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Italo-German Collaboration and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 Glyn Stone

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Italo-German Collaboration and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
Glyn Stone

Historians have long studied the rapprochement that took place between Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany during the years 1935-1939, beginning with the latter’s policy of benevolent neutrality in the Abyssinian conflict and ending with the Pact of Steel.1 The road between the two was not always straight and can be said to have been both long and winding with a number of milestones along the way.2 One of these was undoubtedly the close collaboration that took place in both the diplomatic and military spheres in relation to their joint intervention in the Spanish Civil War on the side of General Francisco Franco’s insurgent/nationalist forces. As a factor in the Italo-German rapprochement this collaboration looms large and it is the intention of this chapter to revisit and reevaluate it by a close examination of the decision of both powers to intervene in Spain and their reasons for doing so, the extent of their military cooperation and determination to maintain support for Franco throughout the civil war and the degree of their cooperation with regard to the various diplomatic manouevrings and initiatives which took place around the conflict.


Mussolini’s response to appeals for armed assistance from the Spanish insurgents following their failed military coup of 17-18 July 1936, which precipitated the civil war in Spain, was initially cautious. Only when he had assured himself, on the basis of reports from Italian diplomats, that neither France nor Britain nor Soviet Russia intended to intervene did the Italian dictator give the green light, on 27 July, for the dispatch of aircraft to assist in the airlift of pro-rebel Spanish Moroccan forces to the Spanish mainland and arms and munitions to those fighting in Spain. His decision to intervene was made in the expectation that a small amount of Italian war material would be decisive for the rebellion. It was based, partly at least, on Franco’s personal assurances to the Italian Minister Plenipotentiary, Pier Filippo de Rossi del Lion Nero, and his Military Attaché, Major Guiseppe Luccardi, that victory for the rebels would be certain and quick provided some outside assistance was forthcoming, and that with victory he intended to establish ‘a republican government in the fascist style adopted for the Spanish people’. Mussolini was soon to be disillusioned.3 Hitler’s decision to intervene was taken separately but almost simultaneously on 26 July and against the advice of his foreign and war ministries. In response to a personal appeal from Franco, delivered while the Führer was attending the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, he ordered the dispatch of transport and fighter aircraft and armaments to the rebel forces in Spain.4 Under the Wagnerian codename Unternehmen Feuerzauber (operation Magic Fire) the organization of a support operation, known as Sonderstab W, was immediately set in motion.5 From the outset both Hitler and Mussolini concentrated their support through Franco rather than any of the other Spanish generals.6

In intervening in the civil war in Spain both the Italians and Germans were highly motivated by ideological, strategic and economic considerations but it was the first of these that initially drove their intervention and sustained it thereafter. The common struggle against Bolshevism, above all preventing a victorious communist republic emerging from the Spanish conflict, with its consequent encouragement for international communism and its negative ramifications for the advance of fascism in Europe, produced in the words of Ulrich von Hassell, German Ambassador at Rome, ‘a sudden increase in the warmth of German-Italian cooperation’.7 As early as 25 July Hassell in a meeting with the Italian Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano, spoke about the situation in Spain and the German Government’s concern with regard to an eventual communist victory in the Iberian Peninsula.8 Almost two weeks later on 6 August Ciano insisted to Hassell that confronted by the threat of communism in Spain ‘the greatest vigilance and closest collaboration between Germany and Italy were necessary’. He believed it was right that ‘the military of the two countries, also, should come to agreement for all contingencies’ and that ‘fortunately this was already under way’.9 Hitler certainly recognized the importance of Italo-German collaboration. According to the Hungarian Minister at Rome, Baron Frederick Villani, in conversation with Ciano on 7 September 1936, the Führer, in his recent conversation with the Hungarian Prince Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, had revealed:
his intention of following an active anti-Communist policy. He said that in Spain it was working effectively, and that, in this connection, he was happy to be able to provide further proof of the good relations between Italy and Germany, since the operation in Spain in support of General Franco had been carried out in common.10
The German Embassy in Rome was fully aware of Italy’s serious concern at the increased communist threat created by the civil war in Spain. The German Foreign Ministry was informed on 14 August 1936 that:
the situation is considered so serious here because victory for the Spanish [Republican] Government is regarded as the equivalent of a victory for Communism. Such a development is abhorred in Italy for ideological is feared that Bolshevism, once it had taken hold in Spain, might also spread beyond her frontiers.11
With the recent election victory of the French Popular Front movement in mind, Mussolini was certainly worried that a victory for the Left in Spain might encourage revolutionaries in France and western Europe, including Italy. As he told his wife, Rachele: ‘Bolshevism in Spain would mean Bolshevism in France, Bolshevism at Italy’s back and the danger of [the] Bolshevisation of Europe’.12 The Duce and Ciano continued throughout the civil war to regard their intervention in Spain as safeguarding fascism in Italy. As the Foreign Minister later reflected in October 1937: ‘At Málaga, at Guadalajara, at Santander, we were fighting in defence of our civilisation and Revolution’.13

