Paul Preston: ‘Franco was shy with women, Mussolini an aggressive predator, and Hitler harbored a range of perversions’

Whenever the Hispanist is asked if the Spanish Civil War and Francoism can really provide that much writing material, he produces yet another book. His latest essay picks out the perpetrators of the propaganda and the lies that led to tragedy

The historian Paul Preston, pictured in his home in London.
The historian Paul Preston, pictured in his home in London.Manuel Vázquez
Jesús Ruiz Mantilla

With the United Kingdom in a post-Brexit tailspin, Paul Preston, 75, is living in London in what he considers a kind of dystopia. “Well, we knew this was coming with this incompetent, corrupt and lying government,” he says.

His forte is clarity, both as a person and a historian, which comes in very handy when approaching his specialty, Spain’s 20th century, particularly when there are those who continue to twist the truth. Preston’s insightfulness has delivered the best biography on Francisco Franco to date, and he has also penned a number of essays on the more ruthless aspects of the late dictator to counteract his portrayal both in Spain and abroad as a mild version of his tyrannical contemporaries.

Preston has made sure to point out that when it comes to cruelty, Franco was on a par with his fellow fascist colleagues. And this cruelty stemmed not just from fanaticism but also from opportunism, to ensure that he would remain in power until his death. This goal of dying as head of state was achieved by crushing his opponents and making sure they did not stand in his way.

This behavior is described in Preston’s The Spanish Civil War, A People Betrayed and the book which he found hardest to write, The Spanish Holocaust. Now, he depicts Franco’s brutality again in Arquitectos del terror (or, Architects of terror) in which he narrates how Francoism took hold in the 1930s due, among other things, to misleading information that provoked a civil war at the time and now, 90 years later, is still being spread among a not inconsiderable sector of the population, as incredible as that may seem.

The attempts to whitewash Francoism are unrelenting. We have had to listen to leaders of Spain’s conservative Popular Party deny the war took place after a coup d’état in 1936, and to the far-right Vox describe the current government of Pedro Sánchez as the worst in 80 years; in other words, more harmful than the dictatorship. Do you find it depressing that, after years of countering these claims with facts, they continue to be spouted by political leaders?

I remember 20 years ago, when journalists used to ask me if the tension over the Spanish Civil War was going to last, I, an innocent foreigner, would answer, “No, it is surely just a matter of time.” But every time I say this, there’s a concerning new outbreak of Francoism. What I don’t understand is what advantage can be gained from speaking in these terms. In the West, there is an intense and interesting debate between the left and the right on issues that affect people whereas in Spain, this is reduced to a cultural war. This is particularly so when they touch on issues such as homosexuality and come up with nonsense fueled by bitterness. Even in the UK, now that everything has become polarized over Brexit, it hasn’t come to that. A colossal amount of time has elapsed since the 1930s. But, even so, they’re still going at it.

Preston pictured in Highgate Wood in London.
Preston pictured in Highgate Wood in London.Manuel Vázquez

Is this due to masochism?

There is some justification for those on the left or the relatives [of the victims] to still be talking about pending issues. But the right already mourned their dead. They solved that on the spot in the areas taken by the Francoists. So what the hell are they going on about?

When you first came to Spain in the 1960s, as you say, it was only a matter of time before you would start talking about the war. How long did you think you would be discussing it for?

I understood very little. It was truly a strange and foreign country. My grandfather used to warn me, “Be careful, son. They eat very strange things there and they cook everything with olive oil...” I was born just after World War II. In almost all the atlases in school there were many countries that were colored red; that is, countries that were part of the British Empire. We were brought up with this superiority complex that I soon got rid of. And now, you see, this is where Brexit has come from. When I began to study Spain, the Republic, the Civil War, I was shocked by the pigheadedness of the right. British conservatives, by comparison, were much smarter.

In what respect?

They applied what the Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard: “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.” Now the British right is almost as pigheaded as the Spanish one.

You say you got rid of that sense of superiority early on. How?

