In recent years a small group of historians and former Spanish government officials have attempted to sanitize General Francisco Franco’s role during World War II, pointing out the 20,000 Jewish refugees who were able to use Spain as a “land bridge” to neutral Portugal. Later, in April 1943, the Spanish government, under orders from Franco, permitted, for example, the establishment in Madrid of the Representation of American Relief Organizations, most of whose budget came from the JOINT (AJDC). One result of this action was that during the second half of World War II another 5,600 Jews found refuge in Spain. Similarly, in the last year of World War II Spain joined other “neutral” counties granting “protection certificates”to 2,750 Hungarian Jews who were not Spanish citizens.
In spite of these actions, the July 1936 Fascist uprising against the duly elected Republican government was saturated with ant-Semitic and anti-Marxist thinking. As Paul Preston, professor of Contemporary Spanish History at the London School of Economics points out in his brilliant work, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth Century Spain, the right in Spain, both before and after the Civil War, regarded the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a “serious sociological study.” Since there were few Jews in Spain before 1936 there was hardly a “Jewish problem.” However, Spanish anti-Semitism without Jews was not about real Jews but was an abstract construction of a perceived international threat. According to Preston, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War were deemed by the right as an advanced guard of a world revolution intended to poison Spanish society with pornography and prostitution.
Franco’s belief that the Civil War had been against the “Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic” conspiracy was reiterated in his end of the year address on December 31, 1939. Here, Franco praised Nazi anti-Semitic legislation, declaring that the persecution of the Jews by the fifteenth-century Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had shown the Germans the way:
Now you will understand the reasons which have led other countries to persecute and isolate those races marked by the stigma of their greed and self interest.…We, who were freed of this heavy burden centuries ago by the grace of God and the clear vision of Ferdinand and Isabel, cannot remain indifferent [to the danger presented by the Jews]. A people that would sacrifice the lives of their children more readily than their base interests
In short, students of Spanish and Jewish history will find in Preston’s newest work that the brutal expulsion of over 100,000 Jews in 1492 – 1493 was matched only by the extermination of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who had sided with the Republic during and after the Civil War.
Carl J. Rheins was the executive director emeritus of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Modern European History from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and taught courses on the Holocaust at several major universities.