Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

The pragmatic dictator…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In their preface, the authors discuss the bias inherent in most biographies and histories of the Franco period and state that they are trying to give a more balanced account, avoiding both hagiography and denunciation. Stanley G Payne is an American historian of modern Spain and European Fascism and I thoroughly enjoyed his Spanish Civil War which did seem reasonably balanced, although tending slightly to the right. Jesús Palacios, a Spanish essayist and historian, was at one time a member of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which I didn’t know when I acquired the book and which obviously set all kinds of alarm bells ringing over his likely bias. (I think this is the first time I’ve ever put money in the pocket of a neo-Nazi, however unconsciously, and it has made me far more scrupulous about googling living people before buying their books.)

The book follows a linear path through Franco’s long life, starting with his childhood as a member of a family with long ties to the armed services, although usually the Navy. Franco was an unremarkable child and a very youthful entrant to the military academy where he showed no particular outstanding talent. However, once he became an officer in Spanish Morocco he soon showed the organisational and leadership skills that would take him through a series of earned promotions until he became one of the top generals in the army. The authors suggest that he gained the respect of the men with whom he served rather than their affection – he seems to have held himself aloof from much of the social life partly because he was not wealthy at this time, but mainly because he had strong views on morality, inculcated in him by his devout Catholic mother, and which would influence him all his life.

Family man – with his wife, Carmen Polo, and only child, Maria del Carmen.

He also seems to have remained aloof from politics in these early years, despite the turmoil in the country. Although a monarchist, a Catholic and a conservative, he saw it as his duty to support the democratic government and when the Republicans took power he held back from open opposition while he felt they were staying within the constitution. As one of the younger and more prominent Generals, the conservatives felt his support would be crucial to the success of any attempt to overthrow the Republican government. Franco insisted he would only agree to a military intervention if the government broke down completely or if a Communist revolution took place. But after the assassination of a prominent figure on the Right, in which the Republican security forces were involved, he finally committed and the insurrection began.

It’s in this section that the authors begin to show their support for the Right. They are excoriating about some of the atrocities carried out by the Left against innocent people on the Right. The problem is that their bias leaves me wondering about their analysis – were these people innocent? Was the Left behaving worse than the Right? This is the fundamental question about the causes and progress of the Spanish Civil War, and the more I read, the more I feel that a truly unbiased objective account remains to be written.

The coverage of the war is not in-depth – the authors’ focus remains exclusively on Franco, as is appropriate in a biography. They discuss briefly the involvement of foreign powers but mostly in terms of Franco’s relationships with Hitler and Mussolini. During the war Franco consolidated his power, thanks to the (lucky?) deaths of a couple of people who may have rivalled him for the top job. By the end he had morphed from being the leader of the military insurrection into full-scale dictatorship, with the consent of the broad spectrum of the victorious Right.

Franco and Hitler 1940

The bulk of the book then goes into considerable detail about Franco’s post-war dictatorship. It reminded me of old history books about the Tudors or Stuarts rather than the more modern style of social history – the focus is entirely on Franco and the powerful people in his court, and I got no feeling for what was happening to the people of Spain or how they felt about Franco’s regime. The authors touch on the fact that there was famine and poverty which gradually receded as the world economies recovered from WW2, and they mention occasional attempts by separatist groups or dissidents living abroad to revive the Civil War. But, in general, they don’t give a picture of how Franco resolved (if he did) the problems that led to the war in the first place, such as land ownership, or what happened to the factories that had been taken over by the syndicalists before the war, and so on. I was left with many unanswered questions.

What they do give a better picture of is the growing acceptance by the Western powers of Franco’s regime, largely because by that time the Cold War was fully iced and the main enemy was seen to be Communism rather than Fascism. They also suggest that Franco moved away from Fascism quite early in his dictatorship, towards what they call “Catholic corporatism”. Unfortunately, I never fully understood what they meant by this term, perhaps my fault but a clearer explanation would have been helpful.

