The Rise of Francisco Franco & the Effects of the Spanish Civil War

Francisco Franco rose through the ranks of the Spanish Army on his way to becoming the dictator of Spain. Franco maintained total power over Spain until his life’s end.

Dec 2, 2023By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science

francisco franco dictator spain


Francisco Franco graduated near the bottom of his military class as a second lieutenant at just 17 in 1910. Twenty-six years later, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, Franco was a major general, outranking all of his former classmates. Franco consolidated his power during the Civil War, leaving him as Spain’s head of state, head of government, generalísimo of the armies, and national chief of Spain’s only permitted political party for up to 36 years. Political and social repression remained throughout Franco’s dictatorship, although Franco was forced to adopt liberal economic policies to save Spain’s economy.


Francisco Franco’s Early Years

Francisco Franco, 1910, via Wikimedia Commons


Francisco Franco Bahamonde was born on December 4, 1892, into a family that had produced six uninterrupted generations of Spanish Navy officers, including several admirals. Franco’s father reached the naval rank of vice admiral, but when Franco was fourteen, his father abandoned Francisco’s family and married another woman. Franco never forgave his father for this. From his mother, Franco inherited the characteristics of “stoicism, moderation, self-control, a quiet manner, family solidarity, and respect both for Catholicism and traditional views in general.” However, he didn’t display his mother’s meekness and resignation, full religious fervor, her capacity to forgive, or her human warmth and generosity. From his father, Franco seemed to have inherited “coldness, harshness, and implacability.” Unlike his father, Franco remained a devoted husband and family man throughout his life.


Francisco Franco wanted to follow his father into the Spanish Navy, but one of the consequences of the Spanish-American War (1898) was that Spain lost much of its navy and most of its remaining colonies. Between 1906 and 1913, the Spanish Naval Academy didn’t admit any new entrants. To his father’s displeasure, Francisco decided to join the Spanish Army. Aged just 14 in 1907, Franco entered the Infantry Academy in Toledo. One of the youngest boys in his class, Franco graduated in July 1910 as a second lieutenant, 251st out of 312 cadets in his class. By the start of the Spanish Civil War, Franco was already a major general, while none of his fellow cadets who had graduated above him achieved a rank beyond lieutenant colonel.


Franco’s Rise Through the Ranks

General Francisco Franco, 1930, via Wikimedia Commons


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Within two years, at age 19, Franco was promoted to first lieutenant. In 1913, Franco was transferred to the Indigenous Regular Forces in the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco. In 1916, by now a 23-year-old captain, Franco was shot in the abdomen at the Battle of El Biutz, a victory which stopped Moroccan Berber attacks against Spanish outposts. Franco wasn’t expected to survive the injury, but he successfully recovered from the only time he was wounded in ten years of fighting. Franco was recommended to be promoted to the rank of major, but this was denied due to his young age. Franco appealed directly to King Alfonso XIII, who reversed the decision. Franco received his promotion to major in February 1917 when he was 24 years old. This made him the youngest major in the Spanish army.


Between 1917 and 1920, Franco was stationed in Spain. In 1920, the Spanish Foreign Legion was founded, and Franco returned to Africa as the Legion’s second-in-command. In 1923, Franco was made commander of the Spanish Foreign Legion and received another promotion to lieutenant colonel due to his battlefield exploits. Within two years, Franco was promoted to colonel and then brigadier general, making him the youngest general in Europe in 1926 at age 33.


The General Military Academy, Zaragoza, via Heraldo


In 1928, Franco was appointed director of the newly created General Military Academy of Zaragoza, although he was removed from this position in 1931 when the Spanish Minister of War, Manuel Azaña, closed the academy in June after the monarchy was overthrown and the Second Spanish Republic came into being. Azaña’s military reforms led to Franco being relegated from first to 24th on the list of brigadier generals in 1933. He was then given the military command of the Balearic Islands. Although the post was above his rank, Franco was displeased at this position, and Azaña wrote in his diary that it was probably more prudent to keep Franco away from Madrid.


