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Franco’s Stooges Still Dominate the Spanish Economy

Four decades since Spain’s transition to democracy, nostalgists for the Franco era are sharply resisting calls to topple its monuments and recognize its victims. Their fight to control historical memory isn’t just a “culture war” — it’s a bid to defend the power of businesses that profited from the fascist regime.

General view of La Almudena Cemetery in Madrid, Spain. Madrid’s right-wing city council gave the order to dismantle one of Madrid's few monuments to the people massacred by fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The memorial was dedicated to the 3,000 Republican prisoners who were executed in the city’s Almudena Cemetery in the aftermath of the civil war of 1936–39. (Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images)

Last November, Madrid’s right-wing city council gave the order to dismantle one of the Spanish capital’s few monuments to the people massacred by fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The memorial was dedicated to the three thousand Republican prisoners who were executed in the city’s Almudena Cemetery in the aftermath of the civil war of 1936–39.

Shortly before Christmas, the marble tablets with the victims’ names were removed and images soon surfaced of many of them lying smashed on the ground. In February, the council erased practically all the remaining inscriptions — including verses from poet Miguel Hernández, another of Franco’s victims. For a family member of one of those executed, the intent behind the move was clear: “That which is not named, does not exist. This is what they are aiming for.”

The memorial had been an initiative of the previous left-wing city government headed by Manuela Carmena, which lost office in May 2019 to a hard-right coalition backed by the extremist Vox party. New mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, from the conservative Partido Popular (PP), accused the Carmena administration of “sectarianism,” “sowing hate,” and imposing a “hierarchy” of victims by erecting the monument. His right-wing administration is now insisting on the need for an alternative, generic memorial dedicated to all those who “suffered violence” during the war — thus removing any reference to the specific Nationalist atrocities that took place at the cemetery.

This is no isolated case. Since a center-left national government passed a Historical Memory Law in 2007, the Spanish right has repeatedly opposed, and sought to undermine, even the most minimal initiatives aimed at historical redress, such as bids to exhume Republican mass graves or remove street names associated with the Franco dictatorship. Such resistance, in part, reflects the broader political culture of the Spanish right, in which historical denialism around the systematic and genocidal nature of the Nationalist terror remains unchecked. The increasing saliency of Franco’s legacy as a culture-war talking point — particularly after Vox’s breakthrough in 2019 —  is also a key factor.

Yet in his new book Franquismo S.A., journalist Antonio Maestre argues that beyond any political and cultural impediments, there is a more fundamental factor blocking progress on historical memory — one that owes to the economic power of Franco nostalgists. The book, whose title translates into English as “Francoism Plc or Francoism Corp,” forensically examines how many of Spain’s richest families and major corporations owe their current position not simply to wealth accumulated under the dictatorship but also, beyond that, to their active participation in Franco’s brutal regime. For this bloc of ultraconservative power, a zero-tolerance policy is ultimately necessary because any process of historical reconciliation has the potential to develop into a broader threat to its class power. In Maestre’s words, historical redress could “open the door to the justice of the defeated.”

A New Oligarchy

Published last November, Franquismo S.A. has already reached its seventh edition. In recent years, Maestre — an occasional contributor to Jacobin — has gained increased prominence in domestic media, particularly for his in-depth analysis of the country’s far right as well as high-profile television confrontations with conservative pundits. His first book was thus always likely to be something of an event. But its success also speaks to the fact that it fills a key gap in the existing literature around the legacy of the Franco dictatorship of 1939 to 1975.

As Maestre notes in the book’s introduction, “the Francoist repression tends to be analyzed and evaluated only from a social and political perspective” — with little literature for a general audience on its relationship to the economic “corporate revolution” enacted under Franco’s regime. The book traces how the postwar period ushered in a profound shake-up in the country’s capitalist class as a new economic elite emerged from among those who had financially backed the Nationalist war effort. This rapid accumulation of wealth — which saw regional bankers and medium-sized industrialists being transformed into some of the country’s richest men — took various forms:

. . . on occasions, it was produced through direct participation in the repression carried out by the Francoist regime, in other instances through the use of Republican slave labor, trafficking in favors and corruption [to gain public contracts], or direct involvement in the writing of laws or legal codes as well as the active lobbying among leading figures in the [Francoist] National Movement so that their interests were looked on favorably.

With a few exceptions, most of Spain’s top IBEX 35–listed companies are implicated in these practices. For example, the energy and infrastructural conglomerate Acciona traces its origins to the construction firm of its controlling shareholder — the Entrecanales family — which employed slave labor to build a section of the Guadalquivir canal in Seville. Others which also benefitted from the approximately four hundred thousand Republican slave laborers were Dragados y Construcciones (now part of Real Madrid chairman Florentino Perez’s ACS group) as well as the OHL group, which includes Huarta — one of the three construction companies that built Franco’s pharaonic mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen. In the case of the energy giant Naturgy, the origins of its major Galician subsidiary Fenosa can be traced to the expropriation of Electra Popular Coruñesa from the executed Republican MP José Miñones.

The exact degree of moral and criminal culpability varies — with the book offering chapter-long analyses detailing the record of key economic powers. Yet probably the most exemplary case in terms of this new oligarchy’s meteoric rise is that of José María de Oriol y Urquijo, the ex-president of Hidroeléctrica Española (now Iberdrola, the world’s fourth-largest electricity producer). Oriol y Urquijo’s father had been one of the major financiers of the Nationalist coup in 1936; he was himself head of the fascist Falange Española Tradicionalista in the Basque Country between 1937 and 1941, where he was instrumental in the campaign of mass political repression. He was later appointed mayor of Bilbao by Franco.

