Hunger was famine, there was no persistent drought: how the Franco regime manipulated history | Culture

The persistent drought of the Franco regime lasted barely a year. The international isolation was largely the will of the regime and the disasters of the war were not so great as to be unable to remedy the so-called years of hunger in Spain, a long decade in which many Spaniards lived in misery and with serious difficulties to eat. Three myths used by Franco are compromised by an investigation by Miguel Ángel del Arco, professor of Contemporary History at the University of Granada. Del Arco also changes a paradigm: it was not hunger what happened in Spain, but famine, a broader concept with more social consequences. The study of the Granada historian, carried out thanks to a Leonardo grant from the BBVA Foundation that was granted to him at the end of 2020 and which he plans to turn into a book, concludes that the Franco regime justified the difficulties of those years based on a false story, ignoring their own great contribution to the poor quality of life of thousands of people.

After the Civil War (April 1936 to July 1939) and until the early 1950s, the country, especially the south, suffered tremendous difficulties to recover and life became very difficult. Are the years of hunger, that the dictatorship justified with those three excuses. First, the consequences of the war. With the passage of time, it stopped making sense. The regime looked to the sky and then found the “persistent drought.” When it wore out, Franco looked outside the country and found his third reason: international isolation. The dictatorship always found external reasons to justify the disaster but, as Del Arco explains, the reasons were always within, in its own decisions.

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A woman bathes her son in a bucket in a shantytown on the outskirts of Madrid in 1940.
A woman bathes her son in a bucket in a shantytown on the outskirts of Madrid in 1940.

The persistent drought is a perfectly constructed, sonorous and efficient concept. People of a certain age may not be able to avoid putting it back together when they hear one word or another separately. And yet it never happened. The years of hunger they elapse from 1939 to 1952. Even without official rain records in those years, Del Arco has been able to reconstruct the situation. “It is not possible to speak of a persistent drought” although, he assures, the 1944-45 agricultural season was especially dry, which “the regime took advantage of to justify a decade of misery.” The reality is that agriculture did not provide enough to cover the needs because “the yield per hectare plummeted. Among other reasons, because there were no chemical fertilizers, the result of the desire not to buy abroad, or organic, since the cattle ranch is greatly diminished by war and hunger ”.


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“The problem of Spain in the postwar period is the economic system chosen voluntarily and ideologically by Franco: autarky, with a great inspiration in Nazi Germany and in Mussolini’s Italy. Franco —with great distrust towards France or England, Spain’s main trading partners at the time— considered himself gifted for the economy and believed that he could fix the situation after the war. ” A big mistake that, for Del Arco, marks the future of the country in those years. The idea was: Spain is self-sufficient and we will have plenty to export. With this and with a great army, says Del Arco, “Spain would be imperial.” Everything so out of reality as thousands of families have verified in their own flesh. In the fifties, “Franco stops giving his opinion on the economy and the technocrats arrive,” says the professor, with which the economic situation improves.

The years of hunger, explains Del Arco, they should be called from the famine. This historian does not understand the disinterest of Spanish historiography in this decade and this phenomenon. “Only one textbook mentions the term in ESO,” he says. Famine, compared to hunger, means much more than dying from not eating: it also includes deaths caused by diseases induced by hunger and a poor diet. Famine also causes a severe impoverishment of the most vulnerable groups, with the present and future consequences that this entails. Del Arco recalls that the historian Stanley Payne estimated at 200,000 deaths those who died from malnutrition or diseases derived from it in the five years following the war. Payne’s figure cannot be checked against official data because it does not exist.

The other two arguments, international isolation and the consequences of the war, are equally denied by Del Arco, who explains that the damage was not so great to explain so much misery. “There was significant destruction of homes, communications infrastructures but, above all, human capital, with the departure of so many people into exile. But part of the territory where the Republicans were did not suffer so much because they, in their retreat, did not destroy what they left behind. It is very noticeable in the Basque Country and Catalonia ”.

Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco, at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Granada.
Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco, at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Granada.Fermín Rodríguez

International isolation is the final excuse. It is used over a long period of years: first, it embraces the negative consequences derived from the First World War and, later, after the Second, “the ostracism to which, according to the regime, the international community subjects Spain”. 1945 was for the historian a year with a lot of pressure against Franco. “The regime was in danger in a certain way” and then resorts to a story according to which the international community forgets Spain. The reality, according to Del Arco, is different: he traded with Argentina and Eastern countries and voluntarily left France and England, in addition to be seen with Nazi Germany. That political decision, “as the regime knew,” says Del Arco, could have no other consequence than a distancing from the international community.

Del Arco concludes by recalling that the regime also refused to receive help. In 1941, the religious community of American Quakers offered help through the Spanish ambassador in Washington. The response of Ramón Serrano Suñer, Franco’s brother-in-law and Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, was significant: “Tell him we don’t need her.”

Taken advantage of and benefited

Not everything was misery in the dictatorship. The total closure to the free market gives way, as a secondary effect, to the arrival of the enlightened and those favored by the government finger. Among the former was Filek, an Austrian married to a woman from Granada, Mercedes Domenech, who in 1940 convinced Franco that he was capable of converting river water into gasoline, for which he needed financial support. The money was received but the magic was never done. José Luis Arrese, governor of Malaga, convinced Carmen Polo of the benefits of dolphin meat sandwiches to end hunger in Malaga. Arrese was promoted to secretary general of the movement although no menu ever included those sandwiches. Among those favored, those who, due to their proximity to the regime, obtained exclusive licenses to import certain products, was the case of Franco’s son-in-law, the Marqués de Villaverde, who spent time selling fashionable motorcycles: vespas.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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