By traveling. For me, the most important thing in my life were the years I spent in Spain. That’s how I became aware of what it meant to be British, by living abroad. I learned at Oxford that to become a specialist in a country you have to acquire a kind of second identity. During the four years I spent in Spain, I developed a perception of difference and an appreciation of the meaning of family life. With the industrial revolution in the UK, many folkloric, traditional customs had disappeared. But not in Spain. And that seemed wonderful. Also, the fact that accents were not linked to social class. I belong to the northern working class. Now it doesn’t matter. I’m old and closer to kicking the bucket, but to survive in the world in which I grew up – for example, my going to Oxford on a scholarship was not at all normal. That’s still the case. It’s still very elitist. You felt that pressure; the pressure to speak like them. What happens is that, being from Liverpool, we have a tough attitude that helps us defend ourselves. You could say that in the UK there are two languages: Norman for the upper classes and Anglo-Saxon for the lower classes. I was very struck by these differences.

How long did you stay in Spain the first time?

It took me a long time to return [to the UK]. Traveling then was very expensive and more complicated. I stayed for about two years. [When I got back] I arrived at Gatwick airport at rush hour. I was accustomed to people with olive skin and when I got on the train, I was surprised to see so many red faces. They all looked like caricatures from Dickens novels. I was pleased to have learned another language. That is something that has been lost now too with the Erasmus scholarship – that wonderful thing that has been axed thanks to the Brexit ne’er-do-wells.

Paul Preston at Highgate Wood in London.
Paul Preston at Highgate Wood in London.Manuel Vázquez

It brings to mind the old news announcement from World War II: “Fog in the channel, the continent is isolated.” Does that depress you?

Very much so! On top of that, the pandemic has benefited [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson. It has delayed the consequences, which we are going to see far more of than we are seeing now. The referendum was bad enough. A victory of just 51% should not have been allowed. Too many mistakes have been made. If, as in the Scottish referendum, they had allowed 16-year-olds to vote, the result would have been different.

When you first came to Spain, is it true that you went straight down to the working-class district of Vallecas in Madrid?

It was just one day, to get in touch with a friend. But when I arrived in Madrid, what surprised me in the area around the central Puerta del Sol were all the orthopedic shops for those wounded in the war; also, the smells in the restaurants and the craftsmen working outside their stores. For a Brit, it was very exotic.

One has to feel sorry for you after reading your latest work. It must have been traumatic, while researching the book, to have to pore over speeches by General Queipo de Llano [responsible for mass killings in Seville during the civil war] and Emilio Mola [one of the leaders of the 1936 coup] or those of Father Tusquets [who disseminated anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories] and the pro-Franco writer José María Pemán. How do you cope with that?

Well, I had already developed a thicker skin during the writing of The Spanish Holocaust. Back then, my wife would often find me crying at the keyboard when she came home from work. The crimes against women and children were unbearable. In this book, I was tracing concrete biographies. We are talking about twisted, perverse figures or, in the case of Tusquets and Pemán, people whose doctrines led to many deaths despite the fact they themselves at times gave the impression of being lay saints. The Pemán who was still around during the Transition had little to do with the man who was around in the war. Regarding Father Tusquets, for someone like me who grew up a Catholic – though I am no longer one – I find the case repulsive because of the inherent hypocrisy.

They couldn’t leave the Jews alone. They were fanatically anti-Semitic.

It was unbelievable. There were 3,000 Jews in Spain before they began to be expelled from northern and central Europe. Then the figure rose to 6,000. And there were more or less 8,000 freemasons. In Tusquets’ file, it was stated that there were 80,000; many of Franco’s military were listed among them. How could this be true? The fact is that it served as a good excuse to persecute whoever.

In fact, Franco’s own library had a few masonic volumes, which would have put him in a difficult position, had word of it got out.

Of course! It’s very interesting. It seems that, yes, Franco flirted with freemasonry and tried to join it.

Yes, because, early on, did Franco even know what it was to be a Francoist?

Indeed, his wife, Doña Carmen, had to teach him that.

Before that, he was a kind of ideological amoeba. He kept his cards close to his chest.

He didn’t even know where he kept them.

And your new book makes it clear that he was the moderate one compared to Mola, Queipo de Llano or Tusquets and Pemán. Did he take them seriously?

By comparison, yes, he was. And not only compared to these individuals, who have their own chapter in the book, but also in relation to their satellites: [Francoist politician Ramón] Serrano Suñer and [Franco’s right-hand man Luis] Carrero Blanco both became crucial for the regime as prominent members of the government, but also the writer [Ernesto] Giménez Caballero. All of them were very moralistic without exactly leading an exemplary life themselves.

Regarding the anti-Semitism they all shared, didn’t the Spanish Church maintain a more ambiguous position?

