Robert Ward

Chapter 6
The Virgin and the General: El Ferrol

The Virgin and the General: El FerrolIf a novelist dreamed up the Freudian tangle of Francisco Franco’s roots, his editor would send the manuscript back with instructions to tone down the symbolism. The dictator who would institutionalize the cult of the Virgin as the religion of his regime began his life on María Street. His mother’s given name? María del Pilar. Franco’s mother was an austere and devout Catholic of the landed nobility. As for his father, Nicolás, he was an easy-living man-about-town with atheist, liberal, Masonic tendencies - just the sort of fellow Franco would spend the rest of his life imprisoning and hounding into exile. Nicolás favored Francisco’s younger brother, the athletic, affable Ramón, over puny, adenoidal “Paquito.” But the future dictator was cherished by his pious mother, and the two often made the long climb together to the dark little chapel of the Virgen del Chamorro to offer thanks for Francisco’s triumphs. Mother and son only bonded the closer after Nicolás Franco took a posting in Madrid in 1912. The rogue had soon set up house with his mistress, abandoning El Ferrol and María del Pilar for good.

By this time, Francisco’s military career was already passing from strength to strength. At the age of twenty-seven, he was named second-in-command of Spain’s newly-formed Foreign Legion. In Morocco, his fearless and patient leadership helped spare Spain the humiliation of being routed from her last colony by tribesmen on horseback. He became the youngest general in Europe at the age of thirty-two and ultimately the leader of his nation. The only thing he never managed to do was impress his father. When reporters asked Nicolás how he felt about his son, he would reply, “Do you mean Ramón?” It is said that his profane outbursts against the Generalisimo in Madrid bars more than once led to his being arrested and detained until his identity had been confirmed. In 1942, when the old man died, Franco tried to present him as someone fit to be his father, denying Nicolás’ mistress permission to attend the funeral and burying the blaspheming old Freemason in the full-dress uniform of a general.

The facts invite us to read Franco’s career as one long, sad exercise in repudiating his unloving father - by demonizing those who lived and thought like him; by polishing his own image as a paragon of abstemious, upstanding, Catholic husband-and-fatherhood; and by exalting his saintly mother, María del Pilar.

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