Franco and Hitler

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Stanley G. Payne’s study of Spain during World War II belongs to the myth-busting genre of historical writing. The first myth it dispels, ironically, involves the book’s title, Franco and Hitler, which is misleading insofar as it implies a close personal relationship between General Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, and Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Nazi Germany. Payne’s subtitle, Spain, Germany, and World War II, more accurately identifies his book’s contents.

Franco and Hitler met only once. Their encounter took place on October 23, 1940, at Hendaye, a town on the Spanish border in southwestern Nazi-occupied France. Payne calls that meeting “perhaps the most mythified event” of Franco’s lengthy political career. This myth held that Franco kept Hitler waiting, outtalked him, and frustrated the führer by keeping Spain out of World War II and preserving Spanish neutrality. In fact, Franco’s tardy arrival resulted not from political calculation but from the decrepit Spanish railroad’s inability to get him there on time. Franco did talk at length, but what he said scarcely indicated neutrality. Franco thanked Hitler for all that Nazi Germany had done to support Spain, and he also affirmed Spain’s intention to be Germany’s military partner. In the autumn of 1940, Hitler wanted such cooperation from Spain, hoping that it would facilitate the conquest of Gibraltar and help to block the British while Nazi Germany prepared to invade the Soviet Union. Franco, however, was cautious, for he wanted to ensure terms of engagement with Nazi Germany that would best serve Spain’s interests, including its territorial ambitions in North Africa and the economic and military aid that Spain sorely needed.

Hitler left Hendaye thinking he had what he wanted at the time, a Spanish pledge to join Nazi Germany’s war effort. As World War II progressed and eventually turned against the Third Reich, Hitler would reconsider the desirability of direct Spanish military efforts because Franco’s ill-equipped forces required more German support than their combat was worth. Meanwhile, Franco left Hendaye uneasy about Hitler’s inattention to the Spanish concerns that remained foremost on Franco’s mind. The result was a German-Spanish wartime relationship that remained in flux, maintained not by Franco and Hitler directly, apart from periodic correspondence between them, but primarily by the interaction and intrigue among their diplomatic surrogates. Though in flux, Spain’s support for and dependence upon Nazi Germany did not amount to Spanish neutrality, at least not until Nazi Germany’s complete defeat was undeniable.

Payne makes his case with a detailed analysis that begins with the dismantling of other myths, some of them surrounding the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which enabled Franco to approach the heights of his long-lasting power. In particular, Payne resists the oversimplification that this struggle pitted democracy against fascism. With the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic in April, 1931, a democratic breakthrough did take place in Spain, but Payne argues that the regime failed to meet rising economic expectations. Soon increasingly nondemocratic factions on the left and right vied for control. A right-wing military revolt in the summer of 1936 led, in Payne’s words, to “an intense civil war of the most violent and atrocious kind.” Supported by Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) and the Soviet Union, as well as by American and European volunteers in the left-wing International Brigades, the Republican forces battled the insurgent Nacionales (Nationalists) who, with help from Hitler and Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), the Italian fascist leader, announced victory on April 1, 1939. Nationalist control of Spain included bloodthirsty repression, which, according to Payne, resulted in 28,000 to 30,000 executions.

Notable for his valor and leadership during earlier colonial combat in Morocco, Franco had loyally served the Second Republic until 1936 when its leftist leaders deposed him as chief of the general staff. Still the Spanish military’s most prominent officer, Franco was the obvious choice when the nationalist junta sought the military leadership required for successful advances against Republican strongholds. Franco had early contact with the rebel leadership but was not at first in the junta’s vanguard. By the civil war’s end, however, he would enjoy more power than any previous Spanish ruler, directing Spain’s destiny for forty years. Spain went through varied phases during those...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Journal of Military History 72, no. 4 (October, 2008): 1320-1322.

World War II 23, no. 2 (June/July, 2008): 75-76.