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 https://www.academia.edu/8901274/At_the_Gateway_to_Spain_Hitler_Franco_P%C3%A9tain_and_their_Interpreters or click [HERE].