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Pragmatism and Sympathy: Franco and East-Central Europe, 1939-1955

Related Content: The Sarmatian Review|

By Matilde Eiroa. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel, S.A., 2001. 205 pages. ISBN 8434466287. In Spanish.

In her pioneering work, Professor Matilde Eiroa of the European University in Madrid explores the foreign policy of Francisco Franco toward East Central Europe (henceforth referred to as ECE). Its conduct reflected Franco’s political pragmatism first of all. However, although the author downplays them, ideological affinities and personal preferences also played an important role in the Spanish ECE calculus. This interdependence of pragmatism and sympathy can best be demonstrated in the case of Poland and the Poles, many of whom were “radically anticommunist and profoundly Catholic”(154).

Soon after the eclectic coalition led by Franco won the Civil War in Spain, the Caudillo and his regime faced another serious crisis: The Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939. Franco leaned of course toward the foreign powers that had assisted his ascent to power: Germany and Italy. However, instead of jumping into the fray recklessly on the Axis side, he stayed a prudent course. Spain reeled from death and destruction wreaked by a decade of economic crisis and three years of merciless fratricide. Consequently, Madrid remained neutral throughout the Second World War. However, its neutrality had many shades. Naturally, the Spanish attitude toward the belligerents reflected their success, or its lack, on the battlefield.

Spain initially preserved strict neutrality. After the fall of France, however, Franco inched toward Hitler and Mussolini without embracing them openly. In 1942, the apparent imminence of Nazi victory over the Soviets prompted the Caudillo to become even more accommodating to the Axis demands for economic and diplomatic assistance. The Allied interests suffered accordingly. Franco even dispatched a division of Spanish anti-Communists to the eastern front to assist Hitler against Stalin. But even then the Spanish dictator allowed his underlings to assist Jews both in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The assistance was selective and rather limited at first, concerning mainly the Sephardim and Ladino-speaking adherents to Judaism.

And then the fortunes of war reversed. Hitler’s armies were retreating. Franco withdrew the now decimated Division Azul from the Soviet front. Spanish rescue operations on behalf of Jews intensified. Madrid began increasingly to heed Allied requests for economic and diplomatic cooperation and to deny it to the Third Reich and her followers. Nonetheless, upon the Allied victory in Europe in May 1945, Nationalist Spain found itself in a very precarious predicament. The newly ascendant European Left, led by the Communists, sought to overthrow Franco and restore the coalition that had ruled the Spanish Republic. Ostracized on the international arena, Spain stressed its “anti-communism and Catholicism” (el anticommunismo y la catolicidad) to win favor with the United States as the world entered the Cold War. Of course the appeal of Catholicism was rather dubious, if any, among the Protestant (WASP) ruling elite of the USA. Nonetheless, the advantages of a friendly anti-Communist Spain were soon noted and Washington began looking favorably upon Madrid. Franco became an important ideological and military European ally in the struggle against Communist domination and influence. Therefore, despite stiff opposition of the USSR, its satellites, and much of the leftist and liberal public opinion in the West, the United States facilitated and, along with the Vatican, sponsored a gradual reintegration of Spain into the international community.

While stressing its “undemocratic characteristics,” Matilde Eiroa points out correctly that “the sole purpose” of Spanish foreign policy was “to maintain General Franco in power” (p. 7). True enough, the decision making process was quite undemocratic. But what does that tell us about Franco’s foreign policy in general and in ECE in particular? Was that bad for, say, Poles and Jews? After all, the attitudes of Nationalist Spain toward those groups during the Second World War compare favorably, to say the least, with the foreign policy endeavors on their behalf of liberal democratic Sweden and Switzerland. Thus, without confusing the means with the ends, and classifying foreign policy by its modus operandi and outcomes, we can identify Franco’s foreign policy as primarily driven by pragmatism just as that of almost any other contemporary leader. This simple observation facilitates our understanding of Spain’s approach to ECE much better than a less relevant factor of “undemocratic characteristics” of Madrid’s foreign policy. One wishes this factor received more consideration and space.

