Francisco Franco was one of the most brutal fascist dictators of all time, yet he probably saved Europe from fascism. In addition, Franco helped ensure Allied victory in World War II.
Strangely, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini set the stage for their eventual defeat by helping Franco win the Spanish Civil War. To explain, Franco became leader of a military coup against Spain’s democratic Republic because he could get military aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
The coup failed triggering the Spanish Civil War, and Franco became the Generalissimo or dictator of the Nationalist or fascist government. During the Civil War Spain’s fascists or Falange and monarchists fought the socialists, Communists, anarchists and others who supported the Republic. In 1937, the Falange became the official political movement of the nationalists and Franco’s government.
How Hitler and Mussolini beat themselves in Spain
Interestingly, many people outside Spain saw the Civil War as a battle for the soul of Western Civilization. Consequently leftists; like George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, backed the Republic while conservatives sympathized with Franco.
In addition, Europe’s major dictators took an active role in the conflict. Joseph Stalin sent Soviet arms and military advisers to the Republic. Meanwhile, Hitler and Mussolini provided the Falange with military aid including aircraft.
On April 1, 1939 Franco’s well-organized forces crushed the Republic. Once in power, the Generalissimo killed tens of thousands of people in the brutal purge known as the White Terror. Estimates of the White Terror’s death toll range from 100,000 to two million, depending on which historian you read.
How Franco Outwitted Hitler and Saved Europe
A little over a year later, Hitler discovered that his support for Franco was a waste of lives and resources.
World War II broke out five months after Franco’s victory. By June 1940, the Nazis had conquered most of Western Europe, including France. The Fuhrer began pressuring Franco to enter the war on the Axis, or German, side.
Instead of saying yes or no to the Fuhrer, Franco outwitted Hitler by demanding a price the Generalissimo knew his German counterpart could not pay. Franco’s price for entering the war was France’s colonies in North Africa.
However, Hitler had already promised those colonies to another ally; Vichy French dictator Marshal Pétain. Pétain had surrendered the French army to the Nazis in exchange for a promise that France could keep its colonies.
Thus, Franco had a pretext for keeping Spain neutral and out of the war. Moreover, Franco offended Hitler, which kept Britain and the United States from attacking Spain.
Predictably, Hitler was not amused. After a meeting with Franco in 1940, Hitler griped he would rather “have three or four teeth pulled out” than talk to the Generalissimo again.
Hitler bristled at Franco’s betrayal but did nothing about it. Spain stayed neutral and remained so until after the war.
How Franco Helped the Allies Win World II
Had Franco entered the war on the Axis he could have ensured German victory in North Africa, and possibly World War II.
To explain, Britain’s most important overseas naval and air base is the fortress of Gibraltar. Gibraltar; which sits on a peninsula in Southern Spain, controls the Straight of Gibraltar.
The Straight of Gibraltar is the only passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, the Nazis could have cut the British; and later the Americans, off from the Mediterranean. As a result, the British would have had a hard time supporting their armies in North Africa and the Middle East.
Furthermore, Hitler could have sent a large army across the Straight of Gibraltar and conquered Africa and the Middle East. Once in control of the Middle East, the Nazis could have attacked the Soviet Union from the south, through Iran, or Britain’s Empire in India.
In addition, the Nazis could have seized the Suez Canal; the only passage between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. That could have allowed the other Axis member Japan to send its powerful navy into the Mediterranean; and possibly the Atlantic, to support the Nazis. Unlike Nazi Germany, the Japanese had a modern surface fleet that included aircraft carriers and the world’s largest battleships.
The Allies might have won in the end; because of America’s industrial might, but World War II could have been longer and far bloodier. A strong possibility is that the Americans; or the British, would have used the atomic bomb on Germany in 1945.
Why Franco Betrayed Hitler and Saved Europe
Interestingly, it was self preservation; not idealism, that prompted Franco to betray Hitler and save Europe from fascism.
To explain, Franco was afraid Spain could become a battlefield if he entered the war. Remember, the Civil War had ended a little over a year earlier, and there many Spanish Republicans eager to fight on the Allied side.
In addition, the British could have easily landed troops and weapons to help the Republicans restart their war on Franco. In 1942, the Americans could have landed an army in Spain or Portugal to attack the Germans in France.
Faced with those possibilities, Franco wisely chose neutrality. History shows the Generalissimo made the right choice. Germany and Italy lost the war through devastating combat.
In 1945, the Italian people lynched Mussolini, while Hitler shot himself to avoid capture by the Russian army. Franco, however, died peacefully in his bed in November 1975, over 30 years after Hitler’s demise.
By then, Spain was a key ally of the United States and an important member of the anticommunist NATO alliance. In fact, the United States had air and naval bases in Spain at the time of Franco’s death.
Franco’s role in World War II shows why Interventionism can be a bad idea
Franco’s behavior in World War II shows why intervening in other nations’ civil wars is a bad idea.
Hitler and Mussolini thought they were buying an ally by sending supplies and men to help Franco. Instead, they wasted resources and manpower and got nothing in return. In fact, the 4,000 Italians and 300 Germans killed fighting for Franco died for nothing.
Had Hitler and Mussolini refused to help Franco, the Spanish Civil War could have dragged on until 1940, or the Republic could have won. Either way, Hitler could have had a pretext to invade Spain and seize Gibraltar in 1940.
By allowing Franco to win, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) kept the Nazis out of Spain without firing a shot. Additionally, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ensured Gibraltar’s security; and British control of the Mediterranean, by keeping out of the Spanish Civil War.
The Lesson from history Franco’s Betrayal of Hitler should Teach us
Ultimately, the Generalissimo’s betrayal of Hitler vindicates American, British, and French leaders who refused to intervene in Spain on the side of the Republic.
Had Roosevelt and Chamberlain listened to the leftists who demanded that America and Britain help the Spanish Republic they could have handed Gibraltar and the Mediterranean to Hitler. The British; who were fighting the Battle of Britain in 1940, could not have prevented a German attack on Spain. Thus, Hitler would have been in a far better strategic position in 1941.
Therefore, the popular notion that Republican victory in Spain could have been a victory for democracy is wrong. Instead, the victory of a fascist tyrant in 1939 helped ensure the victory of democracy in 1945.
We should remember Franco’s strange contribution to Allied victory in World War II the next time the interventionists claim America and its allies must intervene in some civil war to save civilization. Spain’s odd role in World War II shows today’s enemy could be our best friend tomorrow.