Franco and Hitler
Spain, Germany, and World War II
by Stanley G. Payne
Yale, 336 pp., $30
Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II
by Norman H. Gershman
Syracuse, 121 pp., $39.95
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Francisco Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War. But since his death in 1975 the perfunctory description of the Spanish dictator as a fascist, and the application of that label to his movement and resulting 46 years of governance, has appeared increasingly unpersuasive.
Franco was most certainly a man of the traditional Spanish right, and an exemplar of military rule--though not a typical "political general" such as had often been seen in that country. Rather, he was the counterrevolutionary product of a profound social crisis; yet his regime had little in common with those of Mussolini and Hitler.
Unlike them, Franco did not seriously imagine that his state would last forever, or attain some renewed and grandiose imperial power. He was fundamentally satisfied with the simpler aspiration of defeating the liberal, socialist, and anarchist revolutionaries who challenged the disintegrating political structure of 1930s Spain. The Francoist state party, the Falange, was a secondary partner in power to the army. And Franco never developed a consistent, much less radical, ideology, as did Mussolini and Hitler. Once victorious, Franco's government did not seek to recast Spanish culture as Mussolini's had in Italy or Hitler's had attempted in Germany. While Pablo Picasso, resident in Paris, made a career of his public Francophobia, the Catalan surrealist Joan Miró, who had been no less fervent a supporter of the defeated Spanish Republic than Picasso, returned to the island of Mallorca in 1940 and lived undisturbed.
In the last two decades of Francoist rule, beginning in the mid-1950s, insiders were encouraged to plan a careful economic, social, and political transition away from dictatorship, which was fully accomplished between 1976 and 1981. Franco groomed the Spanish prince Juan Carlos, a defender of democracy, to succeed him--this contrast with various Communist dictators is instructive--and Francoism passed from the historical scene, leaving behind almost nothing intrinsic to it.
Most famously, as described in Stanley G. Payne's new book, Franco did not repay the substantial aid that had been extended to him, from Germany and Italy, during the civil war by actively joining the Axis during World War II. His assistance to them was limited to the dispatch of a volunteer unit, the Blue Division, to fight on the Eastern Front, along with delivery of supplies to German submarines and other naval vessels, and minor intelligence and logistical help. In addition, in a much debated aspect of modern Spanish history, Franco's diplomats in Greece and Eastern Europe succeeded in rescuing Sephardic Jews, whose ancestry was Iberian, from the Holocaust.
Of the leading non-Spanish historians who observed Francoism directly, Payne, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, may be considered the last man standing. His work has always been founded on close examination of original sources, at which he excels, but has also lacked analytical depth. Although he has contributed little that is truly original, and his work is sometimes pedantic, impressionistic, and contradictory, he has become the doyen of Franco experts outside Spain, mainly reworking the same material since the appearance of his first book, Falange (1961).
And fortunately, unlike his main rivals, the American Gabriel Jackson and the Briton Paul Preston, he has not succumbed to sentimentality about Stalin, the Soviet Union, and their deceitful "friendship" with the Spanish Republic. Rather, his earlier Yale volume, The Spanish Civil War, The Soviet Union, and Communism (2004), offered a sharpened critique of Soviet perspectives and practices in Spain.
But the author of Franco and Hitler has left one important matter incompletely addressed here. He has often treated the Falange more or less definitively as a fascist phenomenon, and while his contribution to the discussion of Spanish-German relations justifies doubts about this approach, he never fully resolves whether the Spanish general who said no to Hitler really emulated the rulers in Berlin and Rome. Rather, he describes the Franco regime as "a national authoritarian state . . . modeled, however loosely," on Italian and German totalitarianism. Payne does note, however, that while Franco repeatedly (and with unquestionable sincerity) expressed sympathy for Hitler and attachment to the global aspirations of the Axis, Hitler harbored a deep contempt for Spanish Catholicism.
Hitler spoke in terms remarkably similar to those employed in today's atheist polemics, declaring in 1942 that "One cannot succeed in conceiving how much cruelty, ignominy and falsehood the intrusion of Christianity has spelt for this world of ours." Rumors circulated in Spain that Hitler considered the Spanish dictatorship insufficiently fascist, and had promised Mussolini that Franco would be replaced by an authentic peer of the Axis leaders. Hitler's anti-Catholicism even turned him against Spain's most important Nazi advocate, Ramón Serrano Suñer, Franco's brother-in-law and, during 1940-42, his foreign minister.