Nonetheless, Professor Eiroa occasionally admits the importance of pragmatism, or as she puts it, “realpolitik” [sic], in Spanish foreign policy thinking. For instance, following the war, Franco recognized ECE governments-in-exile only because the Communist puppet regimes installed in Warsaw, “Budapest, Sofia, Belgrade, Bucharest, [and] Prague” invited Spanish Republican diplomats to establish embassies in their countries (p. 162). Likewise, the post-1945 attempts to recoup Spanish assets in ECE fall in the same category of pragmatism. After all, a pure ideologue of anti-Communism would have had nothing to do with Stalin’s proxies in ECE. At times the justifications of Spanish pragmatism bordered on convoluted. For example, to appease the Nazis and to show support for an avowedly Catholic, yet radical nationalist regime of the Croatian Ustasha, Madrid recognized Zagreb, invoking disingenuously as precedent the arrival in 1422 of the envoys of the Kingdom of Aragon in the Republic of Ragusa, “Croat and free” (croata y libre) (p. 49 n. 31).

Although delighted with diplomatic gems like this, somehow one gets an impression that Eiroa failed to articulate satisfactorily an overarching thesis concerning Franco’s multifaceted approach to East Central Europe. It seems that the Caudillo shaped his policy toward ECE following several considerations. First, his policy always reflected the interests of Spain, as perceived by the Nationalists, that is preserving Spanish neutrality and protecting Spanish assets and citizens abroad, while appeasing the mighty of the world. Second, Madrid’s course generally tallied with the East Central European policy of the ascendant Great Power of the moment, first Nazi Germany and then the United States. Third, the Spanish government, however infrequently, allowed for some small and mostly symbolic departures from the straightjacket of pragmatism. The departures were dictated by a factor quite undiplomatic, awkward, and at times embarrassing, namely, sympathy. Franco’s sympathy toward a particular nation of ECE was based upon confessional similarities, ideological affinities, and the attitude of a given ECE regime and society toward the Nationalists during the Civil War in Spain. Of course, sympathy could not halt the pragmatic thrust of Madrid’s policy toward ECE. But occasionally it blunted the sharp edge of Franco’s Realpolitik.

Take Poland for example, the largest, most populous, and most powerful state in the interwar ECE. Between 1936 and 1939 the government of Poland supplied arms to Spain, mostly to the Republican side, for financial reasons. That caused the ire of the Nationalist camp. Nonetheless, the ensuing protests were much less stringent against authoritarian Warsaw than against liberal democratic Prague which also supplied the Republicans mainly. The relative restraint was dictated by several considerations. First, unlike in Prague, the entire staff of the Spanish embassy in Warsaw defected to Franco and, semi-formally, under Juan Serrat y Valera, represented Franco’s interests in Poland throughout the Civil War. Next, Polish diplomats in Madrid, like their counterparts in the diplomatic outposts of other authoritarian ECE nations, saved almost 200 prominent Spanish Nationalists from the Red terror. Further, there were obvious ideological affinities between the Pilsudskite regime and the Franco coalition, mostly based on mutual anti-Communism. Additionally, Poland’s most powerful and intellectually most influential opposition, National Party (Stronnictwo Narodowe), shared with the Spanish Nationalists, and the Carlists in particular, the Catholic religion both as a personal credo of its members and a tool for political struggle. Franco sounded like some of the Polish Endecja leaders with his claims that “in addition to the freemasons and Communists, the chief danger for the motherland . . . [is] the Jewry” (“de los principales peligros para la patria, además de masones y comunistas: el juda’smo” – p. 57). Finally, conservative and Catholic circles, under Cristina Puslowska (née Pignatelli), undertook an extensive charity effort to aid White Spanish refugees in Poland and to extend other various forms of assistance to the Nationalist side (p. 22 n. 24). It is not immediately obvious that Professor Eiroa is aware of most of these factors in her discussion of Polish-Spanish relations.

