Germany's ambivalent ally

How Spain kept a step away from war

Francisco Franco marching with Adolf Hitler (left), in 1940. Francisco Franco marching with Adolf Hitler (left), in 1940.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Richard Eder
March 16, 2008

Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World War II
By Stanley Payne
Yale University, 328 pp., $30

In October of 1940, Adolf Hitler and Generalissimo Francisco Franco met at Hendaye, near the French-Spanish border. The purpose was to flesh out Spain's agreement in principle to enter the war on the side of Germany and Italy. The principle was reaffirmed, and it went on being reaffirmed over the next couple of years. The flesh, for the most part, never did attach.

He would rather have three or four teeth pulled than meet Franco again, Hitler complained later. He had been not only outtalked, hardly a usual experience, but reduced as well to a state of near-terminal boredom, as Franco droned for three hours about his Civil War exploits and Spain's historic role in North Africa.

After the Allied victory, the regime's historians made much of its Caudillo's prowess at employing verbal stupor as a defensive battery, thus keeping Spain out of ruinous defeat. Stanley Payne, our veteran historian of the Franco era, lets most of the air out of this balloon in his immensely detailed and finely argued "Franco and Hitler."

Much more than the title implies, it is a study of the entire role of Spain during the war, preceded by an introduction setting out the Civil War and its aftermath with a snap and succinctness that only a master could achieve.

In fact, Payne argues, Franco and his brother-in-law and foreign minister, Ramon Serrano Suñer, were convinced of the need to enter the war on the Axis side. There was ideology, particularly with the Nazi-phile Serrano; there were Germany's help during the Civil War, and Franco's belief that a victory by the Allies would ultimately threaten his dictatorship.

(It did, Payne wryly notes, only the "ultimately" took 40 years and - so skillful were his postwar maneuvers - Franco's death.)

There were more grittily specific factors. For one, until the end of 1942 the regime was convinced that Germany would win. With this in mind, Franco had his shopping list: Gibraltar, massive economic and military assistance, French Morocco, and swatches of Sub-Saharan Africa.

For a number of reasons - Payne goes into exhaustive detail - Hitler opposed some of these and was vague about others. It was on such points that the negotiations did not so much founder as toss and turn in a protracted fog that was one of Franco's power-preserving specialties.

In fact, the whole question had its delusional aspect. Spain was vitally dependent on imports, particularly of oil. Britain, and later the United States, controlled the Atlantic. Only an absolute British defeat could affect that. Franco hoped for one, but it didn't happen; as things turned out, a veritable three-way stick-and-carrot duel developed among Spain, Germany, and Britain.

For several years, until Axis prospects faded, Spain did give Germany considerable help short of war. There were massive Spanish exports of wolfram (tungsten) essential to German arms production. "Private" Spanish freighters provisioned Erwin Rommel's army in North Africa. The Spanish embassy in London passed reports on Britain to Berlin.

Germany's biggest foreign-intelligence operation - some 2,000 agents - availed itself of Franco's hospitality. More than once Britain took advantage of such coziness. It dropped a corpse offshore wearing a British naval uniform and carrying plans for an Allied invasion of Greece. These were passed to the Germans; invasion followed, but of Sicily. The British paid bribes totaling some $12 million to amenable Spanish generals, counting on them to argue against war.

Payne goes into many other questions, notably Spain's treatment of Jewish refugees. Some 30,000 got across from France, many illegally; a few hundred were sent back; most of the rest were allowed transit to Portugal. Two heroic Spanish consuls, one in Salonika, the other in Budapest, issued thousands of visas; Madrid processed them with grudging slowness. Payne's conclusion: Spain helped but could have done a great deal more.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his book is the portrait of Franco as pragmatic balancer - most strikingly, among his bitterly divided supporters. One faction was radical Falangist, the other conservative monarchist. There were some in each group who hoped to supersede the Caudillo; he trimmed continually between them like a pilot adjusting his flaps.

He had no loyalties; he betrayed judiciously. When the war tilted toward the Allies he fired his pro-Axis brother-in-law and replaced him as foreign minister with the moderate Francisco Jordana, who labored - heroically, in Payne's view - to move Spain to neutrality.

By this time Hitler had begun to hate the man who earlier had simply infuriated him. Payne quotes the dictator's informal conversations - published as "Table Talk" - to startling effect. Admiring the Republican exiles who came from France to work in Germany, Hitler goes so far as to praise the clarity of the Spanish left - in contrast to Franco's retrograde Catholic conservatism - and wonder whether he'd supported the wrong side in the Civil War. He gleefully recalls Admiral Canaris, his intelligence chief, warning him in advance of the Hendaye meeting that the man he would encounter "was not a hero but a little sausage [. . . ein Würstchen]."

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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