In their conclusion, they suggest that Franco’s rule provided a break between traditional and modern Spain, a long period that allowed tempers to cool and many of the old civil war combatants to die. A growing economy with wealth more fairly spread and better education created a large middle-class, ready for liberal democracy – not Franco’s plan, but a by-product of his policies. They don’t play down the executions and repressions he carried out in the early days, but they suggest that had the Republicans been victorious they’d have been worse, and they point to many other dictatorships that indeed were worse. This seems like a hollow justification to me – if I only murder three people am I morally better than someone who murders four? However, there seems no doubt that Franco’s pragmatism led him to gradually allow a significant degree of liberalisation and, according to the authors, many Spaniards were genuinely sorry when he died.

Book 7

All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of their interpretations. As I’m finding with everything I read about Spain in this period, I feel I now need to read an account with the opposite bias to rebalance the seesaw. It is interesting though that, nearly a century on, historians still appear unable to write objectively about this complex period – that in itself is one of the uniquenesses of Franco and the Spanish Civil War.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

  1. I appreciate reading your summaries and takes on these factual accounts of the Spanish Civil War period. My interest and information about this time is coming almost entirely from the fiction I’m reading. I would have been trying to carefully weigh these authors’ perspectives too given their own background. Thanks for your balanced review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find most of the fiction is either biased towards the Republicans, or very vague about the politics, probably because authors were restricted in what they could say under the dictatorship. So in that sense I’m glad to hear from the side of the Right, but I do feel neo-Nazi is taking it a little further than I meant to go! I’m all for seeing both sides but there are limits! 😉

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    • Yes, that’s what attracted me to Stanley G Payne, that he seemed not to be an apologist for the left, and I did enjoy his history. But I should have paid more attention to who the co-author of this one was before buying it! Maybe the lack of objectivity itself suggests that neither side was wholly right or wholly wrong?

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  2. Perhaps there is no such thing as an objective account of anything, let alone of such a big, divisive issue as this!
    Interesting to know that Franco was considered to be a very moral man, but was still responsible for executions and repressions.
    I’m really enjoying your reviews of the books you’re reading for your challenge, although not tempted to read this one for myself!

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    • Ha, very true – put six Scottish historians in a room, mention Mary Queen of Scots and then stand back and enjoy the fight! 😉 But this one feels as if it’s not really resolved somehow – that people are still taking sides. It feels very different to how we think of Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. Morality is an odd thing in politics – it’s always amazing the horrors people find ways to justify on the grounds that the other side is worse. I’m going so slowly with this challenge but am enjoying it and have lots of appealing fiction lined up for next year… 😀

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      • I’ve noticed you have strong feelings about Scottish history too!
        If the rights and wrongs of the Spanish Civil War aren’t resolved by now they never will be. I’m speaking generally, but usually the winner gets to decide what becomes right and what is wrong. Perhaps because it was a civil war the issues continue to live on. Not like a world war where people who survived the fighting go home afterwards and get on with life somewhere else.
        Glad to hear you’ve got some fiction to look forward to!

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        • Haha, yes, most Scots have pretty strong opinions about our history! 😉
          Maybe that’s the issue – it seems as if the Right won the actual war but the Left won the propaganda war, so maybe both sides feel they have the right to decide how the history should be told. I’d love to know if Spaniards still feel strongly about it, or if it’s just the rest of us who are still a bit obsessed by it, maybe because the idea of civil war is even worse than the thought of a war against a foreign country. Hmm, you made me think – thanks!

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          • I think Spaniards probably have opinions, based on their own family histories, where they live etc. People from the USA still re-enact and discuss their Civil War so I think Spanish people would too.
            I’d never thought of a civil war in Australia, but you’re right, thinking about a civil war in my country is more horrific than fighting another country.

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            • We’re nowhere near a civil war, but we’re so divided at the moment, over both Brexit and Scottish independence, and I hate it. Half of us seem to hate and despise the other half – in both directions. Maybe I was less aware in the past, but it seems to me we used to all believe in roughly the same kind of society and future in a way we don’t any more. No doubt you heard that yet again an MP was murdered this week – unthinkable just a few years ago.

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            • Brexit has been the most divisive event I can think of in recent history in the UK. Leading into the vote no one seemed to care so much, but since then, everyone has an opinion.
              Yes, the MP’s murder made the news here, such a shocking event.