Absent from the monograph is an in-depth analysis of Franco’s attitude toward Poles during the Second World War. Because of Nazi pressure, the Spaniards broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile on February 4, 1942, at the same time that they did with Yugoslavia. However, why had Madrid maintained the links until then? After all, following the defeat of Poland in September 1939, the Nazis had leaned continuously on Franco to sever the Polish connection. How was it that until February 1942 the Spanish Embassy in Warsaw was considered technically open (p. 47 n. 29)? Is it true, as at least two Polish sources claim, that the Caudillo justified to Berlin his continued recognition of the Polish government-in-exile by claiming that it represented the Soviet partition of Poland which he refused to acknowledge? However, with this excuse rendered null and void by the initial success of Hitler’s strike against Stalin in 1941, and with lightning Axis advances on all fronts, Madrid felt it had no choice but to pragmatically comply with the demands of the seemingly unstoppable Nazi juggernaut.

The putative excuse to sever relations was that the Poles were heavily involved in anti-Axis intelligence activities. The charge was as true in 1942 as it had been in 1939, 1940, and 1941, and the Spanish intelligence services knew quite a lot about that (p. 46). Why then did Franco allow at least some of the Polish diplomatic personnel to remain in Spain as a Polish Red Cross outfit, and thus de facto consent to the continuation of Polish espionage activities under the guise of a humanitarian organization? In addition, these Polish representatives tended to the needs of numerous Polish refugees and internees, including those at the infamous concentration camp of Miranda de Ebro. Despite strenuous German objections, Franco periodically freed Polish military refugees, including a group of internees who rather disingenuously claimed to have suddenly discovered a spiritual calling and wished to join a Catholic monastery but of course reached the Free Polish Forces in the United Kingdom to fight the Germans. At the end of 1942, following a hunger strike organized by the Poles at Miranda, the trickle of the military “tourists” intensified. Why did Franco allow that? Why did he also shield Polish Jews? The answer would have been obvious had such leniency occurred in 1944, but in 1942? It seems that, so far as Poland was concerned, sympathy informed Spanish political pragmatism throughout the Second World War. As Professor Eiroa admits, because of Catholic Poland’s sympathetic attitude toward Nationalist Spain during the Civil War, “El mutuo respecto en el que estaban basadas las relaciones hispano-polacas llegarón a su fin con el estallido de la Segunda Guerra Mundial” (p. 46).

This tradition continued after Franco’s Spain reestablished relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London in January 1944, about half a year before the formation of Stalin’s Polish Communist proxy regime in Moscow, and not in Lublin as Professor Eiroa says (p. 45), and more than two years before the Communists of Poland invited a Republican ambassador to Warsaw. How does that square with Professor Eiroa’s contention that Franco embraced the ECE governments-in-exile because the ECE Communist regimes recognized the Spanish Republic (p. 162)? The reestablishment of mutual relations between Franco and the London Poles could not have been in response to the attacks on Spain by Oskar Lange and other Communist diplomats launched at the United Nations in 1945, 1948, and 1952, nor because of the recognition of the Spanish Republican government-in-exile by the Polish Communists on April 4, 1946.

Although of course squaring well with his anti-Communism, Franco’s generosity toward the Polish exiles went well beyond empty diplomatic gestures and meaningless declarations. On the military plane, in August 1946 General Franco granted an audience to Colonel Zygmunt Broniewski (alias: Bogucki) (p. 121). Although Eiroa failed to identify him and provide the details of his mission, this erstwhile commander-in-chief of the rightist National Armed Forces (NSZ) received an offer from Franco to transfer some Polish troops, including many of the Holy Cross Brigade of the NSZ, from Germany to Spanish Morocco where they could be incorporated into the Spanish Foreign Legion. It is unclear whether this was Broniewski’s own initiative or, more likely, whether he secured for his undertaking the blessings of General Wladyslaw Anders and other Polish military leaders. Then in 1948 detailed plans were devised to enroll émigré Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, and other representatives of the “captive nations” in the Spanish Foreign Legion. Again Franco was sympathetic but insisted that “the volunteers would be integrated into Spanish military units and not admitted in large groups” (“los voluntarios tendr’an que integrarse en las unidades militares espanolas y no pod-an ser un grupo numeroso” – p. 117). As late as 1955 rumors spread that, prompted by the United States, Franco “formed anticommunist battalions composed of refugees from . . . the East” (“batallones anticomunistas formados por refugiados de los pa’ses del Este” – pp. 121-22).

