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Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World War II Review

Updated on October 23, 2018

World War II is perhaps the most discussed, commentated on, and referenced military event in all of history, often to a terrifyingly annoying and excessive degree. And one of the most common games which those with more than a passing interest in the subject and who fancy themselves some sort of amateur history buffs like to play is that of the good old game of "what-if" - what if it went differently, to a different result, generally with the normal result of the Nazis winning. Of course, "what-ifs" are tremendously tempting in history, few can probably claim that there hasn't been a time when they have thought about the exercise of what might have been, and how the world would be different. Still, the Second World War has received so much counterfactual discussion in such regards that it represents the most normal reference point for any such enterprise.

But how does this relate to the book? Because one of the most popular of these arguments often revolves around Spain, a semi-fascist state under the leadership of Francisco-Franco, recently emerged as of the Second World War from the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, and which is often postulated as a state which if entered on the German side might have been enough to tip the scales for them in the crucial year of 1940, when the Germans were victoriously on the offensive, and the Allies, reduced to the British and a motley bag of "Free" government in exiles, resistance movements, and anti-German groups, were reeling from the disastrous collapse of France and its vast army in 1940. Inherently, Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World War II is caught up in providing the explanation for why this didn't happen, forming the heart of a complex and lengthy diplomatic game played between the largest country of Iberia and its ideologically aligned northern "friend" of Germany. In doing so it discusses ideological, economic, and military considerations, stretching from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, to 1945.

The bombardment of Barcelona: Although the Spanish Civil War was a victory for the Nationalists against the Republicans, it also shattered the country's economy and society and left it unable to much influence the Second World War.
The bombardment of Barcelona: Although the Spanish Civil War was a victory for the Nationalists against the Republicans, it also shattered the country's economy and society and left it unable to much influence the Second World War.
Blue Division troops near Leningrad.
Blue Division troops near Leningrad.

Summary

The first chapter of the book, The Spanish Civil War: Origins of the Franco Regime covers the Spanish civil war and the resultant structural evolution imposed upon Spain by the war between the Nationalist rebels and the Republican government. The Nationalists proved success in the war, managing to continue the war effort, wipe out opposition, manage internal differences, and secure substantial foreign aid from Germany and Italy. The Republicans managed little of this, except for limited and far more self-serving, and ultimately failed, assistance from the Soviet Union. In this war, the radicalization of the sides over the religious question helped the Nationalists to view their war as a modern crusade: it was Catholicism that united them above all else, against the atheism and anticlericalism of the Republicans. Franco's victory came at the price of German and Italian influence, but he did cleverly manage to keep them at bay and preserve some freedom of maneuver.

Hitler's Strategy in the Civil War covers how Hitler hoped to benefit from the extension of German influence in Spain and economic control, as well as using the war as a distraction - all of which he succeeded quite well in, securing a friendly Spain through his support of Franco, and economic concessions.

Military and International Significance of the Civil War displays both the international involvements of Spain, Germany, and the USSR, and what the effects were of this, and the (limited) experiences and lessons that could be successfully drawn from the war. Internationally, it led Italy closer to Germany, isolated the Soviet Union, but it was not simply a prequel of WW2, being fought on different terms for different reasons.

A Tilted Neutrality, 1939-1940 discusses what Spain's policies were in its relationship to Italy and Germany: it was tilted towards them, but at the same time kept some distance to prevent excessive economic exploitation and due to the need to pursue reconstruction by positive economic relations with England. When WW2 began, Spain was (formally) neutral, although it had great (and unrealized) plans to expand its military to be relevant in the conflict, and it aided Germany in some ways such as submarine resupply. Politically Spain was also divided between pro-fascist Falangists, and pro-military factions: Franco did not resolve this but increased his own political power.

Part II, "Nonbelligerence"

Franco's Temptation, May-September 1940 continues with the fall of France, when Spain's pro-axis leanings were allowed to come to full light, with Spanish hopes to take territory from defeated France. The British did their best to keep Spain neutral through a policy of bribes of key Spanish leaders and skilled diplomacy by Sir Samuel Hoare. Germany hoped for Spanish belligerance on its side, but the Spanish demanded much from France, conflicting with the German puppet of Vichy France, and huge supplies to replace Anglo-Saxon imports. Ultimately various disagreements and conflicts of interest prevented an immediate Spanish interest into the war.

