Sunday, October 25, 2020

When Franco met Hitler: Addenda for "At the Gateway to Spain"




Last Friday, 23 October, was the eightieth anniversary of  one of the most famous meetings in the modern history of Spain. On 23 October 1940, Caudillo Francisco Franco met a victorious Führer Adolf Hitler for a few hours of negotiation in the railway station of the French frontier town of Hendaye. This blog has devoted several posts to it in past years, but there’s no need to go looking for them because they've been collected into an article that you can find on my Academia page (see reference below) and which focusses on the two interpreters at the conversation.

Eighty years later the event continues to fascinate both professional and popular historians. One article in the Spanish newspaper ABC drew 200 comments from readers! Indeed this posting is late because I found more new material than I anticipated.

The ABC article is one of a series. Much of what they discuss is already well worked over, for instance the reasons why Franco declined to enter WW2 alongside his supposed ally Nazi Germany. In brief, he went to Hendaye hoping to wrest large parts of Morocco, Algeria, etc., from the French, but was thwarted by Hitler’s desire to avoid a break with Pétain, whom he was due to meet a few days later. Or why he arrived in Hendaye late; was it really deliberate, to make Hitler nervous? But there are also some surprises even now.

It’s little known, for example, that before the meeting, the notorious Heinrich Himmler, head of the German SS, made an official visit to the Basque country and Madrid to coordinate the security preparations for it. Then he went off to Barcelona and Montserrat to hunt for religious relics.

Better known is Hitler’s remark to Mussolini after the Hendaye meeting that he would rather have three or four molars pulled out than suffer another session with Franco. He also complained about Franco’s droning voice. But the Germans already had a low opinion of the Spanish leader even earlier It’s typified by the put-down made by Admiral Canaris, Hitler’s spymaster, that “Franco is no hero, just a little squirt.” Yet it was the duplicitous Canaris, while in Spain to inspect the Gibraltar area, who twice advised Franco, through his foreign minister and brother-in-law of his wife, Ramón Serrano Suñer, not to get involved with the German plans. When Serrano Suñer visited Berlin in September 1940 he sensed that German support for Spain was lukewarm and he wrote home as much.

Though the French possessions in Africa were certainly on Franco’s list of demands for entering the war, it turns out he had even more pressing requirements. The Spanish economy was in tatters and its army, though battle-hardened, lacked armament. He urgently wanted wheat, petrol and artillery. He wrote in a letter to Serrano Suñer: 

“Bear in mind the seriousness of our internal supply situation with the harvests even below the latest forecasts. It forces us to seek a solution to the question of supplies from Germany with some contribution from Italy. So it suits us to be in it [the Axis war] but not to be in a hurry, If we can delay our participation without prejudice to the overall situation it will be to our advantage.”


Another surprise is that the de luxe railway carriage in which Franco travelled the 20 km from San Sebastian in Spain to Hendaye and arrived late still exists in an unexpected place and in a poor state of preservation. It was built in 1929 for the journeys of King Alfonso XIII. Decommissioned in the 1950s, it has survived abortive attempts at restoration and now sits lonely in a shed in the town of Almazán in the relatively remote province of Soria. It’s not mentioned in the official tourist guide of the town.


But perhaps the most surprising of all and the most recent, though it’s of no historical importance, is the affair of the doctored photos. Long before the era of Photoshop there were photographers who were skilled at faking photos. Franco was much smaller than Hitler. It didn’t suit the Falangist propaganda to show that. So the official Spanish news agency Efe had pictures of the meeting produced that minimised the difference. One of them is reproduced above.



Luis Tagores and César Cervera. La «actitud dura y ambiciosa» de Hitler que anticipó el choque en Hendaya. ABC, 17 December 2018.


H. Diaz. El eterno abandono del vagón de la «entrevista de Hendaya». ABC, 27 December 2017.


Mónica Arrizabalaga. Las fotos trucadas de Franco y Hitler en Hendaya. ABC, 20 October 2020.

