Spain stood apart from Europe in 1939. After three years
of devastating civil war, Spain had been economically ruined and
socially ripped apart. The success of the Nationalists left General
Francisco Franco as dictator of Spain, a position he was to consolidate
with characteristic brutality throughout the duration of the Second
World War. As the Second World War broke out Franco had a natural
inclination to side with the fascist dictatorships whose aid had been so
important to his success in the Civil War but he proceeded with caution.
Franco may have had imperialist ambitions for British Gibraltar and
French North Africa for ‘he cherished hopes of empire on the cheap, on
the coat-tails of Hitler’ (Preston, Franco: 326) but his overarching
concern was always to strengthen his own domestic position.
A series of myths had to be
generated in post-1945 Spain. By this time, Franco’s close
association with the Axis powers in 1936-40 had become a serious
diplomatic obstacle. The reality of the negotiations between
Franco, Mussolini and Hitler had to be rewritten. In this
version of events, Spain’s neutrality during the Second World
War was a hard won diplomatic victory for Franco, the man who
had faced down Hitler and his ‘threat of 200 divisions’. Or in
the words of one Franco era biographer, ‘the skill of one man
held back what all the armies of Europe had been unable to do’.
(Silva & Saenz de Heredia, Franco 1975) If Spain had dallied
with Nazi Germany, the argument continued, it was a result of
the efforts of Franco’s brother in law and Nazi sympathizer
Serrano Súñer. This interpretation of events, in the words of
Franco’s biographer Paul Preston, is quite simply ‘nonsense’.
(Preston: 360) The first important point to make is that, short
of a full scale declaration of war Franco’s Spain was anything
but neutral, especially in the early stages of World War II.
Described at the time as nonbelligerence the position is better
understood in the words of historian Stanley Payne as
prebelligerence. (Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World
War II, Stanley G. Payne 2008)
A United Nations Security Council investigation
conducted after the war found evidence that Spain had allowed German
planes to operate from Spanish airfields to attack allied shipping.
Spanish ports were secretly used to refuel and repair German warships.
And in addition to this practical support, the state controlled Spanish
media consistently broadcast a pro-Axis message. On the 22nd September
1939, the newspaper Arriba encouraged its readers to attack anyone over
heard criticizing Nazi Germany. A good indication of Franco’s attitude
to Nazi Germany is contained in the private letters he wrote to Hitler
after the defeat of France in the summer of 1940: ‘Dear Fuhrer: At the
moment when the German armies, under your leadership, are bringing the
greatest battle in history to a victorious close, I would like to
express to you my admiration and enthusiasm and that of my people, who
are watching with deep emotion the glorious course of a struggle which
they regard as their own… I do not need to assure you how great is my
desire not to remain aloof from your cares and how great is my
satisfaction in rendering to you at all times services which you regard
as most valuable.’ (Preston: 357) It is therefore safe to say that
Spain’s neutrality in WWII had little to do with any ideological
differences with Nazi Germany. So why, despite Franco’s promises of
support, did Spain remain ‘neutral’? One of the key reasons was timing.
During the early years of the war, it was assumed by both Franco and the
Axis powers that Spain’s intervention on the side of fascism was
inevitable. The sticking point was the terms of this Spanish entry. Had
Hitler accepted some of Franco’s overly ambitious imperial demands for
North Africa at the time of their infamous Hendaye meeting (see image
above), Franco would have been more than ready to join the Axis cause.