The Meeting at Hendaye and its Aftermath deals with the meeting between Franco and Hitler at Hendaye, dispelling quite a few myths about Franco's negotication style and objectives, and once again the Spanish proved unable to arrive at a suitable agreement on entrance into the war: the same concerned Gibraltar where there were disagreements about how an attack would be carried out. The same continued consistently with other meetings, as the right conditions for and guarantees concerning Spanish entry into the war were never made, while the British and Americans put pressure on Spanish trade to prevent them from joining the Axis.

The Zenith of Collaboration concerns Spain's principal utility to Germany: collaboration, as it helped spread German propaganda, supplied Germany with resources, economically cooperated with Germany, helped sabotage and military activities, escorted some German shipping, provided use of their air space, shipped supplies for the Axis in North Africa, provided a base for German intelligence, and assisted other Axis powers with their own intelligence.

Temptation Continues proceeds with the continued Spanish interest in entering the war, which they had not pursued due to a change of heart, but rather due to not being ready to enter the war or having worked out how they would do so. The Falange in Spain was in particular highly interested in joining the war to secure its hopes for a truly fascist nation. and when Germany went to war with the USSR it elicited ecstatic support for the anti-communist policy. The Spanish did not enter the war there, but they did send the Blue Division, named for its blue Falangist uniforms, as volunteers to Russia. They also sent Spanish guest workers to Spain on a limited basis. The Spanish were more closely aligned to the Axis than ever, but the possibility of them entering the war receded as the Germans focused east.

The Blue Division is the name of a chapter, and was the volunteer division the Spanish sent to help the Germans, part of their anti-communist stance and as a way to repay Germany's contribution to them during the civil war. They performed well in combat, and were generally less brutal to civilians than their German counterparts, although still being imperfect.

Temptation Abates sees the Americans enter the war against the Germans, which marked the beginning of a long drift away from the Axis and strengthened the anti-war party, even if the Spanish continued to support Germany to the hilt. Closer cooperation began with Portugal for mutual security. Monarchists also strengthened their hand internally, leading to political disruption, and shuffles in the political relationship led inadvertently to more neutral leadership of foreign affairs in the form of Gomez Jordana. The chapter discusses some of Hitler's views on Spain, which were broadly negative other than an appreciation for Spaniards' physical valor.

Temptation Ends covers the firm end of the Spanish possibility of entering the war, with Jordana's strive for neutrality, and the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa which served to further end any Spanish plan to enter the war. Both the Germans and Allies considered violating Spanish territory, and the Germans moved against the idea of Spanish entrance into the war due to it being impractical. The Spanish did however, continue to collaborate to their utmost with the Germans. The Spanish also tried to present themselves as a peace mediator, although they failed to use that to good effect. By the end of 1943, the Spanish had begun to refer to themselves once more as neutral.

Part III, "The Struggle to Escape the 'Axis Stigma'"

Spanish Diplomacy and the Holocaust (I): A Spanish Paradox: Traditional Prejudice and Philo-Sephardism covers the history of Spanish views on the Jews, with medieval prejudices joining later on with a positive view of Sephardic Jews as Spanish. The Spanish did not develop the modern and brutal antisemitism of the Germans, being much more akin to Italy. Spain's position in the war provided transit to Portugal, which genuinely was neutral. The Spanish were mixed in allowing transit for refugees, but they did allow some. Although Spain discriminated against Jews, it did so less than other European countries.

Spanish Diplomacy and the Holocaust (II) concerns repatriation of Spanish Jews overseas and Sephardic Jews. It was often individuals and their actions who made the biggest difference, rather than Spanish government policy. An example of this was in Budapest, where Sanz Briz and Giorgio Perlasca (an Italian who assisted him) granted large numbers of provisional passports and letters of protection, in large part due to their individual initiative. The Spanish regime played up its highly limited efforts after the war to ingratiate itself with the Western allies, but it could have done far more.