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            • I think the problem was that the Leavers really did care, but the Remainers (of which I was one) were so sure they were right they simply weren’t listening. Like everything else in Britain it comes down to class. The middle-class don’t feel threatened by uncontrolled immigration because their jobs aren’t at risk from it (and frankly, they like being able to hire cheap workers to do all the things they can’t be bothered to do for themselves). The working class and unemployed know that mass immigration pushes their wages and opportunities down. So the middle-class call them stupid and racists and ignore them. If only the self-declared “elites” would pay attention to real issues rather than getting wrapped up in wokery that most people don’t care about. Makes me wonder what all these educated people learned at their expensive Universities. And now the Remaining Moaning Remainers are determined to ensure that Brexit fails to prove they were right… pah!

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            • That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought about class as a factor in this, or about employment, from either side (the middle class or the working class).
              I’d really only thought about how close the vote was. If there had been a larger majority those in the minority would have lost their voice once it had been decided.
              English friends (who fit into the middle-class category) have told me they don’t care either way except that now when they go on holidays to Europe they will have to queue, so if this is their biggest issue then I guess they don’t feel strongly either way.
              It would be fascinating to leap into the future and see how it all works out.

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            • I suspect a lot of people who voted Remain, like me and probably your friends, have accepted the result and are quite willing to see if we can make it work now. But there’s a hard core who seem to feel that democracy is only important when they’re on the winning side. It’s the same with the independence debate in Scotland – the ones who lost behave as if they’d won and seem to feel that we should just keep repeating the vote till they get their own way. It’s all very tiresome. If it’s all taught me anything, it’s that referendums are the worst way in the world to try to deal with divisive issues!

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            • Good way to put it! I feel we hire politicians to look into all these difficult questions for us. Hardly anyone who voted in the Brexit referendum could really have known enough to make a valid judgement.

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  3. Thanks for your nuanced and careful reading of this. But there will always be people regretting a dictator (Stalin, Ceausescu, Peron), if they weren’t personally disadvantaged and the country felt more disciplined and orderly.

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    • Very true, and in times when democracy isn’t working well it’s easy to see how the “strong man” leadership style can seem attractive. The odd thing about Franco is that he still seems to divide opinion even after all this time, unlike most of the dictators. I suspect that’s because he was more pragmatic and loosened the reins gradually, and I suspect he died at just the right time!

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  4. On buying a book and then discovering that you perhaps didn’t want to put money in the pocket of the author, I recently had a similar experience when I bought a book by Mo Yan, and then discovered that he has been heavily criticised by other Chinese writers and artists for being hand-in-glove with the Chinese Communist Party in general, and in particular collaborating in the punishment of other writers and journalists. I’m still going to read it, but I will google a lot more closely in future!

    Over the summer I read The Big Green Tent, a novel about Soviet dissidents that opens with the death of Stalin, and I was surprised by how upset and afraid a lot of the characters were when he died (even those who had suffered under his regime). Partly it was a bit of personality cult going on, but also there was a “better the devil you know” feeling – they thought that something new and even worse might come along. I wonder if there was some of that going on with people who were upset about Franco’s death?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never object to reading books written by people whose opinions I find distasteful so long as they’re dead, and therefore won’t benefit from my purchase! But I’ll definitely be more careful in future about living authors. It is hard though, because you don’t want to end up only reading views you agree with either – in fact, knowing that Palacios had that history probably made me think more critically before simply accepting the book’s judgements at face value, if that makes any sense.

      While I am a staunch democrat, I do understand the attraction of “strong man” leadership, so long as the dictator either stays within reasonable bounds or, as is usually the case, manages to hide his excesses from the populace. And if you’re not too interested in politics then so long as your dictator doesn’t do anything bad to you personally I suppose it’s understandable that people mourn them, a bit like we do with our Royals. I suspect a lot of Spaniards were kind of grateful to Franco for restoring stability after such a long and bloody political upheaval, perhaps? And while he did some terrible things in the early days he actually had been quite liberal (as dictators go) for a long time before he died.

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      • Yes, that’s how I feel about reading Red Sorghum. It’s about the Great Leap Forward and that whole time period, and it’s been praised by the Communist Party – so I will read it thinking “this is the state-sanctioned level of criticism of Mao’s atrocities” rather than “this is an accurate depiction of ordinary citizens during that time”. I still would have read it if I’d known, but I might have tried to borrow it or buy it second hand.

