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The leader of the Spanish fascist movement Falange Española. His father had been a military dictator in his own right, and the Falange joyously fell in with the army's attempted coup of July 1936 which became the Spanish Civil War. José Antonio's untimely death later that year would make him the iconic martyr of the Nationalist regime, while his old party became co-opted into Francisco Franco's state.

Rising Son

José Antonio was born in 1903 in Jérez de la Frontera, the sherry capital of Spain around which his family's agricultural holdings were centred. As large landowners, or latifundistas, his family were at the heart of Andalucian society, and his uncle had earned the hereditary title of Marqués de Estrella for his part in ending the Second Carlist War in 1878.

José's father, Miguel Primo de Rivera, had been a general too, and in 1923 seized power in a classic military pronunciamiento to avert the social revolution which many industrialists feared after several years of industrial unrest in Barcelona. Still a student at the University of Madrid when the coup took place, the dictator's son took little active part in politics during Primo de Rivera's rule, but José Antonio was intensely loyal to his father, and developed a strong hostility towards the liberal Republicans who criticised him.

Ever since the French Revolution, Spanish liberals had looked to the Enlightenment as their inspiration for reviving a moribund Spain. In 1930 as before, they hoped to introduce parliamentary democracy and disentangle the Catholic Church from the state.

However, the liberals' aspirations were denounced by the right, who had decried their predecessors throughout the nineteenth century as afrancesados, 'Frenchified' thinkers who were betraying Spanish traditions. In his disdain for intellectuals such as Manuel Azaña, the characteristic figure of the early Second Republic, José Antonio was not alone.

From the outset, José Antonio associated himself with the Republicans' opponents, and in May 1930 was asked to become the vice-secretary general of the monarchist organisation Unión Monárquica. The elder Primo de Rivera had already fallen from power, but another year of ineffective military rule would follow before King Alfonso XIII fled the country and the Second Republic was constituted in April 1931.

José Antonio joined the Unión for the sake of rehabilitating his father, but soon found it a stronghold of aristocratic authoritarianism. Although he had by now inherited the title of Marqués de Estrella, he believed that the Unión's quaint conservatism belonged to the previous century, and that the semi-feudal social structure of southern Spain was no longer appropriate - but categorically rejected the socialist solutions of the left.

Spanish Phalanx

In October 1931 José Antonio ran for elections to the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, in his own right. Standing in staunchly socialist Madrid, he could hardly have expected to win the seat, and returned to his law firm after the elections. Azaña's seeming inability to solve Spain's social problems, chiefly the plight of landless labourers in the south, confirmed his belief that democratic liberalism was bankrupt.

Tapping into a vein of right-wing regenerationism which had been used to justify his father's coup, but giving it a twentieth-century twist, José Antonio came up with the far from original idea that an authoritarian leader was necessary to bring about the social transformation he anticipated. Benito Mussolini, an ex-socialist, had developed Italian fascism on similar terms, looking to reconstruct the state by means of vertical syndicates of workers and employers. That said, José Antonio always rejected the charge that his politics were imported from abroad, and in turn received little attention on the only occasion when he visited Hitler's Berlin.

José Antonio spent 1933 searching for potential collaborators on the right, and made the acquaintance of the similarly idealistic Julio Ruiz de Alda. Like the Italian fascist Gabriele D'Annunzio, Ruiz was a renowned aviator - the novelty of the aeroplane chimed particularly well with fascism's cult of action - and had turned against the Republic when it suspended government aid for his project to make an aerial survey of Spain. In August 1933, the duo founded Falange Española, or Spanish Phalanx; its initials, FE, spelt out the Spanish word for faith.

FE was officially launched in October 1933, at a rally where José Antonio also announced that he would run for the Cortes in the Andalucian city of Cádiz. This time, he won his seat, as part of a Cortes dominated by the right wing which promptly reversed the reforms of Azaña's Republican-socialist coalition. In parliament, José Antonio had little to say, except where his father's record was concerned.

Instead, he saved his overblown rhetoric for the Falange, and his inaugural address praised the patria as a 'transcendent synthesis' of classes, looked forward to the disappearance of political parties, and vowed that the Falangists would not shy away from violence: "No other dialectic is admissible save the dialectic of fists and pistols when justice or the Patria is offended."

The Falange attracted several thousand members in its first few months, most of them admittedly drawn to the movement by the name of Primo de Rivera. Still, its membership was several times that of Spain's other fascist groupuscules, and the 'catastrophist' monarchist conspirators determined to overthrow the Republic began to fund the Falange in preference to the overtly syndicalist JONS, led by Ramiro Ledesma de Ramos.

In February 1934, the two groups unified under the unwieldy name of Falange Española de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, abbreviated, no more conveniently, to FE de las JONS. José Antonio hoped that the influx of Ledesma's supporters might contain the Falange's alarming tendency to vanilla conservatism, and the avowed radical Ledesma, for his part, found common ground with José Antonio's sidekick Ruiz de Alda, who made no secret of his totalitarian sympathies. The slogans which would come to characterise the Falange were imported by Ledesma, not coined by José Antonio.