Neutrality by Compulsion deals with how, against their own wishes, the Spanish were forced into a policy of real neutrality. They had long continued to hope for German victory, and continued vital exports of wolfram to German war supplies, even facilitating it, but under a ruinous Allied import block they were forced to make some concessions to reduce their cooperation. The Spanish hoped the Germans would come out as a defeated but still independent great power, with whom they would have a privileged relationship.

The End of the Relationship sees the Spanish accept, after the Allied invasion of France, that the Germans had well and truly lost, and that they would have to come to terms with that and ingratiate themselves with the Allies. Any positive aspects of their relationships with Allies and pro-Jewish policy were played up, and the fascist elements of the regime played down. Still they continued collaboration with Germany as much as they could get away with, accepted a fair number of refugees, although they also eagerly confiscated German property post war and recovered some gold supplies . Spain was still isolated internationally at the end of the war.

As a fairly standard conclusion, the end of the book recaps the chapters and the results of the conflict.

Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust: Spain actually did some feeble measures to help them, but tardily and reluctantly.
Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust: Spain actually did some feeble measures to help them, but tardily and reluctantly.

Review

Although principally a diplomatic history, Franco and Hitler manages enough depth to place the diplomatic relationship between Spain and Germany, as well as to more limited extents between Spain and Italy and the rest of the world, into commendable context. What Spain offered economically to Germany and Germany's interest in Spain is well covered, as well as how Spain was tied into the international economy. Spain's ideological transformations are also something which makes for a fascinating subject, and one which the book takes pains to cover, showing what was the ideology of Nationalist Spain (more ultra-catholic than totalitarian) and how it transformed and styled itself over the course of the war (such as the redefining of Spanish fascism to make clear how Spanish totalitarianism was distinct from that of German and Italian totalitarianism, totalitarianism as a way to achieve objectives, rather than totalitarianism for its own sake) as the Germans' power began to wane. Internal politics too, surrounding the relative strengths of different factions and what their objectives were, is a highlight. Spanish diplomacy, Spanish collaboration, and Spanish relationships to groups such as the Jews - indeed, the chapter upon the Jews is a fascinating look into Spanish cultural politics and how their ideas upon this peculiar people have changed throughout the centuries and produced some unique views upon Sephardic Jews which are alien to those found in other European nations - are all covered in brilliant detail. The book can conclusively answer why Spain didn't join the war, why it was so tempted to do so,and a host of questions about the German, and Italian, relationship to Spain.

At the same time it neglects to provide for a portrait of internal Spanish conditions and Spanish capabilities which would enable one to place and gauge the Spanish capability to enter the war and the effects that they would have had if they did so. The book makes it repeatedly clear that the Spanish economic situation was so catastrophic during the war, and the Spanish government so dependent upon Allied supplies, that its entry into the war would be more of a cost to the German side than a benefit, and made it so that the Spanish government was unable to really enter onto the German side. But, it does not clearly display how this changed over the course of the years of the conflict… it mentions near the end of the book, that the 1940s represented something of a lost decade economically for Spain, but not why the Spanish government, itself in a time of peace, proved unable to improve economic conditions in the country. And how did Spain’s economic fluctuations then relate to its varying potentials to enter the war?

Popular influence is touched on to some extent, in regards to the unpopularity of the idea of entering the war, and the general pacifism and neutralism prevalent among the Spanish working classes after the violence and disorder of the civil war. But this too could have been more, relating to just how much of an effect it had on Spanish government planning, and if there were any popular opinion shifts throughout the conflict. The book as written makes for a book which is highly slanted towards the high level of Spanish policy with less involvement from medium and low echelons of life and society.

But still it is commendable for providing for a consistent, readable, detailed, and well argued narrative of Spanish diplomacy and foreign policy, and to some extent the general conditions of the nation, during both the Spanish Civil War and during WW2. It makes clear how the war evolved in various stages and impacted the Spanish policy, most often beyond the control of the Spanish government which wished to do much more to involve itself upon the side of Germany. In doing so it decisively breaks popular myths about Franco and his supposed wisdom in keeping Spain out of a disastrous war. While it could do with some broadening, it is still an excellent book for this particular subjects of the Second World War, Francoist Spain, the Spanish Civil War, and to some extent general diplomatic history.

4 stars for Franco and Hitler

© 2018 Ryan Thomas

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