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        • I must say Red Sorghum does sound good. It’s another period of history that fascinates me but that I know far too little about. I’ve added it to my wishlist but will probably wait to hear your thoughts on it, and I’ll make sure to buy it second hand!

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  5. I think I would find it hard to discount the bias that shows up in this book, too, FictionFan. Still, in fairness, it sounds like an informative biography in a lot of ways. You make an interesting point about the book’s focus (on Franco, and much less than on the Spain of those times). On the one hand, more attention to the Spain of the times might be interesting; on the other, that might make the book much longer. Hard to say which works better….

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    • It is difficult when all the histories of a period are so biased in one direction or the other, and so many people still feel quite partisan about this conflict in a way we really don’t even about other twentieth century events and leaders. In that sense reading from both sides helps but I find I’m spending all my time trying to eliminate bias from what I’m reading. Yes, a biography should stick to the subject, I suppose, but I was surprised at how little feel I was getting for how Franco was perceived by the mass of ordinary Spaniards.

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  6. This is very interesting FF and I was just thinking your last line before I read it! It is strange that there’s no objective history written, is it still too raw in families?

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    • I can’t quite decide why it is – it suggests to me that perhaps the underlying divisions haven’t been resolved yet? We’ve all decided Hitler was bad and most people think Churchill was good (though flawed) but with Franco is still seems to be a matter of partisanship, somehow – there’s no consensus. I think also that he was undoubtedly more pragmatic than most of the twentieth century dictators, and lived long enough to allow some liberalisation and put his worst excesses into history before he died, if you see what I mean. Hitler and Mussolini never had the chance to redeem themselves (assuming hypothetically that they could have…!)

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  7. I’m a Catholic, but I’d never before heard the term “Catholic corporatism.” I had to look it up, and I’m still unclear how something like that works. But yes, I believe the authors should’ve included a footnote or something to explain mystifying terminology. I’m not really tempted to read this one, FF, but you’ve done a good job reviewing it.

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    • I googled it too and really was none the wiser. I guess the authors assumed their readers would know what it meant, a bit like we all vaguely feel we know what “liberal democracy” or “fascism” mean though we might be hard put to explain them. And maybe to Spaniards it would be as understandable as that. But I’m afraid I really needed a clearer explanation than they gave.

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  8. This is not a time/place I’ve read much about, nor really cared to. Between books you and Anca have reviewed, I’ve expanded my knowledge enough that I don’t feel a real need to read any on my own. 😉

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    • Ha, you know me – a glutton for these histories and political biographies! 😉 Yes, it seems to be one of those periods of history that a lot of people are interested in, here in Europe anyway, probably because so many great twentieth century writers were involved in some way.

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    • I suppose eventually reading biased accounts gives you a feeling for the “truth”, whatever that may be, so long as you make sure you read from both sides. But it makes it double the work as one good unbiased objective book would be! Haha, never mind – lots of good fiction lined up on the subject for next year… 😀

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    • Yes, it’s always good to have an idea of the author’s bias so you can compensate for it as you go along. Hmm, no, I didn’t get that impression – the emphasis seemed to be more on the “corporatism” than the Catholicism. Some kind of centralised system where the state directs the labour force or something? Maybe, but then again maybe not! You’d think after 600 pages I’d know… 😉

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  9. The problem you’re encountering with biased histories of the Franco years is something that shows up with USSR histories too, especially earlier ones. I learned to try and find what the political leanings of writers were and read skeptically.

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    • That’s what I’m having to do too with the SCW books, even the fiction. I usually find that it takes about fifty years for historians to be able to begin to be objective, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be happening with the SCW, and unlike events where there’s a sort of consensus about who the “bad guys” were, like WW2, it still seems to be a matter of debate in the SCW. It makes it interesting though!

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      • Good point about the fiction. Though there are some more balanced accounts of things like the Russian Revolution it’s still not uncommon to find books that are slanted heavily Tsarist or Bolshevik, and refusing to really acknowledge the problems with both. I wonder if this will also be the case for the Spanish Civil War.

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        • Yes, it’s when a writer decides to play down the horrors of their own side that it annoys me, and leaves me wondering how much credibility they can have have when discussing the other side. It’s extremely rare in any conflict, least of all in civil wars, for their not to be faults on both sides.