Payne's narrative makes clear that numerous lesser figures in Spanish society encouraged Franco to favor greater involvement in the war led by Berlin and Rome. Some believed that the war would produce a redistribution of colonial possessions, to the detriment of Britain and France, in which Spain could regain an empire based in North and West Africa. Others thought the struggle against revolution embodied in Franco's initial crusade must naturally find fulfillment in the German assault on Russia. But Franco's ruling stratum also included powerful individuals who favored better relations with Britain and France in the interest of Spanish recovery after the devastation of civil war. Franco himself communicated with Berlin in flattering terms, gushing with admiration for Germany and Hitler, and even echoing the more enthusiastic Germanophiles within his entourage, while avoiding burdensome and risky commitments.
The provision of German and Italian military personnel and equipment helped Franco win the civil war, but according to Payne, Hitler never saw Spain as a major strategic factor. German aims in Spain were, on balance, mainly economic: above all, to obtain Spanish minerals. Even the possibility that Spain and Germany together might seize Gibraltar from Britain, although a desirable goal for Hitler, was not among his priorities.
Negotiations to bring Spain into the war on the German side, undertaken spasmodically, were obstructed by Nazi arrogance. And Franco, when he seemed to believe that joining in the war could really benefit Spain's economy and secure expansion of its sphere of influence, offered Berlin Spain's entire export mining output, control of mining properties in Morocco to be seized from France, shared administration of similar French and British enterprises inside Spain, and other concessions in addition to the use of conquered Gibraltar.
But the Germans wanted the small colonies Spain then held in West Africa, and one of the Canary Islands, while the Vichy regime in France seemed to Berlin a more reliable guardian of broader Axis interests in Africa.
When Hitler and Franco met in October 1940 at Hendaye on the Spanish border with France, in their sole personal encounter, Franco was intent on wresting serious gains from the Germans. But he also bored Hitler with his garrulous reminiscences of his service as a colonial commander in the Spanish-held northern zone of Morocco. Germany and Spain agreed to a protocol under which both sides seemed to get what each wanted: Germany would acquire an active ally, and Spain would be handed a large portion of West Africa, so long as France could be compensated by imperial possessions taken from the British.
But this supposed accord was destined to remain unrealized. Hitler grew tired of haggling with Franco, and after the German invasion of Russia, Western Europe ceased to occupy a central place in Germany's attentions.
Officially, Spain stayed out of the war, and although much retrospective rhetoric on the Hitler-Franco relationship painted Franco as a sly fox outwitting Hitler, their mutual temptation provided little more than footnotes to history. Eventually, Payne's meticulous inventory of the extended inveiglements of Berlin and Madrid becomes, for nonspecialists, a tedious read. Spain was too weakened by its civil war to furnish significant support to the Axis, and with France subjugated, Spain remained consigned to the marginal place in continental affairs to which it was long relegated.
The ideological link between the German and Spanish dictators was too attenuated, Franco's adoration of Hitler was too superficial, and such historical and geographical facts trumped "fascist" solidarity. Moreover, Franco's "relative immunity" to Nazi racism toward Jews (to borrow Payne's vocabulary) underscores the shallow character of the similarity between the two regimes: Payne has dedicated two chapters here to the role of the Franco government in rescuing Sephardic Jews from the Nazis. This topic, although well known among Holocaust historians, has been orphaned by Franco's fascist reputation. Saving Jewish lives, it seems, is of lesser importance because it was accomplished by a rightist, rather than a liberal, government.
Payne describes how, beginning in the 19th century, Sephardic Jews living outside Spain were offered Spanish citizenship, and a few thousand were granted such status. Franco, while a serving officer in Spanish Morocco, became friendly with prominent personalities among the thousands of Sephardim living there and descended from Jews expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century. During World War II tens of thousands of European Jewish refugees with transit visas were allowed to enter Spain. But Spanish diplomats also acted to protect Sephardim with Spanish citizenship from the Nazis. Sebastián de Romero Radigales, the Spanish consul in Athens, prevented the deportation to Nazi death camps of hundreds of Sephardim from the Greek city of Salonika.
In Budapest the Spanish representative Angel Sanz Briz intervened to keep up to 3,500 variegated Jews out of Nazi hands, and an Italian purchasing agent in the Hungarian capital, Giorgio Perlasca, assisted Sanz Briz, as well as Raoul Wallenberg. Payne argues that Spanish rescue efforts were exaggerated by the Franco state to improve its standing with the Allies once the war had clearly turned against Germany. But his book was finished before the recent issuance of S. R. Radigales y los Sefardíes de Grecia (1943-1946) (S.R. Radigales and the Sephardim of Greece) by Matilde Morcillo Rosillo. This is a documentary collection reproducing materials in Spanish, English, and Greek, and an important addition to Holocaust studies, illustrating in eloquent detail the exhaustive activity of Radigales to keep the Greek Sephardim alive.