In the postwar period, he used his network of political contacts to procure huge public contracts and turn his family’s business into the fifth-largest in Spain by 1960. As Maestre explains, Oriol y Urquijo was even given control over the writing and implementation of regulations for the national energy sector as a whole, in his role as a member of the regime’s pseudo-parliament. This intermeshing of political and economic power was a defining feature of the Francoist oligarchy — with the same families coming to dominate both the heights of the public administration and of the economy. In the case of the José María de Oriol y Urquijo, his brother Antonio served in various key positions within the state, including as justice minister from 1965–1973 while his son Íñigo also served on the powerful State Council (Consejo del Reino) in the 1970s before later taking over Hidroeléctrica in 1985.

Continuities

Franquismo S.A. is an important and necessary work. It contests decades of corporate whitewashing as it traces the lines that connect this Francoist oligarchy with contemporary IBEX 35 corporations. The length of time that has passed could be said to complicate this process of seeking continuities in Spanish capitalism. The period since the 1980s has seen an influx of international investment into Spain as well as an ongoing process of corporate consolidation before the challenges of competing in the European single market.

Yet, as Maestre argues, it remains impossible to understand the current market position of key Spanish firms such as Iberdrola, Naturgy, OHL, or Acciona without the brutal forms of capital accumulation at their origins. Others, such as the banking giant BBVA, are the result of mergers whose major components operated during decades in a mutually beneficial alliance with the dictatorship. At the same time, the family names of many of these companies’ board directors, as well as those that populate Spain’s rich list, are testament to the continued power of the old Francoist oligarchy. The Entrecanales, March, Oriol, and Ybarra families are still some of richest in the country.

Maestre’s brilliance as a polemist is particularly evident in his excoriation of these elites’ attempts to recast their class privilege in terms of meritocracy and market success. As he puts it:

If anything characterizes the crop of the descendants from these sagas, it is that they always believe that everything they have, they achieved without being given anything. [For them] their inheritance was only symbolic and has had no influence on their professional success or the fact that they are earning money by the bucketload. If anything, their surname has been a burden. This is what they actually believe.

The dynastic tendency is a generalized feature of contemporary capitalism but the particular perversity of the Spanish model is that so many at the top of the corporate sector, as well as the wider society, have no “greater merit than having been born on the side of the victors [in the Civil War].” This is not only a question of financial inheritance but of being born into a family with a network of contacts and with the social capital that is necessary to open doors. Maestre quotes one oligarch’s claim that at the top of Spanish society “there are 400 [families] who are always meeting one another” at the same social clubs and events or through the patronage of the same conservative Catholic charities.

Historical Justice

This elite survived unscathed the democratic transition which took place after Franco’s death in 1975. Despite being a moment of trade-union militancy and mass social unrest, democratic reform was ultimately led from above, by elements from within the regime. Unlike Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, where an army mutiny against the dictatorship had swung the balance of forces in favor of the democratic opposition, in Spain the coercive apparatus of the Francoist state remained intact throughout the transition period. Throughout the 1970s, activists were subjected to horrendous police brutality, while the Communist (PCE) and Socialist (PSOE) parties operated under the continual fear of military intervention. In this context, the Left was forced to accept that democratization would come about via a process of internal reform of the existing system, rather than as a rupture from it.

The PSOE and PCE’s engagement in a series of national agreements with the transitional government of Adolfo Suárez, a former Francoist minister, secured legal recognition for political and social freedoms. Yet while this new constitutional settlement incorporated certain of the Left’s demands, it ultimately functioned to secure a continuity of class power. Within a framework of national reconciliation, and against a background of a deep economic crisis and a potential military coup, the oligarchy’s position at the commanding heights of the economy was never contested.

At the same time, the 1977 Amnesty Law not only freed political prisoners from jails but also gave immunity to those who had participated in Francoist repression. The law inaugurated the country’s “pact of forgetting” — which, in the name of national reconciliation, saw the Civil War and its aftermath remain largely absent from political debate in the subsequent decades. It is only since 2000 that there has been a renewed traction around demands for historical justice but, even then, corporate liability has remained peripheral to the agenda.

The exact legal and moral responsibility various IBEX 35 corporations should be subject to is open to debate. But it is one their directors and owners are determined not to have — with a near-total blackout on the issue enforced across major media outlets in Spain. As Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has noted, Franquismo S.A. is a book that ought to have been written a long time ago.

For Maestre, any meaningful historical redress must also involve a system of economic reparations for victims and their families. He points to the example of the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future foundation in Germany, which between 2000 and 2007 distributed €4.4 billion donated by German corporations to Nazi-era forced laborers (and their descendants) as one precedent.

The current progressive PSOE–Unidas Podemos coalition has made moves in that direction, with January’s program of the government promising an audit of assets and property seized by the fascists at the end of the Civil War. Yet with the government’s term in office likely to be dominated by the tasks of post-pandemic reconstruction, Maestre believes such an audit will be limited to more symbolic seizures, such as the more controversial assets held by the Franco family, which still maintains an estimated €400 million fortune. As he told Jacobin, a deeper commitment to such an audit would mean seeking “the return of assets from IBEX 35 companies” — a battle the fragile coalition is unlikely to take on.

For the rest of the world, the Spanish Civil War can be told as a narrative of heroic defeat — Hemingway’s injured partisan steadying himself for one last engagement with the enemy. But for Spain, the consequences of fascism’s victory still live on, in power relations and structural inequalities that plague the country to this day.