Why didn’t the fascist government of Franco in Spain join the Nazis in World War 2?
Robert Maxwell, lives in Hong Kong
Spain was economically devastated by in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, and the Spanish government was didn’t have a whole lot to gain from a potential Axis victory except for some colonies. They preferred a sort of “Axis-friendly neutrality,” and hedged their bets.
All other things being equal, Spain favored the Axis powers, but had little interest in joining the war in Europe in full—they were too wrecked by the Civil War to engage in real fighting. Franco did offer to join the war after the fall of France, since the war looked basically done, but they demanded French Cameroon (formerly a German colony) for their trouble. That annoyed Hitler, who figured he didn’t need them anymore, and he rejected their offer. Hitler preferred, instead, for them to stay out of the war, but to allow Germany the use of naval and air bases within Spain. Franco didn’t like this side of the deal, so Spain’s relation to the war remained a sort of informal cheering from the sidelines.
Eventually, they made an attempt to sit down and force through some sort of alliance. Franco said he’d be willing to enter—but only after a massive economic investment in foodstuffs, raw materials, trucks, aircraft, and weapons. Franco’s demand was prima facie unreasonable and Hitler countered that, if Franco didn’t join, he’d give away Catalonia and the Basque Country to Vichy France. Eventually, no deal was signed and Hitler came away with a loathing for Franco.
It’s open to debate whether Franco proposed an intentionally impossible deal—so he could stay out of the Axis side while simultaneously saying “no, we were friendly and were going to have an alliance!” if things kept on going Germany’s way.
Another major issue was that Spain was reliant on oil imports for its industry and, at the time, the oil was supplied from the United States, and the UK advised the United States on the political implications of oil exports in the context of the war. If Spain joined the Axis, Germany and the other Axis nations—who were not doing extremely well on the oil front—would have to supply Spain and make up the shortfall in American oil. Germany certainly didn’t want that.
Franco’s Foreign Ministry was, meanwhile, split into two camps (as his government was). One side was pro-British and one side was pro-German. Franco generally made a habit of switching out ministers to hedge his bets: when things were going well for Germany, he installed the pro-German minister; when things were going well for the Allies, he installed the pro-English minister.
Eventually, when things began to swing in the Allies’ direction, Franco basically told Germany that their agreements were obsolete. He had previously said that he was going to wait until a British collapse to seize Gibraltar—when the Germans and Italians ended up routing across Africa, more or less wished the Germans good night and good luck.
A good example of the Spanish balancing act was the Tangier International Zone—an international concession not unlike Shanghai or Tianjin. When Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, Franco occupied Tangier (largely dominated by the British) in a show of support—and out of pure opportunism. When the British protested to the Spanish, Spain didn’t want Britain to shut off their oil, so Spain said it was an emergency measure for the period of the war, not an annexation, agreed not to fortify the area, and extended a guarantee of British rights in the zone. When the war was irrevocably against Germany in 1944, Franco expelled all German diplomats from the Zone.
So, largely, Spain was engaged in a balancing act that kept it friendly to an ideologically-similar Germany while simultaneously not bogging it down in a war it couldn’t afford and risking a shut-down of its oil supplies. Hence, after 1945, Fascist Spain was noxious enough to undergo a period of international pariahdom, but, to Franco’s relief, not noxious enough to be the subject of an anti-Fascist invasion on the part of the Allies.