Mónica Arrizabalaga. El día que España estuvo a punto de entrar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial, según el relato de  Serrano Suñer. ABC, 24 October 2020. The latest source, it recounts Serrano Suñer`s recollections and confirms that the real reason why Franco arrived late was the delapidated state of the Spanish railway.


Brian Harris. At the Gateway to Spain: Hitler, Franco, Pétain and Their Interpreters. Go to or click [HERE].

Friday, October 9, 2020

Valencia’s Jewish Interpreters in 1238


It’s a tradition on this blog to have an entry for 9 October (el Nou de Octubre), the national day of the Valencians. The event has a monument in the village where I live, the Creu de la conca (Cross of the Conquest) , a replica of the one that was erected in the 14th century to mark the marshy area where King James I of Aragon (in Valencian Jaume I) parked his army for two weeks while he negotiated the surrender of the city after a long siege.

The Moors (Arabs and North Africans) had ruled Valencia (Arabic بلنسية) from 718 to 1238. During that time it was a prosperous and expanding city in a rich agricultural setting where they introduced irrigation and rice cultivation. Eventually, however, their regime was ended by the military campaigns of the Christians from the north and the internecine warfare between the Muslim principalities.

The pause in the fighting from 28 September 1238 onwards was ostensibly to allow the negotiations but in reality also a device for both sides to play for time. James was expecting troops from Aragon to reinforces the army he had brought mainly from Tortosa; the Moors were hoping for reinforcements from Tunis. The Tunisians made the mistake of landing further north at Peñiscola (a town worth visiting if ever you are in the area). Meanwhile the negotiators had to overcome a language problem. James only spoke Aragonese, a Latin language; the Moorish ruler Abu Zayd only spoke Iberian Arabic. Interpreters were essential. Where were they to be found?

Under the Moors, Valencia had a Jewish community eminent for its size and wealth. Their community and trade connections had always kept them in contact with both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Learned members of the community were taken on as translator-secretaries and interpreters. The names of some of them have come down to us: Maestros R. David, R. Solomon, and R. Moses Bachiel; David Almadayan, secretary to the infante D. Fernando; Maestros (or Alfaquins, physicians) R. Joseph, Abraham ibn Vives (probably the father of the wealthy Joseph ibn Vives who in 1271 held a lease of the salt-works of Valencia, and who was probably the ancestor of the humanist Luis Vives (1492-1540), after whom a street and a secondary school in Valencia are named),.  

When James finally made his entry into the conquered city on Oct. 9, 1238, the Jews went out to meet him with their rabbis and delegates at their head, and presented him with a scroll of the Law in token of homage. As a reward for the important services which they had rendered him in the conquest of the strongly fortified city, he presented to some of them houses belonging to the Moors, as well as real estate in the city and its precincts. Among those who received such gifts after the repartimient (redistribution of Valencia) were the secretaries and interpreters of the king:

James was an excellent administrator as well as a warrior. The Jewish community continued to prosper in their allotted quarter of the city (the aljama) with a few restrictions under James and his immediate successors, but envy and fanaticism were building up. On July 9th,  1391 a large group of youths attacked the Jewish Quarter and killed over 250 people, ransacking their homes and raping the women of each household. Though over 90 people were eventually arrested, this event essentially ended the Jewish presence in Valencia with the exception of visiting businessmen. The remnants of the aljama were obliterated.


Isidore Singer and Meyer Kayserling. Valencia. Jewish Encyclopedia. or click [HERE].

Luis Vives. Wikipedia, 2020., or click [HERE].

Llibre del Repartiment (Valencia). Wikipedia, 2020. or click [HERE].


