Junkers Ju 87A with Condor Legion markings
“Condor Legion” infantry training school in Ávila, Spain.
Condor legionnaires celebrated on cover of the Nazi air ministry’s magazine, June 1939
The remilitarization of the Rhineland profoundly altered the balance of international relations in Europe. Up to this point, as had been made abundantly clear in 1923, the French were potentially able to enforce Germany’s obligations by marching across the Rhine and occupying the country’s biggest industrial region, the Ruhr. From now on, they were no longer able to do so. The French position from 1936 onwards was a purely defensive one. It left the Third Reich a free hand in moving against the small countries of Eastern Europe. Shocked by a development that left them dangerously vulnerable, many of them, previously allied to France, moved to try and improve relations with the Third Reich. Austria now felt particularly at risk, given the new-found friendship between Germany and Italy. Before long, too, Hitler and Mussolini’s relationship drew even closer. For, following a left-wing victory in the Spanish elections held in February 1936, right-wing army officers in various parts of the country launched a concerted uprising on 17 July 1936 to overthrow the Republic and create a military dictatorship. The uprising failed to achieve its objectives in most parts of the country, and soon Spain was plunged into a desperate and bloody civil war. German officials and businessmen in Spain urged on Hitler the support of the rebels, and one of the leading figures in the uprising, General Francisco Franco, appealed directly to Hitler for help. It was not long in coming.
Even before the end of July 1936, German planes were in Spain ferrying rebel forces to the key fronts and thus helping to ensure that the uprising did not fizzle out. From this modest beginning, German intervention was soon to reach startling proportions. The main reasons were both military and political. As the political situation in Spain polarized with unprecedented intensity, Hitler began to be concerned about the possibility that a Republican victory would deliver the country into the hands of the Communists at a time when a Popular Front government, backed by the Communist Party, had just come to power in France. A union between the two countries might create a serious obstacle in Western Europe to his plans for expansion and war in the East, particularly when this encompassed the Soviet Union, as it eventually would. Beyond this, he soon realized that the war would provide an ideal proving-ground for Germany’s new armed forces and equipment. Soon, Werner von Blomberg, the German Minister of War, freshly promoted to Field-Marshal, was in Spain telling Franco that he would get German troops and matériel provided he agreed to prosecute the war with more vigour than he had displayed to date. In November 1936, 11,000 German troops and support staff, supplied with aircraft, artillery and armour, landed at Cadiz. By the end of the month, the Nationalist regime had been officially recognized as the government of Spain by the Third Reich, and the German forces had been organized into an effective unit under the name of the Condor Legion.
Hitler and his generals were clear that German assistance to Franco could not expand indefinitely without attracting the hostility of the other European powers. Britain and France had agreed on a policy of non-intervention. This did not stop supplies from the United Kingdom in particular from reaching the Nationalist side, but it did mean that if the fiction of general neutrality was to be preserved, other powers would have to be careful about the extent to which they intervened. Mussolini’s assistance to the rebels was far greater than Hitler’s, but both were countered by the aid that the Soviet Union gave to the Republican side. Volunteers from many countries flocked to the Republican banner to form an International Brigade; a rather smaller number went to fight for the Francoists. In this situation, preventing the conflict from escalating into a wider war seemed to be in everybody’s interest. The stakes scarcely seemed overwhelming. So Hitler kept the Condor Legion as a relatively small, though highly trained and professional, fighting force.
Under the command of General Hugo Sperrle, however, it played a significant part in the Nationalist war effort. Soon the Legion was testing its new 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns against Republican planes. But its most effective contribution was made through its own bombers, which took part in a concerted advance, undertaken at Sperrle’s behest, on the Basque country. On 31 March 1937 the Legion’s Junkers aircraft bombed the undefended town of Durango, killing 248 inhabitants, including several priests and nuns, the first European town to be subjected to intensive bombing. Far more devastating, however, was the raid they carried out, in conjunction with four new fast Heinkel III bombers and some untried Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, on the town of Guernica on 26 April 1937. Forty-three aircraft, including a small number of Italian planes, dropped 100,000 pounds of incendiary, high-explosive and shrapnel bombs on the town, while the fighters strafed the inhabitants and refugees in the streets with machine-gun fire. The town’s population, normally not more than 7,000, was swollen with refugees, retreating Republican soldiers and peasants attending market-day. Over 1,600 people were killed and more than 800 injured. The centre of the town was flattened. The raid confirmed the widespread fear in Europe of the devastating effects of aerial bombing. Already a symbol of the assault on Basque identity, it gained a worldwide significance through the exiled, pro-Republican Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who dedicated the mural he had been commissioned to produce for the Paris World Exposition a large painting, Guernica, depicting with unique and enduring power the sufferings of the town and its people.
The international furore that greeted the raid led the Germans and the Spanish Nationalists to deny any responsibility. For years afterwards it was claimed that the Basques had blown their own town up. Privately, Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, who had organized the raid, concluded with satisfaction that the new planes and bombs had proved their effectiveness, though he was less than satisfied with the failure of the Spanish Nationalist generals to follow up the raid with an immediate knock-out blow to their Basque opponents. But the Condor Legion did not repeat this murderous experiment. Later on, its bid to use fast-moving tanks in the concluding phase of the war was vetoed by the traditionalist Franco. Nevertheless, thanks to German and Italian help, superior resources and generalship, internal unity and international neutrality, the Francoists completed their victory by the end of March 1939. On 18 May 1939, led by Richthofen, the Legion marched proudly past in Franco’s final victory parade in Madrid. Once more, international inaction had allowed Hitler free rein. The Spanish Civil War was one more example for him of the supine pusillanimity of Britain and France, and thus an encouragement to move faster in the fulfilment of his own intentions. In this sense, at least, the Spanish conflict accelerated the descent into war.
More immediately, however, it cemented the alliance between Hitler and Mussolini. Already in September 1936 Hans Frank visited Rome to begin negotiations, and the next month, the Italian Foreign Minister Ciano went to Germany to sign a secret agreement with Hitler. By November 1936 Mussolini was referring openly to a ‘Rome-Berlin Axis’. Both powers had agreed to respect each other’s ambitions and ally themselves against the Spanish Republic. At the same time, behind the backs of the Foreign Ministry, Hitler arranged for Ribbentrop’s office to conclude an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, pledging both to a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. For the moment, it was of little value, but together with the Rome-Berlin Axis, it completed the line-up of revisionist, expansionist powers that was to take such devastating shape during the Second World War. The attempt to bring Britain into the Anti-Comintern Pact, spearheaded by Ribbentrop’s appointment as Ambassador in London in August 1936, was never likely to succeed; it foundered almost immediately on the new envoy’s tactlessness and his use of the threat of undermining Britain’s overseas empire as an instrument of blackmail – a threat taken all too seriously by the British. As far as Hitler was concerned, moreover, nothing less than a global arrangement with the United Kingdom would by this stage have been worth the price of alienating the Italians, given the substantial British presence in the Mediterranean. He did not abandon the idea of some kind of arrangement with the British and continued to believe that the United Kingdom would stand aside from events in Europe, however they unfolded. For the moment, however, such calculations took second place to the pursuit of his immediate aims on the European Continent.