Saturday, October 23, 2010

Franco, Hitler and Gibraltar

Today is the anniversary, the 70th anniversary, of a fateful encounter in the history of modern Spain. It was on October 23, 1940 that Franco arrived by train to meet Hitler (see photo) in the station of the French border town of Hendaye a few kilometres from San Sebastian.

Hitler’s intention was to pressure Franco into joining the war on the Axis side and allowing his army free passage across Spain to seize Gibraltar from the British. Despite his enormous ascendancy as conqueror of France and commander of the largest, best equipped army in Europe, he didn’t succeed. Indeed he abruptly and rather rudely left the conversations, which had gone on all afternoon and until late into the evening, frustrated and annoyed. Pro-Franco propaganda later portrayed the Spanish Caudillo (Leader) as a canny politician whose heroic, imperturbable stubbornness saved a war-weary Spain from getting involved on the losing side. This version is still hotly debated by the historians. As always, the truth is more complex. What concerns us here, though, is not the discussions themselves but the interpreters. We know who they were.

Only six people were present in the railway saloon car where the discussions took place. They were: Hitler and his foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; Franco, accompanied by his foreign minister (and brother-in-law of his wife) Ramón Serrano Suñer; and the two interpreters. The face-to-face between the leaders would have been impossible without the interpreters: neither Hitler nor Ribbentrop knew Spanish and neither Franco nor Serrano Suñer spoke German. Ribbentrop and Serrano Suñer could speak French, but not their bosses.

It’s long been customary in diplomatic interpreting for each side to bring its own interpreter, who only translates what his or her own delegation says. This was done at Hendaye and the method they used was full consecutive interpretation, in which the interpreter waits for the speaker to finish an entire speech before translating. To help remember everything, the interpreter takes notes. It’s a slow method, because in effect everything has to be said twice, and this is one reason why the meeting lasted so long. However, it offers the advantage that it gives the speakers time to think during the interpretations, which probably helped Franco to avoid being browbeaten.

Franco’s interpreter was Luis Álvarez de Estrada y Luque, Barón de las Torres – a magnificent name and title, but I’ll call him De las Torres for short. He wasn’t officially an interpreter, but he was a seasoned career diplomat, Head of Protocol in the Foreign Ministry, and in that post he must have done and listened to a lot of interpreting in his time. His German was excellent and apparently he had a quick ear, for it’s to him that we owe our knowledge of the deprecating remark that he overheard Hitler mutter to Ribbentrop at a moment of frustration: Mit diesem Kerle ist nichts zu tun (There’s nothing to be done with this fellow).

Hitler’s interpreter was named Gross. We know less about him because he was only a second choice, a subordinate. Hitler’s preference would no doubt have been for his famous diplomatic interpreter, Paul Schmidt, the head interpreter of the German foreign ministry. Schmidt had interpreted between Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich, and in fact he was present in the entourage at Hendaye, but he couldn’t be called upon that day because he didn’t work in Spanish. Gross is said to have been incompetent.
As they parted, Franco, who was worried by Hitler’s attitude, decided to emphasise his esteem for him in a typically Spanish manner. He stood up and pressed Hitler’s hand between both of his, and declared, “In spite of what we’ve said, if the day ever comes when Germany really needs me I will be at your side unconditionally and without asking for anything in return.”
Gross failed completely to translate this, and so Franco's parting gesture of reconciliation went for nothing. However, Serrano Suñer was actually glad of the interpreter’s gaffe, because he saw it as avoiding another commitment.

Although the work was shared between two interpreters, the strain of interpreting such momentous matters between two such powerful men must have been great. Remember that they also had to interpret the conversation at the dinner which Hitler offered to Franco and his entourage on the German train. By the time the meeting broke up at five to one in the morning, they must have been exhausted.

