These people are intolerable

Richard J. Evans

  • Hitler’s Shadow Empire: Nazi Economics and the Spanish Civil War by Pierpaolo Barbieri
    Harvard, 349 pp, £22.95, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 674 72885 1

On 25 July 1936, Hitler spent the evening at Bayreuth, attending a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried. On his way back to his guest quarters at Villa Wahnfried, the Wagner family residence, he was introduced to a curious delegation that had arrived from Spanish Morocco. It was led by Johannes Bernhardt, a Nazi businessman who lived in the colony, and included another Nazi businessman and a Spanish air force officer. They had managed to get to Bayreuth with the assistance of the Nazi Party’s foreign policy organisation (the German foreign office had refused to receive them). The three men gave Hitler a short letter from General Franco, who had led a military coup in Morocco – timed to coincide with military uprisings across Spain – but was now stuck in North Africa and unable to get his army across to the mainland. Would Hitler provide transport planes, they asked, along with rifles and anti-aircraft guns?

After criticising Franco for his funding problem (‘That’s no way to start a war!’), the Nazi leader launched into one of his characteristic rants, a full two hours long. The influence of the communists on left-wing governments in France and Spain had to be countered, he proclaimed. ‘If Spain really goes communist, France in her present situation will also be Bolshevised in due course, and then Germany is finished. Wedged between the powerful Soviet bloc in the East and a strong communist Franco-Spanish bloc in the West, we could do hardly anything if Moscow chose to attack us.’ Hitler naturally thought in conspiratorial terms, and he told the Nuremberg party rally a few weeks later, on 9 September, that the right-wing rebels in Spain had to be helped to prevent the ‘revolutionising of the continent’ by ‘Bolshevik wire-pullers’ controlled by ‘an international Jewish revolutionary headquarters in Moscow’. He had stopped this happening in Germany in 1933, he boasted; now it had to be stopped in Spain too. In another monologue, this one three hours long and addressed to his cabinet in December 1936, he declared that Europe was now divided into two hostile camps. Spain was the theatre in which communism had to be defeated. ‘If there had not been the danger of the Red Peril overwhelming Europe,’ he said in one of his private ‘table talk’ monologues in 1942, ‘I would not have intervened in the revolution in Spain.’ On another occasion he noted that German intervention would ‘distract the attention of the Western powers to Spain and so enable German rearmament to continue unobserved’.

Against the advice of his entourage, Hitler ordered twenty planes to be sent to Franco’s aid – twice as many as requested. Ten of the Junkers bombers flew directly to Morocco disguised as civilian transports and equipped with spare parts and technicians, while the other ten were sent by sea from Hamburg to Cádiz with more equipment. By 11 August they had all arrived apart from one that had been blown off course and landed in Republican territory. They were joined by six fighter pilots and 95 volunteer airmen and technicians from the Luftwaffe, all wearing civilian clothes and unaware of their destination when they enlisted for the operation. A few planes had already flown to mainland Spain, but the pace of the airlift now increased dramatically, and by October 1936 almost 14,000 men, 44 pieces of artillery and 500 tons of equipment had been carried across on 868 flights to the Nationalist rebels. Still under the influence of Bayreuth, Hitler called the airlift Operation Magic Fire. Another 8000 troops made the hazardous journey by sea, but the airlift was crucial.

Soon Hitler was sending bombs, rifles, grenades, tanks and yet more aircraft to the Nationalist side in the civil war that had broken out when the military coup stalled. Twenty shiploads from Germany had arrived in Spain by mid-November 1936. Between January 1937 and August 1938 the Germans also supplied the Nationalists with 320,000 rifles and 550,000 revolvers. German armed forces also ended up in Spain; they were eventually named the Condor Legion, and consisted of three squadrons of bombers and three of fighters, backed by anti-aircraft, signals and reconnaissance groups, and on the ground by two armoured units. Two German ‘pocket battleships’ and several U-boats patrolled the coast to intercept Republican supplies. The German forces saw the war as a proving ground for aircraft, tanks and equipment, and as a way of gaining combat experience. Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, testified at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal that once Hitler had convinced him of the need to intervene in Spain, ‘I urged him to give support under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theatre and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.’

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