Jaume I el Conqueridor, King of Majorca and Valencia, Count of Barcelona, Lord of Montpellier. Source: Google Images.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Guest Post by Prabha Sridevan

Prabha Sridevan is one of the numerous literary translators in India who translate from Indian languages ─ in her case Tamil ─  into English, such is the enduring nationwide readership for English in her country. She already contributed a guest post to this blog in 2017 which has had many readers; you can retrieve it by entering prabha in the Search box on the right. The following one reached us on this year’s World Translation Day.

Greetings on World Translation day. My first editor Mini Krishnan sent her band of translators her best wishes on this day. And one of them quoted from David Mitchell, and as is my wont, I went to the Google to read from where. And I found this.  “David Mitchell, said of his experience co-translating The Reason I Jump from Japanese: “As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock. ” Are we all that? Wow! And yes can we be right all the way? A moot thought.

Very happy to write here again. When the State locked us down, in March, I naively thought that the end of the tunnel was not far away. Slowly realisation dawned that what I saw was not real light but some flickering fireflies. One had to get used to the locked-down state of affairs while battling with the guilty discomfort that I was luckier than millions of my country people. Everything familiar has changed, the year 2020 devoured it all.

Translation helped me. Now I (retired ten years ago) could also say I am “working from home”! My family has got used to this bug that bit me. My son sent me a book on translation, my daughter-in-law sent me an interview with a translator. I realised that each translator has her own technique, especially if you have ‘walked’ into translation like I have. I translate from Tamil to English. If I am doubtful about some word or the construction of a sentence, I read it aloud. I choose the one that “sounds” like how the Tamil original sounded. If I had captured the tone more closely, though another word may be closer to the meaning, the tone wins. A short story that I have recently translated is about a man and his obsession with pigeons. The title in Tamil is literally Pigeon madness. Neither the author nor I the translator liked it. I suggested “The pigeons flew into his soul.” He said yes!

I am now translating four writers, and I rejoice at the diversity. In my pen dwell a variety of people. From just the perspective of dates, the writings span from very early 20th century to the year of the pandemic. Yes, it is not my pen but my laptop if you nit-pick for accuracy. But pen has a certain delicious flavour that the laptop does not. Just listen to this, “In my laptop dwell a variety of people”…no certainly no.

Translators transform a creation from one language to another, but not just that, it is also from one culture to another, from one way of life to another. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem “Let my country awake” which contains these lines, “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” (Translated from Bengali) Translators chip away at these walls bit by bit, sometimes even within a country. While technology has broken down geographical bounds, human beings are stacking silos round themselves. So the translator is more important today. She gives you an insight into worlds you cannot see in one lifetime or even two. She creates empathy and understanding.

 I strongly feel that writers must bring the feel and fragrance of their country, community or culture. When they are translated into a language I can read, I understand that there are differences between the writer’s people and me, but we are the same. A novel I read some time ago was translated from an Indian language to English. I could read only the translation. I felt it was written even in the original with an eye on the world market. The names were Indian, the food was Indian, but if I changed the woman’s name to Juanita and made her cook tortillas, it will be in Mexico and you will not hear a wrong note. It did not have the “Indian core”, and I think that is essential. It is a certain ‘dishonesty’ is what I think. An arguable point. I am open to be countered.

Should we only translate recent writers?  In some languages, translations were not done with that enthusiasm as they are now. I know for sure that it is so in India. So do those long-ago writers get confined to their language readers only? Wouldn’t that be a great loss? Recently a speaker said at a lecture[1], “Libraries are ….repositories of views of every kind. Every republic needs a space for dissent, disagreement and discussion, a place for a fair and unbiased study of the past, a place where anyone may read and access anything by anyone else…what every such republic needs is libraries.”  …and translations. And also translations of great writers not new, if they have not been translated. Let noble thoughts come from everywhere (This too is a translation- a line from the Rg Veda)

[1] Bansari Seth Memorial Lecture by Justice Gautam Patel "One Nation under the Constitution" on 18th August, 2020 organized by The Asiatic Society of Mumbai