Interview'Franco's benevolence was a self-congratulatory myth'

How dictator Franco built his regime vilifying the Jews, then tried to hide it

In his new book ‘Architects of Terror,’ Sir Paul Preston shows how Spain’s ties to Nazi Germany and use of antisemitic propaganda belied its claims of sympathy for Jewish refugees

Hitler and Francisco Franco give the Nazi salute as they walk by German soldiers at the train station at Hendaye, France, October 23, 1940. (Public domain)
Hitler and Francisco Franco give the Nazi salute as they walk by German soldiers at the train station at Hendaye, France, October 23, 1940. (Public domain)

In the spring of 1937, a book was published in the zone controlled by General Francisco Franco’s military rebels. Its subject, the progress of the Spanish Civil War to date, was entitled “War in Spain against Bolshevik Judaism.” Curiously, though, there was no mention of Jews or Bolsheviks on any of its pages.

Why, then, was Franco framing the Spanish Civil War as a conflict against Jews and Bolsheviks? This is the main question Sir Paul Preston examines in “Architects of Terror: Paranoia, Conspiracy and Anti-Semitism in Franco’s Spain,” which hit US shelves on August 1.

The book explores how, during the years of the Second Spanish Republic from 1931 to 1936, throughout the ensuing Spanish Civil War, and for many decades after it ended, a myth continued to be fostered in Spain that Jews and freemasons were attempting to destroy Spanish Christian civilization and plotting to take over the world.

The British historian points out that antisemitism has been a common theme in Spanish history for centuries, most notably with the 1492 expulsion of the country’s Jews marking the start of the centuries-long Spanish Inquisition.

It was only after the foundation of the Second Republic in April 1931, however, that antisemitism began to play a key role in day-to-day politics in Spanish public life, says Preston, whose previous books include “The Spanish Civil War,” “Franco,” “Juan Carlos,” and “The Spanish Holocaust.”

“The extreme right was determined to destroy [the Second Republic] and its reformist agenda [and] to justify its efforts. The cover was used that this was a life-or-death struggle to defend Spain’s traditional values against an attack by a coordinated force of leftists and freemasons masterminded by the Jews,” Preston, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics, told The Times of Israel from his home in London.

Sir Paul Preston, author of ‘Architects of Terror.’ (Badajoz Alone)

The British scholar, who was knighted by the late Elizabeth II in 2018 for his contributions to UK-Spain relations, claims that although the Francoist forces “did not fight in the Spanish Civil War in order to annihilate Jews, antisemitic and anti-masonic propaganda had served to unify and to intensify enmity against the Republic.”

The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936 to 1939 between the republicans — made up of liberals, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists and Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalists — and the nationalists, or rebels. It took the lives of 500,000 Spaniards. In April 1939, rebel leader Franco — who by then had assumed the role of Spain’s supreme leader with dictatorial powers — issued the last dispatch of the war. “Nationalist troops have achieved their ultimate military objectives. The war has ended,” he proclaimed.

Preston notes that for the rebels at least, the Spanish Civil War was actually fought to overturn the educational and social reforms of the democratic Second Republic and to combat its cultural challenges to the established order.

“But the bogeyman of the Jewish–masonic–Bolshevik conspiracy provided a convenient label for a huge range of leftists and liberals that [were] bundled [by the rebels] into an ‘other’ that needed to be exterminated,” he says.

The antisemitism of the right in Spain during the 1930s also fed into approval of the activities of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Preston says comparisons were often made between the influence the Nazis accused the Jews of having in Weimar Germany and the influence the Jews had allegedly enjoyed in medieval Spain.

Hitler greets Francisco Franco upon his arrival for a meeting at Hendaye, France, October 23, 1940. (Public domain)

“Similarly, the activities of the Nazis were presented as a 20th-century emulation of the expulsion of the Jews by the so-called Catholic Kings Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Aragón in 1492. Both were presented as necessary measures to protect national values and interests,” says Preston.

The historian describes the central idea behind the so-called Jewish–masonic–Bolshevik conspiracy theory as “absurd, stupid, and illogical.”

“What makes all of this demonstrably absurd is the fact that in 1931 there were hardly any Jews in Spain and in Spanish Morocco, about 3,000 in total,” Preston says. “Those numbers doubled from the rise of the Nazis. Between 1933 and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, roughly another 3,000 Jews reached Spain. But we are talking about refugees, people who are struggling for their own survival, hardly individuals in a position to dominate the world.”

Still, Preston’s book spends considerable time and ink exploring the public platform antisemites were given in Spanish newspapers to promote their views in Spain during the 1930s and for many decades after. The more vehement among them, such as El Siglo Futuro and El Correo Catalán, were newspapers that supported the extreme right. But diatribes against the Jewish–masonic–Bolshevik conspiracy could often be found in more mainstream conservative dailies, such as the monarchist ABC and the Catholic El Debate, the historian says.

