FRANCO: A Biography By J. Fusi Harper & Row. 202 pp. $25

THE FRANCO REGIME, 1936-75 By Stanley G. Payne University of Wisconsin. 677 pp. $30

THE SPANISH Civil War of 1936-39 so deeply scarred the soul of an age that it is small wonder that its emotional legacy is, like Charles II, a long time a-dying.

Yet a-dying it is, as any visitor to the vibrant post-Franco Spain discovers. These two books are among the signs that the scholarly consideration of Francisco Franco's 40-year reign is passing from polemic to the more measured scrutiny of history.

Both authors -- Juan Pablo Fusi is director of the Spanish National Library, Stanley Payne a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin -- carry the story year by year through the Franco era, Fusi laconically, Payne at exhaustive length, but both expertly.

The emerging spectacle is paradoxical. The man whose ascendancy stretched from 1936 to his quiet if painful death in bed 13 years ago (with the mummified arm of Saint Teresa of Avila at his side) was physically small and, to most eyes, unprepossessing. Franco was a soldier with strong but simple ideas -- a Bonapartist, Payne suggests, without the genius of Bonaparte. He ruled a brilliant and volatile (and changing) society by means of traditionalist social convictions (not ideology) and by a signal talent for agile accommodation. Even more than Louis XIV might Franco have boasted, "I am the state." His "organic Catholic democracy," as he liked to call it, was among the more durable entities of this or any century. Yet it was also a system of jerry-built institutions that largely collapsed at his death.

From his consolidation of power amid the ruins of civil war in 1939 to his dying day, Franco claimed that he had rescued Spain from its familiar demons -- "the spirit of anarchy, carping mutual criticism, lack of fellow-feeling, extremism, and internecine hatred," as he catalogued these faults in 1966. These ancient Spanish vulnerabilities (as Franco saw them) were preyed upon by sinister external influences. There was communism, of course; and as late as 1943, Franco was offering to send a million volunteers to help defend Berlin in the event of a Soviet breakthrough.

Equally, there was the alleged international Masonic conspiracy, which so obsessed Franco that he even wrote and published a book about its machinations under an assumed name. In any case, he alone claimed to be able to steer Spain between the treacherous whirlpools of secular modernism and liberal democracy and Marxist tyranny.

Thus Franco as Franco saw him. But the great question for historians is the durability of the "ism" he founded. Fusi and Payne largely agree about this. Franco, a general at 33, had distinguished himself as a military man. He was prudent and cautious and, as his shifting international associations showed, flexible and agile. Far from soft, he was a man of cordiality and courtesy, unpretentious, cautious and averse to violence. By even conservative estimates, the regime executed some 28,000 to 30,000 political enemies in the immediate post-Civil War years. Yet as Fusi puts it, "Franco, who was not a violent man by temperament, applied the policy of repression dispassionately . . . as if fulfilling a duty." He was not a hater.

Nonetheless, Francoism suffered first to last from what Fusi calls "a kind of chronic sickness of conscience about the legitimacy of its origins." Without the early aid of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco's July 18, 1936, revolt probably could not have succeeded -- it was German and Italian planes that ferried his armies from Spanish Morocco to the mainland to launch his crusade against the collapsing and divided Second Republic. Well into the World War II years Franco pursued an unsavory courtship of the fascist powers: a history that saw Spain excluded from the United Nations after its founding. This ostracism began to fade only with the onset of Cold War, when Franco's self-advertised status as the aboriginal anti-communist ("sentinel of the West," in the phrase of a fawning biography) took on a new pertinence. The American alliance, a new concordat with the Church and eventual UN membership followed.

Franco's relationship with the deposed Spanish monarchy was abrasive at best, small help in legitimizing his claims. In his Rome Manifesto at the end of World War II, Don Juan, the Bourbon pretender, condemned Francoism (a bit excessively) as "inspired from its inception by the totalitarian systems of the Axis powers." Yet Franco protested, with some justice, that he had never been a fascist. As both Fusi and Payne show, the label is not apt. Few labels are, for that matter. Both books -- especially Payne's -- show that attempted taxonomies of Franco's regime soon become mind-numbing exercises in political nominalism.

IN THE post-Vatican II years of the 1960s and after, there was a sharp shift in the attitudes of the Catholic Church, whose guardian and servant Franco claimed to be above all else. In effect, the Spanish hierarchy joined the shadow opposition. Yet Franco resisted the blandishments of die-hard associates and accommodated the church's advice in pained silence.

Apart from its search for moral legitimacy (for an escape from its reputation as "principal ogre of the Western world," in Payne's phrase), the other great Francoist problem was the quest for institutionalization. Franco never accepted the rationale of liberal institutions -- parties, trade unions, free press, free speech. In any event he regarded them as poison for Spaniards. Yet halting accommodation had to be made to an increasingly dynamic urban and industrial society; and made it was, often in evasive and comically hypocritical forms. Institutionally, as both authors show, Francoism was often a study in anomaly and denial. Even when the silent acquiescence in modern liberal economic theory touched off (or released) the great boom of the '60s and '70s, Franco claimed to believe that prosperity vindicated the genius of his "organic" system.

Last among the major issues of Francoism was the succession, the question of whether Francoism would survive Franco. The Caudillo was a man of robust health to the very threshhold of his ninth decade. But a freak hunting acccident in 1961 crystallized the issue. Franco typically dithered over the succession for seven years, finally designating Prince Juan Carlos, the son of his old Bourbon critic, as his heir. But Juan Carlos' succession (at Franco's death) was not to be a "restoration." It was to be an "instauration," a clean break with the liberal monarchy of the past which Franco blamed for many of Spain's ancient political difficulties.

Franco hoped that Juan Carlos would preserve the forms, or at least the memory, of Francoism. In the event he did not. Juan Carlos proved to be his father's son, a democrat and a constitutionalist.

The judgments of Franco and Francoism that emerge in both these books are incisive but measured. Like most revisionist historians, recent chroniclers of the Franco years are beginning to detect continuities obscured by the bitter polemics and resentments of the Caudillo's lifetime. As Payne notes, it is eminently arguable that Franco, for all his grave faults, played midwife to a transformed Spain that is today both more harmonious and politically stable (and free, by the measures of liberal democracy) than the Spain he seized in 1936. And that liberal democracy was then not a realistic alternative. In that Spain, an angrily polarized right and left, having crushed the moderate center, were bent on mutual destruction.

It is also true, as Fusi writes, that "Franco established . . . a personal dictatorship which lasted for forty years and which by its very existence provoked revulsion." In a sense those were lost years. A regime bidding for history's laurels must exhibit more than passive and defensive virtues. Perhaps the best to be said of Franco and his ism, then, is that the Caudillo's passing left his successors in a mood and position to scrap his legacy and return, with hope and enthusiasm, to a far older Spanish tradition of liberalism.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.