That wasn’t the end of the matter for the interpreters. Both of them drew up reports of the conversations within days. The one by De las Torres was the fuller, indeed the only full account for historians to draw on. It’s a first-hand account, whereas we only have Gross’s at second hand through Schmidt. No doubt De las Torres turned back to his interpreter’s notes to refresh his memory, as Paul Mantoux had done at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Personal Footnote
British Intelligence soon got wind of what had happened at Hendaye. It’s suspected that the leak may have came from De las Torres, who was an anglophile. Nevertheless, the British prepared for the worst. One measure they took was to evacuate the civilian population of Gibraltar to the UK. The children were placed in local schools, including the one that I was attending in London. The native Gibraltarians were bilingual in English and Spanish, though they mostly spoke English. It was from those children that I first heard Spanish.

Paul Preston. Franco and Hitler: the myth of Hendaye 1940. Contemporary European History, 1:1.1-16, 1992.

Eduardo Palomar Baró. Entrevista entre Franco y Hitler. Generalísimo Francisco Franco.

César Vidal. ¿Qué sucedió en la entrevista de Hendaya? (Enigmas de la Historia). Ideas, Libertad Digital supplements, August 8, 2003.

Paul Schmidt. Hitler’s Interpreter: The Secret History of German Diplomacy 1935-1945. London: Heinemann, 1951. Available from Amazon UK.

Paul Mantoux. The Deliberations of the Council of Four (March 24-June 28, 1919): Notes of the official interpreter. Translated and edited by Arthur S. Link with the assistance of Manfred F. Boemeke. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Available from Amazon USA.


  1. Wonderful piece of history, thank you very much for writing it up.

  2. More than just interesting! I imagine a scene from a film before my eyes!
    Marcos Zattar

  3. Thank you so much for this entry! I've been looking for information like this for a few days now. I've just sent you an email to contact you and see if you can help me with my university thesis.

  4. I'm really thrilled to read what transpired between these two dictators during those horrid times and how Franco helped his country not to plunge directly into WW2

  5. I know this post is old, but perhaps you will receive my question.

    I am reading "Adolph Hitler:The Definitive Biography" by John Toland. In his description of this scene, Schmidt is given credit as the only translator. Gross is not mentioned. As you stated, Toland conveys the impression that Franco, a clever and gifted negotiator, verbally and politically out-played Hitler.

    How would Toland get such an important point wrong?

    Were many other important meetings during WWII influenced by poor interpreters? I have read that Mussolini refused to use interpreters and instead relied on his mangled German. Is this true?

    Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for writing.
      I stand by my version of the event. It's based on the sources listed at the end of the post, some of which are Spanish. Toland may have been misled by two things. One is that Schmidt, as senior German foreign ministry interpreter and one of Hitler's personal aides, was undoubtedly RESPONSIBLE for the interpreting on the German side but he didn't actually DO the interpreting. (The other side brought their own interpreter, as is customary in diplomatic interpreting.) Or Toland may have confused this meeting with the one between Hitler and Pétain a few days later. There the languages were German and French and so Schmidt came into his own.
      There are other controversies. Why did Franco arrive late? On purpose or because the Spanish rail tracks were in very poor condition? What was Franco's motivation: to stay out of the European conflict or to gain territories in North Africa? Anyway it was a momentous meeting. The interpreting was not responsible for the failure, because fortunately the Spaniards had a good interpreter.
      I don't know about Mussolini's German but he didn't really need it because Hitler had a very good Italian interpreter in the person of Eugen Dollmann.

  6. I've just finished reading Robert Harris's "Munich", in which Paul Schmidt features. This story sounded like a sequel!

    One point though: are you sure you've got it the right way round about how translation works? I was under the impression that each principal speaks their own language and the other side's translator translates out for their guy. So Hitler says "Wilkommen" and Franco's guy whispers "Bienvenida".

  7. Given that Spain was so weak after its civil war and that Nazi Germany after the fall of France was so powerful what held Hitler back from forcefully occupying (by air or sea or land???) the parts of Spain he needed for taking over Gibraltar? That might have been a less costly and more successful approach than what the Italian and German armies subsequently
    ly attempted in North Africa