April 22, 2011


The Spanish Model: a review of Spain: A Unique History by Stanley G. Payne (Matthew Kaminski, April 20, 2011, New Republic)

Eight decades on, the Civil War is still contentious for historians and politicians. Payne seeks to rescue this complex conflict from mythmakers of various stripes. Though it was a prelude to the clash between totalitarianism (both fascist and, until “Operation Barbarosa” in 1941, Soviet communist) and liberal democracy—both sides in Spain of course carried all three of those banners—the war had uniquely and familiar Spanish roots. The war pitted the revolutionaries of the Republican Left, and its communist allies, against the counterrevolutionaries of the Catholic Right, who were eventually backed by the military. Payne has written elsewhere at length on the war and its causes, and here rather briefly but clearly gives an honest account without favor to either side. While many of its supporters thought they were battling for democracy, the Republican government pushed religious and economic reforms that didn’t enjoy the support, Payne reckons, of more than a fifth of the Spanish public. Though elected in free elections, the Republic ended up trampling on the constitution, arming the unions and welcoming in the Soviets. These were no pure democrats.

No more so, of course, were those on the other side. The military rebelled, won the backing of fascists in Italy and Germany, and committed a larger share of atrocities during and of course exclusively in the purges after the war. The Spaniards were not fascists of the classic type; before the 1936 rebellion, Payne says, the military did not even lean particularly hard to the right. The nationalist right in Spain, he adds (in a judgment that will rankle some), resembled less Germany or Italy of the time than Austria or some of the Central European authoritarian regimes, such as Poland under Józef Piłsudski. Simply put, the absence of a “liberal center” sank the democratic experiment again in the 1930s, though with a far bloodier toll than in past civil conflicts. Spain’s punishment was to end up with Franco for the next forty years, missing out on the democratic awakening in the parts of Europe liberated by the Americans.

The Generalissimo looks slightly better with time, and Payne offers a useful reassessment. Though fully aware of Franco’s crimes and personal limitations, he chalks up the rise of modern Spain in no small part to Franco—“the most successful counterrevolutionary of the 20th century and in terms of the positive transformation of his country, the most successful dictator.” He repressed his opponents, got into bed with Hitler, and kept Spain a dowdy backwater for far too long. Yet unlike most other dictators, Franco did lay the ground for a transition to constitutional monarchy. Payne calls Spain the “first example of a democratization from the inside out, in which the laws and institutions of the authoritarian regime were used to carry out a complete transformation into a democracy.”

Fascists who did not lay the groundwork for the transition to democracy are the rarity. Franco is archetypal, not exceptional.

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Posted by at April 22, 2011 5:16 AM

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