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General Francisco Franco led Nationalist forces to victory against the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), heralding a 36-year dictatorship with Franco at the helm. Today, the ghosts of Francoism live on: many families are still fighting for the right to search for the remains of their loved ones, killed by Francoist forces during the Civil War, and give them a proper burial. We take a look at the man behind the image, and discover some little-known facts about Spain’s infamous dictator.
Francisco Franco Bahamonde was born on December 4, 1892 in Ferrol, Galicia, to a seafaring family. His family had been naval officers for six generations, ending in Franco’s father, Nicolás Franco y Salgado Araújo. Franco entered a naval secondary school at age 12, and hoped to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors, but in 1907 the Spanish government, crippled by the Spanish–American war, suspended the admission of new recruits to the naval academy, forcing Franco to join the army academy instead.
Like his ally and fellow dictator Adolf Hitler, Franco reportedly only had one testicle. A book released in 2009 recounted how Franco had lost a testicle in battle when he was wounded in the lower abdomen at El Biutz, near Ceuta, in 1916. His doctor’s granddaughter confirmed to a biographer that Franco had confided in her grandfather about having only one testicle, and that he had been worried it would affect his ability to have children.
On October 23, 1940, Franco and Hitler met in southern France to discuss the possibility of Spain joining the Axis powers in World War II. The two men spent seven hours discussing Spain’s conditions for joining the war, but left without an agreement, reportedly because Hitler thought that Franco was making too many demands. They included handing territories, including Gibraltar, over to Spain after the war, as well as the supply of food, petrol and arms to help Spain, which was at that time struggling after its own civil war. During that war, the Luftwaffe had bombed the Basque town of Guernica, the attack immortalised later in Picasso’s most famous work.
During World War II, Franco put Spain’s clocks back an hour in solidarity with his Nazi allies, and never changed them back. This led to Spain being technically in the wrong time zone: it should be on GMT, like London and Lisbon, but is instead on Central European Time. This time shift means that Spain has dark mornings and light evenings, and has also contributed to the country’s famously late meal times.
As part of Franco’s mission to stamp out cultural diversity in the hope of promoting Spanish nationalism, he severely restricted the country’s regional languages, more or less banning Basque, Catalan and even the language of his own region, Galician. He banned regional names for newborn babies, banned the teaching of regional languages in schools and ruled that all official business had to be carried out in Spanish.
Franco really wanted to promote a united Nationalist vision of Spain, and one weapon in his arsenal was to use ‘typically Spanish’ symbols to represent the country to the outside world. Franco promoted bullfighting and flamenco, particularly, as strong symbols of Spain, despite the fact that flamenco was actually an Andalusian, and therefore regional, tradition. The two remain to this day strong symbols (some might say stereotypes) of Spain.
In the 1960s, Spain’s was the second-fastest growing economy in the world, behind Japan. Thanks to virtually non-existent regulations, low taxes, a cheap workforce and the banning of strikes, international companies began setting up shop in Spain, boosting the country’s economy in what became known as the Spanish Miracle. Also during the 1960s, the sleepy fishing village of Benidorm became the birthplace of the modern package holiday, attracting foreign tourists in droves.
Gibraltar, Britain’s tiny overseas territory bordering southern Spain, has been in the headlines recently in relation to Brexit, but the territory has been long disputed. Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Gibraltar in 1954 was seen as an insult by Franco, who thereafter implemented a series of restrictions. Spain took its sovereignty claim to the United Nations during the 1960s, arguing that Gibraltar was rightfully Spanish. When Spain’s claim was rejected by the UN, Franco closed the border in 1969. It would not fully reopen until 1985, 10 years after his death.
Franco’s only child, María del Carmen Martínez-Bordiú y Franco, is still alive, aged 91. Her husband, Cristóbal Martínez-Bordiú, was a prominent heart surgeon and carried out the first heart transplant operation in Spain in 1968. Many of Franco’s grandchildren are members of Spain’s nobility to this day.
Franco had the Valley of the Fallen built to commemorate those who died during the Spanish Civil War, but the huge Basilica and cross looming over the mountainside north of Madrid have become known as symbols of the man himself. He is buried there, and is the only person among the 33,000 buried there not to have been killed during the Civil War. It remains a pilgrimage site for Francoists to this day. While many Francoist symbols (including statues and street signs) have been removed from Spanish cities, the Valley of the Fallen remains, an eerie reminder of Spain’s dark days of war and dictatorship.