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The Spaniards who fought for Hitler

The ‘División Azul’, a Spanish force that fought alongside the German army against Russia in World War II, has mostly been overlooked by history books and filmmakers. A new book by Jorge Martínez Reverte seeks to redress the balance.


Spanish División Azul volunteers depart from Madrid to fight in World War II.

On June 24, 1941, two days after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, General Francisco Franco announced the creation of a Spanish volunteer unit “to fight Bolshevism” that would eventually grow to include some 48,000 troops.

The División Azul, or Blue Division, was incorporated into the German Armed Forces as the 250th Division of the 16th Army and fought on the Russian Front. Its name came from the blue shirts worn by the Falange, the political movement that Franco took over, but its soldiers wore German Wehrmacht uniforms. In 1944, with the United States in the war and Soviet troops advancing on Germany, it was disbanded, although some Spanish soldiers fought in the defence of Berlin in 1945.

It remains one of the last taboos of the Franco era: there is no mention of it in school textbooks; of the countless films made about the Civil War era no director has dared touch it; and there have been no television documentaries either.

That said, recent years have seen a growing number of books about the unit, the latest of which is Jorge Martínez Reverte’s División Azul: Russia, 1941-44.

Reverte’s own father, Jesús Martínez Tessier, a well-known journalist, fought in the División Azul, but never talked about his time in Russia. “Not because he was ashamed, or felt that he had done anything wrong,” says Reverte in the book’s introduction, “but because the experience was traumatic.”

When Reverte’s father died a few years ago, he left behind his diaries and memoirs, which deal with his time in the División Azul. Like many who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, Reverte says that his father enlisted to fight in Russia as a way of proving his loyalty to the new regime.

But the majority of volunteers, says Reverte, joined “because they were possessed by a destructive and combative urge that they had developed during the wars in Africa, something that today is hard to understand.”

Reverte has written extensively about the Spanish Civil War, and describes the División Azul as “one of the most shameful chapters in Spanish military history.”

“Franco took sides in the Second World War with Hitler, who was responsible for one of the worst genocides in history; that said, he was fighting somebody responsible for another genocide: Stalin,” says Reverte.

Reverte nevertheless says that as he researched further into the subject, his understanding of the historical complexities of the División Azul began to deepen, particularly regarding the role of the Catholic Church.

“I was unaware that the driving force behind the creation of the División Azul was Catholic-Nationalist. The Italian, and even the German Catholic Church protested at what the Nazis were doing in Russia, but the Spanish Church never said a word, despite knowing about the holocaust.”

Aside from his father’s testimony, Reverte has interviewed survivors and the families of those who fought in the División Azul. He also visited the battlegrounds and followed the 900 kilometers from Poland into Russia that the Spanish troops had to march.

“I have tried to provide an objective and balanced version of events,” he says, “I travelled to the areas where the División Azul fought so that I could understand the harsh conditions they had to fight under, and to meet the people who live there: without that trip I couldn’t have written the book.”

Almost 5,000 members of the División Azul died fighting for Nazi Germany, but after the war, with Spain soon to become a NATO ally, Franco’s support of Hitler was overlooked, and the División Azul was rarely mentioned.

Franco insisted that the Division Azul be used only against the forces of Bolshevism, which meant it was sent to the Russian Front, thus avoiding any conflict with the Allied Forces. This decision doubtless made it easier for the Allies to overlook Franco’s support for Hitler after the war.

Hitler referred to the division as “equal to the best German units”. Later in the war, when Hitler considered an invasion of Spain to remove Franco and replace him with Agustín Muñoz Grandes, he decided against it, saying “The Spaniards are the only tough Latins. I would have a guerrilla war in my rear.”

The División Azul cast a long shadow; one that extended beyond the death of Franco. Many high-ranking officers in the Spanish Army in 1960s and 1970s had served in the División Azul, and they were unhappy at the prospect of a return to democracy. Some of the key figures behind the failed coup on February 23, 1981 had served in the unit. Amongst them were generals Alfonso Armada and Jaime Milans del Bosch. At the same time, other División Azul veterans, for example José Luis Aramburu Topete, head of the Civil Guard, and José Gabeiras remained loyal to the democratic government.

For several years after the death of Franco, members of the División Azul continued to march in Spain’s annual October 12 Armed Forces Day parade. In 2004, the new Socialist Party government invited three veterans of the División Azul to march alongside members of the Army of the Second Republic that lost to General Franco in the Civil War.

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Published: Mar 21 2011
Category: Culture
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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4 Comments for “The Spaniards who fought for Hitler”

  1. What is not mentioned in this article is that Franco saved 40,000 Jews during the war by giving them Spanish entry visas. This is more than any of the sanctimonious Western democracies.

    • The article was about the Blue Division, not about Franco’s policies towards the Jews. It was prompted by a new book about the unit, and provided an opportunity to look at what is still a largely taboo subject in Spain.
      I would be very interested to hear from any readers with factual, documented evidence of Franco ever having officially sanctioned a policy of allowing Jews fleeing Vichy France and the rest of the Nazi empire to seek refuge in Spain. The figure of 40,000 Jews being “saved” is out there on the internet, but is not backed up by any source.
      Spain was officially neutral during World War II, and there was no official policy of anti-Semitism in Franco’s Spain—let’s not forget that the Jews had been expelled four hundred and fifty years before. The mass deportation of Jews from France did not begin until 1942, after the Wannsee Conference. Before then, it was still possible for Jews with money and a passport to flee France for Spain and board ships in Barcelona headed for the Americas, or to transit the country and take a vessel from Portugal.
      While such a situation undoubtedly saved lives, and Jews arriving in Spain must have been hugely relieved, we should not forget that Franco had other things on his mind in 1940, and was busy shooting and imprisoning thousands of Republican sympathizers. There is no evidence to suggest that once the deportations began in earnest in France from 1942 onwards that Spain offered any refuge. More to the point perhaps, once the deportations began, the French authorities were collaborating fully with the Germans, which would have made it nearly impossible for Jews to move around France: they would have needed false papers to do so.
      That said, during the war, some Spanish ambassadors, notably in Hungary, did all they could to save Jewish lives, but these were individual acts of bravery and moral courage. It is now known that Franco prepared a list of some 6,000 Jews living in Spain for Himmler. He was presented with the list during a visit to a German-run concentration camp in Aranda in 1940.
      I don’t believe that there is any kind of conspiracy to cover up Franco’s secret help for European Jewry: the historian who uncovers proof that “Franco saved the Jews” will have a global bestseller on his or her hands.

      • Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth:

        “In the Congressional Record of January 24, 1950, Rep. Abraham Multer quotes a spokesman for the Joint Distribution Committee: “During the height of Hitler’s blood baths, upwards of 60,000 Jews had been saved by the generosity of Spanish authorities.” ”

        The Joint Distibution Committee is a Jewish organization in case you didn’t know.

        Before making unsubstantiated wild statements please do your homework.

        As for the Republicans (Communists) they too had blood on their hands, in particular the execution of Catholic clerics.

        The West, in particular the Europeans should be thankful that Stalin did not get his way to turn Spain into another Socialist Republic which would have resulted in another Communist perpetrated genocide like in so many other countries around the world. 100 million victims were sacrificed under the filthy Red banner all for the “Higher Good” no doubt.

        Of course the European Left is in complete denial of this fact and wishes nothing more than to resurrect the murderous Marxist Leninist Experiment all over again.

        Give us all a break!

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