A similarly small but meaningful effort on behalf of Jews was, proportionately, much more successful in Greece's neighbor Albania, where local authorities sabotaged Nazi anti-Jewish measures so completely that not a single Jew was handed over to them. Albania was alone among Axis-occupied countries in ending World War II with more Jews than it had at the beginning. The actions of Albanians as "Righteous Among Gentiles" were commemorated at the Yad Vashem memorial two years ago with an exhibit assembled by the photographer Norman Gershman, and titled Besa--an Albanian term referring to protection as dictated by personal honor.
Gershman shows portraits of Albanians who concealed, disguised, and otherwise sheltered Jews, and although the text is occasionally faulty (referring to major Kosovo cities like Gjakova and Prizren as villages), Besa includes much remarkable information.
To cite one point, Haxhi Dedebaba Reshat Bardhi, leader of the Bektashi order of Sufis who are headquartered in Albania and count up to two million Albanian-speaking members, states that the Bektashis were mobilized as a body to hide Jews wherever they could. This may well explain why most of the rescued Jews were hidden in central and southern Albania, traditional Bektashi regions.
While Gershman's volume stresses the Muslim faith of many Albanians who saved Jews, another new book in Albanian and English, Prania historike dhe shpëtimi i hebrenjve gjatë Luftës (The Historic Presence and Rescue of Jews During the Second World War), reveals that Albanian Catholics, as well as Muslims, were similarly righteous. Edited by the leading Albanian historian Shaban Sinani, the volume includes much fascinating material from Albanian archives, literary studies, and anecdotal material. It presents evidence that long-accepted claims that hundreds of Jews were successfully deported from Kosovo by the Nazis are incorrect. But more remarkably, we learn for the first time that the Roman Catholic clerics Vinçenc Prennushi, archbishop of Durrës, and Shtjefën Kurti, a parish priest in Tirana, baptized Jews to assure their survival.
Prennushi and Kurti are major figures in Albanian Catholic history, above all as martyrs to communism. Prennushi, a leading poet and folklore collector, suffered horrible torture before his death in prison in 1949. Kurti was killed in 1972 for the supposed "crime" of baptizing an infant boy, since Albania's despot Enver Hoxha had declared Albania the world's first and only "atheist state" in 1967. The Christian civilization that, in Spain, proved a barrier against fascist extremism could not so easily withstand the brutalities of communism: The sacrament of baptism saved Jews from the Nazis, but could not prevent the slaying by the communists of the priest who administered it.
If the common description of Franco as a fascist is doubtful, so is that of the Basque nationalist movement, which produced the terrorist force called Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna (Basque Land and Liberation, known by its acronym ETA), as a liberal or leftist phenomenon. Payne writes that, in Spain, "Basque nationalism developed the only racist doctrine in the German sense, for a good many years holding that Basques were a distinct, pure, and superior race. Basque nationalists were also strongly anti-Jewish."
The Basque Nationalists had been swept into the Spanish Civil War as supporters of the Republic, almost by accident. Their natural political inclination would have been to back Franco, but they disagreed with the centralist conservative Spanish authorities over local municipal autonomy, and allied with the Catalans, who were leftist nationalists. Here, too, diverse attitudes within the Catholic Church were significant: Combat between the Basques and Francoists was a war between groups of conservative
Catholics rather than a confrontation of revolution and counterrevolution. In 1937, a year after the war began, Basque Nationalists capitulated to Italian forces fighting alongside Franco. In this instance, the description of the opponents of the Spanish Republicans as "fascists" is undeniable.
In April 1937 the traditional Basque capital of Guernica had been bombed by German warplanes in a massacre memorialized by Picasso's famous mural. Guernica was a "warning" to the Basques, according to the Spanish journalist Xuan Cándano, whose El Pacto de Santoña (1937): La rendición del nacionalismo vasco al fascismo (The Pact of Santoña, 1937: The Surrender of Basque Nationalism to Fascism) is a necessary demystification of Basque Nationalist political history. Cándano demonstrates that the Basque Nationalists had negotiated with the Franco forces, as well as the Italians, from the onset of the war. And these transactions were obviously more successful, for Franco, than anything later pursued with Hitler.
Given the volume of writings, films, and other productions that have appeared on the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Holocaust, it is hard to imagine that any fresh evidence of nuance or even unexpected heroism might emerge. But as these new books show, much in the mountainous historical record accumulated during the 20th century was skewed by political emotions and propaganda to manipulate and distort what really happened in these chapters of human misery. With time, historical and journalistic research has progressed, and it may be that only now can we properly, objectively, and accurately assess these remarkable events.
Stephen Schwartz is the author, most recently, of The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.