For his part, Hitler was no less committed to fighting the anti-communist cause in Spain and no less fearful of the potential spreading of the Communist contagion should Franco lose in Spain. He told the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, after the Munich Conference on 30 September 1938, that he had supported Franco only because of his abhorrence of communism and insisted that if he, Hitler, had failed to stop communism in Spain it could have spread to France, Holland and Belgium.14 Referring to his decision to intervene, later still, in February 1942, Hitler explained that ‘if there had not been the danger of the Red peril’s overwhelming Europe’, he would not have ‘intervened in the revolution in Spain’.15 His memory was not at fault. According to the Permanent Under-Secretary at the British Foreign Office, Sir Robert Vansittart, who was visiting Berlin in a semi-official capacity in August 1936 on the occasion of the Olympic Games, Nazi ruling circles were obsessed with events in Spain and the threat of Bolshevism.16 Weeks earlier, on the same day that he took the decision to intervene in Spain, 26 July 1936, Hitler told Joachim von Ribbentrop before he departed for London as Ambassador that a victory for communism in Spain would in short time result in the Bolshevisation of France.17 It was above all, as Vansittart put it, the possibility of ‘an external convergence, that Communism will extend in Europe and round on, if not, encircle Germany’ which concerned Berlin.18 In the short term, the possible further strengthening of the links, through Spanish events, between France ruled by a Left-wing Popular Front Government, Soviet Russia linked by the Franco-Soviet Pact of 1935 and Czechoslovakia linked to both powers through treaties of guarantee, was all too real.19 Bearing in mind the ongoing military conversations between France and Russia which continued well into 1937, the longer term racist-imperialist ambitions of the Third Reich could be threatened by the establishment, in Hitler’s words of a ‘Bolshevik state’ in Spain which would ‘constitute a land bridge for France to North Africa’ that would safeguard the passage of French colonial troops to the northern frontier of France thereby improving her strategic defence.20 Conversely, a victory for the militarists in Spain would weaken Germany’s potential adversaries, in particular the ‘hate inspired’ French, improve the Reich’s strategic defence and enhance its prospects for the conquest of Lebensraum in the East; whether as an end in itself or merely a staging post in a phased programme (Stufenplan) for world dominion.21.

Ideologically, neither Hitler nor Mussolini concerned themselves with attempting to establish a fascist regime in Spain to replace the Spanish Parliamentary Republic. With the possible exception of the Farinacci mission to Spain early in 1937, Italy made no serious or sustained attempt to convert Franco’s regime during the civil war.22 Although the German Ambassador in Spain, General Wilhelm Faupel, was involved with the one genuine Spanish fascist movement, the Falange Española de las JONS, there was never any intention of seeking to establish a National Socialist regime in Spain. Hitler himself believed, as he told Nazi Party officials in April 1937, that such an objective was impossible to achieve not to say ‘superfluous and absurd’.23 Indeed, any prospect of establishing a purely fascist regime in Spain was seriously undermined by the forcible fusion of the Falange Española de las JONS with the Carlists and the rest of the Spanish Right to form a new political organization under Franco’s leadership, the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las JONS in April 1937.24 This was certainly compatible with German and Italian intervention in Spain because, as the German Foreign Ministry made clear in December 1938, the goal of policy in Spain was victory by Franco ‘as the prerequisite for establishing an authoritarian Spain which is militarily and economically strong and will adhere to the Rome Berlin Axis’.25

