Letters to a dictator: ‘speaking Francoist’ in 1940s Spain

Cartas

by Stephanie Wright

Those who have never had the (dis)pleasure of working with the remnants of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s monstrous state bureaucracy will be unfamiliar with the relentlessly formulaic nature of its documentation.

On my first encounter with Francoist bureaucracy while researching the experiences of disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War, I had hoped to find reams of letters detailing the personal experiences of wounded soldiers. Unfortunately, the longed-for letters seemed, initially, pretty dull. Confined to a bureaucratic straitjacket of rigid sentence constructions and set phrases, they appeared to tell me nothing at all about the individuality of my subjects.

It was, in fact, in the Francoist state’s interests to prescribe the way in which citizens communicated with it. By adopting the language of Francoism, letter writers acknowledged the regime’s legitimacy and values, and manifested their awareness of their place within the new order. Letters to Franco typically began with ‘His Excellency Generalísimo Franco’ and more often than not signed off with a ‘May God protect you many years’.

In his new compilation of letters written to Franco by ‘ordinary’ citizens, Antonio Sanchez Cazorla offers numerous examples of citizens ‘speaking Francoist’.[1] Ambrosio A., a soldier who accidentally shot his mother while cleaning his rifle, wrote to the

Official_Francisco_Franco
Francisco Franco ruled Spain until his death of natural causes in 1975

Caudillo in November 1938 asking to be sent back to work in his hometown in order to be close to his sister. In doing so, he took care to address Franco as ‘Generalísimo and saviour of our National Spain’ and to sign off with a ‘raised arm and an Arriba España.’[2]

Such highly politicised formulations were very common in letters to Franco and the state more generally, and the readiness with which individuals adopted these phrases is perhaps unsurprising given the repressive climate of Francoist Spain, particularly in its early years.[3]

However, such letters raise questions about the nature of the relationship between the state and its subjects. Although Ambrosio A. clearly adhered to the linguistic expectations of the regime, his insistence that his request be dealt with as quickly as possible, which was repeated in a follow-up letter (in which he also asked for a recommendation letter to include in his appeal to the Ministry of Defence), demonstrated the soldier’s underlying assertiveness.

Assertiveness was not uncommon in the letters sent to Franco or other representatives of the bureaucratic administration. One of the most striking examples of this I have encountered so far is the case of A.C., an ex-soldier whose duties during the war involved relaying messages between different military authorities on his motorbike.[4] In 1938, A.C. sustained an injury to his foot, which led him to apply to join the disabled veterans’ Corps, the succinctly-named ‘Honourable Corps of the Mutilated in the War for the Fatherland’.

The Francoist regime’s policy towards injured veterans aimed to reward those wounded heroically in battle. Therefore, veterans who had sustained wounds in other ways during their period of active service were placed in an uncertain position. This was particularly the case before 1940, after which a decree recognised those injured through accidents during the war (although the nominal distinction between them and the battle wounded was maintained).

The precise origins of A.C.’s foot injury in 1938 are unclear: according to his own testimony in his application to join the Honourable Corps, A.C. had been wounded by ‘enemy shrapnel’, while his superior officer insisted that the injury had in fact occurred as a result of a motorcycle accident.

Plaque_generalisimo

There are clear motives as to why a soldier might try to obfuscate the true origins of his injury; entry into the Honourable Corps could guarantee the survival of a wounded veteran and his family in the difficult Francoist post-war years. The fact, however, that A.C. was willing to do so in writing is indicative of his awareness of both the state’s expectations of its citizens – most notably, bravery in battle –, and also his confidence in the space for negotiation within the regime’s bureaucratic processes, as long as one understood how to play the game.

In this sense, the dry, bureaucratic language of most citizens’ letters to the state are by no means evidence of a robotic obedience to the Francoist regime. Rather, such letters tell us of the pragmatism of many Spaniards who learnt how to engage with the system in order to meet their own individual needs.

Correspondences such as these also offer an insight into the practical realities of running a state based on rigid understandings of the ideal Francoist male. Both A.C.’s roadside wounding and Ambrosio A.’s tragically incompetent shooting of his own mother contravened the Francoist regime’s rhetorical emphasis on honour and brave sacrifice in battle. Yet that the state dealt with their cases regardless is indicative of a certain flexibility on the part of the regime to incorporate those who perhaps did not fully conform to its propagandistic ideals.

Indeed, from 1940 soldiers who had been injured through accidents during their time in the army were also granted entry into the Honourable Corps. In this way, although one must not forget the regime’s brutal repression of its Republican enemies, its somewhat flexible approach to its own supporters can perhaps offer a helpful perspective on the long-term survival of Francoism until the 1970s.

Stephanie Wright is currently in her second year of a WRoCAH-funded PhD looking at ‘Nationalist’ disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. Find her on twitter @Estefwright.

[1] Stephen Kotkin coined the term ‘Speaking Bolshevik’ in his work on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. This concept referred to the process by which Russian citizens learnt what the state expected of them as individuals, and suggested that it was the population’s willingness to meet such expectations that enabled the Soviet regime to maintain a degree of stability. See Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (London, 1995).

[2] Antonio Sanchez Cazorla, Cartas a Franco de los españoles de a pie (1936-1945) (Barcelona, 2016), p. 38.

[3] Michael Richards’ offers a valuable insight into the dark post-war years in Francoist Spain in his book A Time of Silence (Cambridge, 1998).

[4] Archivo General Militar de Guadalajara, 162-3758, A.C.

The header image is the author’s own.

Image of Franco: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46339117

Image of sign: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=527666

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