Spain 1808

Madrid surrenders to Napoleon.

In May 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte was truly at the pinnacle of his power. From September 1805 until June 1807 his forces had fanned out across the Continent driving all before them. But in the early months of 1808 the tempo of French aggression was raised to fresh levels. Two dynasties – the Bourbons of Naples and the Braganças – had already been driven from their thrones and a third had now been physically sequestered and forced to give up its rights. Not for nothing, then, did the Ottomans accord Napoleon the title of padishah – ‘King of kings’. Inherent in this situation, however, was an obvious danger. At Tilsit Napoleon had, or so it seemed on the surface, for a brief moment come to terms with reality. Driven by the dictates of the war against Britain, he had established a partnership with Russia. Part and parcel of this was an agreement in effect to share the domination of continental Europe between two ‘superpowers’, and this in turn offered France her only way forward. Allied with Russia, she could genuinely hope for a successful end to the war against Britain, while Russian cooperation also set clear limits to her war effort and removed the very real danger that she would end up having to force the blockade single-handed on the whole of an unwilling Continent. At the same time, caught between the mill-stones of France and Russia, Austria and Prussia would of necessity have to choose the path of submission. But in reality Tilsit was not all it seemed. Far from being an act of policy, it had simply been a useful shift that put an end to a campaign Napoleon had found very difficult to sustain and which had involved some of the worst fighting of his career. What it did not amount to was a recognition that there were limits beyond which the French ruler could not go. In the first place, the concept of sharing power was not one which the emperor accepted. As a master of manipulation, Napoleon had gulled Alexander by adopting the guise of friend and ally, but as a human being he was completely incapable of translating this play-acting into reality in the way that the settlement required. There was little prospect that the mixture of adulation and flattery that had brought emperor and tsar together at Tilsit would lead to a genuine partnership. Whether it was the treaty of Amiens or the treaty of Lunéville, settlements with France had always sooner or later foundered on the rock of Napoleon’s ambition, and now that ambition had been inflated to fresh heights. Tilsit was doomed, the only question being how long it would take for the breach with Russia to become manifest.

According to traditional British accounts of the Napoleonic Wars, if the French hegemony that had been established at Tilsit was eventually challenged, it was in large part because of the events that the overthrow of Charles IV and Ferdinand VII unleashed in Spain and Portugal. If Napoleon had believed that the Bourbons could be removed quietly, then he was sorely mistaken. On the contrary, sporadic disturbances in Spain, most notably a serious rising in Madrid on 2 May, forever after remembered as the Dos de Mayo, had by the beginning of June become a full-scale national uprising that was quickly seconded by a further revolt in Portugal. Of all the events of the French Wars, there is probably none that has been more misunderstood. Generally the revolts have been portrayed as the product of outraged patriotism, but this view is difficult to sustain. In both Spain and Portugal the risings were actually very murky affairs that reflected many of the tensions besetting the body politic. The various provincial risings – for there was no concerted national uprising as such – were engineered by a variety of dissident groups for their own purposes. In Spain, in particular, the insurrection’s leaders included disgruntled office-seekers, radicals eager to make a political revolution, prominent civilians resentful of the privileges of the military estate, discontented subaltern officers eager for promotion, conservative clerics horrified by Bourbon anti-clericalism, and members of the aristocracy opposed to the creeping advance of royal authority. As for the crowd, its motivation was as much material as it was ideological. There was intense loyalty to Ferdinand VII, but this stemmed not so much from who he was as from what he represented. As Godoy’s enemies had deliberately represented Ferdinand as a ruler who would as if by magic right all Spain’s ills, the populace believed he would rescue them from the terrible conditions that they were enduring. With the vast majority of those in political and military authority men who owed their prominence to Godoy, this persuaded the populace that Napoleon’s intervention was somehow the work of the favourite. Added to this was a general belief that the French were bent on killing the entire population: the Dos de Mayo, for example, was commonly believed to have been an unprovoked attack on the people of Madrid. From here it was but a short step to a great social convulsion. Those in authority were seen as traitors: it hardly assisted their cause that in most cases they had been urging the people to remain quiet and accept whatever Napoleon might decree. But they were also men of property and privilege, and this made the rising as much a jacquerie as a movement against the French.

The social and political background to the Peninsular War is a subject that the current author has pursued in depth elsewhere, so here we will confine ourselves to the military history of the conflict. The forces sent to Portugal were expelled by a British army under Sir Arthur Wellesley after a battle at Vimeiro (21 August 1808) and another contingent of almost 20,000 men commanded by General Dupont were forced to surrender at Bailén by a Spanish regular army commanded by Francisco Javier Castaños. Forced to draw back beyond the river Ebro, the invaders then received major reinforcements and Napoleon came to Spain to take charge of operations. The emperor, indeed, was furious: Bailén was an unparalleled blow to his prestige. What made the humiliation still greater was, first, that Dupont was a highly experienced commander who had won much acclaim in the campaign of 1805, and, second, that it came in the wake of a serious Spanish defeat at Medina de Río Seco in Old Castile that had encouraged hopes of an early end to the war. The very day Bailén was fought Napoleon was writing to Joseph, ‘There is nothing so extraordinary in you having to conquer your kingdom. Phillip V and Henry IV were obliged to conquer theirs, too. Be gay; do not let anything get you down; and do not doubt for an instant that things will work out better and be concluded more promptly than you think.’ A few days later, we find that the tone of his correspondence is very different: ‘Dupont has sullied our banners. What ineptitude! What baseness!’2 Needless to say, such a defeat could not go unavenged, and by the beginning of November a much reinforced Armée d’Espagne was poised to deal out brutal retribution under the leadership of Napoleon himself. There followed a whirlwind campaign which saw the Spaniards suffer major defeats at Espinosa de los Monteros, Gamonal, Tudela and Somosierra. With the Spanish armies in tatters, and the provisional government known as the Junta Central, that had been formed in the wake of the battle of Bailén, in flight for Seville, on 4 December the emperor recaptured Madrid. Meanwhile, the position had also been restored in Catalonia, where the French army of occupation had for the last few months been bottled up in Barcelona.

With matters in this situation, it seemed entirely possible that the French would go on to overrun the entire Peninsula and end the war. All possibility of this, however, was precluded by a last-minute intervention in the campaign on the part of the British. Having cleared the French from Portugal, the British expeditionary force had advanced into Spain under the command of Sir John Moore (Wellesley had returned to England following a furious controversy over the surrender terms agreed in the wake of Vimeiro). For various reasons it had taken a long time for it to get ready for action, and for a while it looked as if Moore would have no option but to withdraw into Portugal. Eventually, however, Moore resolved on an offensive against the French forces guarding Napoleon’s communications in Old Castile under the command of Marshal Soult. As this brought the full weight of the French armies in northern Spain against his 20,000 men, he was soon forced to retreat to the coast of Galicia in search of rescue by the Royal Navy. But so many troops were pulled after him that the French had effectively to abandon their plans for the immediate conquest of southern Spain. As for Moore and his army, almost all the troops were rescued after a rearguard action at La Coruña on 16 January 1809, but their commander was mortally wounded by a cannon ball at the moment of victory. Though his conduct of the campaign is open to much criticism, his sacrifice was not in vain. As an early French chronicler of the conflict admitted, ‘The movement against Soult . . . forced Bonaparte to delay the execution of his designs against Andalucía and Portugal. There was not a soldier to defend the passes of the Sierra Morena, and there were but few English left in Portugal.’

For the student of Napoleon, there is much to ponder in these events. The fact that many of the French troops sent to Spain in the course of the winter of 1807 were second-line units of the poorest quality speaks volumes for the extraordinary overconfidence with which the emperor embarked on the overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons. At the same time his decision to throw almost every man he had into the pursuit of Sir John Moore suggests a want of judgement of another sort: the British forces were so far from Madrid that to have caught them was almost impossible, particularly in the depths of an icy Castilian winter.

