France and the Spanish Civil War

Concerned by the emergence of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, a group of left-wing politicians in France, led by Leon Blum, Edouard Daladier, Maurice Thorez, Edouard Herriot, Daniel Mayer, formed the Popular Front in 1934. Parties involved in the agreement included the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Party.

In Spain left-wing groups followed the example set by France and established a coalition of parties to fight the national elections due to take place in February 1936. This included the Socialist Party (PSOE), Communist Party (PCE), Esquerra Party and the Republican Union Party.

The Spanish Popular Front, as the coalition became known, advocated the restoration of Catalan autonomy, amnesty for political prisoners, agrarian reform, an end to political blacklists and the payment of damages for property owners who suffered during the revolt of 1934.

In the General Election held on 16th February, 1936 the Popular Front, won 263 seats out of the 473 in the Cortes and formed a new government. The Popular Front government immediately upset the conservatives by releasing all left-wing political prisoners. The government also introduced agrarian reforms that penalized the landed aristocracy.

The Popular Front in France also did well in the May 1936 parliamentary elections and won a total of 376 seats. Leon Blum, leader of the Socialist Party, now become prime minister. Once in power the Popular Front government introduced the 40 hour week and other social reforms. It also nationalized the Bank of France and the armaments industry.

On the 10th May 1936 the conservative Niceto Alcala Zamora was ousted as president and replaced by the left-wing Manuel Azaña. Soon afterwards Spanish Army officers, including Emilio Mola, Francisco Franco, Juan Yague, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano and José Sanjurjo, began plotting to overthrow the Popular Front government. This resulted in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War on 17th July, 1936.

In July, 1936, José Giral, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in Spain, requested aid from France. The prime minister, Leon Blum, agreed to send aircraft and artillery. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.

Baldwin and Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. In September 1936 a Non-Intervention Agreement was drawn-up and signed by 27 countries including Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Italy.

Benito Mussolini continued to give aid to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces and during the first three months of the Nonintervention Agreement sent 90 Italian aircraft and refitted the cruiser Canaris, the largest ship in the Nationalists' fleet.

On 28th November the Italian government signed a secret treaty with the Spanish Nationalists. In return for military aid, the Nationalist agreed to allow Italy to establish bases in Spain in the case of a conflict with France. Over the next three months Mussolini sent to Spain 130 aircraft, 2,500 tons of bombs, 500 cannons, 700 mortars, 12,000 machine-guns, 50 whippet tanks and 3,800 motor vehicles.

Adolf Hitler also continued to give aid to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces but attempted to disguise this by sending the men, planes, tanks, and munitions via Portugal. He also gave permission for the formation of the Condor Legion. The initial force consisted a Bomber Group of three squadrons of Ju-52 bombers; a Fighter Group with three squadrons of He-51 fighters; a Reconnaissance Group with two squadrons of He-99 and He-70 reconnaissance bombers; and a Seaplane Squadron of He-59 and He-60 floatplanes.

The Condor Legion, under the command of General Hugo Sperrle, was an autonomous unit responsible only to Franco. The legion would eventually total nearly 12,000 men. Sperrle demanded higher performance aircraft from Germany and he eventually received the Heinkel He111, Junkers Stuka and the Messerschmitt Bf109. It participated in all the major engagements including Brunete, Teruel, Aragon and Ebro.

The Communist Party, that had originally supported the Popular Front government in France, now organized demonstrations against Blum's policy of non-intervention. With the left-wing in open revolt against the government and a growing economic crisis, Blum decided to resign on 22nd June.

Maurice Thorez, the leader of the Communist Party in France, began to arrange the recruitment of soldiers to fight in the International Brigades for the Popular Front in Spain. The first group of volunteers left Toulouse on 29th July. The main recruitment centre was in Paris and from there they travelled by train to Perpignan. After spending the night in the town they were driven in trucks into Spain. Others went by sea via Marseilles.

The French supplied more men to fight with the Republican Army than any other country. Over 9,000 served, of whom some 3,000 were killed. It has been estimated that around half of all those who went were members of the Communist Party. The most prominent volunteer was André Malraux who organized a Republican air squadron.

André Marty, another member of the French Communist Party, was responsible for their military training at Albacete. Over the next couple of years Marty developed a reputation as an officer willing to execute his own men if they showed signs of wavering in their communist faith or in their willingness to fight the enemy.

Only about 200 Frenchmen fought for the Nationalist Army. Most of these joined the Jeanne d'Arc Battalion led by Captain Bonneville de Marsangy. Jean Hérold-Paquis also served the Nationalists by broadcasting anti-Republican propaganda on Radio Saragossa.