Street-Fighting Man

During the spring of 1934, several Falange newspaper vendors had been killed by socialist extremists, and José Antonio enlisted Juan Antonio Ansaldo, a monarchist associate of Ruiz de Alda's, to organise reprisal squads. A notorious drive-by shooting in June 1934, ostensibly a revenge attack after socialists shot dead a picnicking eighteen-year-old Falangist earlier that day, set off a summer of tit-for-tat violence.

Ansaldo's stint with the Falange, though, lasted only a few months, as his ambition to turn the movement into the street-fighting offshoot of the monarchist organisation Renovación Española became apparent. He confessed to a plot to assassinate the leader in his own office, and was expelled in the Falange's very own Night of the Long Knives, although he left his hit squads behind. Ruiz de Alma fumed somewhat, but José Antonio became idolised by the students who formed a large part in his movement, and in October 1934 he was - narrowly - named the Falange's jefe nacional.

José Antonio's relations with other rightist leaders were uneasy, and he was adamant that the monarchists' rising star José Calvo Sotelo should not be allowed to pull on a blue shirt. The Falange was excluded from Calvo Sotelo's Bloque Nacional, which hoped to co-ordinate the forces of the right and introduce a corporatist state like Mussolini's, and Renovación Española withdrew its funds. Falange morale ran low, and José Antonio expelled Ledesma in January 1935 before he could cause a damaging split.

When it came to the crunch, however, the Falange's sympathies lay with the right rather than the socialists, anarchists and Catalan nationalists who rebelled in October 1934 for fear that Spain was about to experience a fascist takeover, and Falangists joined in the repression of the uprising in the miners' heartland of Asturias. José Antonio would have liked to participate in the so-called National Front which contested the February 1936 elections, but fell out with José María Gil Robles, the leader of the supposedly legalist CEDA, on how many spaces on the candidates' list should be reserved for the Falange.

No Falangist, José Antonio included, won a Cortes seat in February, and the election was closely won by the Popular Front, essentially a revival of the old Republican-Socialist coalition. Although discouraging in the short term, Azaña's victory discredited the legalist tactic, and tens of thousands of CEDA members switched allegiance to the Falange during the spring when clashes between Marxist and Falangist militias appeared to give credence to Gil Robles' warnings in the Cortes that civil war was imminent.

El Ausente

In an attempt to halt the street violence, the Falange was banned on 14 March 1936 and its leadership incarcerated in the Modelo prison, the Republic's showpiece jail. The inmates' comparative freedom allowed José Antonio to correspond with restive officers preparing a military coup, and send out orders through his brother for Falangists to group themselves into three-man cells. He was moved to Alicante in June, for fear that he would launch an escape bid.

In the past, José Antonio had been wary of the military route to power, perhaps over-cautious of repeating his father's mistakes, and certainly conscious that the generals would introduce a traditionalist and authoritarian régime rather than the Falange's syndicalism. Now that the conspiracy had coalesced, though, he recognised that the Falange would be overtaken altogether if it stood aside, and offered his services to the co-ordinating general Emiliano Mola while insisting that participating Falange units would retain a separate identity.

After the assassination of Calvo Sotelo in July 1936, itself a socialist reprisal for the murder of a left-wing policeman, Mola ordered the revolt to begin, but had to prepare for a protracted conflict when it failed in - as it happened - the areas of Spain which had voted for the Popular Front. José Antonio was not represented in the Junta de Burgos, the Nationalist zone's embryonic government.

The Falange still became the militia of choice for many among the middle classes who wanted to join the Nationalist war effort but were reluctant to join the Requetés of the ultra-clerical Carlists. A number of Republican sympathisers who found themselves in Nationalist territory also joined the Falange to cover themselves, and the newcomers, disparagingly referred to as the camisas nuevas or 'new shirts', threatened to dilute the Falange's radicalism.

This was more of a difficulty for the Falange's caretaker leader Manuel Hedilla than for José Antonio, still stuck in prison in Alicante after the rebellion had failed there. Several plans, including a commando raid, were made to secure his release, but before any of them could materialise, the Communist mayor of Alicante, acting on his own initiative, had already put him on trial and condemned him to death for helping to orchestrate the revolt.

By the time the Republican cabinet had found out and were discussing whether or not to commute his sentence, José Antonio had already been executed, one of thousands of political killings in the Republican zone. The so-called Red Terror claimed many less illustrious victims, but is unlikely to have exceeded the level of repression in the Nationalist zone.

Nearly a year after José Antonio's death, the Falange's old guard still refused to believe that he was not alive, and referred to him as El Ausente, the Absent One. The Elvis Presley of Nationalist Spain became one of Franco's favourite symbols of his war, used to point out the supposed barbarity of the decadent Communist foe.

Franco had consolidated the Falange as the basis of his one-party state in 1937, and introduced an official cult of José Antonio in November 1938, the second anniversary of his death. At the end of the war, Franco's celebrations of victory included a torchlight procession of Falangists to remove El Ausente's bones from Alicante to the pantheon in El Escorial, the burial place of Spanish kings.

Read more:
Sheelagh M Ellwood, Spanish Fascism in the Franco Era
Stanley G Payne, Falange: A History of Spanish Fascism
Paul Preston, The Coming of the Spanish Civil War

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