Whatever the implications of Napoleon’s conduct, the campaign of November 1808 to January 1809 set the pattern of operations for the whole of the next year. The French controlled most of central and northern Spain, together with a separate area around Barcelona, while Spanish armies held southern Catalonia, the Levante, Andalucía and Extremadura. As for Portugal, she too was in allied hands with a British garrison in Lisbon and such few troops as the Portuguese could muster deployed to protect Elvas, Almeida and Oporto. Called away from Spain by the growing fears of the new war with Austria, Napoleon had left instructions for his commanders – most notably, Soult, Ney and Victor – to crush allied resistance by a series of powerful offensives, but this plan quickly foundered. The Spanish armies defending Andalucía proved unexpectedly aggressive; the British reinforced their presence in Portugal and, once again commanded by a rehabilitated Sir Arthur Wellesley, repelled a French invasion; the province of Galicia rose in revolt; and the cities of Zaragoza and Gerona both put up desperate resistance when they were attacked. By the summer the initiative had passed to the Allies, and the rest of the year was dominated by two major attempts to recover Madrid. Of these, the first – an Anglo-Spanish offensive from the west and south – led merely to stalemate, a major triumph at Talavera on 28 July being deprived of all effect by serious divisions in the allied command and the fortuitous arrival of massive French reinforcements. The second offensive, however, led to disaster. In the wake of Talavera, Wellesley – now Lord Wellington – refused to engage in any further operations in Spain, and pulled his men back to the Portuguese frontier. In consequence, the offensive was the work of the Spaniards alone. Operating on exterior lines from the north-west, the west and the south in terrain that greatly favoured the vastly superior French cavalry, they had no chance, and were routed at the battles of Ocaña and Alba de Tormes with terrible losses. For the French it was a moment of triumph.

The defeat of the main Spanish field armies and the British decision to concentrate on the defence of Portugal opened a new phase in the conflict. So serious had been the Spanish losses in the campaigns of 1809 that there was little left to put into the line. Nor could these losses be made up: though generous, British supplies of arms and uniforms were insufficient to the task of equipping whole new armies from scratch while resistance to conscription among the populace had reached enormous heights, the war never having been the popular crusade of legend. Meanwhile, with the new Austrian war fought and won (see below), Napoleon was pouring large numbers of fresh troops into Spain, and so the initiative passed back to the French. With the Spaniards further emasculated by the outbreak of revolution in Latin America – by now their chief source of revenue – the next two years saw constant French advances. City after city fell into the invaders’ hands while the Spaniards lost more and more of such troops and resources as remained to them. By late 1811 all that was left of Patriot Spain was Galicia, the Levante and the blockaded island city of Cádiz, which had in 1810 become the new capital. Penned up inside Portugal, the British, meanwhile, could do nothing to arrest the march of French conquest. In the end, indeed, it is clear that Napoleon’s commanders could have completely crushed resistance in Spain and then marched against Portugal in such overwhelming force that even Wellington could not have overcome them, despite the masterly defensive strategy whose details we shall examine shortly. All that was needed was for the French armies in the Peninsula to receive a constant stream of replacements and reinforcements. Thanks to the impending invasion of Russia, however, the supply of men dried up in 1812, the Armée d’Espagne even being stripped of a number of troops. As could be expected, the French forces suddenly found themselves badly over-extended, and all the more so as Napoleon insisted that they continue with the offensive against Valencia launched in the autumn of 1811. As General Suchet, the commander of the French forces in Aragón and Catalonia, put it, ‘The emperor was all impatience at Paris.’

The events of the autumn of 1811 are worth a moment of extra consideration in the context of a discussion of the international relations of Napoleonic Europe. At this point it is clear the French were winning the war in Spain and Portugal. As fortress after fortress was taken and army after army shattered, it became ever more clear that sooner or later Spanish resistance was likely to collapse altogether. In large parts of the country, the famous guerrillas – in reality a mixture of bandit gangs; bands of levies, volunteers, deserters and liberated prisoners of war organized into semi-regular fighting forces by a variety of army officers and charismatic civilian adventurers; and flying columns of regular troops – continued to plague the French, but it is by no means clear that they could have survived indefinitely. In 1811 and 1812 successive British thrusts across the Portuguese frontier forced the French to concentrate their forces and allowed the guerrillas to run amok, but for the whole of 1811 Wellington was never able to advance very far into Spain. With the battered Spanish armies also incapable of any great feat of arms, the invaders put considerable resources into the war in the interior, while the experience of southern Italy suggested that they were entirely capable of dealing with popular insurrection. As we have already seen, in the wake of the French invasion of Naples in 1806 a serious revolt had broken out in the province of Calabria. Under the leadership of a variety of local chieftains, bands of irregulars had taken to the hills. What followed was a bloody and savage war, but the Calabrian insurgents were even less engaged by issues of ideology or nationalism than the Spaniards, while they also did not enjoy the same degree of regular assistance: occasional descents on the coast à la Maida were no substitute for the support afforded by the presence in Spain of substantial allied field armies. It is, then, no surprise that by 1810 the war in Calabria had been put down, thereby establishing beyond doubt the French army’s ability to develop effective anti-guerrilla strategies.

Victory in the Iberian Peninsula, then, was by no means an impossibility for Napoleon. The last Spanish forces could be subdued; the last Spanish fortresses beaten; and the last Spanish guerrillas hunted down. After that, there would remain Portugal, but it was doubtful whether Wellington would be able to hold out alone, and even if he could there was always the issue of support for the war in Britain. It was perhaps inevitable that the retreat of Sir John Moore, the inability to translate victory at Talavera into further advances and the withdrawal into Portugal produced outbreaks of what Wellington referred to as ‘croaking’ among the Whigs. For a long time figures such as Grey and Grenville refused point-blank to accept there was any chance of victory in the Peninsula and condemned it as a futile struggle. In addition, the more radical of the so-called ‘friends of peace’ were furious at what they perceived as Spain’s continued domination by the Church and the aristocracy. To them, indeed, the war was not only futile but indefensible: to resist Napoleon when he was seeking to invade Britain was one thing, but Copenhagen and the British expeditions to Latin America suggested that the struggle had become one of aggression and even expansion. So long as things went relatively well, the opposition leaders had little hope of winning the support of the independent MPs who were the key to gaining victory in the House of Commons. In the first half of 1810, in fact, repeated attempts to defeat the government were all firmly quashed. Nor is this surprising, for the Whigs had nothing credible to offer in their criticism of the war. In 1808 he Whigs had temporarily rallied to the cause of resistance as Britain was seemingly no longer fighting as the ally of despotism, but rather of a people united in its determination to defend its independence abroad and secure its liberty at home. Yet in Spain even British commanders who were favourable to the Whigs like Sir John Moore discovered that the crusade in which observers like Sheridan or Lord Holland took such a delight was a chimera, while every attempt to criticize Wellington foundered on the unpalatable fact that the Spaniards could not be relied upon. But unable in practice to come up with any alternative scheme for the prosecution of the war, in almost every Commons debate on the subject the Whigs ended up humiliated and discredited.

Yet the collapse of the Spanish cause would almost certainly have changed matters in this respect. Not only would it have spurred the opponents of the war to fresh efforts, but there were limits even to what the government, now headed by Spencer Perceval, could accept. By the end of 1810 Britain’s ability to bear the cost of the war was clearly faltering, and it was only with some difficulty that Wellington had persuaded the Cabinet to give him the resources he required to take the offensive in the spring of 1811. Indeed, such were London’s financial worries that there were serious proposals for his forces to be reduced. With the hope of victory gone – the Anglo-Portuguese army could not have fought the war single-handed – the Perceval administration would have quite probably given up even its commitment to the defence of Portugal.

