Book Review: Irrational Triumph: Cultural Despair, Military Nationalism, and the Ideological Origins of Franco’s Spain

    Geoffrey Jensen, Irrational Triumph: Cultural Despair, Military Nationalism, and the Ideological Origins of Franco’s Spain, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2002

The military has received relatively scant attention in recent literature on nationalism studies. Yet the military is one of the most basic institutions of the modern state, usually relying on broad popular participation and forming possibly the most emotive and universal metaphor for unity and collective glory. The deficiency is even more glaring in literature on modern Spanish nationalism, considering that the military has been modern Spain’s only continuous national institution and that for much of the twentieth century the country was governed by nationalist regimes with military origins. Two excellent recent books on modern Spanish nationalism, José Álvarez Junco’s Mater Dolorosa (Madrid, 2001) and Carolyn Boyd’s Historia Patria (Princeton, 1997), eschew this important institution, instead concentrating on the civic discourse surrounding themes such as constitutionalism, monarchy, and educational curriculum. Though it does not aim to unseat these important interpretations of liberal Spanish nationalism, Geoffrey Jensen’s Irrational Triumph proposes that twentieth-century military nationalism — personified by the 36-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco — sprung from significant intellectual origins rooted in similar liberal-nationalist currents. Jensen’s absorbing study reveals that modern Spain’s most conspicuous and powerful political force harbored a significant intellectual culture and contributed actively to mainstream debates over Spanish national identity.

After two introductory chapters summarizing theoretical approaches to nationalism and the patterns of nineteenth-century Spanish military culture, the main part of Jensen’s study examines the intellectual thought of four significant military figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The four protagonists — fin-de-siècle vitalist Ricardo Burguete, conservative Catholic Antonio García Pérez, liberal Enrique Ruiz-Fornells, and radical-right nationalist José Millán-Astray — held beliefs almost as varied as Spanish nationalist ideology itself.  Taken together they provide, according to Jensen, “a representative picture of the intellectual world of the officer corps in general” (p. 5). In the vein of Fritz Stern’s Politics of Cultural Despair (Berkeley, 1961), the book exploits the historian’s privileged perspective to identify common epochal patterns among an ideologically diverse set of authors.

Three chapters are devoted to Ricardo Burguete, a colorful general, disciple of Nietzsche, prolific author, and later an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republic of 1931. Jensen provides an engaging summary of Burguete’s writings and analyzes how the general, and by extension an important branch of Spanish military culture, applied fin-de-siècle European thought to Spanish national problems. Jensen helpfully notes where Burguete’s ideas engage with the wider world of European intellectual discourse, as when the influence of Charles Maurras’ anti-Enlightenment thought inspires Burguete to envision a society built on traditional national hierarchies through violence if necessary.

Though representative of broader intellectual currents, Burguete’s thought was at times idiosyncratic. Somewhat surprisingly, Burguete did not share the racialist creeds of many of his contemporaries, and thus rejected a principal argument of some partisans of Catalan regional nationalism. Like Nietzsche himself, however, Burguete did refer ambiguously to essential ethnic traits, such as the supposed “Berber blood” pulsating through Spanish veins, leaving the reader to suspect that Burguete employed such attributions to suit his rhetorical needs. Considering that the significance of non-Christian influences in Spanish history and the persistence of regional particularisms are perhaps the fundamental axes of Spanish national identity, Jensen might have done more to explain the dissonance between Burguete’s rejection of Catalan racialism and his glorification of Spain’s African bloodline.

Jensen devotes less space to his three remaining subjects, whose intellectual output is frankly less compelling than that of Burguete, but whose juxtaposition effectively depicts the striking ideological collage within the Spanish officer corps. The anti-monarchist officer Enrique Ruiz-Fornells was an influential liberal in an anti-liberal age, an author who praised Enlightenment thinkers. A noted instructor of Spanish soldiers, Ruiz-Fornells harbored an ardent faith in the progress of both science and democracy and its application to warfare. Modern nations were held together by a scientifically expert military officer class and the citizen-soldier, who formed the backbone of national cohesion. Ruiz-Fornells’ Europhile belief in modern human progress contrasted with the thought of Antonio García Pérez, who located Spain’s prospect for national regeneration in a crusading warrior spirit traceable to Arab influence. Despite his positive attitude toward Muslim Spain, García Pérez considered Catholic faith the paramount feature of Spanish nationhood. Of the figures included in the study, García Pérez was the sole advocate of the social Catholic models which the Franco regime would strive to emulate after World War II.

Nevertheless, the far more important figure in the genesis of Francoist nationalism was José Millán Astray, founder of the Spanish foreign legion and exponent of the far more radical brand of nationalism that would help mobilize many of Franco’s supporters. Though Millán Astray was most famous for publicly humiliating the noted humanist Miguel de Unamuno (an episode which Jensen describes in alluring detail), Jensen argues that the contentious officer’s famous cry of “Death to the Intelligentsia” belied his own intellectual pedigree. In a passage suggestive of the broad cultural origins of radical nationalism in the early twentieth century, Jensen describes Millán Astray’s idealization of the contemporary Japanese warrior creed known as Bushido, which embodied “the sublime spirit of sacrifice, which is grounded in the norms of our Christian morality” (p. 150).

Given its singular focus on the thought of particular individuals, Jensen’s study is not immune to standard criticisms of intellectual history, but the author does not fail to engage broader historical questions. This is done most explicitly with rigorous evidence of the extent to which military culture was transmitted to rank-and-file soldiers (detailed in four appendices). Somewhat less concretely, Jensen submits that the diverse intellectual renderings of Spanish national identity underlay the gradual radicalization of the military both toward Republicanism, in the case of Burguete’s students, and quasi-fascist mobilization among the followers of Millán-Astray. More importantly, Jensen continually situates the officers’ writings in the context both of broader intellectual debates over Spanish national identity and European fin-de-siècle thought. Readers familiar with Spain’s celebrated “Generation of ‘98”, a diverse set of writers who saw decline and stagnation as Spain’s urgent national problem, will appreciate the extent to which these military figures resembled better-known literati such as José Ortega y Gasset, Ramiro de Maeztu, and Unamuno. Those acquainted with the elusive ideological platter of the Franco regime will recognize the influence, direct or indirect, of all four figures.

Jensen’s portrayal of the Spanish military as a bona fide cultural-intellectual force belies frequent caricatures of military politics, particularly in southern Europe and Latin America but perhaps also some central Asian and Middle-Eastern countries as well, as purely reactionary. In this sense, today’s students of right-wing nationalism would do well to consider Jensen’s propositions, which to a contemporary anglophone may seem as surprising as the notion of Norman Schwartzkopf composing a meditation on Foucault.