Recently, I was handed a flyer advertising an event billed as “A Day of Remembrance: Recognizing and Honoring Countries and Diplomats for Their Heroism During the Holocaust.” The event took place at a prominent Brooklyn synagogue under the auspices of several respected Jewish organizations. The guest speaker was Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.
The flyer went on to say that among the countries and diplomats to be honored were Spain and its consul general.
This raises an interesting question. Spain during the Holocaust was ruled by the fascist dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, supposedly an ally of Hitler. So why would an event under Jewish auspices pay tribute to, among others, the regime of Franco as well as his consuls general throughout Nazi-occupied Europe?
Actually, paying tribute to Franco makes a lot of sense to those who know their history.
I am anything but a fascist, but the record must be set straight regarding both Franco’s record vis-a-vis the Jews and the Jewish volunteers who descended on Spain from various other countries to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Communist tyranny is infinitely worse than fascist dictatorship. Fascism and Nazism are two entirely different things. Mussolini took power in Italy in 1922, long before Hitler did in Germany, and there were quite a number of Italian Jews active in the Fascist Party – as well as Jewish generals in the Italian Army who helped bring about Mussolini’s victory.
Anti-Semitism was not part of Mussolini’s agenda. In the early years of his rule he was sympathetic to the Zionist movement and even hosted a cordial meeting with Chaim Weizmann.
In fact, in the years leading up to Word War II it was not at all clear until months before the first shots were fired whether Italy would fight with Hitler or the Allies, since Italy had longstanding territorial and sphere-of-influence disputes with Germany.
Further, despite their many contrived photo-ops, there was no love lost between Mussolini and Hitler. Having read Mein Kampf, Mussolini knew Hitler despised Italians along with other non-Germanic races. Only in 1938 did Mussolini, under intense pressure from Hitler, enact relatively minor discriminatory anti-Jewish laws, and even those went largely unenforced.
Only very late in the war, after the Nazis had invaded northern and central Italy and reduced Mussolini to a puppet, did deportations of Jews begin, and at that time the Italian Army had already honorably capitulated to the Allies and was fighting on their side. (For a comprehensive treatment of Italian Jewry during the war years see The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival by Susan Zuccotti.)
Now let’s turn to Spain. A great American illusion is that Jeffersonian democracy is the best form of government to bring stability and prosperity to all nations. That, of course, is simply not true. The Weimar Republic was a democracy but it produced Hitler. The present-day democracy-on-paper in Iraq is generating nothing but sectarian violence and civil war.
Similarly, Spain in the 1930’s, while a democratic republic on paper, was in fact a country engulfed in chaos, civil unrest and competing militias. It was in significant danger of becoming the first communist state outside the Soviet Union (located in Western Europe, no less). And that is precisely what would have happened had Franco not seized power.
Franco felt no personal affinity for either Hitler or Mussolini. Franco was a devout Catholic. Hitler despised Christianity and was in thrall to pagan Teutonic religions, while Mussolini was an atheist. Franco accepted their aid only because no one else would help him – much the way Israel accepted arms from the Soviet bloc during its War of Independence because the United States and the Western European democracies had imposed a strict arms embargo.
During World War II, Franco maintained strict neutrality, denying Hitler military access to the Straits of Gibraltar and thereby severely hampering German naval operations in the Mediterranean. Franco not only stood up to Hitler and adamantly refused to hand over the approximately 40,000 European Jews who had sought refuge in Spain, he also provided protection for Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe with Spanish passports.
The Jewish Press recently featured an article that portrayed the Jewish volunteers who went to Spain to fight Franco in a relatively positive light. (“The Jews Who Fired the First Shot Against Fascist Tyranny,” op-ed, May 16). Frankly, I believe President Lincoln would turn over in his grave at the mere thought of his name being associated with the Stalinist Abraham Lincoln Brigade.