Commentary Magazine

Spain, the Jews, and Franco, by Haim Avni


Spain, the Jews, and Franco.
by Haim Avni.
Translated from the Hebrew by Emanuel Shimoni. Jewish Publication Society. 268 pp. $19.95.

In 1492, after centuries of coexistence with their Christian (and Muslim) neighbors, the Jews of Spain were ordered to embrace Catholicism or quit the country altogether. Some did accept this fiat and abandon (insofar as possible) their distinctively Jewish identity. Others chose to practice one faith in public, another in private. Still others—uncounted thousands—dispersed to Portugal, England, Holland, North Africa, Greece, and the Balkans, a tragic remnant of Spain in its most brilliant age. Although several times during the 19th and 20th centuries the winds of revolutionary change were to waft across the peninsula from Northern Europe, and although Spain itself enjoyed three liberal governments during those years, including a putatively “leftist” Second Republic (1931-39), the Edict of Expulsion which formally forbade the presence of a Jewish community in Spain was not lifted until December 1968—and then by General Francisco Franco.



That this historic reversal of a four-hundred-year policy should have been accomplished by a quondam ally of Hitler rather than by some more fitting figure in the Spanish liberal pantheon forms a sort of ironic centerpiece to this book. Its fundamental purpose, as the author explains in the introduction, is to ascertain the truth of the claim, repeatedly made by the Franco regime, that it contributed significantly to the rescue of European Jewry during the Holocaust. According to one such assertion, Madrid’s aid was “extended not only to the Spanish Jews throughout the [European] continent, but also, whenever the opportunity presented itself, to all Jews irrespective of their nationality and place of residence.”

Franco—protector of the Jews? An unlikely possibility, to say the very least. And yet what if there were some truth to the claim? What would it imply for both Spanish and Jewish history? In order to determine the facts, Avni found himself forced to step back and examine a host of other issues—Spanish attitudes toward Jews in the modern period; the Franco regime’s relations. with the Axis, and later with the Allies; the role of Spanish diplomacy during World War II, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; even the politics of Jewish relief agencies during this fateful period. Thus, in over two hundred densely packed pages, the author manages to cover a great deal of ground, and to open up several new areas for further inquiry.



Avni begins by discussing the peculiar nature of Spanish anti-Semitism, and the ambivalent attitudes which Spain’s intellectual community has long harbored toward its own (partly Jewish) past. The dominant theme is of course the consubstantiality of Spanish nationality and Catholicism, but since the late 19th century that theme has been periodically challenged by a lesser yet persistent counterpoint, which has called for the incorporation of the Sephardic, or Spanish-Jewish, community into the national family. For some, this has represented nothing more than the rectification of a vast historic injustice; for others, it has been part of a larger agenda, to project Spanish cultural influence into areas where the major second language has been French; for still others, it has constituted part of a scheme to coax supposed Jewish financial acumen into the service of Spanish economic development.

Whatever the actual motives of this “philo-Semitism,” it has had to contend with very much stronger sentiments opposed to a pluralistic definition of the Spanish nationality. Hence, its accomplishments have been slow and painful. For example, it was not until 1924 that the monarch ordered his diplomatic agents abroad to proffer their protection to “people of Spanish origin.” Although the Republican constitution of 1931 redefined citizenship in such a way as to make it possible for Jews to obtain it within the country itself, a law to promulgate “procedures that will facilitate persons of Spanish origin living abroad to acquire Spanish citizenship” was never actually passed.

It was during the 30’s that Sephardic communities in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Balkans flocked to consulates and high commissions to avail themselves of a diplomatic status which, as events were to show, was actually vague and dangerously undefined. Moreover, in a fashion altogether typical of the anomalous organization of the Second Republic, several thousand Jews managed to enter the country and settle there, largely from Sephardic communities and also, after 1933, from Germany as well; in spite of a generally benevolent political environment, these people, as Avni puts it, remained “in legal limbo.”



The victory of the Nationalists in the Civil War in 1939 brought an end to the hesitating steps toward emancipation taken under the Republic. At the same time, the status of Jews already in Spain and those claiming kinship to it in other countries was almost immediately affected by the outbreak of World War II. Here, Avni emphasizes, it is only possible to understand Franco’s “Jewish policy” in terms of his other concerns. From 1939 on the dictator’s principal goal was to keep his country—exhausted from its own civil conflict—out of the war. This limited the influence which Nazi Germany was able to exercise over the regime; and as the fortunes of war shifted, it also dictated a more pragmatic neutrality increasingly tilted toward the Allies.