Setting aside the government’s deficiencies – on the surface it was hardly an impressive body – what makes this even more likely is the economic context. After two years of renewed confidence and growth in part brought about by the greatly improved access Britain now enjoyed to the Latin American market, in 1811 there was a serious economic slump. The causes were complex, but essentially a poor harvest coincided with a change in Napoleon’s operation of the Continental Blockade: that in effect legalized the importation of British goods and badly hit the many speculators who had been profiting from the wholesale smuggling trade that had grown up since 1806. With this, in turn, came a great wave of bankruptcies and a significant upturn in unemployment. It may also be significant that 1811 saw the peak of the enclosure movement in the countryside and, by extension, an increase in migration to the towns, just at a moment when house-building – one of the trades most suited to absorb large numbers of unskilled labourers – was at a low ebb through the cumulative effect of years of high taxation. Distress was acute, and its expression assumed forms that were much more frightening than the ‘peace petitioning’ of 1807. General unrest and rioting spread across key industrial areas of the country, and this was underpinned by much criticism of the war, and, in particular, the Orders-in-Council, which were, entirely wrongly, held responsible for the slump in trade. Nor were these measures just hated by the handloom weavers and framework knitters who were at the heart of the unrest. On the contrary, by 1811 the Orders-in-Council were the subject of an extremely vociferous campaign on the part of the many commercial interests who also felt that they stood in their way. So great was the pressure that in June 1812 the government, which had the previous month been taken over by Lord Liverpool, was forced to capitulate, while 1813 saw a further move towards free trade with the publication of revisions to the East India Company’s charter. And, finally, there was the issue of political reform. Stimulated first by the major scandal that broke in 1809 concerning allegations that the Duke of York’s mistress had intervened in army promotions in return for bribes and then by the government’s foolish attempt to quash discussion of the abortive expedition sent to Holland in 1809, several motions were introduced in the House of Commons calling for the reform of parliament, and, while these were defeated, the number of votes they received was by no means inconsiderable. Even put together, all this did not amount to a revolutionary crisis, but the collapse of resistance in Spain would have provoked a storm that neither Perceval nor Liverpool would have found it easy to ride out. Would they, indeed, have been willing even to make the attempt? The chief enthusiast for the continuation of the Peninsular War at all costs was Wellington’s brother, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Wellesley, but he was both notoriously lazy and extremely arrogant and could therefore hardly be said to have had the confidence of his colleagues.

British commitment to the Peninsula was not a given, therefore, but for the time being Wellington’s army fought on. Indeed, its achievements were considerable. Particular attention should be paid here to Wellington’s defence of Portugal in 1810-11. In accordance with France’s resumption of the offensive in the Peninsula in , the summer of that year saw some 65,000 men under Marshal Masséna move across the Portuguese frontier and besiege the fortress of Almeida. This fell very rapidly thanks to the chance explosion of its main powder magazine, and the French moved on towards Lisbon. Wellington had anticipated such a move and put together a comprehensive plan of defence. From the beginning the countryside in the path of the invaders would be devastated and the French forces harassed by the irregular home guard known as the ordenança. If possible, the French would then be brought to battle and forced to retreat, to which end the Portuguese army had been completely rebuilt under the direction of Sir William Beresford and the main routes towards Lisbon blocked by field works at a number of obvious defensive positions. Failing that, the countryside would continue to be devastated, while the Anglo-Portuguese army fell back on Lisbon, along with the bulk of the civilian population. Waiting for them would be probably the greatest single engineering feat in the entire Napoleonic era in the form of the so-called Lines of Torres Vedras, an impenetrable belt of fortifications stretching from one side of the peninsula on which Lisbon was built to the other. Whether this plan would have sufficed to hold off the French had they ever unleashed the sort of massive offensive that would have followed the final conquest of Spain is unclear – Wellington certainly had his doubts – but against the 65,000 men brought by Masséna, it was more than adequate. Despite the defenders achieving complete success on the battlefield itself, an attempt to turn the French back at Buçaco failed due to the marshal’s discovery of an unguarded track around Wellington’s northern front. But when the French reached the Lines of Torres Vedras they found that they could go no further. In this situation Masséna did his best, but through Wellington’s scorched earth policy his supplies collapsed and in March 1811 he abandoned his headquarters at Santarem and fell back on the Spanish frontier.

However, clearing Masséna from Portugal was one thing, and invading Spain quite another. For the whole of 1811, indeed, the situation on the Portuguese frontier was a stalemate. Authorized by the British government to enter Spain once more, Wellington soon found that this was easier said than done. The crucial border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been greatly strengthened by the French and every attempt to besiege them was met by massive French counteroffensives, as at Albuera and Fuentes de Oñoro. Repelled though these were, they cost Wellington heavy losses and dissuaded him from marching too far into Spain, while progress was in any case rendered still more difficult by a lack of adequate siege cannon. Of course, the French were in no better state. Twice, indeed, they refused battle rather than attack Wellington in powerful defensive positions inside Portugal, while an attempt on Elvas or Almeida (now back in allied hands again) would have been out of the question. Yet until the end of 1811 the British remained able to exert only the most marginal influence on the situation in Spain, the only thing that changed this situation being Napoleon’s insistence on continual attacks in the Peninsula at the same time as he was massing his armies for the invasion of Russia. By stripping its defenders of troops, this completely destabilized the position on the Portuguese frontier. Seeing his chance, Wellington struck across the border and was quickly able to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, win a major victory at Salamanca and liberate Madrid. Thanks to a variety of problems, of which by far the greatest was the de facto collapse of government and society in Spain, in November 1812 Wellington was again forced to retreat to Portugal. But the French were never fully able to recover and were further weakened by the withdrawal of still more troops in the early months of 1813. Aided by the continued attempts of 1813 the French to hold more territory than they could garrison, in May 1813 Wellington was therefore able to launch a fresh offensive that led to the defeat of King Joseph’s main field forces at Vitoria on 21 June. Bitter fighting continued in the Pyrenees, with the French vainly trying to relieve the besieged fortresses of San Sebastián and Pamplona, but they were repelled at Sorauren and San Marcial, while in October 1813 Wellington invaded France and, after several fierce battles, established himself in an unassailable position south of Bayonne. Though French troops stayed in part of Catalonia until the end of hostilities in April of the following year, to all intents and purposes the Peninsular War was over.

Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War I

If Britain and France refrained from challenging Italy and Germany in Spain, this was not because they were blind to the threat to their strategic interests;  it was because they feared that a general war in Western Europe, whether they won or lost, could only redound to the benefit of Russia.

In a policy summary drafted by Gladwyn Jebb, private secretary to Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office since January 1938, and based partly on the papers of William Strang, head of the Central Departmentall three men supporters of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain Jebb observed that the objection to collective security was that it would “provoke war in which defeat would be disastrous and victory hardly less so.”

At a session, on 15 March 1938, of the Comité Permanent de la Défense Nationale, Edouard Daladier, the French minister of defense, stated that “one would have to be blind not to see that intervention in Spain would start a general war.” As to what he envisioned by a general war was expressed by him apocalyptically three months later, when, as the reader will recall, he told Count von Welczech, the German ambassador: “[The] catastrophic frightfulness of a modern war would surpass all that humanity had ever seen, and would mean the utter destruction of European civilization. Into the battle zones, devastated and denuded of men, Cossack and Mongol hordes would then pour, bringing to Europe a new ‘Culture.’ ”          

Hence, the nonintervention policy of Britain and France during the Civil War was determined not only by their hostility to the social revolution and by later Communist domination, of which they were fully informed through their diplomatic and secret agents, but by the fear that a general war would bring in its wake the enthronement of Communism in the whole of Europe. Consequently, no effort at dissimulation or persuasion, no attempt by successive Spanish governments to curb or roll back the revolution could have affected Anglo-French policy.