By the time of the Asturian miners’ strike of 1934, Franco was a Divisional General and aide to the Spanish Minster of War, Diego Hidalgo. Hidalgo placed Franco in charge of suppressing the miners’ violent insurgency. Franco described the miners’ rebellion as “a frontier war and its fronts are socialism, communism, and whatever attacks civilization to replace it with barbarism.” For three months in 1935, Franco was the commander-in-chief of the Army of Africa, and in May 1935, he was appointed Chief of the General Staff.


Plans for a 1936 Military Coup Gain Traction

Workers arrested during the Asturian miners’ strike, 1934, via


In February 1936, after left-wing parties won the general election in an increasingly politically fractured Spain, Franco was given command of the Canary Islands, a move that Franco viewed as banishment. By this time, Spain was moving closer to a military coup. After the 1936 general election, the anti-republican and anti-communist member of the Congress of Deputies, Jose Calvo Sotelo, started advocating for a military coup against the new government. Calvo Sotelo knew there was a planned rebellion in the army, but he wasn’t part of the conspiracy and, as such, wasn’t sure when it would happen or if it even would.


General Emilio Mola emerged as the chief plotter among those planning the military coup. In a memorandum dated June 5, 1936, Mola planned a “republican dictatorship” along the lines of the Portuguese model. In the same month, Franco was summoned to a secret meeting in Tenerife to discuss starting a military coup. Franco was chosen as a key player because of the respect he still commanded as a former director of the General Military Academy and his role in quelling the Asturian miners’ strike. On June 23, 1936, Franco wrote to the Prime Minister, Santiago Casares, offering to extinguish the discontent in the Spanish Republican army. Casares didn’t reply to the letter.


Member of the Congress of Deputies Jose Calvo Sotelo, via Libertad Digital


Despite his planning, Mola wasn’t confident that the military coup would succeed. General Jorge Sanjurjo was the recognized leader of the disaffected generals, but Mola was the figure who sent secret instructions to various military units and came up with the plan for a post-coup government. After several delays, July 18 became the chosen date for the military coup. In July, a British plane was chartered to carry Franco from Tenerife to North Africa.


On July 12, members of a right-wing political party killed a Socialist police officer. In retaliation, and with permission from the Minister of the Interior to illegally arrest specified members of Congress, Calvo Sotelo was executed by a gunshot to the back of the neck after being kidnapped from his home in the early hours of July 13. The government didn’t act to catch the culprits, and there was no transparent investigation into the crime. Even in politically splintered Spain, the assassination of a parliamentary leader by state police was extraordinary. As further civil unrest descended upon Spain, Calvo Sotelo’s murder acted as a catalyst for the start of the military coup. The coup was scheduled to start on July 18, but the plan was discovered in Morocco on July 17, meaning that the Army of Africa revolted immediately.


Franco Consolidates Power During the Spanish Civil War

General Jose Sanjurjo, via La Vanguardia


Francisco Franco arrived in Morocco to take command of the Army of Africa on June 19. General Mola proclaimed the revolt on the same day. The next day, General Sanjurjo was to fly from Portugal to Spain in the same plane that had carried Franco from the Canary Islands to North Africa. Sanjurjo dismissed claims that the plane was overloaded with his baggage; the plane crashed, and while the pilot survived, Sanjurjo did not. Sanjurjo’s death effectively split the military rebels’ command between Mola in the North of Spain and Franco in the South.


As the attempted military coup turned into the Spanish Civil War that would last nearly three years, Mola’s leadership was somewhat discredited. Additionally, Mola was aligned with a right-wing monarchist political party, not the semi-fascist Falange Española de las JONS. Furthermore, Mola could not boast of a good relationship with Germany.