While sharing common ideological concerns over the Spanish conflict with Italy, the Germans during its course invested less in terms of military support for Franco both in terms of the number of personnel involved in Spain and in armaments supplied. In this connection, it has been variously estimated that the total cost of Italian war material amounted to between 6 billion and 8.5 billion lire (£64-£95 million) while for Germany the cost is variously estimated at between 412 million and 540 million reichmarks (£35 million and £46 million).26 In Berlin this greater commitment on the part of the Italians was recognized and in German eyes justified Italy’s strategic interests in the civil war. As the German Foreign Minister, Baron Constantin von Neurath noted, in early December 1936: ‘we recognize that Italian interests in Spain go further than ours, if only for geographic reasons’.27 As early as 14 August the German Foreign Ministry had been advised that a victory for communism in Spain was ‘highly undesirable’ because the Italians believed that ‘it would finally result in strengthening the position of France and Russia in the Mediterranean at the expense of Italy’.28 Germany’s recognition of Italy’s greater strategic interest was communicated to the Italians on a number of occasions. On 23 September 1936 Hans Frank, German Minister of Justice, reassured Mussolini personally that Germany was giving aid to Franco ‘solely because of solidarity in the field of political ideas’ and that it had ‘neither interests nor aims in the Mediterranean’. According to Frank, Hitler was anxious that the Duce should know that he regarded the Mediterranean as ‘a purely Italian sea. Italy has a right to positions of privilege and control in the Mediterranean. The interests of the Germans are turned towards the Baltic which is their Mediterranean’.29 When Hitler saw Ciano at Berchtesgaden on 24 October 1936 he declared that in Spain ‘Italians and Germans have together dug the first trench against Bolshevism’ and assured him that as far as he was concerned the Mediterranean was an Italian sea and that any future modification of the Mediterranean balance of power ‘must be in Italy’s favour’.30 Almost a year later, on the occasion of Mussolini’s visit to see Hitler in Berlin in September 1937, it was agreed that with regard to Spain ‘the interests and potentialities of Italy will have due preference’ and, quite generally, Italy would not ‘be impeded by Germany in the Mediterranean’. In return, ‘the special German interests in Austria would not be impaired by Italy’.31 It suited German interests at this point to concede priority in the Mediterranean to Italy because as Hitler recognized there was a growing Anglo-Italian rivalry in the Mediterranean He told his military leaders at the Hossbach Conference of 5 November 1937 that ‘Italy – who under the spell of her history, driven by necessity and led by a genius – was expanding her power position, and thus was coming more and more into conflict with British interests’.32