I believe that the Church was then clearly anti-Semitic. But, as it was with the Nazis, there was no distinction for any of them between the ethnic and the religious. They were simply anti-Semitic, period.

Where does the right’s sense of ownership over Spain come from?

Among other things, from the construction of the anti-Spain as a concept. It pushed them to want to eliminate 60% of the population. The majority was “against” the country. That is why they decided to exterminate or expel them.

British historian Paul Preston.
British historian Paul Preston.Manuel Vázquez

Special attention was paid to teachers, for example, and there was an aversion to the influential educational center Institución Libre de Enseñanza, which formed liberals rather than a dogmatic left.

They talked about the dangers of education. This was due to fear rather than contempt. Hence their reluctance to make education more accessible, because they believed that educating laborers or shepherds increased the risk of revolt.

Did the fanaticism and radicalism of Mola and Queipo de Llano scare Franco himself? You use data to illustrate almost beyond doubt that the death of the former could have been deliberately provoked. And that the fall from grace of the second is not surprising. And in the case of the latter, you also mention the strange relationship he had with his daughter. What happened?

He had an unhealthy relationship [with her], I would say. In the biography written by his granddaughter, Ana Quevedo, she describes the bond of the general with his daughter Maruja as suffocating and triggering his wife’s suspicions. When Maruja decided to marry without his consent, Queipo disinherited her in a fit of uncontrollable rage. His wife then gave vent to her suspicions and asked Maruja if his opposition to the marriage was due to motives “that went beyond paternal love,” as she put it. And she asked her, “Has he ever made a pass at you?” Maruja refused to answer. They were all immersed in double standards and hypocrisy. It’s delicate territory. I have been very careful. On the one hand, the book portrays adoration; on the other, rejection. I have dealt with the material within what is legally permissible.

Hence the title of the chapter devoted to Queipo, whom you call the psychopath from the South? It’s an extreme allegation maintained by witnesses of the violence and abuse with which he incited his troops.

He was absolutely repugnant.

But his remains are still inside the Basilica of Macarena in Seville.

It is curious that he is still there, yet Franco himself has been taken from the Valley of the Fallen.

Having spent your life using facts to flag up the brutalities carried out by these characters, do you despair that they have been either vindicated or their crimes downplayed?

I am aware that my books reach a tiny section of the population. I try to be honest, even if the right-wing press paints me as an amateur and a liar. But I don’t feel like responding to them or to those who spend their lives trying to discredit me. I am aware that I can only do so much. Besides, I don’t use social media. They seem to me to be a waste of time – time that I prefer to spend reading the classics.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on something that I’m not sure will come together. I’m collecting material and I’d like to write something about the sex life of the dictators. It’s going to be complicated, though. I’d like to tackle Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. There’s not much on the others. I could write hundreds of pages on Mussolini, but three at the most on Salazar [the head of Portugal’s authoritarian government from 1932 to 1968].

So what were Franco, Hitler and Mussolini like in that department?

Franco was shy with women; Mussolini was an aggressive predator – a rapist even, and Hitler harbored a range of perversions.

That sounds juicy. What about the political noise in Spain right now? Does it come to your attention in the UK?

I know about it because I read the Spanish media, but if I were to limit myself to the reporting in the UK, I would not be aware of it. They neither cover it, nor give it any importance.

Does that worry you?

What I often say is that I spend enough time wrestling with the past to worry about the future. Perhaps I am too complacent but first, it is very difficult for violence to erupt within the European Union. What they are blatantly seeking is a return to power. And that will depend, as always, on the left not being divided.

That mistake could easily be made again. Don’t you feel exasperated that a lack of appreciation of the past will lead to it being repeated?

In the UK, this is already happening. The current moderate leader of the Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, is trying to move it towards the center to avoid the mistakes made by his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. The followers of the latter, with whom a very interesting comparison can be made with [Prime Minister of the Second Spanish Republic Francisco] Largo Caballero for his hollow revolutionary rhetoric, are standing in the way of what Starmer hopes to achieve. So, it could be said that the British left is unaware of Spain’s past. The person who was very aware of it and acted accordingly, at the beginning at least, was [former Socialist Party prime minister] Felipe González. And I think [the current prime minister] Pedro Sánchez is too. Having said that, I have to stress that I don’t know if politicians read the books that deal with these issues. I have no idea to what extent a politician has time to read a 700-page tome.

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