The regional commanders of Andalucia and Aragon had previously rebelled against the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-1930), rendering them discredited in some Nationalist circles. The founder and leader of the original Falange party (and also the son of dictator Primo de Rivera) was in prison, having been arrested by the Second Spanish Republic authorities in the months before the start of the Spanish Civil War. Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera wasn’t replaced as leader of Falange in the hope that he might be freed from prison and able to return to lead the party. (In any case, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera was executed in November 1936.)


General Emilio Mola, via El Norte de Castilla


On September 21, 1936, Franco was named commander-in-chief of the Nationalists’ army, with only the commander of Aragon opposing this appointment. After more discussion, Franco was also chosen as the Nationalists’ Head of State. Not only had Franco remained aloof from many of the political intrigues that took place in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War, but in July, Adolf Hitler had decided that all of Germany’s aid to the Nationalists would go to Franco. In contrast to some of the other Nationalist military leaders, Franco had few political enemies and had recently cooperated with both Germany and Italy. On October 1, 1936, Franco was publicly proclaimed as the Generalísimo of the Nationalist armies as well as Head of State. He was also known as the Caudillo of Spain, the Spanish equivalent of Benito Mussolini’s Il Duce and Hitler’s Führer.


In April 1937, Franco merged the Falange Española de las JONS political party with a monarchist right-wing party to form Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las JONS. These merged political parties became the only legal political party in Spain when Franco emerged victorious from the Spanish Civil War in 1939. This new party, known as FET y de las JONS, would remain the only legal party in Spain until after Franco’s death in 1975.


In June 1937, Mola was killed in a plane crash. The deaths of Sanjurjo, Mola, and others left Franco as the pre-eminent leader of the Nationalists.


A Spanish cinco peseta coin naming Franco as the Caudillo of Spain, via VortexMag


On January 31, 1938, before the Spanish Civil War had even finished, Franco named his first government, declaring himself the prime minister of Spain. By the time Franco’s Spanish Nationalists declared victory in the Spanish Civil War on April 1, 1939, Franco had become Spain’s head of state; head of government; Captain General of the Army, Navy, and Air Force; and leader of the country’s only political party.


Several years later, in 1947, Franco proclaimed Spain a monarchy but did not designate a monarch. Instead, he named himself as a de facto regent of the monarchy for life. Like a monarch, Franco wore the uniform of a captain general, lived in El Pardo Palace, and added “by the grace of God” to his style. Franco would name a monarch to succeed his “regency” in 1969, but there was no actual monarch until after Franco’s death in November 1975.


Francoist Spain

Franco photographed standing behind Adolf Hitler in Vichy France, October 1940, via El Mundo


In theory, when Francisco Franco emerged victorious from the Spanish Civil War, he had more power than any Spanish leader who came before or after him. He ruled almost exclusively by decree for the first four years after the fall of Madrid signaled the end of the Spanish Civil War. In contrast to Hitler and Mussolini, who maintained the façade of having a “rubber-stamp” parliament, Franco didn’t even convene a parliament with severely limited powers until 1942.


According to estimates, Franco’s Nationalist forces killed around 420,000 Spaniards during the Spanish Civil War and in state executions that immediately followed the end of the Civil War. Estimates range from as low as 35,000 to up to 200,000 Spaniards executed after the war ended. An estimated 190,000 Spaniards permanently emigrated from Spain as a result of the Spanish Civil War. (Many emigrants returned in the months after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Some 400,000 Spanish refugees entered France between January and March 1939, but by December, only 140,000 remained in France.)


By the start of the 1950s, Francisco Franco’s Spain had become less violent, but non-government trade unions and all political opponents remained suppressed or tightly controlled by any means. During the 1960s and early 1970s, student revolts at universities were violently suppressed. In keeping with Franco’s traditional values, the Catholic Church was upheld as the official church of Spain, and it regained many of the privileges it had lost during the Second Spanish Republic.