In January 1938 the French prime minister, Camille Chautemps, closed the frontier with Spain. This upset the Socialist Party and Communist Party and his government fell and was replaced by Leon Blum. When he began to argue for an end to the country's nonintervention policy, Neville Chamberlain and the Foreign Office joined with the right-wing press in France and political figures such as Henri-Philippe Petain and Maurice Gamelin to bring him down.

On 10th April 1938, Blum was replaced by Edouard Daladier, a politician who agreed not only with Chamberlain's Spanish strategy but his appeasement policy.

On 27th February 1939, the French government recognized General Francisco Franco as the new ruler of Spain. The border was reopened and 236,000 refugees fled to France in an attempt to escape from the new fascist regime.

Primary Sources

(1) Leon Blum, speech in the House of Representatives (6th December 1936)

Our foreign policy has been inspired by two simple principles: the determination to place France's interests above all others, and the conviction that France has no greater interest than that of peace, the certainty that peace for France is inseparable from peace for Europe. All the groups in the majority, and I am sure the whole House, are in agreement on these principles.

I shall not accuse anyone of trying to push us directly or indirectly toward war. Everyone in France wants peace. Everyone is equally ardent in expressing this wish, and I have no doubt, equally sincere. Everyone understands that neither war, nor consequently peace, can today be contained within national borders, and that a people can only preserve itself from the scourge by contributing to preserve all others from it.

However, gentlemen, despite this fundamental agreement, I am obliged to remark that our questioners have been rather discreet in praising us. Most of the opposition speakers, and first and foremost my friend Paul Reynaud, have come forward in turn to claim that because of the composition of the majority and the demands of our domestic program we are condemned, in the international sphere, either to self-contradiction or to impotence. And furthermore, on what may be the gravest of current issues - it is certainly the most emotional - the Spanish question, our common desire for peace nonetheless leaves us in disagreement, in practice, with one of the groups of the majority, the group made up by the Communist party.

I have dealt with this question elsewhere. I have never spoken of it before the House. Although, in reality, I have nothing to add to the declarations of my friend Mr. Yvon Delbos (Radical-Socialist Party), with whom I have always shared the most loyal and affectionate sense of solidarity, the House will no doubt permit me to furnish some personal explanations. I repeat, as was said by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, that as far as we are concerned, there is only one legal government in Spain, or, to put it better, only one government. The principles of what might be called democratic law coincide in this respect with the undisputed rules of international law.

I recognize that France's direct interest includes and calls for the presence of a friendly government on Spanish soil, and one that is free of certain other European influences. I have no hesitation in agreeing that the establishment in Spain of a military dictatorship too closely bound by links of indebtedness to Germany and Italy would represent not only an attack on the cause of international democracy, but a source of anxiety - I do not wish to put it more strongly - for French security, and hence a threat to peace. In that respect, I agree with the argument that Mr. Gabriel Peri (Communist Party) presented to the House. In fact, I deplore that such an obvious truth was not perceived from the start by all of French and international public opinion, and that it has been obscured by Party passion and resentment. Let me add - and I do not think that anyone in this House will pay me the insult of being surprised - that I do not intend for a single moment to deny the personal friendship tying me to the Spanish socialists, and to many republicans: it still attaches me to them, despite the bitter disappointment they feel and express about me today.

I know all that. I feel it all. And to take this sort of public confession through to its conclusion, I shall add that since 8 August, a certain number of our hopes and expectations have in fact been disappointed; that all of us were hoping that the noninterference pact, which we had put into effect in advance, would be signed more promptly; that we were counting on the other governments' keeping more closely to their commitments. The policy of noninterference, in many respects, has not produced all we expected of it. True. But, gentlemen, is that a reason to condemn it? Here we must, all of us, make a very thorough analysis.

If it is true that in the name of international freedom, and in the name of French security, we must at all costs prevent the rebellion on Spanish soil from succeeding, then I declare that the conclusions reached by Mr. Gabriel Peri and Mr. Thorez (Communist Party)do not go far enough. It is not enough to denounce the noninterference agreement. It is not enough to reestablish free arms trade between France and Spain. Free arms trade between France and Spain would not be adequate aid, far from it. No! To assure the success of Republican legality in Spain, we would have to go further, much further. We would have to take a much greater step.

In conditions such as we have them at present, the truth of the matter is - and events have proved it - that the arming of a government can really only be done by another government. To be really effective, aid must be governmental. This is true from the point of view of materials, and from the point of view of recruitment. It would have to include, by way of equipment, levying arms from our own stocks, and byway of a sign-up of volunteers, levying troops from our units.

