Death of Franco

The death of Francisco Franco ended authoritarian dictatorship in Spain and elevated King Juan Carlos I as head of state. Within fourteen months of Franco’s death, the Spanish parliament passed a law of political reform with the king’s clear approval, thereby opening up the political system by legalizing political parties and the holding of a general election based on universal suffrage.

Summary of Event

From his victory over the Second Republic on April 1, 1939, until his death on November 20, 1975, Francisco Franco ruled as the undisputed leader of Spain. Immediately after the Spanish Civil War, Franco imposed a stifling repression on Spanish society. He enjoyed refereeing disputes between the fascist Falange movement, the army, and the Roman Catholic Church. Such quarrels only increased his power, encouraging many to believe that Franco was indispensable. Franco wielded more power than any Spanish king, as he ruled as chief of the Falange Española, prime minister, chief of state, and commander in chief of the armed forces. As such, his position was almost unassailable. Spain;government
[kw]Death of Franco (Nov. 20, 1975)
[kw]Franco, Death of (Nov. 20, 1975)
[g]Europe;Nov. 20, 1975: Death of Franco[02150]
[g]Spain;Nov. 20, 1975: Death of Franco[02150]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 20, 1975: Death of Franco[02150]
Franco, Francisco
Juan Carlos I

The physical and ideological exhaustion of Spain from its bloody civil war also contributed to the longevity of Franco’s rule. With the beginning of World War II in September, 1939, the people of Spain feared renewed conflict. Marxist leaders either became swallowed up in Moscow or sulked in exile in Latin America or Western Europe. Catalonia and the Basque provinces suffered severe repression; no self-government was permitted, and local dances and dialects were prohibited. Such regional deterioration made Franco the first Spanish ruler to have absolute control over the entire country. Shortages of food supplies produced general suffering that continued until the 1950’s, when Franco’s encouragement of capitalism produced the “Spanish Miracle.” To avenge the death of so many of his followers during the Spanish Civil War, Franco executed tens of thousands of Republicans and imprisoned many more. Once his regime was firmly established and his enemies defeated, this brutal and violent phase passed.

With the end of World War II, the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;Spain recovered its dominant position in Spanish society. The Church chose the minister of education, civil marriages were decreed null, and the Church again received state subsidies and land that had earlier been seized by Republican authorities. Even the Falange was ordered to bow to clerical objections concerning publication. The Church also received permission to impose a campaign against any behavior (dancing) or form of personal attire (bare legs, dresses, bathing suits) deemed to be indecent, suggestive, or immoral, although after 1960 cultural repression eased.

Francisco Franco.

(Library of Congress)

The army remained the foundation of the regime until Franco’s death. The army supported Franco partially because he was one of its most illustrious figures, having been the youngest general in Europe during the 1920’s. Like Franco, the army was conservative and not rigidly fascist in its political leanings. Army officers held important positions in the national administration, police, and local government for decades.

The aristocracy had minimal influence with Franco, but hundreds of dukes, marquises, counts, and viscounts continued to enjoy their established privilege. The number of landowners may have shrunk during the civil war, but the amount of land they owned increased. Towns and villages were often answerable to the local landowners. Franco frequently allowed landowners to use concentration camp prisoners as day laborers for a fee of a peseta per person.

The monarchists also worked behind the scenes to restore the royal family. The Carlists aided the monarchists’ efforts greatly, because the Carlists rightly considered themselves and the Moors as the shock troops of the Nationalist forces. Franco disliked Don Juan, the pretender to the Spanish throne, but decided to restore the monarchy in 1947. Franco had good relations with Prince Juan Carlos and approved his 1961 engagement to Princess Sofía, eldest daughter of King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece. The Spanish dynasty provided the regime with a traditional continuity that was favored by nearly everyone. Problems arose because Franco had deliberately left open the question of when and how the transition of power would take place. Nevertheless, Prince Juan Carlos began to stand at Franco’s elbow on important occasions.

By the 1960’s, Franco began to age noticeably. Nearly seventy years old, he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a paralytic illness caused by the progressive degeneration of nerve cells at the base of the brain. Hastening his physical demise was a hunting accident that Franco suffered on Christmas Eve, 1961. His shotgun exploded in his left hand, seriously injuring it. This incident made Franco’s followers realize that he was indeed mortal. Although the injury caused him considerable pain, Franco broadcast his traditional end-of-the-year message. By 1968, Franco began to withdraw completely into leisure pursuits and family activities to the growing exclusion of official duties. On January 15, 1969, Franco finally informed Juan Carlos that he would be officially designated as the political heir.

Franco’s final years were agonizing. In the summer of 1974, Franco had to be hospitalized because he suffered phlebitis in his right leg. Shortly afterward, Franco suffered a major relapse, and Prince Juan Carlos took over temporarily as head of state. Nevertheless, the stubborn Franco resumed his duties on September 9, 1974, despite the necessity of participating in an intensive program of physiotherapy to help him recover his mobility. Constant bouts with depression also hindered Franco’s determination to rule. He appeared in public for the last time on October 1, 1975. Although he was barely able to raise his hand to salute his cheering supporters from the balcony of the Royal Palace in Madrid, Franco was determined to eradicate all vestiges of Marxist ideology in Spain.