On the educational plane, Franco assisted the Poles and other refugees from ECE by sponsoring the Catholic Project for University Assistance (Obra Católica de Asistencia Universitaria – OCAU). Based upon “Christian, anti-Communist, and European solidarity,” the OCAU rendered assistance to numerous ECE students (p. 119). For anti-Communist propaganda purposes, Franco also facilitated access to Radio Madrid by the Poles (as well as Slovaks, Hungarians, Croats, and others), who beamed their messages of “the fight for freedom” (“la lucha por la libertad”- p. 153) to their fellow countrymen behind the Iron Curtain. In turn, the Polish émigré community and their ECE colleagues supplied the Spaniards with information about Communist terror and persecution of the Catholic Church in East Central Europe.

Between 1939 and 1955, while Franco showed sympathy to Poles, he never lost sight of Spanish interests. For example, because of their participation in the Allied camp and struggle against Nazi Germany, Spain treated Poland and Yugoslavia similarly–when necessary breaking off the relations with them, and restoring them when possible. The Catholic Slovaks were favored over the largely atheistic Czechs, while the Bulgarians merited Spanish attention because their dynasts had family connections in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany and because of the presence of a Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish community in Bulgaria and Macedonia. Similar reasons applied to Spanish interests in Romania. Overall, as Matilde Eiroa has demonstrated, the most appealing feature of the ECE nations from the point of view of Nationalist Spain was their strong anti-Communism.

Professor Eiroa also offers us a glimpse into the world of the ECE émigré community in Spain. ECE diplomats in exile cooperated closely together within the Council of Nations Persecuted by Communism and the Catholic Project for University Assistance (p. 134). However, we also learn about internal strife not only within each ethnic group but also between some of the ECE nationalities. The strife reflected political divisions in the home country. Ethnic separatism was the most serious reason for tensions. Yugoslav diplomats were at loggerheads with the representatives of Croatia. Czechs resented the Slovaks, and vice versa (pp. 113, 151). Each looked not only for Spanish sponsors but also friends among other ECE nations. Political clashes adversely affected and, at times, even seriously crippled the effectiveness of the ECE diplomatic effort. In 1944 and 1945, pro-Horthy and pro-Szalási factions at the Hungarian embassy in Madrid vied for influence (p. 43). At the same time, at the Romanian outpost, the supporters of King Michael fought with the followers of Antonescu, while assorted Iron Guardists hovered around ready to jump into the fray and claim the mantle for themselves (pp. 145-46). As regards Poland, by 1950 the pre-1942 Polish ambassador and liberal Pilsudskite Marian Szumlakowski supported President August Zaleski and the post-1944 Polish Ambassador and Catholic conservative Count Józef Potocki threw his lot with General Anders (pp. 122-25).

Eiroa’s monograph is full of information unavailable in standard sources. From it I learned of the existence of a scientific institute financed by Franco’s Spain and run by Czech academics in Nazi-occupied Prague (p. 35). The Communist persecution of Catholic clergy and laity in Bulgaria, on spurious charges of espionage, is another obscure story Eiroa uncovered (p. 135), as is the cooperation between Spanish diplomacy and intelligence and Russian monarchists in Romania and Yugoslavia (pp. 54, 131). However, much of the information provided by Professor Eiroa is not fully processed. That is because Las relaciones sorely needs the indispensable background history of ECE.

