and other extremist supporters of the Caudillo were determined to see his regime continue unchanged. At the same time, there were the forces of the centre and left anxious to see the return of democracy. Franco's chosen successor, King Juan Carlos, acted as a buffer between both sides, calming the right while persuading the democratic opposition that change was on the agenda. After a tortuous process in which the moderates of the right and left negotiated a compromise, democracy was re-established when, on 15 June 1977, the first parliamentary elections since 1936 were held.

Since then, Spain has developed socially and economically beyond recognition. Democracy has been fully consolidated. A massive historiographical production in Spain and elsewhere has vindicated in detail the broad view of the dictator and his regime harboured in democratic circles. Yet, paradoxically, Franco's crimes and achievements are now on the agenda again. One of the last stages of the democratization of Spain has been the excavation of the mass graves of Franco's victims. All over Spain, there have sprung up groups known as 'associations for the recovery of historical memory', fuelled by the desire of the families of the victims to know more of the fate of their relatives. This in turn has provoked a backlash, a kind of dying agony of Francoism, or a Spanish version of holocaust denial. Numerous propagandists have had considerable commercial success propounding the view that the victims basically got what they deserved and that Spain should be grateful to Franco for what he did. It is in this context that the conversation between two leading Franco scholars will take place.