General Francisco Franco kept Spain neutral during World War II, despite substantial pressure from Hitler. While Franco was sympathetic to some of Hitler’s goals, such as the defeat of the Soviet Union, there was no realistic way that Franco could have participated meaningfully in the war in the first years after the Spanish Civil War. As a concession to his Falangist supporters, however, he authorized the formation of a unit of Spanish volunteers to serve with the German Army on the Eastern Front. The Blue Division offered the fiercest anti-communists in Spain an opportunity to continue the fight against the Soviets, allowing Spain to show support to its former patrons without being dragged into a ruinous war.
Franco was certainly indebted to Hitler and Mussolini for their aid during the Civil War. Without their help, it was unlikely that the Nationalists could have prevailed in the face of Soviet aid to the Republican side. That same war had devastated Spain, and it was still rebuilding during World War II. Moreover, it is easy to overestimate the importance of ideology. The Nationalists in general, and Franco in particular, are often labeled as fascists, especially by historians with a leftist bias. This is untrue. The Nationalist side was a coalition of forces united only by their opposition to the leftist Popular Front. One of those forces was a fascist movement known as the Falange, but other forces included monarchists, the Catholic Church, and disaffected army officers. Franco had been the leader of this last group. The most that one might say of the ideological component was that Franco’s Spain would have found a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany as a friendlier place than a Europe dominated by the Soviet Union, or even by Britain.
Spain had a more powerful incentive to remain neutral. In its efforts to rebuild, it was highly dependent on goods from abroad, and Britain’s blockade would have shut out substantial resources bound for Spain if Franco had declared war on Germany’s side. For its part, Britain was quite happy to overlook passive support for the Axis (such as the use of Spanish naval bases by Axis naval units, overflight by Axis aircraft and the permission of Axis agents to operate in Spain) as long as Spain did not commit to the war directly. If Spain were part of the war, the British base on Gibraltar and the entire Mediterranean zone would be threatened. In this way, Franco was free to remain on cordial terms with Hitler and yet to avoid any exertion on his behalf.
For their part, Spain’s fascists were not content. The leader of the Falange, Ramon Serrano Suner, agitated for war against the Allies. Suner was not only Spain’s Foreign Minister, but also Franco’s brother-in-law; he was very much a part of Spain’s power elite, but still Franco was not beholden to him and his ideas. He made token gestures of support for the Germans in 1941 before removing Suner from office in 1942. One of those gestures permitted Spanish workers to volunteer to help Germany with its labor shortage. The other provided for the creation of the Blue Division, a unit of Spanish volunteers to serve in the German Army against the Soviet Union.
The formation of this unit was a popular decision. News of the opening of Operation Barbarossa was met with widespread celebration in Spain, where the only common ground among those forces who won the Civil War was their rejection of Communism. Many felt that Spain had a duty to help defeat Stalin. To the members of the Falange, it offered an additional prospect. Although it was the only political party that was permitted by law, it had been shut out of all real power by the older forces in the coalition. If Germany won the war, however, Spain would be compelled to behave more like a fascist state, and the Falange would gain real power. The Blue Division became a way for the Falangists to try to reclaim their place in Franco’s Spain.
The formation of this division began on June 26, 1941. On July 13, the first recruits were sent to Germany, where they received basic training. They were organized as a German army division, with three infantry regiments, one artillery regiment, and all of the standard support specialists. Apart from a small group of Germans assigned as intermediaries to the divisional staff, the entire division was comprised of Spanish volunteers. Unlike Germany’s official allies, however, such as the Rumanians, Hungarians or even the Italians, these Spaniards were trained and outfitted like regular German troops; combined with the high level of motivation that these volunteers brought with them and never forgot during the course of an arduous campaign, these factors resulted in an impressive service history.
The Blue Division (named for the color of the Falangist uniform) was deployed on August 20. It was originally intended for Army Group Center with Moscow as its ultimate objective, but on September 18, it was reassigned to Army Group North. It reached its position on October 12, in time to participate in closing the ring around Leningrad. From there, it was a part of the relatively static operations of the Siege of Leningrad, but during the winter it distinguished itself for the tenacity of its defense in the face of Soviet counterattacks.
Relations between the Spanish and their German comrades were generally good. Both sides were very conscious of differences in martial temperament, with the Spanish depending upon their elan when the Germans relied on procedure. Both sides felt some private misgivings, and in these, ethnic stereotypes certainly contributed, but neither side permitted them to result in any straightforward complications. In time, the Spanish came to appreciate the value of German military procedure, even though they never fully accepted the kind of discipline that typified the German army. For their part, the Germans saw substantial value, in propaganda as much as in military utility, in maintaining good relations with the Spanish. There were occasions when tensions arose, particularly among common soldiers on leave, but these tensions more closely resembled interservice rivalries than any real impediment to cooperation.
The division remained in the Leningrad area until October, 1943, facing its greatest test in February of that year. The Soviets had launched Operation Polar Star, seeking to destroy Army Group North; as part of that operation, the Blue Legion was attacked at Krasny Bor. The Soviet offensive was not a success, and the Spanish repelled the attacks in its sector, but with heavy losses.
The end of the Blue Division came about for political reasons, rather than military ones. Allied success in North Africa changed the political realities for Spain, and in September Franco agreed to recall the volunteers, save for a single regiment that remained until the spring of 1944 as the Blue Legion or Spanish Legion. Even then, some chose to carry on the fight, disregarding the call to return to Spain in order to participate in the last phases of the war, including the defense of Berlin in 1945.
Many of the volunteers had hoped that the Blue Legion would help to achieve an Axis victory, and thereby to pressure Spain to conform to the fascist model; while they fought, the tide of war turned against the Axis, and the opposite occurred. The Falangists had to accept that Spain would never adopt that model, and Spain eventually found its place in Western Europe. Under the circumstances, Spain could not officially recognize the survivors of the Blue Division, but neither was the division vilified, as the volunteers who fought for the Axis generally were in other countries. It should also be observed that the Spanish did not participate in the atrocities committed in Russia, and indeed responded with disgust when they saw the Germans’ poor treatment of local populations.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Jurado, Carlos Caballero. Blue Division Soldier 1941-45: Spanish Volunteer on the Eastern Front. Osprey, 2009
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Bedrick, 1990
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