At a closer look, it also appears that Professor Eiroa ignored the Polish archives altogether, and it remains unclear whether she knows any ECE languages at all. She admits that she used research assistants and friendly scholars when exploring ECE archives (p. 9). In her bibliography, she lists only one monograph by the most astute observer of Spanish modern history, Stanley Payne, and she completely ignores his seminal study of Fascism that includes its ECE varieties. She seems unaware of Joseph Rothschild’s works. She dances around the interplay of pragmatism and sympathy but never fully elucidates that connection. But she condemns Franco’s foreign policymaking as “undemocratic.”

There are many slipups that should have been eliminated in the editing process. Eiroa lists “Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, [and] Czechoslovakia” as “victims of the treaties of 1919” (“todos considerados Estados v’ctimas de los tratados de 1919”- p. 12). Only the former two can be considered thus. Romania and Czechoslovakia, along with Poland and Yugoslavia, were of course beneficiaries of the Versailles system. She reduces pre-war ECE nations to “fascist dictatorships with pro-Nazi leaderships . . . with the exception of Czechoslovakia” (“dictaduras fascistas, ejecutivos pro-nazis–apostaban por la opción franquista, a excepción de la democrata Checoslovaquia”- p. 14). It is egregiously wrong, as she does, to posit that any of the ECE leaders assumed “total power” before the Second World War. That would be confusing heterodox authoritarian dictatorships with unequivocal Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. It is incorrect to list as one of the putative totalitarians Ignacy Moscicki (a name she misspells) of Poland, to mention this liberal technocratic Pilsudskite on parity with “Boris III of Bulgaria, Carol II of Romania, Alexander I of Yugoslavia, [and] Admiral Horthy of Hungary” (“Varios soberanos y jefes de Estado asumieron todos los poderes: Boris III en Bulgaria, Carol II en Rumania, Alejandro I en Yugoslavia, almirante Horthy en Hungaria, Mosciki [sic] en Polonia.”- p. 12). President Moscicki had to contend for power not only with the powerful Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz but also other important Sanacja figures. He never achieved the stature of a “royal dictator.” To call him a fascist shows how lamentably unknown the history of Poland has been among the rank-and-file historians of various European countries.

It is also incorrect to use interchangeably the words “fascist” and “nazi” as for example, “El nazi belga” to describe Léon Degrell (p. 72), or to refer to “Hungarian Nazis and Arrow-Cross members” (“de los nazi hungaros y los cruzflechistas” – p. 59). Here Professor Eiroa seems to follow the rules of the game introduced in the Soviet-controlled world.

There are also some factual slips. While discussing Bulgaria, Professor Eiroa mentions that after the fall of Alexander Stamboliski in 1923 “a Communist period” followed (etapa comunista) before Boris III took dictatorial power “in a coup d’état of 1934.” While the Communists staged a brief uprising and, after its failure, conducted a bloody campaign of assassinations, they were installed in power by the Soviet army only in September 1944.

Las relaciones is organized chronologically which occasionally creates its own problems. For example, in one section Professor Eiroa mentions Pedro Prat, the Spanish Nationalist representative in Romania during that country’s civil war, describing him as “the protector of the Romanian Iron Guard” (“defensor de la Guardia de Hierro rumana.”- p. 23). Yet she fails to explain how eminently inappropriate Prat’s radical nationalist affinity was in the eyes of the Romanian officialdom. How was his open embrace of Corneliu Zelea-Codreanu to endear Prieto and his cause to the fiercely anti-Iron Guardist King Carol? True, in a latter section Eiroa notes the replacement of Prieto by a more suitable Spanish envoy (p. 54). But she remains silent on the implications of the affair, perhaps because elaborating on this would have undercut her earlier argument about King Carol’s alleged fascism. Arguably the main reason behind the establishment of the royal dictatorship in Romania in 1938 was to preempt the possibility of an Iron Guard takeover. It is also a pity that Eiroa failed to discuss whether Nationalist Spain’s Romanian policy was influenced by the participation in the Civil War of some Iron Guard volunteers, with at least two of their important leaders, Ion Mota and Vasile Marin, falling at the battle of Majadahonda in January 1937.