We have seen that the policy of appeasement of Germany was pursued with greater vigor from the time Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin in the premiership in May 1937 and that the new prime minister perceived the Soviet Union as the major long-term threat to British interests and the Western world. For this reason, a political settlement with Germany was the cornerstone of Chamberlain’s policy, and it was visionary to believe that Britain would come to the aid of Republican Spain at the risk of a war in Western Europe. 

That some members of the PCE in the spring of 1938 had begun to question the assumption that Britain and France would eventually be drawn into the conflict, but such doubts, inadmissible in Communist circles, had to be squelched if morale were to be sustained, particularly at the battlefronts. “I never for a moment believed that the Spanish government would get real help from Britain and France,” Ralph Bates, the British author and assistant commissar of the Fifteenth International Brigade, wrote in 1940 after he had severed his connections with the Communists. He was “tremendously censured,” he said, by the English representative of the Communist party in Madrid for dealing with the problem, even implicitly, in the brigade organ Volunteer for Liberty of which he was editor and was ”charged with exposing the boys to the possibility of this thought coming up in their minds.” “In so far as we damped down the revolution in Spain,” he added, “in the interests of collective security, then we miscalculated. I feel compelled to face that fact. Not all our soft-pedalling won [Britain and France] to our side. Might we have got more out of the CNT and FAI if we had not soft-pedalled so much?”          

The extent to which Chamberlain and his supporters were prepared to pursue the appeasement of Germany is evident from a conversation that Lord Halifax held with Adolf Hitler on 19 November 1937. At that time, Halifax was Lord Privy Seal and later, as foreign secretary, formed part of Chamberlain’s “Inner Cabinet” with Sir Samuel Hoare and Sir John Simon. According to a German foreign ministry memorandum, Halifax recognized that Hitler “had not only performed great services in Germany” but also had been able “by preventing the entry of Communism into his own country, to bar its passage further West.” Halifax stated that on the English side “it was not necessarily thought that the status quo must be maintained under all circumstances.” He then spoke of “possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. England was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution and that methods should be avoided which might cause far-reaching disturbances [i.e., war in Western Europe].” Since Austria was the gateway to Czechoslovakia, and Danzig the key to Poland, these remarks must have encouraged Hitler to believe that his territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe would encounter scant opposition.    

“Halifax’s remarks,” writes the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, “if they had any practical sense, were an invitation to Hitler to promote German nationalist agitation in Danzig, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; an assurance also that this agitation would not be opposed from without.” 10 Hitler also received similar assurances from the French government. “[I] was amazed to note,” Franz von Papen, the German ambassador in Austria, told Hitler on 10 November 1937 after a visit to Paris, “that, like [foreign minister] Bonnet, Premier [Camille Chautemps] considered a reorientation of French policy in Central Europe as entirely open to discussion. . . .[He], too, had no objection to a marked extension of German influence in Austria obtained through evolutionary means.” And, on 4 December, in a letter to state secretary von Weizsäcker, the head of the political department in the German foreign ministry, von Papen stated: “I found it very interesting to note that neither Bonnet nor Chautemps raised any objections to an evolutionary extension of German influence . . . in Czechoslovakia, on the basis of a reorganization into a nation of nationalities.”        

In pursuit of his appeasement policy, Chamberlain removed Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, the most forceful exponent of anti-German opinion in the Foreign Office, and assigned him to the newly created post of “Chief Diplomatic Adviser,” where, according to the earl of Birkenhead, “he found himself trapped in a gilded cage” and where he “ceased to exert any effective influence on foreign affairs.” Commenting in a letter to his sister on all the months Stanley Baldwin had “wasted in futile attempts” to push Vansittart out of the Foreign Office, Chamberlain remarked: “[It] is amusing to record that I have done it in three days. . . . I am afraid his instincts were all against my policy. . . . I suspect that in Rome and Berlin the rejoicings will be loud and deep.”            

The way was now open for a more vigorous pursuit of appeasement by circumventing the Foreign Office, which, according to Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s intimate colleague and chief diplomatic adviser, represented an obstruction to the prime minister’s policy of coming to terms with the dictators. “The old-established machine of the Foreign Office,” wrote Lord Templewood (Sir Samuel Hoare), in his published memoir of the period, “did not seem to [Chamberlain] to move quickly enough for the crisis that threatened Europe.” More expressive of Hoare’s true attitude toward the Foreign Office was the candid letter he sent to Neville Chamberlain on 17 March 1937, shortly before Stanley Baldwin’s resignation from the premiership. After suggesting that Chamberlain should not copy “Baldwin’s slipshod, happy-go-lucky quietism” he continued: “Do not let anything irrevocable or badly compromising happen in foreign politics until you are in control. I say this because I am convinced that the FO [Foreign Office] is so much biased against Germany (and Italy and Japan) that unconsciously and almost continuously they are making impossible any sort of reconciliation. I believe myself that when once you are Prime Minister it will be possible greatly to change the European atmosphere.”         

On 3 March 1938, the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who bypassed the regular Foreign Office channels and plied the prime minister directly with letters and visits, told Hitler that the aim of British policy was “to establish the basis for a genuine and cordial friendship with Germany.” Lord Halifax, Henderson added, had already admitted that changes in Europe could be considered “quite possible,” provided they were the product of “higher reason” rather than “the free play of forces.” This policy was certainly not one that Henderson “had worked out for himself,” as William N. Medlicott affirms in his preface to volume 18 of Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, second series, in a “revisionist” interpretation of appeasement. As British historians Keith Middlemas and Ian Colvin have pointed out, Henderson was a disciple of Chamberlain’s and one of the principal exponents of his policy. Medlicott’s assertion is all the more remarkable in that he quotes Henderson’s own testimony from the latter’s memoir Failure of a Mission, in which the former ambassador states: “Both Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Baldwin, whom I had seen earlier, agreed that I should do my utmost to work with Hitler and the Nazi Party as the existing government of Germany. . . . Mr. Chamberlain outlined to me his views on general policy towards Germany, and I think I may honestly say that to the last and bitter end I followed the general line which he set me, all the more easily and faithfully since it corresponded so closely with my private conception of the service I could best render in Germany to my own country.”  

In this connection, it is worth quoting from a memorandum by Henderson to the Foreign Office, dated 10 May 1937, in which he stated: “[Eastern Europe] is neither definitely settled for all time nor is it a vital British interest, and the German is certainly more civilized than the Slav, and in the end, if properly handled, also less potentially dangerous to British interestsone might even go so far as to assert that it is not even just to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav, provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it.”    

On 10 March 1938, two days before Hitler’s annexation of Austria, German foreign minister von Ribbentrop reported to Hitler during a visit to London that Lord Halifax had told him that “Chamberlain and he, Lord Halifax, were determined to reach an understanding with Germany” and that in advocating this policy “Chamberlain had assumed a great responsibility in the eyes of the British people and a great risk as well.” Ribbentrop then stated: “Germany wished to be and had to be strong. . . .Germany must be armed for defense against Soviet Russian attacks. . . . The Führer did not wish to request aid at the outset from the great Western Powers, if some day the steamroller of world revolution should be set in motion against Germany.” At this point Lord Halifax interjected that “England was well aware of Germany’s strength and that she had no objection to it whatever.” Then Ribbentrop continued: “Germany wished to obtain the right of self-determination for the 10 million Germans living on her eastern border, i.e., in Austria and Czechoslovakia. . . . In this connection . . . the Führer had been pleased when Lord Halifax had shown understanding for that, too, at Berchtesgaden and when he had declared that the status quo in Eastern Europe could not be maintained unconditionally forever.” The next day, Ribbentrop reported that Chamberlain had “very emphatically requested” that he inform the Führer of “his most sincere wish for an understanding with Germany.”