In supporting Franco by the commitment of military personnel Italy far outdid their German collaborators. Throughout the duration of the civil war more than 16,000 Germans helped the Nationalist forces, although the maximum in Spain at any one time was 10,000. These forces included the Condor Legion dispatched in December 1936, which consisted of 5,000 tank and air personnel. At their maximum, Italian forces in Spain numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 troops, including air personnel, though 80,000 actually went to Spain. German casualties were very slight, amounting to no more than 300 dead. Italian losses were far heavier with around 4,000 dead and 11,000-12000 wounded.33 The Germans were content to support this greater Italian commitment while deliberately limiting their own contribution not, as has been claimed by some historians,34 in order to prolong the conflict and thereby keep alive the tensions engendered by it as a distraction from Nazi political and military expansion in central and eastern Europe, but because they were not prepared to run the risk of provoking a general conflagration by sending combat troops into the Spanish arena. Admittedly, Hitler told his military leaders at the Hossbach Conference that Germany was more interested in a continuation of the war with all the tensions arising from it between Italy and France in the Mediterranean.35 However, he was convinced that the dispatch of a large number of German combat troops to Spain would risk a general conflagration. As a result when, in December 1936, Mussolini began to substantially increase his military commitment to Franco – within three months 50,000 Italian troops were sent to Spain – the Germans were more circumspect. The Foreign Ministry anxious to avoid further international complications, if not odium, took the view that if Italy considered intervention necessary and possible then ‘let her intervene, although there are also considerable objections even against this’ but Germany ‘should not permit herself to be drawn deeper into the Spanish enterprise’.36 Neurath, Field Marshal Werner Von Blomberg, the German War Minister, and Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Chief of the Naval High Command (OKM – Oberkommando der Marine), also feared being drawn into a protracted war not vital to German interests and opposed any deployment of German combat troops in Spain. Hitler agreed, confiding to his generals on 21 December that he would not emulate Mussolini by sending large numbers of German troops to Spain. His decision to limit German intervention was reinforced two days later by the warning of Yvon Delbos, French Foreign Minister, that if Germany sent further troop transports, in addition to the Condor Legion, such action would ‘necessarily lead to war’. This underlined the risk that large scale German intervention would provoke a hostile anti-Nazi coalition comprising Soviet Russia and the western democracies, the key objective of Soviet policy in Spain. However, by limiting intervention communist influenced could be neutralised without unduly antagonizing Britain and France.37

All along, Mussolini recognized and understood that Italy was providing more aid to Franco than Germany. At a conference held in Rome on 6 December 1936 attended by himself, Ciano, Alberto Pariani, Under-Secretary for War and Chief of Staff of the Army, Domenico Cavagnari, Under-Secretary and Chief of Staff for the Navy, Giuseppe Valle, Under-Secretary and Air Chief of Staff, Military Intelligence Chief Mario Roatta and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence), the Duce emphasized his determination to intervene substantially in Spain with combat troops. Canaris, under strict instructions from Berlin, was deliberately non-committal and discouraging about the prospects of Germany following suit.38 When, a month later on 13 January 1937, Bernardo Attolico, Italian Ambassador at Berlin, raised the issue of Germany sending larger troop contingents to Spain, Neurath ‘told him clearly’ that ‘we were not prepared to do this, because we considered that such a step would seriously endanger the larger European situation’.39 Mussolini was not at all put out by Germany’s refusal to emulate Italy’s contribution in Spain. He did not attempt, for example, on the occasion of Head of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring’s visit to Rome in late January 1937, to persuade his Axis partner to make a greater contribution to the Spanish Nationalist cause, emphasizing that as far as the Spanish question went Italy intended ‘to push matters to the limit without, however, running the risk of a general war’.40 The Duce did not wish to enhance Germany’s influence in the Mediterranean because as Ciano explained to Roberto Cantalupo, briefly Italian Ambassador to Nationalist Spain: ‘If we close the door of Spain to the Russians, only to open it to the Germans, we can kiss our Latin and Mediterranean policy goodbye’.41

The Germans occasionally had misgivings about allowing Italy to take the lead in terms of their respective military commitments to the Nationalist forces. In January 1937 the German Chargé d’Affaires, soon to be Ambassador to Nationalist Spain, General Wilhelm Faupel, encapsulated this concern when he stressed that because of the ‘tremendous significance of the conduct of the war for the political attitude of the Nationalist Government’, it was to be expected that ‘the Italian commitment will result in a further increase in Italy’s political influence while…the Nationalist Government’s dependence on us will decrease’. The fear could not be dismissed that Germany’s political influence in Spain, which had been on a par with that of Italy, would ‘fall into second place’.42