But by the time Hitler was ready to welcome Franco’s support and make
the necessary imperial offers, Franco was too concerned to maintain the
neutrality that was essential to the continual flow of much needed
American aid. Franco’s only official meeting with Hitler, Hendaye,
France October 23, 1940 Franco’s train was late to the meeting which in
1958 Franco claimed had been part of a deliberate ploy to throw Hitler
‘off balance’. This leads us to the most important reason for Spanish
‘neutrality’. It was not so much Franco’s diplomatic strength that
explains Spanish neutrality but rather Spain’s economic and military
weakness. Franco may have been tempted to join Hitler, but unlike
Mussolini, he was an experienced soldier with a realistic notion of his
country’s weaknesses. These views were shared by Hitler’s closest
advisors before the Hendaye meeting; German State Secretary Ernst von
Weizsäcker concluded that Spain has ‘neither bread nor petrol’ and was
of ‘no practical worth’ to the Axis’. (Preston: 394) Even if the Spanish
successfully captured Gibraltar, the British would be expected to
retaliate by seizing the Canary Islands and other colonial possessions.
And for Franco, the failure of Hitler to defeat Britain in the summer of
1940 had raised too many questions. Italian setbacks against the British
in the autumn of 1940 both increased Franco’s concerns but also turned
Hitler’s attention to an attack on Gibraltar and a hope of closing off
the Mediterranean. At the same time Spain’s economic situation was
getting steadily worse with famine becoming a very real possibility.
Franco was now overwhelmingly concerned with the stability of his
regime. He consistently failed to set a date for the attack on Gibraltar
blaming ongoing domestic shortages, whilst British and American
diplomatic efforts continued to promise grain in return for neutrality.
In the end Hitler gave up waiting, claiming in a letter to Mussolini
that Franco has made ‘the greatest mistake of his life.’ (Preston 415)
The Fuhrer instead turned his attentions to the war in the East.
Spain during World War II
Although Spain was technically not at
war, the unstable European situation and the legacy of the bitter civil
war resulted in Spain being on a near-permanent war footing with all the
attendant socio-economic and political consequences. 1939-45 Spain was a
time of acute shortages of the essentials of life and the threat of
famine was never far away. Politically, Franco did not relax the
authoritarian regime that had been created at the height of the Civil
War. For the defeated supporters of the Republic who had not fled the
country (estimated at 200,000), this meant the civil war continued
though other means. There was to be no peace and reconciliation, but
rather class war and vengeance. Urban workers, the rural poor, liberal
intellectuals, regional nationalists and feminists were grouped together
‘rojos’; reds and enemies of the state. With the Law Against Military
Rebellion, tens of thousands were executed in military trials, many more
spent time as political prisoners. The retrospective functioning of the
Law of Political Responsibilities (passed in February 1939) allowed the
state to try some half a million people for their pro-Republican
sentiments backdated to October 1934. Properties were seized and many
were sentenced to forced labour as a means of doing penance for their
Republican ‘sins’. This was most famously illustrated in the building of
the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen see below) Franco’s
memorial to his crusade against the Republic.
Valle de los Caídos –The
last memorial to Franco
Built by 20,000 slave labourers between 1940 and
1958, and 150m high granite cross and an underground basilica
bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, the memorial of the Valley of
the Fallen continues to provoke controversy. The basic design
concept was Franco’s; imitative of Nazi Germany’s classicism and
the influence of Albert Speer, its intention was in his words
‘to defy time and forgetfulness’. The memorial marks the remains
of 40,000 soldiers and grave of Franco himself and was until
recently the site for annual political rallies on the
anniversary of Franco’s death on the 20th of November.
‘On those crystal-clear days that the thin air of Madrid,
Europe’s highest capital, is famous for producing, it [the holy
cross] can be seen, 50 kilometers from the city itself. It is an
uncomfortable, and largely unwanted, reminder that Franco may be
dead, but his spirit is still out there somewhere’ (Giles
Tremlett Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country's Hidden
Past, p.38 ) In December 2007, the socialist
government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed a
Law on the Historical Memory of Spain which bans political
meetings at Valle de los Caídos and outlaws the existence of
Francoist symbols and statues in Spain.
Discussion questions Why is the Valle de los Caídos
memorial an uncomfortable reminder? Should the memorial be
dismantled? Is the Spanish government right to want to remove
all traces of the Franco era?