Of the many officially neutral countries in World War Two, Spain was perhaps the country closest to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Here, Laura Kerr follows up on her article on Switzerland in World War Two, by considering whether General Franco’s Nationalist Spain was a friend of Hitler, or actually neutral between the Allies and Axis Powers.
Non-belligerent - A nation or person that is not engaged in a war or conflict.
Neutral - An impartial or unbiased state or person.
Spain’s official stance of non-belligerence during World War Two is best taken with a pinch of salt. While its reasons to stay uninvolved appear legitimate, in reality Spain was arguably the most involved out of all “neutral countries”.
“Non-belligerent” normally refers to a state or country that does not get involved in a war, normally resulting in their neutrality. Spain’s reason for not officially getting involved was, of course, the Spanish Civil War.
This was a bloody civil war fought from 1936-1939 between the Republicans and the Nationalists. From an ideological perspective, the Spanish Civil War could be considered a precursor to World War Two and almost foreshadowed the end to the fragile equilibrium established in Europe.
On one side you had the Republic government. They were largely liberals and fought against the conservative Nationalist rebels. The Soviet Union provided the Republicans with significant military assistance, although France and Britain were more wary about supporting them. The Republic also received volunteer International Brigades from Western Europe and the U.S. More broadly, many in Europe saw the Spanish conflict as a threat to the peace that had settled in Europe and wanted to prevent the spread of the Nationalists’ fascist-linked ideology.
The Nationalists’ rebellion started off as a failed military coup but resulted in their leader, General Francisco Franco, becoming dictator of Spain. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany both provided military aid, not only to support the Nationalists but also as a military testing ground for new weapons they hoped to later use.
The rebels won in 1939 and General Franco was made Head of State. While General Franco leaned heavily ideologically to Nazi Germany and the Axis countries, he was careful to appease the Western allies for trading reasons.
The main way in which Spain entered World War Two was through volunteers. The side with which each man volunteered largely paralleled the side on which they had fought during the Spanish Civil War. Over 18,000 nationalist men volunteered to fight for the Axis Powers, on the condition they would be fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union rather than against the Western Allies. By doing this, General Franco assisted and repaid Hitler while maintaining peace with Western Europe and the U.S.
Conversely, as a result of losing the civil war, many of the Republicans went into exile and fled to refugee camps in southern France. At the outbreak of the Second World War, they joined French forces to fight against the Axis Powers. It is estimated that over 60,000 Spaniards joined the French resistance alone. Just over 1,000 Spaniards (largely the communist leaders) fled to the Soviet Union and fought alongside the Red Army after the invasion in 1941.
Diplomacy is where the term ‘non-belligerency’ is distinguished from absolute neutrality. While volunteers technically assisted both the Allies and Axis during World War Two militaristically, General Franco also provided the Axis Powers with both economic assistance and useful intelligence. In 1940, Franco signed the Protocol of Hendaya, which provided for close cooperation among the governments of Spain, Italy and Germany.
Furthermore General Franco and Hitler engaged in numerous talks discussing the possibility of active involvement in the war and the issue of Gibraltar. This was an area of Spain in British control that Hitler was keen to seize. However General Franco repeatedly refused entry to German soldiers, arguing that the United Kingdom and its colonies still posed a major threat to Spain. In these discussions, General Franco often demanded too much in return for active entry into the war. Whether this was simply desperation considering Spain’s war-torn state, or a way of delaying irreversible actions, it resulted in a lack of official action. Among his other demands, General Franco asked for a large supply of grain to feed its population, which Germany could not provide. Pressure to invade Gibraltar was only relieved in 1941 when Hitler focused his attention on the Eastern front by invading the Soviet Union. After a meeting on October 23, 1940 to discuss details about the alliance between Spain and Germany, Hitler was famously quoted telling Mussolini: "I prefer to have three or four of my own teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again!” This suggests that despite ideological similarities, the two leaders had a hard time making definite agreements.
Allied Trade Pressure
Like most countries during World War Two, Spain was struggling economically. People were starving and it relied heavily on trade and imports to support itself. The Allies worked hard to ensure Spain could not afford to actively enter the war and used trading blockades and economic incentives to enforce that.
Portugal and Spain had long had an alliance, therefore Portugal provided Spain with the much needed grain to ease its food shortages. However, to put pressure on Spain, America and Britain reduced Spain’s access to oil. All told, considering its economic and social depression after the Civil War, entering World War Two would have led to economic pressure which could have effectively brought the country to a halt.
Great Britain also followed a policy of "building a network of mutual interests and creating the conditions, thanks to which any breakup between the two countries would mean a key loss for Spanish trade and industry.” This largely dictated Spanish movements towards the Western Allies during the war.
As a result of tactical trade blockades and other agreements, over the war Spain was inescapably dependent on the United States and Great Britain.
A cowardly ending
Despite its seemingly favorable views towards the Axis Powers in the early years of the war, General Franco changed his tune as Hitler’s indestructible façade began to slip and victory for the Allies seemed inevitable. It was only when this happened that Spain reverted back from ‘non-belligerence’ to true neutrality and began to act that way.
However, this quick change of tact didn’t mean they could escape the consequences of favoring the Axis. As a result of their cooperation with Nazi Germany, not only militaristically but also economically, Spain was isolated by the major powers in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Although Roosevelt had promised Spain would not suffer sanctions from the United Nations as a result of their alliance, the U.S. president died in April 1945, leaving Truman to take power, who was less forgiving of General Franco. That being said, with the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the US later saw conservative Spain as more of an ally against the rise of communism, rather than a threat.
In conclusion, while it is clear that Franco’s Spain did favor the Axis Powers of the war, it did not technically become involved in the war. Its conduct during World War Two combined flexibility on who her allies were with a desperation to survive. After such a damaging Civil War, Spain was not in the position to wholly side with either the Allies or Axis Powers. It begs the question, therefore, that if they had been a fit state, who would they have chosen? And does that make them any better?
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