Profile of Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco

Arguably Europe's Most Successful Fascist Leader

Franco and Commanders 1946
Franco and Commanders 1946. Wikimedia Commons

Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator and general, was perhaps Europe's most successful fascist leader because he actually managed to survive in power until his natural death. (Obviously, we use successfully without any value judgment, we're not saying he was a good idea, just that he curiously managed not to get beaten on a continent which saw a vast war against people like him.) He came to rule Spain by leading the right-wing forces in the civil war, which he won with Hitler and Mussolini's help and came to cling on by surviving against many odds, despite the brutality and murder of his government. 

Early Career of Francisco Franco

Franco was born into a naval family on Dec. 4 1892. He wanted to be a sailor, but a reduction in admissions to the Spanish Naval Academy forced him to turn to the army, and he entered the Infantry Academy in 1907 aged 14. Upon completing this in 1910, he volunteered to go abroad and fight in Spanish Morocco and did so in 1912, soon winning a reputation for his ability, dedication, and care for his soldiers, but also one for brutality. By 1915 he was the youngest captain in the entire Spanish army. After recovering from a serious stomach wound he became second-in-command and then commander of the Spanish Foreign legion. By 1926 he was brigadier general and a national hero.

Franco had not taken part in the coup of Primo de Rivera in 1923, but still became director of a new General Military Academy in 1928. However, this was dissolved following a revolution which expelled the monarchy and created the Spanish Second Republic. Franco, a monarchist, stayed largely quiet and loyal and was restored to command in 1932 - and promoted in 1933 - as a reward for not staging a right-wing coup. After being promoted to Major General in 1934 by a new rightist government, he savagely crushed a rebellion of miners. Many died, but he had raised his national reputation still further among the right, although the left hated him. In 1935 he became Chief of the Central General Staff of the Spanish Army and began to reforms.

The Spanish Civil War

As divisions between the left and the right in Spain grew, and as the country’s unity unraveled after a left-wing alliance won power in elections, Franco appealed for a state of emergency to be declared. He feared a communist takeover. Instead, Franco was sacked from the General Staff and sent to the Canary Islands, where the government hoped he was too far away to start a coup. They were wrong.

He eventually decided to join the planned right-wing rebellion, delayed by his sometimes mocked caution, and on July 18, 1936, he telegraphed the news of a military rebellion from the Islands; this was followed by a rising on the mainland. He moved to Morocco, took control of the garrison army, and then landed it in Spain. After a march towards Madrid, Franco was chosen by the nationalist forces to be their head of state, due in part to his reputation, distance from political groups, the original figurehead had died, and partly because of his new hunger to lead.

Franco’s nationalists, aided by German and Italian forces, fought a slow, careful war which was brutal and vicious. Franco wanted to do more than win, he wanted to ‘cleanse’ Spain of communism. Consequently, he led the right to complete victory in 1939, whereupon there was no reconciliation: he drafted laws making any support for the republic a crime. During this period his government emerged, a military dictatorship supported, but still separate and above, a political party which merged Fascists and Carlists. The skill he exhibited in forming and holding together this political union of right-wing groups, each with their own competing visions for post-war Spain, has been called ‘brilliant’.

World War and Cold War

The first real ‘peacetime’ test for Franco was the start of World War 2, in which Franco’s Spain initially lent towards the German-Italian Axis. However, Franco kept Spain out of the war, although this was less to do foresight, and more the result of Franco’s innate caution, Hitler’s rejection of Franco’s high demands, and a recognition that the Spanish military was in no position to fight. The allies, including the US and Britain, gave Spain just enough aid to keep them neutral. Consequently, his regime survived the collapse and total defeat of his old civil-wartime supporters. Initial post-war hostility from the western European powers, and the US – they viewed him as the last fascist dictator – was overcome and Spain was rehabilitated as an anti-communist ally in the Cold War.


During the war, and during the early years of his dictatorship, Franco’s government executed tens of thousands of “rebels”, imprisoned a quarter of a million, and crushed local traditions, leaving little opposition. Yet his repression loosened slightly over time as his government continued into the 1960s and the country transformed culturally into a modern nation. Spain also grew economically, in contrast to the authoritarian governments of Eastern Europe, although all this progress was more due to a new generation of young thinkers and politicians than to Franco himself, who became increasingly distant from the real world. Franco also became increasingly viewed as above the actions and decisions of subordinates who took the blame went things went wrong and earned an international reputation for developing and surviving.

Plans and Death

In 1947 Franco had passed a referendum which effectively made Spain a monarchy headed by him for life, and in 1969 he announced his official successor: Prince Juan Carlos, eldest son of the leading claimant to the Spanish throne. Shortly before this, he had allowed limited elections to parliament, and in 1973 he resigned from some power, remaining as head of the state, military, and party. Having suffered from Parkinson’s for many years – he kept the condition secret - he died in 1975 following a protracted illness. Three years later Juan Carlos had peacefully reintroduced democracy; Spain had become a modern constitutional monarchy.


Franco was a serious character, even as a child, when his short stature and high pitched voice caused him to be bullied. He could be sentimental over trivial issues, but exhibited an icy coldness over anything serious, and appeared capable of removing himself from the reality of death. He despised communism and Freemasonry, which he feared would take over Spain and disliked both east and west Europe in the post-World War II world.

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Wilde, Robert. "Profile of Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 26). Profile of Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Profile of Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 2, 2023).