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Europe at War:
Spain 1939-45

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.
Why did Spain remain neutral during World War Two?

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?




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