Hitler’s annexation of Austria had no effect in London it had, in fact, been regarded as inevitable and Chamberlain pursued his appeasement of Germany with unruffled self-assurance. Nevertheless, it was essential that Hitler achieve his next territorial objective by peaceful means lest Great Britain be drawn into a European conflict through France’s treaty obligations. On 22 May, during the mounting crisis over Czechoslovakia, Lord Halifax instructed Nevile Henderson to inform Ribbentrop of this dangerous contingency: “If a resort is had to forcible measures, it is quite impossible for me or for him to foretell the results that may follow, and I would beg him not to count on this country’s being able to stand aside if from any precipitate action there should start a European conflagration. Only those will benefit from such a catastrophe who wish to see the destruction of European civilization.” At the beginning of September, there was mutual understanding. Theodor Kordt, the German chargé d’affaires in London, reported to ambassador Dirksen on a conversation with Chamberlain and Sir Horace Wilson: “The conversation took place in an exceedingly friendly atmosphere. [Wilson] was visibly moved (as far as an Englishman can betray such feelings at all) when at the end he shook my hand and said: ‘If we two, Great Britain and Germany, come to agreement regarding the settlement of the Czech problem, we shall simply brush aside the resistance that France or Czechoslovakia herself may offer to the decision.” At the end of the month there followed the Munich settlement, the result of British pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory.

By now, it must have been obvious to Stalin that the policy of collective security that he had indefatigably pursued since the USSR joined the League of Nations in 1934 in the hope of warding off the German threat might fail and that the slender hope that Britain and France would risk a conflict over Spain was fading. He therefore renewed his interest in the possibility of negotiating a nonaggression pact with Hitler in order to divert German military might against the West. We have already seen that quite early in the Civil War, his trade representative David Kandelaki had initiated negotiations for an agreement with Germany but that these tentative efforts had been rebuffed by Hitler. In fact, it was not until after the overthrow of Juan Negrín on 6 March 1939, that Stalin finally gave up all hope of involving Britain and France in a war with Germany over the Spanish conflict and revived his plans for a compact with Hitler.   

At this stage it is important to anticipate the course of events in Spain and even to probe the diplomatic intrigues among the European powers beyond the close of the Spanish Civil War, in order fully to appreciate the perilous game being played and the real concerns of British policymakers during the war itself.            

In his report to the eighteenth congress of the Soviet Communist party on 10 March 1939, Stalin inveighed against Britain and France for encouraging Germany to embroil herself in a war with the Soviet Union, in which “they would appear on the scene with fresh strength . . . to dictate conditions to the enfeebled belligerents” precisely the role of arbiter that Stalin had reserved for the Soviet Union should the Spanish Civil War develop into a Western European conflict and for the first time he threw out the first open hint of his desire for a rapprochement with Germany. “Marshal Stalin in March 1939,” testified the former Reich foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, during his trial at Nuremberg, “delivered a speech in which he made certain hints of his desire to have better relations with Germany. I had submitted this speech to Adolf Hitler and asked him whether we should not try to find out whether this suggestion had something real behind it. Hitler was at first reluctant, but later on he became more receptive to this idea. Negotiations for a commercial treaty were under way, and during these negotiations, with the Führer’s permission, I took soundings in Moscow as to the possibility of a definite bridge between National Socialism and Bolshevism and whether the interests of the two countries could not at least be made to harmonize.”

The extremely cautious manner in which both sides broached the question of a political settlement from the time of Stalin’s speech, as revealed by documents found in the archives of the German foreign office, stemmed no doubt from the fact that each side feared that the other might use any concrete proposal for a political agreement to strengthen its own bargaining position vis-à-vis Britain and France. In fact, up to 30 May 1939, less than three months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact (in August) and the Secret Protocol that touched off the German attack on Poland and World War II, these documents indicate that matters had not gone beyond vague soundings. On that date state secretary Weizsäcker wired the German embassy in Moscow: “Contrary to the policy previously planned we have now decided to undertake definite negotiations with the Soviet Union.”

Although Stalin did not open formal negotiations with Hitler until the middle of 1939, he was not backward during the Spanish Civil Warapart from the overtures made by Kandelakiin letting Hitler know that it would be to Germany’s advantage to have him as a partner rather than an enemy. This is borne out by the testimony of Alexander Orlov: “The fourth line of Soviet intelligence,” he wrote, “is so-called Misinformation. . . . Misinformation is not just lying for the sake of lying; it is expected to serve as a subtle means of inducing another government to do what the Kremlin wants it to do. . . . During the Spanish Civil War . . . the Misinformation desk was ordered to introduce into the channels of the German military intelligence service information that the Soviet planes fighting in Spain were not of the latest design and that Russia had in her arsenal thousands of newer planes, of the second and third generation, possessing much greater speed and a higher ceiling. This was not true. Russia had given Spain the best and the newest she had (though in insufficient quantities). This misleading information greatly impressed the German High Command. . . . Evidently, Stalin wanted to impress on Hitler that the Soviet Union was much stronger and better armed than he thought and that it would be wiser for Germany to have Russia as a partner rather than an opponent.”

Four months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in August, Walter Krivitsky claimed that Stalin’s foreign policy in the Western world was predicated upon a profound contempt for the “weakling” democratic nations and that his international policy had been a series of maneuvers whose sole purpose was to place him in a favorable position for a deal with Hitler. This is by no means certain, for Stalin could not rely entirely on a problematical agreement with Hitler on which to base his foreign policy. For this reason, he was careful to keep open his other option of collective security in the hope that the Western powers would eventually confront Hitler, whether in Spain or Czechoslovakia, and deflect German aggression away from Russia’s borders. It was because Stalin held open both these options that even after the loss of Catalonia in February 1939 he still hoped, as we shall see later, that Britain and France might reverse their policy of neutrality and instructed the Spanish politburo to continue the struggle in the fading expectation that the latent antagonisms in the West would finally burst into flame.

Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War II

It would be false to convey the impression that only Stalin, Negrín, and the Spanish Communists placed their hopes of victory in the Civil War in the eventual outbreak of a European conflict, for these hopes were also entertained, as we have seen, by some leaders of the CNT. They were also entertained for some time by certain prominent Socialists. Referring to the occupation of the Basque provinces and Asturias by General Franco in the summer and autumn of 1937, Wenceslao Carrillo, a supporter of Largo Caballero and director general of security in his government, wrote: “Nevertheless, the hope of victory that the Communist party and the Negrín government held out to us, based on the possibility of world war, had not disappeared. Neither France nor England, they argued, can consent to an out-and-out triumph of fascism in Spain because that would put them in a critical position in the Mediterranean. As I am ready to tell the whole truth, I refuse to conceal the fact that, in the beginning, I too shared this belief. . . . But I did not think of profiting from war; nor was I in the service of interests other than those of my country.”

On the other hand, President Azaña, like Julián Besteiro, the right-wing Socialist, who hoped for a negotiated settlement, frowned on the prospect of a European conflict. In reply to Juan-Simeón Vidarte, a member of the Socialist executive and a Negrín supporter, Azaña once stated: “I already know that there is someone among you who believes that the just cause of the Republic would be saved by a world war. That war would be a catastrophe of inconceivable dimensions and it is not right for us to seek salvation in the martyrdom of millions of human beings. . . . I see that you are infected by the Negrín thesis. . . . Suppose that at the end of the war Communism were implanted in Western Europe just as it was implanted in Eastern Europe at the end of the last war. To the majority of Republicans and, I suppose, Socialists that solution would be repugnant.”       

