Book Review: The Last Survivor: Cultural and Social Projects Underlying Spanish Fascism, 1931-1975

August 26, 2019

Last_SurvivorFrancisco Morente and Ferran Gallego, editors. The Last Survivor: Cultural and Social Projects Underlying Spanish Fascism, 1931-1975. Sussex Studies in Spanish History. Sussex Academic Press, 2018. 256pp.

What role did fascism play in defining the Franco regime? The Last Survivor offers a fresh interpretation of the dictatorship as ideologically fascist at its core, rather than understanding it through a purely symbolic or discursive understanding of fascism as a movement of values and attitudes. Levering new research into state structures, the editors seek to replace the definition of Francoism as an example of an “authoritarian” regime, first promoted by political scientists like Juan Linz. Yet their principal goal is not so much to determine whether the dictatorship should be considered fascist as a whole or to define the periods when it most shared a fascist or authoritarian cast. Rather, they aim to investigate fascist influences and strategies in diverse areas of the state, from university administration to welfare policy. All the contributors take the existence of a fascist ideological core in the Franco regime as a given and examine it within Spain’s institutional state between the Civil War and the dictator’s death in 1975.

The separate pieces roughly focus on two periods: the Civil War era and the period of the Francoist state. Most of the authors emphasize the regime’s totalitarian pretensions of shaping Spanish subjects via social controls and ideological formation, for example by looking at Francoist intellectuals and the organizations they managed. In this vein, Gallego charts the history of Spain’s fascist parties during the Second Republic, arguing that their early marginalization was a product of right-wing alternatives better adapted to democracy, but that fascism’s radical counter-revolutionary proposals were well suited to the Civil War’s political polarization. Iñaki Fernández and Guillermo Marín demonstrate that the National Welfare Institute adopted ideas from Fascist Italy’s natalist welfare policies. Francisco Morente argues that Falange-oriented intellectuals drove the reorganization of the Spanish university system more than has been recognized in accounts that highlight the role of the Catholic Church. Nicolás Sesma Landrín claims that intellectuals who hoped that Spain could imitate Japan’s industrialization and join the Axis powers in World War II presaged later technocratic policies were long assumed to have not been adopted until the 1950s and 1960s. Olga Glondys is the only author who does not focus on fascism directly, but she too seems to focus on the question of totalitarianism as she aims to defend the value of the democratizing efforts of left-wing (but not Communist) exiled intellectuals who worked with various international organizations, notably the Congress for Cultural Freedom, during the first decades of the regime.

Rather than emphasizing the regime’s ideology, Julio Ponce, Emilio Grandío and Javier Muñoz Soro explore the contradictions and complications in the pursuit of fascist goals. Grandío’s work is a counterpart to Glondys’s. For him, the growth of enthusiasm for political convergence with Europe and calls for national reconciliation within Spain were partially the result of the government’s flexibility. Muñoz Soro details how the Falangist University Work Service program became an inadvertent recruitment tool for the Communist Party. Placing students in contact with workers proved counter-productive (from the regime’s point of view): it allowed each group to hear the complaints of the other, see the failures of policies and, in the end, understand the emptiness of the regime’s social promises. In one of the book’s most illuminating chapters, Ponce carefully distinguishes the notion of “regime” from that of the State. It’s important to distinguish, he argues, between the possession of power (i.e., who controls government institutions) from institutional structure as such (i.e., the design of government agencies and ministries). For him, the dictatorship brought a new set of people into power but did not significantly change inherited structures. While he substantiates this by underlining the regime’s inability to effectively reform the laws concerning the municipal administration, it would be interesting to follow this approach in other areas of potential institutional change as well.

It’s time to revise the account of the Franco dictatorship as consisting of competing “families”: army, church, technocrats and Falange.

At its strongest, the book suggests that it’s time to revise the generally accepted account of the Franco dictatorship as consisting of the competing “families” of army, church, technocrats and Falange. At least, a more critical appraisal of this account is in order, as the boundaries between those groups were quite porous and individuals often moved between them. In this sense, Morente’s chapter on Catholic and fascist intellectuals in the university is potentially the most exciting area for future research.

The editors’ aspiration to move beyond the level of discourse and symbol is realized in the collection’s close examination of institutions. Still, as a whole it occupies itself more with intellectual and political debate than with the actual completion of projects. Tellingly, almost every chapter uses as its principal source a journal or set of journals. The result is that the contributions tend to highlight intentions and planning over concrete achievements. So, for example, the appeal of Japanese industrialization in Spain is fascinating in its own right, but the brevity required by this collection doesn’t allow Sesma Landrín to substantiate a concrete link to later technocratic policy.

Similarly, the expansive definition of fascism gives the collection much of its dynamism, but might make it difficult to convince skeptical readers of the predominance of fascist thinking in the regime. The cleavage between the contributors who underline the totalitarian aspects of the regime and those who see its goals as multifaceted suggests that the most fruitful future debate will not so much center on the ultimate nature of the regime, but rather on the depth that fascist policies reached within Spanish society.

David Henderson lectures at Miramar College. He holds a Ph.D. in modern Spanish history from UC San Diego.