The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
December 17, 2008

William D. Rubinstein on the Enigma of Franco: Churchill and Spain - Richard Wigg; The Spanish Right and the Jews - Isabelle Rohr

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Churchill and Spain: The Survival of the Franco Regime, 1940-1945
by Richard Wigg
Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008
Paperback, £19.50

The Spanish Right and the Jews, 1898-1945: Antisemitism and Opportunism
by Isabelle Rohr
Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008
Paperback, £18.95

The Franco regime in Spain, which took power throughout the country in 1939 and lasted until the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, in many ways remains a genuine historical enigma.

On the one hand, there is the Satanic Franco. For many in the English-speaking world and elsewhere, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 represented the great ideological conflict of the twentieth century, when thousands of left-wing activists and intellectuals such as George Orwell and John Cornford went to Spain to fight against the Hitler-backed Franco forces in a war which represented a pure clash between good and evil. In power, Franco was a fascist dictator of the worst type, suppressing all opposition and killing thousands of his opponents, some as late as the early 1970s. During the War the Franco regime was largely friendly to Nazi Germany, and survived after the War chiefly because of Cold War politics. Today, its principles are mocked even in Spain.

Then there is the other side of the coin, the revisionist view of Franco. Although "El Caudillo", as he was known, was a fascist dictator, he kept Spain resolutely neutral during the Second World War, even when the future appeared brightest for the Axis. At his famous meeting with Hitler in southern France in 1940, Franco prevaricated so unrelentingly, and made so many demands of Germany before he would agree to enter the War, that Hitler - who had seldom been spoken to as Franco had done - famously said that he would rather have his teeth pulled than go through the experience again.

The consequences of Spain's neutrality are incalculable and are consistently underestimated in accounts of the War. Had Spain been occupied by German forces and Gibraltar fallen, the British would certainly have lost North Africa, Suez, and the entire Middle East, with the Jews of Palestine doubtless murdered, and with a greatly increased chance of India and even Australia falling to Japanese conquest.

At home, Franco's Spain was the only fascist regime not to promulgate anti-semitic legislation, and, perhaps grudgingly, saved the lives of over 40,000 Jews who fled there or who, elsewhere in Europe, had some claim to Spanish citizenship. While the major fascist leaders were hanged or shot in 1945, Franco continued in power for another thirty years, dying in his bed, after which Spain was peacefully transformed overnight into a stable, democratic constitutional monarchy. It is, to put it mildly, a puzzling record.

Recent English-language scholarship on the Spanish dictator and his regime centres on the magisterial biography by Paul Preston, Franco: A Biography, published in 1995. Uncompromisingly anti-Franco, it ignores - for instance - Spain's role in granting refuge to the Jews, although a scholarly literature certainly existed on the subject when he wrote. The two books reviewed here, both published as a part of Sussex Academic Press's excellent "Studies on Contemporary Spain" series, both illuminated key aspects of Franco's policies and extend the ambiguity which continues to surround them.

Richard Wigg's book examines Winston Churchill's role vis-à-vis wartime Spain. It highlights the paradox that while Churchill was the great anti-Appeaser of the 1930s, Franco owed his survival after about 1943 in some measure to Churchill's apparent warmth towards his regime. In contrast, Britain's successful Ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, had been a leading Appeaser in the 1930s, but detested the Franco regime and would have liked its overthrow.

Churchill was consistently less hostile to Franco than were Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden or America's Ambassador, the historian Carleton Hayes, to say nothing of Labour and the left.

While, as Wigg suggests, Churchill's gratitude to Franco for his neutrality was a factor, there were others. By 1943-44, Churchill was certainly more concerned at a Soviet takeover of post-war Europe than were others among the Western Allies, and probably viewed a sanitised Franco regime as a bulwark against Communism (as America did in the 1950s), certainly in preference to any "red republican" Spanish government, the likely alternative.

Churchill's unique understanding of the nature of totalitarianism also probably led him to conclude that, although fascist in a sense, the Franco regime was not beyond the pale and an enemy of Western civilisation as Nazism obviously was. Wigg's deeply researched study will clearly be the standard work on the subject.

Isabelle Rohr's book highlights the paradoxical nature of the Franco question, for it concerns anti-semitism in a country which, after 1492, was literally without Jews, at least those who did not hide their identities. She documents, however, that much of the Spanish right came to absorb the malign view of Jews embodied elsewhere in post-1870 Europe by the "new anti-semitism", based in the "racial" evil presented by the "Jewish conspiracy".

She also clearly notes a very different strand which emerged in Spain at the time, that many on the Spanish right held philo-semitic views towards Sephardic Jews, regarding them as authentically Spanish. She also highlights the fact of very heavy Jewish participation - understandable in viewing of the support given to Franco by Hitler - of foreign Jews among the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil war, estimated to be as high as thirty percent of all foreign volunteers. Her book gives a fair, although possibly unduly critical, discussion of Spain's role in giving refuge to Jews fleeing the Nazis, which supplements the account given in Haim Avni's Spain, the Jews, and Franco (1982), the leading English-language study.

What is missing from her study - again, ironically - is Franco himself, whose own position vis-à-vis the Jews is discussed in only a few paragraphs. While Franco did make some apparently anti-semitic comments, it is also true that he was, in a sense, philo-semitic, and was emphatically no Nazi-style Jew hater.

There are several reasons for this. Franco's central obsession, as Preston’s biography makes clear, was the "Freemasons", by which he meant not merely the fraternal order but any Spanish liberals, whatever their background. Anti-"Freemason" feeling was rampant among the right in Catholic Europe (and elsewhere), and has yet to receive the attention it deserves from historians.

As well, Franco’s regime drew upon several different sources for its support. While the Falange, the Spanish hard-core fascists, were often racialist pro-Nazis, its traditionalist pro-monarchist supporters were often pro-British and were revolted by Hitler's enormities.

Yet another reason is that Franco was almost certainly himself of Jewish descent, a fact of which he was apparently well-aware. ("Franco" is a common Sephardic name.) Franco's ancestry was widely rumoured at the time, but was apparently confirmed in a little-noted article published in the American Jewish magazine Midstream in 1977 by Nathaniel Weyl, which has been ignored by historians. Rohr's wide-ranging book will certainly be the leading work on Spanish anti-semitism, but, in common with all of the other works on Franco, will not genuinely unravel the paradoxes surrounding the Spanish dictator and his regime.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Israel, the Jews, and the West: The Fall and Rise of Antisemitism, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement