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If Franco Lost

In response to:

Acts of the Apostles from the March 31, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

It is sad to see that such a distinguished historian as Professor H.R. Trevor-Roper wrote [NYR, March 31] such nonsense as:

If a left-wing government had prevailed in Spain [after the Spanish Civil War], Hitler, in 1940, would not have stopped at the Pyrenees. He would have sent his army into Spain to overturn it and would have taken Gibraltar by force. Thereby he would have closed the Mediterranean, transformed the position in the Near East, and won the war.

There are three errors here. In the first place, it misperceives Hitler’s intentions. We know that Hitler invaded Poland, Norway, Greece, and the USSR, and called off his plans to invade England and Spain, for various complex political and strategic reasons. “Anti-Communism” was one of his propaganda slogans, not his overall goal. A leftist Spain was no more or less likely to be invaded by Hitler than a rightist Spain.

In the case of Spain, Hitler called off Operation Felix because: (1) quarrels divided Mussolini, Petain, and Franco about the future of North Africa; (2) Spain was economically exhausted from its civil war; (3) Hitler was short of materials to fight a second Peninsular War; (4) British sea power could have made a counter stroke in the Canary Islands, Portugal or Ceuta; (5) Mussolini invaded Greece and the whole Balkan balance began to change; and (6) Hitler met Franco for the first time too late in the season, in late October 1940.

Trevor-Roper’s second error is to conclude that Hitler would have won World War II with mere possession of Gibraltar, whether he invaded a Franco Spain or a left Spain. Trevor-Roper assumes that Churchill would have meekly surrendered at that point. This scenario assumes, furthermore, that the Spaniards would not have fought. On the other hand, the US reaction might have been to enter the war in December 1940 rather than in December 1941.

The Oxford historian’s third error is to leave out a crucial date. When would the “left-wing government” have prevailed in Spain? If the Popular Front had triumphed in 1936, there might not have been a World War II at all, for the Spanish Civil War helped solidify the Axis while diving the eventual Allied powers. If Czechoslovakia, France, and the Soviet Union had intervened to save the left in Spain, say in May 1938, there certainly would have not been a Munich Conference. Possibly the Spanish left could still have won, especially if the German opposition had pulled off a proposed coup against Hitler. Under these conditions Britain would have remained neutral.

The point to all this second guessing is that “World War II” was actually a series of 25 major campaigns, more or less, depending upon how one defines a “campaign.” It is worth speculating about each to show that the results of any one could have changed the entire situation. It is, however, illegitimate for the historian to change the results of one campaign and then dogmatically conclude, “Hitler would have won.” In the power game, there are too many variable cards in an ever-changing deck, in which all the diplomatic players cheat.

Historians could say something like this: If Hitler had tried Operation Felix, the results of World War II would have been different. Better for some, worse for others, but certainly different in unpredictable ways.

Ironically, Trevor-Roper knows this very well. Why then did he write what he did?

Robert H. Whealey

Ohio University, Athens, Ohio

H.R Trevor-Roper replies:

Mr. Whealey presumes to say that I write “nonsense” and to correct my “errors.” He is impertinent enough to add that I know that I am wrong. He would do better to be more modest.

Hitler called off “Operation Felix” not on account of inherent difficulties (the “exhaustion” of Spain was Franco’s problem, not his) but because Franco, an ally, made impossible conditions and Hitler could not afford, at that time, to override or overthrow an ally. A left-wing or communist-controlled government in Spain would have been in no position to make any conditions. Hitler would have overturned it—not on ideological but on political and strategic grounds. No doubt there would have been some logistical problem in the advance to Gibraltar, as in any campaign, but they would not have deterred him. Even if the “exhausted” Spaniards had fought, what reason is there to suppose that their resistance would have been more effective than that of the Yugoslavs and Greeks next year?

The idea that Hitler would have been deterred by fear of a British landing in Portugal (a landing with what forces, after Dunkirk?), or occupation of the Canary Islands (does Mr. Whealey know where they are?), is absurd. Hitler remembered, even if Mr. Whealey does not, the result of the British landing in Norway. Had he then been deterred by the thought that the British would occupy Iceland? That the German army could have taken Gibraltar from Spanish soil is agreed by all: the experience of Crete, next year, would prove it. With Gibraltar, the Axis would have obtained control of the whole Mediterranean, cut off the British army in the Middle East, and closed a whole future theater of war. What hope of ultimate victory could even Churchill then have held out?

Mr Whealey’s only answer is that America might then have chosen to “enter the war in December 1940.” He seems to forget that the US government did not choose the moment of its “entry” into the war: it was dragged in when Hitler chose to declare war on it. It is very unlikely that it would have spontaneously declared war in defense of a lost cause in 1940.

The European war of 1939-1945 was not, except in the notebooks of Mr. Whealey’s pupils, merely “a series of 25 major campaigns”: it was a strategic whole. Anyone who cannot see that is not competent to pronounce on the interrelation of events (or non-events).

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