If the hope that a general conflict would eventually erupt was disappointed, this was not because those who determined policy in Britain and France contemplated lightly the extension of Italo-German power in the Mediterranean; it was because the purview of their foreign policy went beyond the Spanish problem and embraced the whole of Europe. If Britain and France refused to challenge Germany in Spain; if, moreover, they sacrificed the independence of Austria and Czechoslovakia; if, finally, Neville Chamberlain, as will be seen shortly, secretly proposed before being outmaneuvered by the Hitler-Stalin pacta political settlement with Germany that would free Britain from her guarantee to Poland, it was because they knew that the frustration of German aims at this stage, even if it did not lead to war, would weaken the Nazi regime and enhance Russia’s influence on the continent. Above all, those who molded policy in Britain and France wished to avoid war in the West until Germany had weakened herself in the East. To have resisted Germany before she had blunted her teeth on Russian soil would have left the Soviet Union arbiter of the continent, infinitely more powerful than if she had to bear the main burden of the fighting.  

Of course, in the long run, Britain and France could no more have desired Germany to obtain a complete mastery over the greater part of Europe than they could Russia. They wished for the domination of neither. Of this, German leaders were supremely conscious. Hence, if, after the occupation of Poland, Germany invaded Belgium, France, and the Netherlands before attacking the Soviet Union, this was because the subjection of Western Europe and the control of its coastline were, in the German mind, indispensable prerequisites for war on the Soviet Union; for although Britain and France might encourage German ambitions in Eastern Europe, Germany could not feel certain that once she was involved in an exhausting struggle on Soviet soil, these powers would not attempt to restore the balance in their favor. Undoubtedly the conviction that Germany would attack the West before assailing Russia lay at the root of some of the opposition in Britain and France to the policy of giving Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe.

Although the direction of the German thrust seemed unmistakable, there is evidence that both the British and French leaders were not unmindful of the danger that appeasement might backfire and that Germany might march west instead of east. On 1 November 1938, one month after the Munich agreement, Lord Halifax, in a letter to Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador in Paris, outlined his thoughts: “Henceforward, we must count with German predominance in Central Europe. . . . In these conditions, it seems to me that Great Britain and France have to uphold their predominant position in Western Europe by the maintenance of such armed strength as would render any attack upon them hazardous. . . . It is one thing to allow German expansion in Central Europe, which to my mind is a normal and natural thing, but we must be able to resist German expansion in Western Europe or else our whole position is undermined.”              

The possibility that Germany might attack Western Europe before marching East was conveyed to Halifax by Sir G. Ogilvie-Forbes, the British chargé d’affaires in Berlin, in a dispatch dated 6 December 1938. There was a school of thought, he stated, that believed that “Herr Hitler will not risk a Russian adventure until he has made quite certain that his western flank will not be attacked while he is operating in the east, and that consequently his first task will be to liquidate France and England, before British rearmament is ready.” Equally disturbing was a report by William Strang, Halifax’s assistant undersecretary of state, dated 18 January 1939, in which he referred to “reports we have had of Hitler’s intention to attack in the West this Spring. . . . Germany cannot conduct a war on two fronts in present circumstances, and material conditions will make it easier for her to operate in the West than in the East.”

That French leaders were aware of the dangers is also evident. In a letter to French foreign minister Georges Bonnet on 19 March 1939, a few days after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the French ambassador in Moscow, Robert Coulondre, stated that the Nazi leaders saw two ways open to them: “Either to proceed without intermission in the subjugation of east and south-east Europe” or to “attack France and Britain before these two Powers have, with American help, caught up with German armaments. . . . This second possibility is not at present the more probable. But we must reckon with the risk of seeing Germany engaged in such an undertaking.”              

The general assumption, however, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939 was that Hitler’s next move would be against Poland. But despite Chamberlain’s treaty guarantees to defend Polish independence guarantees hastily given under pressure from the parliamentary Opposition and the aroused state of British public opinion he did what he could to evade his commitments. This is clear from the meticulously documented study by the British historians Martín Gilbert and Richard Gott of British treaty obligations to Poland, of the subsequent efforts to wriggle out of them, and the eight-month “phoney” war, during which Chamberlain still hoped for an Anglo-German agreement that would avert war in Western Europe. It is also clear from the secret proposals that Sir Horace Wilson, his chief collaborator and adviser, made to Helmut Wohlthat, Hermann Goering’s emissary in London, in mid-July 1939, and the conversations a few days later between Wilson and Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to London.     

These “back-stair negotiations,” as the British historian Sir Lewis Namier called them, in which the prime minister “unwisely engaged” without the knowledge of the Foreign Office, were the zenith of the appeasement policy. Wilson’s proposals were recorded by von Dirksen in a long memorandum written after the outbreak of war, which was found on his estate at Gröditzberg by the Soviet army, and also in a shorter “strictly secret” report dated 21 July 1939 drawn up at the time of his ambassadorship. The authenticity of the proposals is beyond doubt, not only because Dirksen later confirmed them in every important detail in a work published in London in 1951, but because Wohlthat himself refers to them in his report to Goering. Moreover, Wilson’s proposals (which quite naturally he concealed from the Foreign Office) have never been challenged by a single British historian. Although conveniently ignored by many historians (for example, William N. Medlicott, Robert Skidelsky, and Simon Newman) in their revisionist assessments of Chamberlain’s foreign policy, they have been accepted without question by others, notably, Ian Colvin, Sir Lewis Namier, and A. J. P. Taylor. Nevertheless, they have not been accorded the significance they deserve.        

While not directly related to the Spanish Civil War, the Dirksen memoranda shed more light than any other documents on the mainspring of appeasement to divert German aggression eastward and illustrate how far Chamberlain was prepared to go in order to reach a political settlement with Germany in order to preserve peace in Western Europe. Therefore they are particularly relevant to the Civil War since they demonstrate the futility of Stalin’s efforts to provoke a conflagration in Western Europe by involving Britain and France in the Spanish conflict and are the clearest proof of the inevitable failure of his attempts to influence Western governments by distorting the true nature of the revolution.

In the longer of the two documents, Dirksen testifies:         

When Herr [Helmut] Wohlthat [emissary of Goering] was in London for the whaling negotiations in July [1939], Wilson [Sir Horace Wilson] invited him for a talk, and, consulting prepared notes, outlined a program for a comprehensive adjustment of Anglo-German relations. . . . 

In the political sphere, a non-aggression pact was contemplated, in which aggression would be renounced in principle. The underlying purpose of this treaty was to make it possible for the British gradually to disembarrass themselves of their commitments towards Poland, on the ground that they had by this treaty secured Germany’s renunciation of methods of aggression. . . .             

The importance of Wilson’s proposals was demonstrated by the fact that Wilson invited Wohlthat to have them confirmed by Chamberlain personally, whose room was not far from Wilson’s. Wohlthat, however, declined this in order not to prejudice the unofficial character of his mission. . . .           

In order to avoid all publicity, I visited Wilson at his home on August 3 [one month before Hitler’s invasion of Poland] and we had a conversation which lasted nearly two hours. . . . Again Wilson affirmed, and in a clearer form than he had done to Wohlthat, that the conclusion of an Anglo-German entente would practically render Britain’s guarantee policy nugatory. Agreement with Germany would enable Britain to extricate herself from her predicament in regard to Poland on the ground that the non-aggression pact protected Poland from German attack; England would thus be relieved of her commitments. Then Poland, so to speak, would be left to face Germany alone.   