(2) The British government was involved in the attempt to being down the government led by Leon Blum. In April 1938, Sir Orme Sargent, assistant undersecretary of state, wrote to the British Ambassador, Sir Eric Phipps, about this matter.

You may very well properly be shocked at the suggestion that we, or rather you, should do anything which might embarrass or weaken a French Government, even if it be in the hopes that it will, as a result, be replaced by a government more adequate to the critical situation with which we are faced.

(3) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952)

In the course of the next three years Germany sent men and military supplies, including experts and technicians of all kinds and the famous Condor Air Legion. German aid to Franco was never on a major scale, never sufficient to win the war for him or even to equal the forces sent by Mussolini, which in March 1937 reached the figure of sixty to seventy thousand men. Hitler's policy, unlike Mussolini's, was not to secure Franco's victory, but to prolong the war. In April 1939, an official of the German Economic Policy Department, trying to reckon what Germany had spent on help to Franco up to that date, gave a round figure of five hundred million Reichsmarks, not a large sum by comparison with the amounts spent on rearmament. But the advantages Germany secured in return were disproportionate - economic advantages (valuable sources of raw materials in Spanish mines); useful experience in training her airmen and testing equipment such as tanks in battle conditions; above all, strategic and political advantages.

It only needed a glance at the map to show how seriously France's position was affected by events across the Pyrenees. A victory for Franco would mean a third Fascist State on her frontiers, three instead of two frontiers to be guarded in the event of war. France, for geographical reasons alone, was more deeply interested in what happened in Spain than any other of the Great Powers, yet the ideological character of the Spanish Civil War divided, instead of uniting, French opinion. The French elections shortly before the outbreak of the troubles in Spain had produced the Left-wing Popular Front Government of Leon Blum. So bitter had class and political conflicts grown in France that - as in the case of the Franco-Soviet Treaty - foreign affairs were again subordinated to internal faction, and many Frenchmen were prepared to support Franco as a way of hitting at their own Government.

(4) André Malraux, speech in the United States (November, 1938)

The ivory tower is no place for writers who have in democracy a cause to fight for. If you live, your writing will be better for the experience gained in battle. If you die, you will make more living documents than anything you could write in ivory towers.

(5) Martha Gellhorn, The Undefeated (1945)

There were ten concentration camps in France from 1939 on. It is alleged that half a million Spanish men, women and children fled to France after the Franco victory. Thousand got away to other countries; thousands returned to Spain tempted by false promises of kindness. By the tens of thousands, these Spaniards died of neglect in the concentration camps. And the German Todt organizations took over seven thousand able-bodied Spaniards to work as slaves. The remainder - no one knows certainly how many - exist here in France. The French cannot be blamed for their present suffering since the French cannot yet provide adequately for themselves.

The Third French Republic was less barbarous to the Spaniards than was the Petain government, evidently, but it would seem that all people who run concentration camps necessarily become brutal monsters. And though various organizations in America and England collected money and sent food parcels to these refugees, nothing was ever received by the Spanish. Furthermore, they were constantly informed by all the camp authorities that they had been abandoned by the world: they were beggars and lucky to receive the daily soup of starvation.

The only way to get out of these French concentration camps was to sign a labor contract: any farmer or employer could ask for two or ten or twenty Spaniards, who were then bound over to him and would have to work for whatever wages he chose to pay under whatever living conditions he saw fit to provide. If a Spaniard rebelled, he could return to the concentration camp. A well-known Barcelona surgeon worked as a wood-cutter for four years at twelve cents a day. He is sixty-two and there is nothing unusual about his case.

(6) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

Baldwin's retirement in May, 1937, had accentuated the appeasement policy with the arrival of Neville Chamberlain as Premier. My own view was that the chances of avoiding war were nearly over but there was still time with a definite policy of standing up to the Fascists over Spain. I opposed non-intervention in Spain and was speaking for a minority within the Labour Party. As much as feeling that it was in the interests of peace to do so I felt that this was a question of principle. It was the elementary duty of all socialists to back up the legally elected Republican Government of Spain.

In conversations with French socialists during this period, which I sought in the hopes of developing an entente about support for the Spanish Republicans which would influence the appeasers, I was disturbed to find that the French Popular Front was afraid for its life. France was so riddled with schisms that Blum dared not officially approve intervention. The French government had to resort to the pathetic policy of supplying arms to a friendly nation secretly in case it annoyed the insurgents and their Axis allies.