With regard to the conduct and progress of the war, both the Italians and the Germans experienced increasing exasperation with the attritional strategy of Franco and his military command.43 After the debacle of Guadalajara in March 1937, contemptuously referred to as a ‘Spanish Caporetto’ by critics of the Fascist regime, Mussolini, in particular, was highly critical of Franco’s failure, as he saw it, to bring the Red forces in Spain to a decisive confrontation. He told Neurath during his visit to Rome, between 3-6 May 1937, that both Italy and Germany had made enough sacrifices for Franco and that he intended ‘to inform Franco at the beginning of June that he would withdraw the Italian militia if the war were not being prosecuted more energetically by that time’.44 He did not carry out his intention and in late August he congratulated Franco on his capture of the Spanish port of Santander in northern Spain. Yet, in October he complained to the German Ambassador that while the Spaniards were very good soldiers they had no idea of modern warfare and were making ‘exceedingly slow progress’ on the Asturian Front. Ciano was equally critical of Franco’s military leadership accusing him in December 1937, in the knowledge of the Republican offensive to capture Teruel, of missing ‘the most opportune moments’ and of giving ‘the Reds the opportunity to rally again’.45 The Italian Foreign Minister completely misunderstood Franco’s strategic leadership, claiming erroneously that his objective was ‘always ground, never the enemy’ and that he failed ‘to realize that it was by the destruction of the enemy that you win a war’.46 It was precisely the destruction and annihilation of the Republican enemy that drove Franco’s strategy and not only militarily but politically and socially as well.

Despite their critical attitude and following a conference of military personnel including General Mario Berti, Commander of the Italian troops in Spain, the Corpo di Truppe Voluntarie (CTV), it was decided at the end of 1937 to maintain solidarity with Franco and remain in Spain until a complete victory had been achieved.47 With news that following the northern campaign which had ended in victory in December a further Nationalist offensive would not be launched until Teruel was recaptured Mussolini was moved at the beginning of February 1938 to send a personal letter to Franco, using Berti as the messenger, in which he urged a more energetic conduct of the war.48 Franco, whose victory meanwhile at Teruel had inflicted severe losses on the Republicans, reflected for a fortnight before sending a long reply in which he defended his cautious strategy as the appropriate way of defeating and destroying the enemy without undue risk.49 Mussolini remained unconvinced and instructed the Italian troops in Spain and the air units in the Balearic Islands to stand down pending Franco’s decision concerning the future conduct of the war.50 The decision was not long in coming as the Nationalist forces on 9 March launched a massive offensive through Aragón aimed at cutting off Catalonia from Valencia and the central Republican zone. The CTV took part in this offensive which was supported by almost 1,000 Italian and German aircraft and 200 tanks and when it started to flag in June it was revived by further Italian aid, including 6,000 new troops and large numbers of aircraft.51

Although less critical during the first part of the civil war, the German military authorities eventually came to sympathize more with the Italian view of Franco’s military leadership and to agree that the Nationalist war effort could be conducted more energetically and more effectively, particularly during1938 as the war seemed to drag on endlessly. In February 1938, for example, prior to the big Aragón offensive and in concert with Italian demands, the German Embassy in Nationalist Spain was instructed to ascertain Franco’s further military plans and to impress on him the need for a ‘speedy decisive military blow’ and to warn him not to take German material assistance for granted , not to ‘be misled, by confidence in our continued armed assistance into regarding the heretofore rather one-sided performance in the relations between Germany and Nationalist Spain as a permanent condition’.52 Indeed, by the spring of 1938 Hitler had become anxious to withdraw German forces from Spain though he acknowledged that there would first have to be an understanding with the Italians. He was particularly concerned about the German air forces in Spain which, he argued, following the Austrian annexation a few weeks previously, were needed for ‘rebuilding the air force in Austria’. He believed that since the war appeared to be drawing to a close in view of Nationalist successes in the Aragón offensive there was little more to be learned militarily by keeping German forces in Spain.53

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