Antisemitism increased in Spain after 1932 when numerous Spanish translations of the fiercely antisemitic fiction, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” appeared. First published in Russia by Russian writer and mystic Sergei Nilus in 1905 as an appendix to “The Great in the Small: The Coming of the Anti-Christ and the Rule of Satan on Earth,” the book’s main intent was to portray Jews as having secret plans to rule the world by manipulating the economy, controlling the media, and fostering religious conflict.

Those views were very much shared by Franco, who “referred to ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ as if it were a serious historical document,” says Preston.

‘Architects of Terror,’ by Sir Paul Preston. (Courtesy)

Citing numerous examples of Franco’s paranoid “conviction that the Jewish–masonic–Bolshevik conspiracy really existed,” Preston says that Franco sent pope Pius XII a document in April 1943 claiming to have proof of “international freemasonry and Judaism ordering their followers to carry out a program of hatred against our Catholic civilization.” The Vatican was not convinced, however.

Preston claims the religion-based antisemitism of the Francoist right shares many similarities with the extreme racism of the Third Reich. The historian also notes that “from the outbreak of the Second World War until the end of 1942, the Franco dictatorship had not allowed Jewish refugees to settle in Spain, even if they held Spanish passports.”

His book quotes from a report issued to the Spanish Foreign Ministry in January 1939, following a proposal that 150,000 Romanian Catholics of Jewish origin should be allowed to settle in Spain. Spain’s then-foreign minister in Romania, Pedro de Prat y Soutzo, rejected the proposal. “These Jews and their arrival in Spain would be similar to that of a plague of parasites,” the minister wrote in his official report to the Foreign Ministry.

Preston says there is no doubt, however, that a significant number of Jewish lives were saved as they fled from Nazi terror through Spain. After 1940, roughly 20,000 to 35,000 Jewish refugees passed through neutral Spain as they fled persecution in Nazi-controlled areas of Europe — some clandestinely and others with grudgingly given permission.

Some Jews were allowed transit but not residence. Jewish refugees who managed to enter Spain without onward visas were kept in overcrowded, unhygienic prison camps. Jewish relief organizations were also banned in Spain and therefore were prevented from giving humanitarian aid to the refugees, says Preston.

The historian notes how in June 1941, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under Serrano Suñer, informed Spanish consuls in Greece and the Balkans that the Spanish government did not recognize local Sephardic Jews as Spanish citizens and that they could not be afforded consular protection.

“The [Franco] regime allowed the Gestapo to seize German-Jewish and other refugees and take them back to the Third Reich,” Preston says. “The fact that many Jews survived by getting into Spain has been the basis of the self-congratulatory myth that Franco’s attitude towards the Jews was benevolent.”

Exhausted refugees resting in a village. (Jesus Majada)

In April 1945 Franco’s pro-fascist press announced Adolf Hitler’s death “as if he had died heroically in combat,” says Preston. “It was insinuated that the horrors of the German extermination camps were the consequence of the chaos of defeat.”

Bizarrely, though, Franco made considerable efforts after WWII to “ingratiate himself with the World Jewish Congress and with Jews in Israel,” says Preston. “But it was all lies and propaganda, and it was only until the tide of Axis success began to recede that Franco confronted the need to lie about his antisemitism, coupled with the fact that he needed the [financial and political] assistance of the United States after the war.”

Preston also explores how nearly two years after the death of Hitler, Franco, using the pseudonym Jakim Boor, wrote a series of dozens of antisemitic and anti-masonic articles in the Falangist daily, Arriba.

The first article appeared on December 14, 1946, just two days after a plenary session of the General Assembly of the United Nations excluded Spain from all its dependent bodies. Franco, using his secret pseudonym, wrote that “Judaism hates the Catholic religion,” adding that “it was a handful of Jews that were the target of German racism that impelled [the Allies] to go to war.”

“Franco’s dismissal of the Shoah as merely a handful of Jews falling foul of race laws revealed an indifference to, if not approval of, the slaughter of millions of Jews,” says Preston.

Women and girls with shaved heads forced to perform the fascist salute. (Collection of Francisco Moreno Gomez)

“Antisemitism was a key part of the legacy of the Franco dictatorship,” Preston says. Despite the regime’s rigid censorship, it permitted the publication of 12 reprinted editions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” along with other antisemitic works, throughout the Franco dictatorship, which did not end until Franco’s death at the age of 82 in 1975.

Spain’s entry into NATO and the European Community in the mid-1980s completed the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. But the legacy of a fascist dictatorship still looms large. Preston mentions a rally held in February 2021 in Madrid’s Almudena cemetery, where flags bearing Nazi symbols and placards carrying antisemitic slogans were on display. Its main purpose was to commemorate the Spanish volunteers who died fighting with the Germans in Russia during WWII.

“There is no doubt that Francoism is still alive after the death of Franco,” Preston says. “Today, there is no shortage of pro-Franco books published in Spain and there still exists a National Francisco Franco Foundation. It would be very difficult today to imagine an Adolf Hitler foundation in Germany.”

Architects of Terror: Paranoia, Conspiracy and Anti-Semitism in Franco’s Spain by Paul Preston

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