Far from helping Jews, Franco’s regime was implacably hostile

Paul Preston’s new book details the full extent of Franco’s antisemitism, which formed a core part of his governing ideology

July 06, 2023 16:03

In May 1949, Israel’s ambassador to the UN addressed the General Assembly to oppose the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Europe’s last surviving fascist regime: Francisco Franco’s Spain.

“We do not for a moment assert that the Spanish regime has any direct part in [the] policy of extermination,” Abba Eban declared. “But we do assert that it was an active and sympathetic ally of the regime that was responsible.”

Several months later, Madrid responded. In a 50-page dossier, Espana y los Judios, Franco’s propagandists claimed that, thanks to its “sympathy and friendship”, Spain had, in fact, saved thousands of imperilled Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis.

But, as Professor Paul Preston’s new book, Architects of Terror: Paranoia, Conspiracy and Antisemitism in Franco’s Spain, painstakingly and conclusively details, these claims were utterly disingenuous. Instead, a vicious current of antisemitism coursed through Franco’s decades-long rule — a reflection of the Caudillo’s own warped and conspiratorial worldview. Indeed, even at the very moment he was falsely claiming a hitherto unseen humanitarian streak, Franco was penning a series of antisemitic diatribes under a pseudonym that appeared in the fascist’s daily newspaper Arriba.

Those articles — in which he claimed that a mere “handful of Jews” had been the “target of German racism” — revealed Franco’s enduring and deep-rooted belief in what the Spanish far-right had termed the “Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy”. Despite the fact that Spain’s Jewish population numbered no more than 6,000 in 1936, the fiction that the country’s Catholic civilisation was under assault from a conspiracy, directed by Jews and carried out by communists and freemasons, was the central justification for the Civil War that Franco prosecuted over the next three blood-soaked years.

Jew-hate entered the Spanish political mainstream in the early 1930s, fed by numerous editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the publication of the best-selling Origins of the Spanish Revolution. Written by a Catalan priest, Juan Tusquets, it popularised both the Protocols and the notion of the Jewish-led conspiracy.

As he rose through the ranks of the army, Franco imbibed this poison, reading Tusquet and subscribing to antisemitic conspiracy-mongering publications such as Acción Española and the Geneva-based Bulletin de L’Entente Internationale contre la Troisième Internationale.

Once the coup to topple the Republic was launched in July 1936, antisemitic propaganda flourished in areas seized by the Nationalists: one newspaper, for instance, ran a major series on the “Jewish Beast”, while others lavished praise on the Third Reich’s antisemitic laws; Falangist posters displayed cartoons from Der Stürmer; and, from the southern front, the murderous General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano’s daily radio broadcasts lashed “the race that propagates communism, hoards gold and aspires to subjugate the world”.

The head of the Catholic Church in Spain, Toledo’s Cardinal Isidro Gomá, blessed the holy crusade, blaming the nation’s ills on “Jews and the freemasons who poisoned the nation’s souls with absurd doctrines”. Franco meanwhile began to stock the new regime with fellow Jew-haters. Juan Pujolwas appointed to run the rebels’ press and propaganda service. Tusquets joined Franco’s staff and was appointed as the liaison between the generalissimo and Cardinal Goma.

The novelist José María Pemán was charged with running the Nationalists’ education ministry and set about purging the teaching profession of Jews, communists and freemasons. Later, Franco’s brother-in-law, Ramón Serrano Suñer, a Nazi sympathiser and believer in the The Protocols, became minister of the interior and then foreign minister. Another key henchman, and future prime minister, Captain Luis Carrero Blanco, acted, writes Preston, as a “constant spur to Franco’s antisemitism”.

As he slaughtered his way to victory, Franco repeatedly assailed the Jews. The crimes of the “red hordes”, he declared, were inspired by “the limitless cruelty of an accursed race”. Spain had been torn apart by “Judaizing freemasonry”. And, as he finally took Madrid in May 1939, he spoke of the need to “extinguish … the Jewish spirit that facilitated the alliance of big capital with Marxism”.

Nonetheless, as Preston argues, while the fictional “Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik” conspiracy had been successful in “justifying and generating enthusiasm for the rebel war effort”, the Nationalists’ triumph did not, in Franco’s eyes, bring to an end “the need for lies about the Jews”. While he rattled on about freeing “the Fatherland from the Jewish yoke”, his regime allowed its friends in the German Embassy to distribute antisemitic leaflets, pamphlets and “fake news” to the Spanish public and press.

The new regime’s racial policy was clear from the outset: Jews (with the exception of those who had proved their “loyalty to the Movimiento Nacional”) and those who had a “marked Jewish character” were to be barred from entering Spain; the identity papers and residence permits of Jews were stamped with the word “Judío” in red ink; and, as late as 1957, police personal dossiers were referring to individuals as dangerous because of their “Israelite origins”. It was, however, its approach towards Jewish refugees that would rest at the heart of the regime’s post-war defence against charges of antisemitism.

It is true, Preston argues, that “a significant number” of Jews escaped death by entering Spain — up to 35,000 are thought to have passed through the country — during the Second World War. The reality, however, was rather bleaker.

Jews who arrived illegally and didn’t have onward visas were detained in squalid camps such as Miranda de Ebro. Others were turned back at the border. And Franco also allowed the Nazis to seize German Jews and return them to the Third Reich.

Nor did Franco’s government attempt to help Sephardic Jews outside Spain. In June 1941, for instance, Suñer’s Foreign Ministry reminded its diplomats in Greece and the Balkans that they were not Spanish citizens and should not be given consular protection. Suñer opposed allowing Jewish converts to Catholicism to enter Spain. The press meanwhile often reported Nazi persecution of “foul and diseased” Jews approvingly.

At the same time, the regime sent orders to civil governors to build an archive of all Jews in Spain. This may have been intended to assist deportations should Franco decide to formally join the war; there are claims Spain’s ambassador to Berlin handed the list to Himmler in 1942.

Nonetheless, as the war began to turn, Franco began to subtly shift gears. When Churchill met the Spanish ambassador in April 1943, Spain was left in no doubt that the Allies would look dimly on any failure to assist “people seeking safety from the horrors of Nazi domination”. There was a grim irony in the fact that it was his belief in an all-powerful Jewish conspiracy pulling the strings in London and Washington that led Franco to consider a more lenient stance towards Jewish refugees.

However, even as the Nazis warned Madrid in 1943 that they would end their “special treatment” of Spanish Jews living in occupied Europe and begin deporting them, Franco dithered about whether to repatriate them. His ministers’ main concern was that a failure to do so would “risk an intensification of international hostility against us”.

It was decided a small number — no more than 250 at any one time — would be allowed to remain, but only while they sought visas to leave the country. All the same, Franco still sought to tighten the rules, insisting that “under no circumstances will we allow Jews to settle in Spain”.

A year later, Franco came under pressure from the UK and US to repatriate Jews of Spanish origin threatened by the Holocaust in Hungary. He reluctantly agreed to help a small number. It was the heroic actions of the country’s charges d’affaires in Budapest, Ángel Sanz Briz, who bent the rules and issued hundreds of passports and letters of protection, that saved the lives of thousands of Jews.

Other Spanish diplomats in Sofia, Berlin, Bucharest, Paris and Athens worked surreptitiously to rescue Jews — but their actions were neither instigated nor authorised. That, however, would not stop Franco later appropriating their activities to concoct a wholly undeserved record of “sympathy and friendship” to Europe’s Jews.

July 06, 2023 16:03

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