At this point the policies of Great Britain and the United States became at least as important to the fate of the Jews as those of Franco himself; that is, Spain’s Jewish policy became increasingly dependent upon the State Department, the Foreign Office, and the ability of Jewish relief organizations to influence both. Avni confirms what is already known from the accumulating literature on the diplomatic dimensions of the Holocaust: the agencies themselves were weak, underfinanced, and divided, and their leverage with Allied governments was far from overwhelming. To this he adds a new, but not wholly unexpected, twist: in Spain itself the relief agencies had to contend with U.S. Ambassador Carlton Hayes, who regarded their concerns as fundamentally disruptive of the cordial relationship he was determined to pursue with Franco. To summarize a very complex issue in a few words: the Allies did favorably influence Spain’s refugee policies, but far less than they could have done.

This still left considerable room for Spanish diplomatic initiative in areas conquered or occupied by Axis forces. At one point this included a very considerable area, stretching from Vichy France to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa. How seriously did Spain take its obligation to “persons of Spanish origin living abroad” or its claimed solicitude for “Jews irrespective of their nationality”? The answer to that question must be recited in parts: (1) As far as temporary refuge is concerned, Spain did not discriminate against Jews, legally or otherwise. In the first year of the war, upward of 30,000 refugees were able to survive by negotiating transit through Spain to other countries. (2) Long-range refuge in Spain was available to many fewer; at no time did it ever exceed 2,000. (3) With the single exception of Hungary, protection of “persons of Spanish origin” covered only Sephardim, and not even all of these—for, as Avni found, “in the only instance where French Sephardic Jews asked to be included among those enjoying Spain’s protection, their request was denied.” And, he adds, “even the defense of its nationals was halfhearted during the first part of the war; Spain never unequivocally demanded that they be exempted from Nazi decrees.” (4) During the second half of the war, Spain acted to save 11,535 Jews, whom Avni divides thus: about 7,500 refugees reached its border under all the national programs; 3,235 enjoyed various forms of diplomatic protection; another 800 Spanish nationals were saved through repatriation. But—and this is the point—“these numbers are to be regarded as maximum estimates only and . . . at least the last mentioned was far below Spain’s full potential for the rescue of Jews.”

The figures themselves tell only part of the story. For behind them lay not one but really three different policies, sometimes pursued simultaneously, at other times ad seriatim. One was to ignore altogether the commitment made to Sephardim under previous Spanish governments, ostensibly in the interests of good relations with the Axis, but in reality thanks to a deep ideological anti-Semitism which pervaded the Foreign Ministry until Ramon Serrano Suñer was replaced as its head by López Jordana in 1942. The second was to apply the criterion of diplomatic protection very selectively, with a view to rescuing Jews who could be expected to use Spain merely as a stopping-off point to other destinations. (Avni quotes López Jordana as hoping these unfortunates would pass through the country “leaving no trace, as light passes through glass.”) The third was to live up to the best traditions of Spanish humanitarianism—which was fitfully but at times heroically pursued by diplomats on the scene, particularly in Paris, Athens, Budapest, Bucharest, and Sofia. It is to these professional foreign-service officers—whom Avni identifies for the first time—that Spain owes what honor it can salvage from the moral debris of World War II.

Ironically, Spain’s very diplomatic and ideological proximity to Nazi Germany in the early part of the war was a double-edged sword. As Avni observes, it may well be that “if Spain’s status during [these years] had been different, this rescue might never have taken place.” Conversely, since there is a nagging congruence between Spanish refugee policy and the course of Allied fortunes, one can only regret that in the second half of the war pressures from that quarter were so much weaker than they could have been.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for the Franco regime is that it acted somewhat more generously than one might have had the right to expect—the right, that is, given the entire course of Spanish and Hispano-Jewish history. In any case, Spain’s record—however dismal—can easily withstand comparison with that of other Catholic countries which fell within the purview of Nazi influence: Hungary, Rumania, even (in spite of persistent Resistance legends) Vichy France.



A final chapter (“In the Post-Holocaust Generation”) brings the story up to date. After World War II, economic development, tourism, and a military alliance with the United States introduced new and profoundly unsettling influences into Spanish society. These, combined with a lingering desire to be accepted as an equal by the European community, were more than anything else responsible for Franco’s decision to lift the Edict of Expulsion. Ten years later, a new Spanish constitution finally established the basis for the full constitutional emancipation of Spanish Jews. Yet the same charter still left open the possibility of preferential treament for the Roman Catholic Church, and beneath the harmonies of parliamentary democracy one could easily discern some distinctly discordant notes. In Spain, as elsewhere, the fate of Jewry is inextricably tied up with that of liberal democracy. Thus the drama of two ancient peoples enters a new and critical phase.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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