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

 By Stanley G. Payne. 336 pp. Yale University Press, 2007. $30.

 Now a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Stanley Payne remains among the doyens of English-language scholars of European fascism, and especially of Spain’s Franco era. Here, he synergizes a career’s worth of insight into an analysis of the politics of Francisco Franco’s regime during World War II—its relationship with Nazi Germany in particular. In this impeccably researched and reasoned presentation, Payne demolishes any lingering vestiges of the image of Franco (cultivated after the war by the caudillo himself) as a prudent, calculating statesman whose maneuvering kept Spain out of the Axis camp against the odds. In fact, he concludes, Franco was a rather blinkered and bumbling opportunist.

The work begins with the origins of the Nationalist government in a brutal civil war that left Spain confronting fundamental domestic wounds it could not heal and committed to a close diplomatic relationship with Nazi Germany. Besides providing aid to Franco’s forces against the Republic, Hitler’s Reich was the model and guarantor of the national, authoritarian state Franco sought to create in Spain. It was also the source of demands for comprehensive economic and strategic concessions that increased even as the war progressed. Despite serious pressures, Franco managed to avoid general German economic domination. Part of the price, however, was a treaty providing for mutual “benevolent neutrality” should Germany or Spain go to war with a third power.

Franco’s arm was not exactly twisted to make him sign. The Nationalist leader would have preferred a Germany less pagan, less racist, less extreme. He nevertheless saw the Reich as a source of assistance for economic modernization, and perhaps also as a source of leverage for restoring Spain’s power and prestige. The overthrow of France in 1940 convinced Franco—along with most of Europe’s decision-makers—that Nazi Germany would be the dominant force on the continent for the foreseeable future. In fact, the scrupulous Payne makes the often-overlooked point that even a victorious Spanish Republic would have had to make some accommodation with Hitler. Franco’s government, however, was anxious to collaborate positively, in conquest and expansion. Its challenge was how best to maximize results relative to input.

A familiar proverb says, “He who dines with the devil needs a long spoon.” According to Payne, Hitler had no interest in Spain itself; he despised its Catholicism, and considered it primarily an eventual source of raw materials and a market for German goods—a client at best, not an ally. He was correspondingly unlikely to offer either the military or economic assistance Spain needed to be even an effective regional ally. Nor, given his determination to avoid alienating Vichy France and his own plans for using northwest Africa as an eventual springboard to the Western Hemisphere, was the Nazi dictator likely to consider seriously any Spanish claims for territorial aggrandizement in that region.

It was against that backdrop in October 1940 that Hitler, Franco, and their foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Ramón Serrano Súñer, met at Hendaye, France, on the border of Spain. On paper, Spain pledged to enter the war at a mutually agreeable time. In practice, Franco understood that given Spain’s debilitated social and economic condition, a new conflict would mean disaster—even with major German support. His caution was purely situational. As Payne demonstrates, Franco had hoped and expected to join in the war later, under more favorable conditions. For the next thirty months Spain remained on the verge of actively allying with Nazi Germany, deterred first by Hitler’s shifting of the primary theater of operations to Russia, and then by the success of Operation Torch.

The rapid Anglo-American occupation of French North Africa, combined with the German disaster at Stalingrad, convinced Franco and his advisors that Hitler was unlikely to win any kind of victory that would make it profitable for Spain to deal itself into the war. Nevertheless, Franco maintained his policy of German-friendly “nonbelligerence”—his selfserving, diplomatically unique category between belligerence and neutrality. The “volunteer” Spanish division sent to Russia as a gesture of solidarity in the fall of 1941 kept the field for two years. In a diplomatic context, Catholic anti-Communist Franco rather delusionally hoped to mediate a peace that would enable Hitler to concentrate on destroying Russia and consolidate his control of the continent. Not until the fall of 1943 did Spanish policy, astutely managed by new foreign minister Gen. Francisco Jordana, begin shifting slowly toward what Payne ironically calls “quasi-neutrality.” Even then the process was glacial. Through the first half of 1944, Franco sought to maintain the status of Germany’s “last friend.” He had two equal and opposite motives for presenting himself as a potential intermediary: the hope of reward from a Reich that, in defeat, would somehow maintain its great power status; and the growing fear for his own regime’s prospects in a postwar Europe dominated by a coalition whose members had no reason to wish him well.

Payne makes a convincing case that Spain’s policy shift essentially reflected domestic conditions. The hollow triumphalism of the Nationalist regime was increasingly challenged by its continuing economic crisis, which was deliberately enhanced by Anglo-American pressure, by revival of support for restoration of the monarchy as a way to “relegitimatize” Spain, and by the military’s growing recognition of just how far behind the materiel curve Spain’s armed forces had fallen. In addition, the open implementation of the Final Solution played a role in adjusting public and political positions on the Third Reich. Spanish anti-Semitism, although stoked and institutionalized by the horrors of the Inquisition, was no longer genocidal. An unstated policy of benign neglect allowed Jewish refugees to enter and pass through Spanish territory without authorities paying them any special attention. Nevertheless, the government consistently dragged its official feet even in the limited humanitarian initiatives undertaken by Europe’s neutrals in the war’s final months.

From beginning to end, that ambivalent, ambiguous approach was perfectly consistent with Franco’s World War II policies. The slow diplomatic tilt towards the Allies and the slow domestic shift away from fascistic policies to more moderate, pragmatic positions reflected neither principled decisions nor prudent calculation. Both were expedient responses to the pressure of circumstances. As Payne dryly comments, Franco consistently failed to understand the Western Allies’ moral and ideological commitment to Nazi Germany’s annihilation. He failed as well to understand the depth of the public and official hostility to his regime in both Britain and the United States. The postwar result was Spain’s political ostracism, which continued well after the cold war began to change Europe’s parameters, although it was a bit mitigated by Franco’s sudden eagerness to allow American bases on Spanish soil to help “contain” the Soviets. Still, not until Franco’s death in 1975 and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy did Spain finally shed the consequences of its caudillo’s “tilted neutrality” from 1939 to 1945.

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.