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General Francisco Franco came to prominence during the days of David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson and was able to cling to absolute political power until his death in 1975. Over his fifty-year career, he became one of the four dictators who changed the face of Europe during the twentieth century.
Franco joined the Spanish Army when he was barely fifteen years old. In 1926 he became the youngest general in Europe and, driven by an astonishing sense of his own greatness, was recognized as sole military commander of the Nationalist zone during the Spanish Civil War. His ambition was always to hold on to the power that he had secured. In practice, this meant winning the Spanish Civil War and surviving the fall of the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini and the international isolation that followed their defeat.
But behind the military heroics and dexterous political footwork lay an insecure and vengeful man, wracked by contradictory impulses. Although fueled by a single-minded determination to succeed, he was full of self-doubt. A bold and sometimes inspirational soldier in Africa, he became an indecisive, hesitant military commander during the Civil War. Filled with a burning conviction that his destiny was bound up with the medieval kings of Spain and God Himself, he appeared shy, withdrawn, and humble. Ruthlessly intent on wiping out all political opposition, he denied heatedly that he was a dictator. A stubborn man, he could be remarkably flexible when it came to safeguarding his power.
Gabrielle Ashford Hodges' psychological biography considers Franco's mental state, as well as his political motivation. In doing so, it succeeds admirably in getting under the skin of Europe's most enduring dictator.
Hodges (the wife of Paul Preston, another Franco biographer) has written an engaging and highly accessible account of one of the 20th century's most durable dictators. The diminutive and contradictory Francisco Franco (1892 1975), who as a youth had seemed such an unlikely leader, rose to power with the military support of Hitler and Mussolini in an atmosphere of brutal civil war. Orwellian repression, economic slump and widespread corruption marked his lengthy reign. How did this "deeply flawed individual" remain at Spain's helm for nearly 40 years? Hodges's slim volume is an attempt to explain the "political, personal, psychological and social influences" behind his success. In 1907, as the teenage Franco joined the army, his father left his strict Catholic wife to move in with another woman; this act of abandonment, Hodges argues, instilled a lifelong yearning for order in Franco. As a fearless young soldier in colonial Morocco, Franco became a national hero, and by 33 he was a general. When he challenged the Republican government in 1936, he triggered a civil war as well as gaining aid from fascist Italy and Germany that helped him to win it. During WWII, Franco, displaying an opportunistic "elasticity of ideological convictions," played both sides of the fence, and after the war, despite his shocking human rights record, he was grudgingly accepted into the anticommunist bloc. A true survivor, he held onto power until 1975. Through it all, Hodges writes, he exhibited a marked talent for self-delusion and a "ruthless obsession with his own survival." This brief, well-written biography may not break any new ground, but it should appeal to both the general history reader and to those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War.