The geography of ECE seems to be a stumbling bloc to Professor Eiroa. In 1939 Hungary acquired Subcarpathian Ruthenia and not the whole of Ruthenia which was a historical entity comprising all the Ruthenian lands from the Carpathians in the west to well beyond Kiev in the east (p. 40). When discussing the advances of the Red Army into Poland in 1944, why refer to the Hitler-Stalin border of September 1939 as “la frontera de Brest-Litovsk” (Brzesc Litewski) and not even the Curzon Line, as it has been customarily, but geographically erroneously, described in Western historiography (p. 47)? But then Eiroa confusingly mentions in the same breath the Soviet (re)occupation of Minsk and Wilno/Vilnius, which had accrued to Poland under the Treaty of Riga of March 1921. Which treaty is it then? Brest Litovsk or Riga? And which Minsk? The capital of Belorussia had been Soviet since 1919; Minsk Mazowiecki is well to the west of the Hitler-Stalin line as well as “the border of Brest-Litovsk.”

There are some problems with some of the statistics cited in Las relaciones, in particular pertaining to the Yugoslav war dead. Professor Eiroa argues that a million Yugoslav subjects died between 1941 and 1945: “200,000 perished at the hands of the Germans and the rest at the hands of the Croats of Palevic [sic].” (“Cifraba las perdidas de Yugoslavia en un millión de muertos, alrededor de 200,000 a manos de los alemanes y el resto por los croatas de Palevic.” – p. 49 n. 33). Does the scholar suggest that the Royalist Serb Chetniki and the Communist Partisans did not kill any Yugoslavs? What about the casualties inflicted upon Yugoslavia by the Hungarian and the Italian forces?

Next, one cringes on reading about “the extermination camps of Poland” (“los campos de Polonia” p. 38 n. 11); and “Auschwitz and other camps of Poland” (“Auschwitz y . . . otros campos de Polonia”- p. 33), instead of Nazi camps in German-occupied Poland. Also, the anti-German Uprising of 1944 was not limited to Warsaw (p. 45). Code named “Operation Tempest,” it was a rolling insurrection that commenced in eastern Poland in January 1944 and involved much of the pre-war Polish state, lasting until October 1944.

Next, can we talk about the “liberation” of Poland by the Soviets in May 1945 (p. 121)? The Red Army crossed into Poland in January 1944 and pushed the Nazi forces out from the Polish State by April 1945. But the terror did not end, as émigré historians and underground materials keep telling us. There were no free elections and private property of any size was confiscated. The rights of minorities were not respected. Most people in Poland saw the arrival of Stalin’s troops as a displacement of the Nazi occupier by the Soviet occupier. Thus, the Poles consider the period after 1944 a second occupation with a puppet Polish Communist proxy regime camouflaging the reality of Stalin’s grip on Poland. It is therefore unhelpful to resort to Stalinist terminology and speak of “people’s democracy” and Communism (pp. 113-114 n. 15). According to Professor Eiroa, after the electoral victory of the Communists in Czechoslovakia in 1946, “pluralism, coexistence, and moderation continued” (“En las elecciones de 1946 los comunistas triunfaron pero continuaba el pluralismo, la convivencia y la moderación”- p. 114). What about the silent purges of the Czech non-Communists from the military and police apparatus? What about the covert persecution of anti-Communists? What about the exclusion of the German and Hungarian minorities from the democratic process? What about the problems with the return of Jewish property expropriated by the Nazis to the rightful owners? What of forcibly and routinely turning Polish and Ukrainian refugees, fugitives, and asylum seekers over to the NKVD?

Professor Eiroa is better at explaining the pragmatism of Madrid’s foreign policy than at explaining ECE, possibly because she does not seem to understand the attractiveness to Franco of ECE societies. Overall, however, her book is a welcome effort because it tries to articulate the much-ignored reality of non-Germanic Central Europe.