1959 newspaper signed by both Dwight Eisenhower (left) and Francisco Franco (right), via AbeBooks


Economically, the Spanish Civil War had devastated the Spanish economy. In the years after the war, Franco embarked on an economic policy of autarky, which cut off almost all international trade in an attempt to make Spain’s economy self-sufficient. The threat of bankruptcy and combined pressure from the United States and the International Monetary Fund prompted Franco’s regime to adopt a free market economy. Unlike other neutral European countries, Spain was excluded from the post-Second World War Marshall Plan. In 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower entered into a trade and military alliance with Franco.


By the early 1950s, Spain had reached its pre-Civil War industrial production levels, although agricultural output wouldn’t recover to prewar levels until 1958. Growth was slow, and more liberal economic policies were introduced in the late 1950s. After a recession, the Spanish economy took off in 1959. This economic boom, known as the “Spanish miracle,” lasted until 1974. Between 1959 and 1973, Spain was the world’s second-fastest growing economy after Japan.


Francisco Franco’s Final Years

The future King Juan Carlos with Franco at a military parade, 1974, via El Español


In 1969, Franco named the monarch who was to succeed his regency. King Alfonso XIII’s son Juan was the obvious candidate, but Franco opted to skip a generation and choose Juan’s son Juan Carlos. Juan was in favor of a constitutional monarchy that would restore parliamentary democracy. Franco felt that Juan Carlos was more likely to maintain the dictatorship after his death. Franco was wrong; Juan Carlos appointed a reformist prime minister in 1976 and encouraged the revival of political parties and amnesty for political prisoners. Juan Carlos also curtailed an attempted military coup in 1981 which threatened to bring down Spain’s nascent democracy.


In June 1973, Franco relinquished the post of prime minister and appointed his deputy prime minister to take his place. Prime Minister Carrero Blanco was assassinated by Basque separatists six months later. Carrero Blanco’s successor promised liberalizing reforms in early 1974, much to the Falangists’ chagrin. In Franco’s final years, various political factions jockeyed for position to be able to lead the country after Franco’s death.


In July 1974, Franco fell ill from several health problems, and the future King Juan Carlos acted as head of state for a month and a half. Franco fell ill again a year later, with Parkinson’s disease among his ailments. Franco’s last public speech was given on October 1, 1975, in which a frail Francisco Franco warned the crowd that there was a “Masonic, Leftist, and Communist conspiracy against Spain.”


Prime Minister Carlos Arias Navarro and Francisco Franco at Franco’s home in October 1975, a week before Franco fell into an irreversible coma, via Wikimedia Commons


On October 30, Franco fell into a coma and was placed on life support. His family agreed to disconnect the life-support machines on November 20, 1975. As soon as news of Franco’s death was made public, the government declared thirty days of official national mourning. Juan Carlos was proclaimed King on November 22. Prime Minister Carlos Arias Navarro tried to continue Francoist policies, but King Juan Carlos forced his resignation on July 1, 1976. Arias Navarro was replaced by a new prime minister who was more willing to institute political reforms.


Many European governments declined to send high-level representatives to Franco’s funeral, although the UK sent a representative, and Prince Rainier III of Monaco also attended. Other attendees included the US Vice President, the dictators of Bolivia and Chile, and the wife of the Philippines’ dictator, Imelda Marcos. Franco was interred at the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial that was constructed using the forced labor of political prisoners to purportedly honor the casualties from both sides of the Spanish Civil War.


In May 2017, Spain’s Congress of Deputies approved a motion to order the government to exhume Franco’s remains. In August 2018, the Spanish prime minister approved legal amendments that stated that only those who had died during the Spanish Civil War could be buried at the Valley of the Fallen. Franco’s family opposed the exhumation, but after their first place of burial was rejected by the Spanish government, Franco’s family declined to name a second location. The Spanish government chose to bury Franco’s exhumed remains at the Mingorrubio Cemetery in El Pardo, Madrid. Franco was laid to rest again in the same cemetery where his wife was buried, as well as other Francoist officials, including prime ministers Carrero Blanco and Arias Navarro.

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By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.