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  10. I am curious. I only read the first half of the book and never got the chance to finish it (after the war). For me the left would have been worse both because my personal experience with communism and because the left was losing control before the war, with all the church burnings, priest killing, and nun exhumations (I wish I could un-see those pictures!). There were too many organisations on the left and it would have been hard to unite them, unlike the right which had only one party to gather around.

    I really need to read the book, but now I’m so busy with university that I will not have time for this. I bought the book too, but I don’t feel bad. Palacios was at one point in a far-right organisation, but not any more, so he saw the error. At least this is how I see this situation. 🙂

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    • Not that what would have happened if the left won justifies what Franco’s regime did. My comment was not an apology for a dictator, but I thought afterwards that it might be interpreted as such.

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      • Ah, just read this after replying to your earlier comment! No, I didn’t think you were apologising for a dictator, but I did feel the authors were tending in that direction, which was what made me critical of their bias.

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    • I tend to agree with you, and the authors, that the left would have been worse and that the chaos on the left was the real deciding factor. It wasn’t so much their conclusions I disagreed with – more that I felt they relied too much on bias and not enough on providing factual evidence. They tended to rather gloss over the Right’s excesses while emphasising the Left’s. My own view is that even if the Right was better, that doesn’t justify their own atrocities. I get fed up with whataboutism in all its forms – the Scottish govt defending themselves by claiming to be “better than Westminster” which they despise, so setting themselves a pretty low bar; the US Dems defending Dems accused of sexual shenanigans by pointing to Republicans who are accused of worse ones, and so on. I’d have preferred if they’d been comparing Franco’s regime to the best of the European regimes than the worst of them, and I think then they might not have sounded so complacent about Franco’s misdeeds…

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      • I don’t think that a dictatorship can be compared with a democracy because the democracy will always be better regardless of how poorly the things are. Franco died in `75, but Spain was doing things like tourism from the 60s. In the 80s Romanians who were trying to flee were still shot in the back by militia/military while they were swimming across the Danube. So I really think Spain had a much better deal, which is, of course, much worse than any democracy at that time.
        You know, even today Romania is suffering due to communism, after over 30 years of “freedom”. Because of innate (for lack of a better term) distrust of authorities, from government to media to doctors, the vaccinations numbers are so low that now patients are transported to Hungary for treatment with all the beds in ICU taken. People are dying in ambulances in front of the hospitals. As many do not trust that the government wants to do what is right, even if they make mistakes, they refuse to follow the rules and/or get the vaccine. There is enough supply as batches of expired jabs were poured down the drain.

        Sturgeon is in her own reality at times. She actually thinks that EU will accept Scotland?! When so many EU countries have similar issues with secession, from Spain with Catalonia to France, Italy, and even Romania and Hungary have disputed over Transylvania for centuries. Why on Earth will they risk accepting a small country with a financial deficit who might raise questions in their own countries. It’s bonkers.I agree with the whataboutism in (modern) politics.

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        • I think the difference is that Franco saw himself more as a stop-gap between Kings than a real dictator for a lot of his time. I wondered if it would have turned out differently if he’d had a son to pass his power onto (his daughter obviously not being suitable by virtue of being female!). The little this book told us about how the Spanish people felt about him left me feeling that they too reacted to him more as a King than a dictator and that that may be why he was mourned, assuming he was.

          Sadly, what you say about Romanians and the vaccine sounds very much like large parts of the US too. It’s worrying that our democracies don’t seem to be as popular as they have been for most of my life – people seem unwilling to accept losing democratic votes, like Brexit or the independence referendum. I’m frightened that we could easily drift into dictatorships ourselves if we’re not careful. And as for Sturgeon and the SNP, it horrifies me that half of Scotland keeps re-electing them!

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  11. Hmm yes it’s tricky to really know if a book about a historical time period is unbiased or not when we weren’t really living through it ourselves, and when an author claims his work is unbiased, that sort of sets off alarm bells for me haha

    It will be interesting to see if you can find another book to ‘even out the seesaw’ here 🙂

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    • You hardly ever get a completely unbiased history or biography, but the SCW really does seem to drive historians to one extreme or another! Most of them take the side of the left, so at least this one gave the point of view from the right. But as a dedicated centrist I’d love to know what the people in the middle thought of it all!

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