Book Review: Spain, the Second World War, and the Holocaust

February 4, 2021
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Spain, the Second World War, and the Holocaust: History and Representation, edited by Sara J. Brenneis and Gina Herrmann. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020. xiii + 711 pp.

Franco would not have defeated the Spanish Republic had it not been for the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The same German planes that destroyed the Basque city of Gernika in April 1937, flown by the very same pilots, bombed Warsaw in September 1939. German, Spanish, Italian, French, Yugoslav, and Dutch antifascists who volunteered in the International Brigades of the Spanish Republican army later formed the backbone of the Resistance in Nazi- and Fascist-occupied Europe. The first inmates of the Mauthausen concentration camp were Spanish refugees who had been interned by the French after the defeat of the Republic, while more than 45,000 Spanish soldiers from Franco’s Spain fought with the Germans on the Eastern front. Yet the first Allied halftracks to roll into a newly liberated Paris in August 1944 were driven by the Spaniards who had fought the Axis as part of the army of the Free French.

The list of known historical facts that illustrate the intimate connection between the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Holocaust—and between the Franco regime and the Axis—is near endless. If many historians and textbooks still minimize those links, it is due to two main reasons: the fact that historians of Europe tend to ignore the continent’s peripheries—and the historiographical impact of the Cold War. The latter underscored not only Spain’s official neutrality during 1939-45 (misleadingly presented as Franco’s brilliant ploy) and the country’s role in helping Jews escape from the Nazis (simplifying a much more complex story) but also glossed over the shameful inaction of Britain, the United States, and other Western democracies who opted for non-intervention when Spain’s democratic government was attacked in 1936.

This ambitious and exhaustive new collection of essays edited by Sara Brenneis and Gina Herrmann deals a decisive blow to the pillars of that Cold War paradigm. The book’s chapters are divided into nine thematic sections that cover topics ranging from the paradoxical coexistence in twentieth-century Spain of antisemitism and a fascination with the Sephardic legacy (both of which shaped Spain’s role in World War II), Spanish Republicans in France and the Nazi camps, and Spanish soldiers fighting with the Nazis on the Russian Front, to the role of propaganda, the activities of Nazis operating in Francoist Spain, and representations of the Holocaust in Spanish culture and classrooms today.

Although a short review cannot do justice to these 35 incisive and compelling essays written by an interdisciplinary team of expert researchers—who, in addition to ALBA board members Gina Herrmann and Robert Coale, include our book review editor, Joshua Goode—it’s worth mentioning a handful of highlights. Isabelle Rohr’s chapter deals with the Jewish population in Spain’s protectorate in Morocco. Coale tells the riveting story of three Spanish brothers who fought for the Republic, only to end up in French and North African camps and eventually in Mauthausen. Herrmann rescues the testimonies of two women who were deported to Ravensbrück and used as Nazi slave labor. Goode details how high-ranking Nazis were able to find refuge in Franco’s Spain, which protected them from extradition. Josep Calvet shows how Spanish and Catalan citizens hid Jewish refugees, while Tabea Linhard applies a human rights lens to the histories of those same refugees.

The breadth and variety of this collection is as impressive as the authors’ respect for the complexity of the stories they tell. Taken together, they allow us to draw five important conclusions that Brenneis and Herrmann helpfully lay out in their introduction. First, despite its official status as neutral or non-belligerent, “Spain must be considered among the nations connected to the Shoah.” Second, while Spain “has long promulgated the myth of the Franco regime as savior of Jews,” in fact the country also “hastened the destruction of European Jewry.” Third, the Franco regime “[supported] the Axis cause in both its rhetoric and its actions,” despite Franco’s opportunism, which drove him, in the first years of the war, to “actively [court] Hitler’s favor” and, later, to “[burnish] his false reputation as a protector of Jews while at the same time limiting the number of Jewish refugees permitted to remain in Spain at any one time.” Fourth, while it is true that some 15,000 Jews were able to flee the Holocaust via Spain, this was much more due to the actions of brave Spanish diplomats and citizens acting on their own account than to any government policy. In fact, Jewish relief agencies seeking to establish offices in Spain found themselves “continually thwarted.” Fifth, the decades’ worth of distortion and mythmaking have left their imprint on public opinion today. The “image of Spain as a rescuer of Jews, polished by television documentaries, miniseries, commemorations, and news reports, has blinded Spaniards to far more complex and often contradictory regime positions.” The inescapable conclusion is that, on balance, “Spain did not realize its full potential regarding the number of Jews it could have saved during the Holocaust, Sephardic and Ashkenazi alike.”

Among this volume’s many virtues are the clear synergy among the contributors, whose accounts intersect, complement, and reinforce each other throughout; its attention to the way in which Spain’s role in the Holocaust did not come out of nowhere but was shaped by its centuries’ long history of engagement with, and rejection of, Jewish culture and populations; the way in which the authors’ lenses zoom in and out from individual to collective accounts; and the balanced focus on political history, cultural history, cultural memory, witness testimony, and contemporary representations of the past in narrative fiction, poetry, theater, film, journalism, and education.

Sebastiaan Faber teaches at Oberlin College.

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