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Explaining Franco to a German audience

A ZDF documentary available on Netflix and titled ‘The Brutal Truth About Spain’s Dictator’ portrays the Spanish ‘caudillo’ as a ruthless criminal, without avoiding the complexities of his character

Franco and Hitler in Hendaye, 1940. Video: The trailer for the Netflix documentary.NETFLIX

The Spanish are never going to give the Germans lessons on how to deal with a traumatic past. The documentary Franco: The Brutal Truth About Spain’s Dictator, produced by German public television channel ZDF and available on Netflix, is attention grabbing due to its direct style – it doesn’t waver in its portrayal of the Spanish caudillo as a ruthless criminal, while at the same time acknowledging the complexity of his character.

Over four episodes (plus a superfluous fifth installment that rehashes what’s come before), more than half a century of Spain’s history is summarized – from defeat in Cuba, which Francisco Franco lived through as a child, to beyond his death, when King Juan Carlos I dismantles his regime. His shadow over the Catalan independence drive is even dealt with. All of this in 176 minutes – it was inevitable that there would be some broad strokes.

The documentary focuses on his relationship with Hitler, to whom he owed his victory in the Spanish Civil War, but with whom he clashed at the Meeting of Hendaye

The heavy lifting in terms of the narrative is done by historians – Paul Preston, Ángel Viñas and Antony Beevor – who sit the dictator on the couch to analyze why he was insensitive to the pain of his peers: he came from a pious and conservative background, he had no vices and he wasn’t interested in sex. He was already vicious during the repression of the Revolution of 1934 in Asturias and on the Moroccan front; and he scaled the military clique that staged the coup in 1936 thanks to a series of suspicious accidents, those involving the deaths of Balmes, Mola and Sanjurjo.

He was cruel, we can all agree, and also astute and opportunistic. The documentary focuses on his relationship with Adolf Hitler, to whom he owed his victory in the Spanish Civil War, but with whom he clashed at the Meeting of Hendaye. We see how he starts to distance himself from the Nazis – and his brother-in-law, the Germanophile Ramón Serrano Suñer – as they suffer defeats; how he crosses the desert of autarky; how he ends up close to Eisenhower and celebrates his rehabilitation by the West as a triumph; how he sheds falangist ballast in order to find support among the technocrats of Opus Dei; how tourism transforms habits in Spain; and how the assassination of Carrero Blanco plunges an already tattered regime into turmoil.

The narration seeks to explain details of Franco’s private life that had a political impact, including some speculation about the most intimate details, and raises questions about who was the true father of his only daughter. This is the part that is the least convincing of the program. In any case, the major influence of his wife Carmen Polo is pointed to, as well as her habit of shopping sprees for jewelry during which she would not spend a cent. Also dealt with is the jealousy of Franco’s wife when Evita Perón was welcomed with much pomp and circumstance. And we see the tyrant’s confidence in the young Juan Carlos, given that the latter was being educated according to Franco’s guidance, despite warnings from much of his closest circle.

The reality is that the documentary does not include anything we didn’t already know – nothing that is not in the books of the historians who take part. There is nothing more here than a desire for historical disclosure for German viewers – but the documentary is highly recommendable too for any young Spaniard who sees this period as in a faraway time. The only surprising thing about the program is that it has surprised Spaniards. It’s strange that we have seen so few documentaries like this one.

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