The issue of the relationship between Spain’s General Franco and Hitler has been a controversial one for many years. The “conservative” view is that Franco’s dealings with the German dictator were pragmatic, based on what was best for Spain, and that he skilfully kept Spain neutral during the Second World War. The “left” view is that Franco was far closer to Hitler, admired him greatly, and would have come into the war on Hitler’s side had the terms been right.
The links between Franco and Hitler began on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In July 1936, following the election of a left-wing government, a group of rightist army officers launched a coup. However, it failed, many officers remaining loyal to the Republic. The insurgents were left in control of little over a third of Spain, and none of the industrial cities. Spains colony in northern Morocco now became crucial. The Moroccan colonial forces were the only serious military force in Spain. Commanded by Franco, they were cut off from the mainland, for the small Spanish navy was on the government side.
Franco immediately sent an urgent request for help with air transport to Hitler. The German dictator sent transport planes to ferry Spain’s Moroccan army over the Straits of Gibraltar, where it consolidated power in southern Spain and began to march on Madrid. Without the Moroccan forces the insurgents would have been much weaker position and the coup might even have been beaten. For Hitler the decision marked his first foreign adventure.
Three years of bloody civil war followed in which both Hitler and Mussolini provided substantial aid, both equipment and fighting men, to Franco. The elected government, denied aid from France or England, turned the only power that would help them, the Soviet Union. Stalin provided the Republic with major military aid, while his “advisers” established many of the features of his rule of terror in Russia. But in the end, in April 1939, the Republic was defeated.
Why did Hitler aid Franco? It was partly geopolitics; he hoped for the establishment of another authoritarian, right-wing regime on the border of his great enemy, France. But he also used Spain as a testing-ground for German military forces, and particularly his air force, which in 1937 bombed Guernica — the first time a European city was flattened by area bombing.
Franco now proceeded to establish his regime throughout Spain. He presided over a coalition of forces; the army, many of whose senior officers harked back to the old monarchist regime, the Catholic Church, and the fascist Falange party. There were tensions between the Falange and the monarchists, but initially the Falange was in the ascendant.
Franco’s victory came as tensions were growing in Europe — the outbreak of the Second World War was months away. At this point Spain and Germany were very close. German forces were given pride of place at Franco’s victory march in Madrid in the summer. Franco himself at this point greatly admired Hitler. He kept a photograph of the Fuhrer, together with Mussolini and the Pope, on his desk. German advisers were prominent in the army, the police, and the press. Heinrich Himmler visited Spain and even he was surprised by the violence towards opponents of the Franco regime.
In September 1939 the Second World War began. Initially Spain, like Italy, stayed neutral. Then in June 1940 came Hitler’s crushing, and unexpected, victory over France. Britain was left alone and, it seemed, on the verge of defeat. At this point Mussolini declared war, hoping to be in at the kill and profit from the peace treaty. Franco had similar ideas, but did not go so far. Spain was declared to be “non-belligerent” rather than neutral, and Franco took the opportunity to invade and annex Tangier in Morocco, previously under international control. He also wrote to Hitler expressing, in roundabout terms, a wish to join in Fascisms victory. Franco had dreams of picking up French Morocco and parts of Algeria in a peace treaty. But it at this stage Hitler was not interested; he knew that Spain, devastated by civil war, could provide little military help and believed he did not need it.
By autumn 1940, however, the situation had turned 180°. Hitlers air force had been defeated in the Battle of Britain, and Britain was clearly far from finished. There was a crucial factor here for Spain; the powerful British Navy. Britain used its ships to blockade Spanish ports and limit the amount of essential material, especially fuel, allowed in. The US followed its lead in limiting exports to Franco. Franco was the son of a naval officer; he knew the power of the British Navy and that a total blockade in the event of war might tip Spain, already the on the breadline, into revolt. Hitler, however, now wanted Franco in the war so that he could seize Gibraltar.
The two dictators met on the border between Spain and France, in October 1940. Hitler urged Franco to enter the war; Franco said that he would, but in return demanded French colonial territory and a huge amount of supplies to make up for a full British blockade. Hitler needed to keep the Vichy regime in France friendly and did not want to give away part of the French empire. Also he was in no position to meet Franco’s huge demands for supplies of food and fuel. Hitler left the meeting with only vague and insubstantial commitments from Franco, and said that rather than go through such a negotiation again he would rather have three teeth pulled.
It seems to me that the question of supplies was crucial; Franco knew he needed these if he declared war. He may not have realised that Germany too had limited fuel supplies or that in the territories Hitler had conquered, even agriculturally rich countries like France, food production was already crashing into a nosedive. Another consideration making him cautious was that many monarchists were pro-English; Britain gave substantial bribes to senior monarchists to oppose Spain entering the war.
That was the end of any prospect of Spain coming in on Hitlers side. However Franco not only supported Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941, but organised thousands of volunteers to serve on the Eastern front. But by late 1942, with Russia resisting strongly and the US in the war, it was clear Germany was going to lose. Franco now moved, in characteristically crablike way, to a diplomatic position where he saw “two wars” — a crusade against Russian communism, which he supported, and Germany’s war with the democratic powers where his neutrality became increasingly pro-Allied. But this was pragmatism, not a position of principle. When Anglo-US forces invaded French North Africa in “Operation Torch” Spain offered no opposition and may have assisted the Allies with intelligence.
In 1944, as the Allies invaded occupied Europe Franco, with breathtaking nerve, wrote to Churchill offering to help the victorious democratic powers in the future struggle against communism. Churchill, who in the early years of the war had considered overthrowing Franco, took the bait and argued, against many senior Americans, that the Franco regime should be left in place. That is what happened. The pictures of Hitler and Mussolini disappeared from Franco’s desk, and although the controlled Spanish press mourned Hitler’s death in 1945, Spain aligned itself with the West during the cold war, and remained under Franco’s authoritarian rule for the next thirty years. The Falange remained an important part of the regime until its end, although as the years passed its significance waned.
A related issue, which has caused debate over the years, is Franco’s attitude to the Holocaust. Like Mussolinis, Franco’s Fascism did not have anti-Semitism as an important part of its ideology. However, during the Civil War and in the years of Hitler’s ascendancy — to 1942 — Franco like Mussolini adopted a vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric to please the Nazis. In practice however Jews fleeing from occupied France were allowed to cross Spain to Portuguese ports, although they were fleeced on the way. Franco also intervened to give asylum to Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain, who lived in Greece and would otherwise have been murdered by the Nazis. Franco’s Fascism saw Spain as a “nation” rather than a race. However, anyone who opposed the Spanish regime, especially in its early years, faced a fate as brutal as anyone who resisted the Nazis in Europe.
Copyright © 2009 C.J. Sansom, author of Winter in Madrid: A Novel
C. J. Sansom, author of Winter in Madrid: A Novel, was a lawyer but now writes full time. He holds a Ph.D. in history and is the author of Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign in the Matthew Shardlake series. Winter in Madrid was a major bestseller in England and is being published in twelve countries. Sansom lives in Brighton, England.