By the autumn of 1940, the entirety of Western Europe except Spain and Portugal lay under Nazi control, as did much of the Centre and parts of the East: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France had all fallen without serious resistance, and Britain’s refusal to take the German offer of leaving the Continent to the Nazis and the Nazis would leave the British with India had incurred the wrath of the Luftwaffe with night after night of air-raids.
It was in this context that a meeting was held, on 23 October 1940, between Adolf Hitler and Spain’s ruler, Francisco Franco. The meeting, taking place at the railway station in Hendaye, within conquered France, on the western-most point of the Franco-Spanish border, was also attended by the foreign ministers, Ramón Serrano Súñer (Spain) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (Germany). The Germans arranged the meeting to try to get Spain into the war, and General Franco attended the meeting intent on refusing—politely.
George Hills, a former BBC journalist and historian, wrote a biography of the caudillo, Franco: The Man and His Nation, in which Hills recounts this episode in some detail (pp. 337-59).
Hills notes that Franco had inclined against France and Britain at the outbreak of war for a mix of historical reasons and because he believed neutrality during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) was a disguised way of the democracies putting their thumb on the scales against him, specifically by the British letting thousands of Republican volunteers—publicly supported by the Labour leader Clement Attlee—join the Soviet side of the war, and France had opened its border to a flood of Republican war materiel at the crucial moment in late 1938 when the Ebro battle split the Republicans’ remaining territories in two.
But General Franco’s abiding hatred was Soviet Communism and the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 turned him strongly anti-German for a time. There was always from Franco, too, an admiration for Winston Churchill and British resolve, Hills explains, and it was not just at a theoretical or spiritual level: Franco had a practical belief that the Royal Navy could not be defeated—certainly not by Hermann Goring’s air force—and that Britain would remain defiant until the Germans wore themselves out on the Continent, at which point the Soviets would pounce.
The Generals around Franco were split and he would have had to enter a war with a divided elite no matter which side he took. It was also notable that the leader of the rebellion at the Oviedo garrison Antonio Aranda, the Cadiz front leader Jose Varela, the man who had sacrificed his son on the Alcazar front Jose Moscardo, and the commander of the powerful Navarra corps that had buttressed the Nationalists on so many fronts Jose Solchaga—some of the most able and powerful generals in Franco’s regime—were pro-British, and not tepidly.
FRANCO’S WEAK POSITION
When Franco arrived at Hendaye he confronted a Fuhrer whose forces had swept aside the French Army that was far more modern and powerful than Spain’s, not to mention the Czechs, Scandinavians, and the Low Countries. The German Army had actually crossed the frontier and was occupying the corner of Spain adjacent to Hendaye.
Hills explains that Franco was on even thinner ice with the Germans, politically, mostly because of the March 1940 Anglo-Spanish trade agreement, which kept Spanish iron ore flowing to Britain, Hitler’s one remaining enemy.
Franco had also aroused serious suspicion within the Nazi leadership by refusing to impose any antisemitic legislation domestically and then opening Spain’s borders during the fall of France; a “conservative estimate” is that this let 30,000 Jews escape from France. Had the Sovietized Republic been victorious in 1939, those borders would have been firmly shut in 1940, a moment when Stalin was literally fuelling the Nazi war machine, as Sean McMeekin lays out in his new book, Stalin’s War. Later, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Franco’s diplomats rescued at least 30,000 more Jews from the Nazi-occupied East, according to Yad Vashem; the systematic nature of these interventions attracted attention, and a Spanish diplomat in Bulgaria is repeatedly referred to as “the well-known friend of the Jews” in infuriated German cables.
Within Spain, a dire economic downward spiral was underway due to the failure of the 1939 harvest; significant parts of the Spanish population were at near-starvation-levels of deprivation.
Franco, thus, felt himself in a precarious situation, and in dire need of avoiding provoking Hitler. Serrano Suner, Franco’s brother-in-law, appointed as foreign minister a mere week earlier (16 October 1940), recommended taking Spain all-in on Hitler’s side, but Franco held fast; he told his generals that “the English will never give in” and would fight from Canada and America if necessary, Hills documents.
Franco’s aim at Hendaye was, therefore, to avoid a point-blank “no” to Hitler—that way lay invasion and Spain’s subjugation to the Nazis. Rather, explains Hills, Franco would let stand the idea that he would come into the war on Hitler’s side, but always he would find just one more point in need of clarification before he could materially commit. This policy of stringing the Germans along, maintained throughout the war, infuriated the British ambassador in Spain Sir Samuel Hoare and the Germans in equal measure.
As Hills notes, it is the letters written and the words spoken in this period—with the Nazi war machine at his gates and a desperate internal economic situation—that “would later be used as evidence against [Franco]: but his actions did not correspond with his words”.
In the lead-up to the meeting, Franco had applied the lessons learned in Morocco: to defeat the Moors, use the Moors. Serrano was moved into place as foreign minister: the Nazis assumed this augured well—as did the British. Serrano’s Falangism and enthusiasm for the Third Reich (and Fascist Italy) was hardly disguised. But Franco had here prepared the ground.
