Answer Man

Answer Man: Spain walked World War II tightrope

Q. I certainly know how the U.S., Germany, and several other major countries figured into World War II. But I don’t remember ever hearing the role Spain played. Was it a friend or foe? — R.B., of Cahokia

A. Those of a certain age likely will remember the running gag involving Francisco Franco on the first season of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975.

Late that year on slow news days, network anchors often gave an update on Franco’s failing health before the Spanish dictator finally died on Nov. 20. That was all comedian Chevy Chase needed to frequently announce from then on in mock seriousness, “This breaking news just in — Gereralissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”

Well, Adolf Hitler may have wished that the Spanish dictator had died a half century sooner. With friends like him, Hitler usually didn’t need more enemies.

What made Franco’s behavior particularly galling was all the help Hitler had given Franco years before World War II started. In July 1936, Spanish aristocrats, military leaders and members of the Falange Party rose up to overthrow Spain’s Second Republic. With Russia providing the opposition only minimal support, Franco led the nationalists to victory in March 1939 after a three-year civil war that left an estimated 500,000 dead.

By the time the conflict ended, Hitler probably thought he had Franco in his hip pocket. After all, Franco had come out of the war with a $212 million debt to Germany for supplies. In fact, some say the first large-scale military transport in history occurred in 1936 and 1937 when Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Benito Mussolini’s air force transported Franco’s Moorish mercenaries from North Africa to fight in Franco’s civil war.

But Franco hadn’t risen to power by being anyone’s puppet. So throughout World War II, he turned out to be a crafty politician, shifting his loyalties depending on how the war was going. As a result, Franco would for the most part take a neutral stance in 1943 once he saw the tide had turned decisively against the Axis.

Even at first, however, Franco proved a tough customer. Hitler and Franco met on Oct. 23, 1940, in France to discuss Spain’s role in the war. Soon after France had surrendered in June, Spain’s German ambassador had delivered a memo in which Franco said he was “ready under certain conditions to enter the war on the side of Germany and Italy.” Those conditions proved a deal-breaker three months later. Franco wanted food and military equipment along with Spanish control of Gibraltar and French North Africa. In return, Hitler threatened Franco with annexation of Spanish territory by Vichy France. In the end, the two leaders walked away at loggerheads, leading to a continuing debate over whether Franco overplayed his hand or whether he was deliberately looking for a way to stay out of the war.

“I prefer to have three or four of my own teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again,” Hitler reportedly told Mussolini a few days later.

It was a dance that would continue for the next two years. Hitler asked Franco to allow German troops to march through Spain to attack Gibraltar, but Franco refused, saying England posed too much of a danger to Spain and its territories. By the time Hitler offered bribes of food and supplies, Franco realized Great Britain was not going to be toppled, so he wrote back that the demands he had made in October 1940 “must now be considered outmoded.”

This is not to say that Spain refused all help. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Franco offered Spanish manpower to help in civilian war work and volunteers to fight. In all, about 45,000 Spanish volunteers served on the Eastern Front, including the Siege of Stalingrad. This angered Joseph Stalin so much that he would ask the U.S. and Great Britain to invade Spain. (Harry Truman and Winston Churchill convinced him to settle for a trade embargo.)

While proclaiming neutrality, Spain apparently kept supplying crucial raw materials such as tungsten, iron ore and mercury to Germany until August 1944. Even Franco’s dealings with his Jewish population was two-faced: According to a document found in 2010, Franco gave German SS leader Heinrich Himmler a list of 6,000 Jews in Spain. Yet Franco did not voluntarily hand Jews over to Germany; in fact, some say he had his ambassadors extend diplomatic protection over Jews in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans.

For his fence-straddling efforts and dictatorial rule, Franco remained a pariah after the war ended. Finally, in the 1950s, the United States began to appreciate Spain’s strategic location and dislike for the Soviet Union. In 1953, the U.S. signed the Pact of Madrid, pledging support for Franco’s regime. In 1955, Spain joined the United Nations. By the time he died, President Richard Nixon said, “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States.” But now, of course, he is still dead.

Today’s trivia

What school was the only No. 15 seed to make it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA basketball tourney?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: One day while singer Andy Williams was still going to high school on the Warner Brothers studio grounds, he stopped by Dudley Chambers’ office and told the musical director he was going to toss a football around. Chambers had been looking for someone to dub the singing voice of 19-year-old Lauren Bacall for her debut movie, “To Have and Have Not.” He had tried scores of women, including Bob Hope’s wife, but none matched the voice he was looking for — until he heard Williams that day and had him sing the part. Historians say the director finally left Bacall’s own voice in the movie. Williams wasn’t so sure, “but I’m not going to argue about it with the formidable Ms. Bacall!” he wrote in his memoir, “Moon River and Me.” .