Sir Horace Wilson, on my insistence, also touched on the question of how the negotiations were to be conducted in face of the inflamed state of British public opinion [resulting from Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939]. . . . He admitted quite frankly that by taking this step Chamberlain was incurring a great risk and laying himself open to the danger of a fall. But with skill and strict secrecy, the reefs could be avoided. . . .         

The tragic and paramount thing about the rise of the new Anglo-German war was that Germany demanded an equal place with Britain as a world power and that Britain was in principle prepared to concede. But whereas Germany demanded immediate, complete and unequivocal satisfaction of her demand, Britain although she was ready to renounce her eastern commitments, and there with her encirclement policy, as well as to allow Germany a predominant position in east and south-east Europe and to discuss genuine world political partnership with Germany wanted this to be done only by way of negotiation and a gradual revision of British policy. This change could be effected in a period of months, but not of days or weeks. 

A. J. P. Taylor, one of the few British historians who have ventured to mention Sir Horace Wilson’s proposals, writes: “Wilson produced a memorandum on 10 Downing Street notepaper, which, not surprisingly, has disappeared from the British records. This proposed an Anglo-German treaty of non-aggression and non-interference. . . . A pact of this kind ‘would enable Britain to rid herself of her commitments vis-à-vis Poland.’ . . . [It] is inconceivable that these proposals were made without Chamberlain’s knowledge or approval.”         

Although Wilson’s proposals met with no response in Berlin and were “simply thrown into the wastepaper basket,” as von Dirksen put it, undoubtedly because Hitler, impatient to dispose of the Polish problem before the onset of winter, favored a pact with Stalin that offered immediate territorial gains rather than a pact with Britain that would have required a long period of uncertain negotiations in view of the inflamed state of British opinion they were the culminating effort, the final desperate gamble of the British government to direct Germany’s course away from Western Europe.    

Oddly enough, A. J. P. Taylor questions whether the British and French governments intended that Nazi Germany should destroy the “Bolshevik menace.” “This was the Soviet suspicion, both at the time and later. There is little evidence of it in the official record, or even outside it. British and French statesmen were far too distracted by the German problem to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe. Of course they preferred that Germany should march east not west, if she marched at all. But their object was to prevent war, not to prepare one; and they sincerely believed at any rate Chamberlain believed that Hitler would be content and pacific if his claims were met.” If this be so, then the policy of the British government of encouraging German rearmament from the beginning of 1935, of conniving at the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, of forcing Czechoslovakia to submit to German demands in 1938, and of secretly attempting to negotiate a settlement with Germany at the expense of Poland in July 1939, makes positively no sense and becomes a succession of moronic moves in the perilous diplomatic game being played by Britain and Russia in the prewar years. It is impossible to believe that there was no strategic thinking behind Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and that he did not take into account what might happen once Germany became predominant in Eastern Europe and established a common border with Russia. 

The British military expert Liddell Hart acknowledges in his History of the Second World War with reference to the strategic situation after the German invasion of Poland that “the best hope [of Britain and France] now that Germany and Russia faced each other on a common border, was that friction would develop between these two mutually distrustful confederates and draw Hitler’s explosive force eastward, instead of westward.” Although Liddell Hart does not relate this hope to any prewar strategy, it is unimaginable, given the massive evidence presented, that British and French leaders long before the outbreak of World War II “were far too distracted by the German problem [as A. J. P. Taylor puts it] to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe” and a common border between Germany and the Soviet Union had been established.           

Of course it would be idle to suggest that in the prewar years British leaders in pursuit of their policy of appeasement were not influenced to some degree by other considerations than the fear that a Western European conflagration would redound to Russia’s benefit. Among these considerations, according to the earl of Birkenhead, were the conclusions of the chiefs of staff in their report to the Committee of Imperial Defense in the late summer of 1938 that Great Britain was not ready for war and that she could not fight a war on three fronts German, Italian, and Japanese without powerful allies. “[Chamberlain and Halifax],” Lord Birkenhead affirms, “were apprehensive of the situation in the Far East, of what action Japan might take there if Great Britain became involved in a war with Germany in the West; and they were at all times uneasily conscious of America’s neutrality and of the unpalatable fact that no help could be looked for from that quarter in case of trouble. The British Government was also alarmed about the attitude of the Dominions to involvement in war. South Africa had decided to remain neutral, should it come; the Australian Labour Party were against intervention and there was grave doubt whether [Prime Minister] Mackenzie King could bring the Canadian people into war.” Furthermore, the British historian Charles L. Mowat states that since World War I the policy of the dominions had been one of no commitments “and certainly they were not going to be bound by Britain’s commitments. . . . [They] naturally opposed involvement in war and rejoiced that appeasement was keeping the threat of war at a distance.” But all these considerations, although used by various historians to explain the policy of appeasement, pale before the single most important consideration: the deep-rooted fear of Russia.      

That the wells of appeasement lay in this fear of Russia, in the conviction that Nazi Germany was a barrier against the spread of Communism, and that a war in Western Europe could only benefit the Soviet Union by extending her power and influence has been amply demonstrated in this and other chapters. But these cardinal elements in the policy of appeasement have been underrated or almost totally ignored by the British historical establishment.     

There are two reasons for this failure by British historians to come to terms with their country’s diplomatic past. Firstly, there is the accepted tradition not to attribute to their government Machiavellian designs against a foreign power. Hence, no matter how patriotic or realistic Chamberlain and his supporters may have felt themselves to be in attempting to spare Western Europe the ravages of war and revolution, they should not be accused of conspiring to pit one totalitarian power against the other. “Of course,” writes Robert Skidelsky, the British neorevisionist historian, “there were a number of groups in Britain who . . . advocated the bargain that Hitler must always have hoped for ‘a German deal with the British Empire at the expense of the Soviet Union.’ But such cynicism (or realism) was foreign to the British Establishment.” Secondly, because of the ideological divide between East and West, no establishment historian (despite Stalin’s own Machiavellian aims) wishes to play into the hands of the Soviet Union by acknowledging Britain’s share of responsibility for the rebirth of German militarism and the calamity of the Second World War.        

This failure to expose the main roots of appeasement is unfortunate not only for the historiography of this crucial period in world history, but for those seeking a true understanding of the Spanish Civil War and Revolution and of the reason why Stalin’s democratic camouflage in Spain was doomed to failure.

Battle of Vigo Bay, (12 October 1702)

Naval battle of the 1701-1714 War of the Spanish Succession.

En route back to England after an unsuccessful attempt to seize Cadiz, the Anglo-Dutch fleet under Admiral Sir George Rooke, carrying troops under command of General James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, attacked the Spanish silver fleet with its French naval escort under Admiral François de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault, anchored behind a protective boom and defended by fortifications at Vigo Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean on the northwestern coast of Spain’s Pontevedra Province.

The silver fleet had sailed from Veracruz, Mexico, with a cargo of silver valued at 13,639,230 pesos. At a contemporary exchange rate of about three pesos to the pound sterling, this equaled £4.5 million. Calling at Havana, where Chateaurenault and his naval escort joined together, the combined fleet of 22 Spanish vessels and 34 French vessels sailed on 24 July 1702. The English and Dutch forces had intelligence of this movement and attempted to intercept the fleet. At Cadiz, the silver fleet’s normal port, Rooke remained on the lookout while Sir Cloudesley Shovell tried intercepting the vessels at sea. Unknown to the allies, Chateaurenault safely anchored his convoy in Vigo Bay on 23 September 1702. Captain Thomas Hardy in the Pembroke heard the news when he called at Lagos Bay, Portugal, and immediately reported it to Rooke, earning Hardy a knighthood and a £1,000-pound reward.