Franco laid down a price to bring Spain into the war—Gibraltar and French territories in Africa—that he knew could not be met. Hitler needed Vichy onside to operate from her African holdings as he abandoned plans to invade Britain directly and sought to strangle Britain on the Mediterranean. Moreover, Serrano, already somewhat soured on the Nazis during his state visit in August 1940, when the Germans had dismissed Spanish territorial claims summarily and slyly threatened his country, had been given firm lines emanating from Franco himself and no other.
A STORMY MEETING
The seven-hour meeting between Hitler and General Franco did not go well. Hitler at one stage got up and declared there was no point in continuing the meeting after Franco had insisted that Britain was not beaten and would not be beaten even if the islands were conquered. When Hitler tried to use the moral leverage of the help Germany had given the Nationalists during the Civil War, Franco turned it around on him by making Hitler feel—as he wrote later—“like a Jew”. Hitler told Mussolini after the meeting, “I would rather have three or four teeth extracted than go through that again”.
Franco eventually said he would sign an accord in exchange for sufficient food and oil—then left before signing anything, to the utter fury of Von Ribbentrop, who denounced the “Jesuit” Serrano and “the ungrateful coward Franco who owes us everything”.
A Secret Protocol would ultimately be signed that left the situation as vague as it had been before: Franco was committed to coming into the war on the Germans’ side but with no date, and the Germans were committed to giving Franco parts of Africa but with no specificity on which bits.
At further meetings in December 1940, Hitler’s representatives ran into such intransigence from Franco that the FELIX operation—the Mediterranean anti-British plan after Operation SEA LION had been shelved, intended to block Britain’s access to the Middle East by 10 January 1941—was “postponed” as well.
Hitler wrote in despair to Mussolini on 31 December 1940 that Franco had refused “to cooperate with the Axis Powers”. In January 1941, a flurry of diplomatic notes were sent to Madrid, and Hitler wrote directly to the caudillo, in a letter received on 8 February 1941, practically begging for Spain to be brought into the war. All these approaches ran into the stone wall of Franco’s refusal, says Hills.
No campaign could begin in Spain in a January, Franco said. The day before Hitler’s letter arrived, Franco had sent to Berlin a list of requirements that would need to be satisfied before he could prepare to join them in war, requirements that the Nazi regime noted were “so obviously unrealisable that they can only be evaluated as” a pretext to avoid joining the German war.
Hitler had ended his letter with a not-so-subtle threat that “the world’s most tremendous military machine” stood ready and all doubters could expect a demonstration; it did not move Franco.
On 26 February 1941, Franco wrote Hitler a letter, declaring it a “prompt reply” to the letter Hitler had sent that was dated 6 February; it was effusive in its praise, unmistakeable in its rebuff, and predictable in its effect—igniting the rage of the Fuhrer.
But Franco had prevailed, Hills concludes: his country would not join in Hitler’s war, and all the time the clock was running down even further towards the Nazi-Soviet war and America’s entry onto the battlefield.
A NOTE ON BARBAROSSA
When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Franco was pleased, of course, but he steadfastly refused to declare war on the Soviet Union and allowed only volunteers (the so-called “Blue Division”) to be gathered by Serrano to be sent to the Eastern Front—volunteers who went for reasons as various as pay-and-rations at a moment of dire scarcity in Spain, anti-Communism, and pro-Hitlerism.
The nearest Franco ever came to entering the war was in the months after BARBAROSSA began, Hills documents: over the summer of 1941, some disturbing streams of intelligence suggested the British and Americans were about to move against Spain, perhaps through exiled Republican generals. But Franco held his nerve, avoided doing anything rash, and the moment passed by September 1941 when the supposed date for the onset of the conspiracy came and went without activity.
Serrano was quietly purged in late 1942—removed as foreign minister and as head of the Falange Party—after a bomb attack nearly killed Varela on 14 August and was traced back to Serrano’s Falangists in collaboration with the Nazis.
An interesting final note: where Ambassador Hoare concluded that Franco had wanted to join the Axis’ war and had worked to help it as far as possible, Winston Churchill was on the other side: he concluded that Franco had not wanted to get involved in Hitler’s war and had resisted immense pressures—and inducements—to do so. Had Franco joined Hitler, there were obvious immediate benefits and the seeming likelihood at the time the decision was made was that Franco would be joining the winning side and thus ensuring that the winner was grateful to him.
Expressing this view in public in May 1944, Churchill said in the Commons: “There is no doubt that if Spain had yielded to German blandishments and pressure at that juncture [i.e. 1940-41,] our burden would have been much heavier. The Straits of Gibraltar would have been closed and all access to Malta would have been cut off from the West. All the Spanish coast would have become the nesting place of German U-boats.”
Churchill flattered Hoare—who took personal credit for keeping Franco out of the war—by saying: “Our Ambassador deserves credit for the influence he rapidly acquired and which continually grew.” But even in public Churchill placed the decisive factor elsewhere: “the main credit is undoubtedly due to the Spanish resolve to keep out of the war. They had had enough of war and they wished to keep out of it.”