When World War II erupted, Franco openly sided with the Fascist states of Germany and Italy. Following the German defeat of France, Hitler met with Franco at Hendaye on 23 October 1940 along the border with Spain and demanded that Franco enter the war. Hitler was angry at Franco's noncommittal response, which was accompanied by an impressive shopping list of required military hardware. Franco was displeased at Hitler's vague reply to the Spanish dictator's demand for territorial compensation, especially French Morocco.
Although he promised Hitler a quick response, Franco dallied and never brought Spain into the war. He did not wish to entangle his still-prostrate country in a new war, and he believed his cause was better served if he posed as a technical neutral. This attitude of nonbelligerency (not neutrality) infuriated Hitler, who even considered invading Spain (Operation felix) as part of a Mediterranean strategy following his defeat in the Battle of Britain.
Franco did congratulate Hitler after each of his early victories and sent troops, under the guise of volunteers, to fight Russia after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. This was the Blue Division, so named because the troops wore blue Falange Party shirts with their red Carlist berets and brown Foreign Legion trousers. Commanded by General Augustín Muñoz Grandes, this force of 18,000 men was sent to fight in the Soviet Union to demonstrate Franco's hatred of communism, to get rid of Falange hotheads, as a sop to Hitler, and to demonstrate to Hitler that Spaniards would fight a German invasion of Spain and fight well. The Blue Division, which joined the German order of battle as the 250th Infantry Division in Army Group North, distinguished itself in fighting around Leningrad. From August 1941 to March 1944, some 47,000 Spanish soldiers served in the division. The division sustained 22,000 casualties, a casualty rate of 47 percent, of whom 4,500 died. Fewer than 300 prisoners of war were repatriated in 1954. The Allies pressed Franco to withdraw the Blue Division, but Hitler released it without being asked in order to strengthen Franco's hand against the Allies. The last troops returned to Spain in April 1944, although Spanish volunteers continued to fight for Germany afterward. Several were organized into Waffen-Schutzstaffel (Waffen-SS) units, and a Spanish SS battalion helped defend Berlin to the last.
Throughout the war, Franco provided the Germans and Italians with assistance in the form of observation posts in Spanish Morocco to monitor Allied ship movements, and he allowed German submarines to be serviced in Spanish ports. During the Allied buildup at Gibraltar preceding Operation torch, Franco ordered partial mobilization of the Spanish military but did nothing more. The success of torch and especially the toppling of Benito Mussolini from power led Franco to shift to a more neutral position. He reduced the strength of the Blue Division and at the end of 1943 dissolved the Falangist militia.
In February 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt also ordered an embargo on fuel and food exports to Spain. On 2 May 1944, with stocks of oil nearly exhausted, Franco signed an agreement with the Allies whereby he promised a strictly neutral stance. He agreed to hand over all interned Italian ships, to close the German consulate in Tangier, and to expel German intelligence agents from Spain. He also agreed to curtail wolfram shipments to Germany to a token 20 tons a month. Despite this agreement, until the end of the war Spain continued to furnish the Germans with intelligence information. Only in April 1945 did Spain sever diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany and Japan.
When World War II was over, Spain became a primary refuge for leading Nazis and collaborators. The Allies sought to punish Franco's wartime conduct with quarantine treatment. Spain was excluded from the United Nations and condemned for its political nature and close association with the Axis nations. The Cold War changed the western attitude, however, and the United States came to view Spain as a bulwark against communism. The boycott of Franco was lifted; U.S. air and naval bases were established in Spain, and U.S. aid helped prop up the regime, a fact remembered with bitterness by many Spanish democrats.
Roger L. Rice and Spencer C. Tucker
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