On October 15, Franco suffered a heart attack, and Juan Carlos once again assumed the duties of head of state. Meanwhile, Franco agonized with respiratory and intestinal complications that began to set in. Soon, his transfer to the hospital became permanent and he underwent major intestinal surgery in November to stop massive internal hemorrhaging. Franco finally died in the early hours of the morning of November 20, 1975. The Spanish minister for Information and Tourism later announced that at 5:25 a.m. that morning, the generalissimo had died as the result of a cardiac arrest, leading to toxic shock caused by peritonitis. Shortly after the announcement, Prime Minister Carlos Arias Navarro read Franco’s last message. He had written this testimony in October and had entrusted it to his daughter Carmen. In it, Franco sought forgiveness from his enemies and expressed gratitude for his supporters. His other request was that all people of Spain pledge their support to the monarchy.

An atmosphere of disbelief seemed to descend on the country in the wake of Franco’s death. Newspapers could not keep up with demand for copies of the ultimate events of Franco’s life. Thirty days of official mourning were declared, during which academic activities, cinemas, theaters, and sporting events ceased. Radio stations broadcast a steady stream of appropriately solemn music, interspersed with news bulletins.


On November 22, Juan Carlos was installed as official head of state during his appearance before the Spanish parliament. After a short speech, Juan Carlos became the new king of Spain. Franco’s state funeral took place the next day. For nearly fourteen hours, members of the public lined up to walk past Franco’s casket as he lay in state, attired in his uniform of captain-general. Several mourners raised their arms in a Falangist salute, but most knelt in prayer. Overwhelmed with emotion while viewing Franco’s body, one young man fell dead at the site. After the mass, a unit of Franco’s personal guard carried his coffin to an open military vehicle, which served as a hearse.

Franco’s legacy is complex. Always a traditionalist, and having no where else to turn, he accepted aid from Benito Mussolini Mussolini, Benito and Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, but he disliked fascism. Franco’s foremost concern was the defeat of Marxists and liberals and the preservation of the Catholic Church and the monarchy. For these reasons, he had no serious desire to pursue a career in politics and no interest in leading a political party. Above all, Franco was a representative of the Spanish army and its greatest twentieth century leader. He trusted the armed forces more than anything else. An ambitious man, Franco nevertheless maintained a certain detachment from the pursuit of power that belied his interest in keeping rival factions fighting among themselves while he settled all disputes. An astute judge of character and a master of the art of exploiting others to enhance his own needs, Franco once confided to Juan Carlos that he never trusted anyone. Despite the tendency to repression and censorship, Spain changed greatly in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and a certain easing of enforcement followed.

The speed with which Franco’s policies dissolved after his death would undoubtedly have shocked him. He intended to see little alteration of his policies. The decision to restore the monarchy, however, proved to be the best of all Franco’s decisions. Once in power, Juan Carlos I proved to be astute as well as independent of Franco’s old political cronies. Within fourteen months of Franco’s death, the Spanish parliament passed a law of political reform with the king’s clear approval. This statute opened up the political system by legalizing political parties and the holding of a general election based on universal suffrage. The 1977 election was the first democratic election to be held in Spain since 1936. A popular referendum held on December 6, 1978, approved a new constitution, drawn up earlier by a seven-member committee. The new charter wisely granted considerable autonomy to regions such as Catalonia and the Basque provinces.

Perhaps the last gasp of Francoist tendencies took place on February 23, 1981, when a group of extreme rightist Civil Guards and army officers attempted a coup d’état. Firing submachine guns inside the legislature, the officers took the entire Chamber of Deputies hostage in the center of Madrid. The king, however, intervened decisively. Wearing his uniform as commander in chief of the armed forces, Juan Carlos condemned the revolt and dispatched forces to crush it. Few supported the rebels, and the revolt lasted less than two days. A sense of relief swept over the country, secure in the knowledge that a democratic Spain would not be turned aside and that its relations with other European and world nations would not be altered.

After Franco’s death, few signs of the dictator’s institutions remained. Most statues and monuments of Franco were removed, and streets and squares named to honor Franco and his wartime collaborators reverted to their pre-1936 designations. As Spain became increasingly integrated with the rest of Europe, the possibility of a Francoist revival became ever more remote. Spain;government

Further Reading

  • Carr, Raymond. Modern Spain, 1875-1980. 1980. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. History of Spain from the revolution of 1868 to the present.
  • _______. Spain, 1808-1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. This and the above work by a noted scholar of modern Spanish history provide important background material for understanding post-Franco Spain.
  • Ellwood, Sheelaugh. Franco. New York: Longman, 1994. A well-written contemporary biography of the Spanish leader.
  • Hooper, John. The Spaniards. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987. A useful overview of Spanish life and culture that is accessible to general readers.
  • Payne, Stanley G. The Franco Regime, 1936-1975. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987. Scholarly work is essential for placing Franco and the Falange within the context of Spanish politics.
  • Preston, Paul. Franco. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Serves as a useful companion to the biography by Ellwood, cited above.

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