Arriving off Vigo on 22 October, Rooke landed Ormonde’s troops and with Dutch Lieutenant Admiral Philips van Almonde divided the 15 English and 10 Dutch ships into seven squadrons, each headed by a Dutch or English flag officer. On 23 October, the squadrons commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Hopsonn and Vice Admiral Philips van der Goes approached the narrow entrance of the bay, while the large ships bombarded the fortifications in support of Ormonde’s troops. Captain Andrew Leake in the Torbay broke the boom, for which he and Hopsonn were knighted. Allied forces took the forts and 18 French warships, of which five were incorporated into the Royal Navy and one into the Dutch navy. The remainder were burned.

Shovell’s squadron arrived on 27 October after the main action and stayed behind after Rooke’s departure to manage the final phase. Most of the silver had already been off-loaded and the Spanish treasury recorded the largest amount of silver ever obtained from America in one year: 6,994,293 pesos. Spain contributed 2.2 million of this to the French war effort and soon replaced its lost warships. The allies, however, acquired a sum of silver valued at about £14,000. Modern scholarship has yet to account for the remainder.

François Louis de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault


French admiral during the wars of Louis XIV. Born at Chateaurenault on 22 September 1637, Chateaurenault, like many young men of his class, favored a military career. He joined the French army in 1658 as a musketeer. The expansion of the Royal French Navy under Minister of Marine Jean Baptiste Colbert offered numerous opportunities to young officers, and Chateaurenault transferred to the naval service in 1661. He proved to be a capable, if somewhat difficult, officer. In the short span of only five years, Chateaurenault advanced to captain.

Chateaurenault saw his first action in the Mediterranean against Barbary pirates. In 1677 and 1678 he commanded small squadrons during fighting between France and Holland. His forces obtained the only two French naval victories during those years.

In 1688 when the War of the Grand Alliance began, Chateaurenault commanded the French fleet at Brest and led the squadron transporting soldiers to Ireland in support of the deposed James II. Chateaurenault also escorted a convoy of 3,000 troops to Bantry Bay in 1689. On 11 May, as the troops were disembarking, an English fleet attacked. Despite poor maneuvering by his captains, Chateaurenault in the Ardent was able to drive the English fleet out to sea. The action was indecisive, but Chateaurenault had accomplished his mission of providing soldiers and stores for James II, and his ships returned safely to Brest.

In June 1690 Chateaurenault led the van division of the combined French fleet under Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville. On 10 July the opposing Anglo-Dutch fleet attacked off Beachy Head. Chateaurenault was able to double the attacking Dutch ships and he contributed decisively to the defeat of the Allies.

In 1701 upon Tourville’s death, Chateaurenault succeeded him as vice admiral of France. In 1702, during the War of the Spanish Succession, he received the delicate task of protecting the annual Spanish treasure fleet from Anglo-Dutch forces. King Louis XIV’s secret orders instructed him to bring the Spanish fleet into a French port, a difficult task given that some Spanish officers were serving aboard French ships.

Chateaurenault managed to elude a powerful Allied fleet and bring the treasure fleet into Vigo. Believing he would soon be attacked, Chateaurenault ordered the harbor fortified. On 22 October 1702, an Allied fleet under Sir George Rooke broke through the defensive boom. Every ship in the harbor was captured or destroyed, and an enormous amount of treasure was lost. Chateaurenault was not blamed for the defeat and was elevated to marshal of France in 1703. However, he never again commanded at sea. He died at Paris on 15 November 1716

Sir George Rooke

 (c. 1650-1709)

English admiral. Born about 1650, George Rooke was commissioned in 1672. He first served in the London, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Edward Spragge, and followed Spragge to the Prince Royal, fighting in her at both the 28 May and 4 June 1673 Battles of Schooneveld and the 11 August 1673 Battle of the Texel. After the latter engagement, Rooke earned praise for bringing the damaged ship home. He served with Sir John Narbrough in the Mediterranean from 1678 to 1679, then under Arthur Herbert, First Earl of Torrington, at Tangier, from 1680 to 1681. Commanding the Deptford, he fought in the 1 May 1689 Battle of Bantry Bay. Promoted to rear admiral in 1690, he was in the Duchess at the 30 June 1690 Battle of Beachy Head. Promoted to vice admiral, he served as extra commissioner of the Navy Board from 1692 to 1694.

Rooke fought in the 19 May 1692 Battle of Barfleur under Edward Russell, Earl of Orford, then pursued the French into the Bay of La Hogue, burning 12 French ships of the line. Knighted in 1693, he escorted the 400-ship Smyrna convoy toward the Mediterranean until the French intercepted it at Lagos Bay, taking or destroying 92 ships and scattering the remainder.

Rooke became Admiralty commissioner during 1694-1702 and commander in chief, Mediterranean, from 1695 to 1696. He was appointed admiral of the fleet in 1696 and was elected to Parliament for Portsmouth, serving from 1698 to 1705. In 1700 he commanded the Anglo-Dutch-Swedish Squadron off Copenhagen at the opening of the Great Northern War. He served on the Lord High Admiral’s Council during 1702-1705 and commanded the unsuccessful Anglo-Dutch expedition to Cadiz in 1702, attacking the Spanish galleons at Vigo Bay on his return on 12 October. In 1704 he led the allied attack on Gibraltar and commanded the Anglo-Dutch Fleet in the 13 August 1704 Battle of Vélez-Malaga. Rooke resigned for health reasons in 1705 and died in Canterbury on 24 January 1709.

References Kamen, Henry. “The Destruction of the Spanish Silver Fleet at Vigo in 1702.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 39 (1966): 165-173. Veenendaal, Augustus J., Jr. De Briefwisseling van Anthonie Heinsius, 1702-1720. Vol. 1, 1702. The Hague: Institute for Netherlands History, 1976. Calman-Maison, J. J. R. La Marechal de Chateau-Renault. Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1903. Jenkins, Ernest H. A History of the French Navy: From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1973. Symcox, Geoffrey. The Crisis of French Sea Power, 1688-1697. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974. References Hattendorf, John B. “Sir George Rooke and Sir Cloudesley Shovell (c. 1650-1709) and (1659-1707).” In Precursors of Nelson: British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Le Fevre and Richard Harding, 42-77. London: Chatham Publishing, 2000. Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Journal of Sir George Rooke, 1700-1704. Publications of the Navy Records Society. London: Navy Records Society.

Spain in the Thirty Years’ War

The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez, painted by order of King Philip IV of Spain, 1635, five years after the loyal Ambrosio Spínola died as Governor of Milan. Spinola magnanimously raises the surrendering governor of Breda. Museum of Prado, Madrid, Spain.

As the Twelve Years’ Truce approached its end, it became obvious that the Spanish empire needed a new strategy. By 1618, Europe was drifting into the generalized crisis that became the Thirty Years’ War. The Dutch truce had proved so harmful to Spain that few observers thought the king would renew it without major concessions. While Antwerp suffered under a de facto commercial blockade, the Dutch had made serious inroads against the Portuguese empire in Asia and had greatly expanded their activities in the Caribbean. The Portuguese asked how Spanish rule could be justified if the king did not protect them against their commercial rivals. The Council of Indies complained of Dutch inroads in America, while the Council of Finance pointed out that the cost of maintaining the Army of Flanders would be little greater if its soldiers actually fought. All three bodies therefore opposed continuation of the truce.

The Duke of Lerma fell from power in the midst of this debate, albeit for reasons that had little to do with foreign policy. He was replaced by Don Baltasar de Zúñiga, an experienced diplomat who agreed that the existing agreement was untenable and thought that the international situation now favored Spain. England had been a de facto ally since 1605, while the assassination of Henry IV in 1610 had left France under a weak regency that seemed incapable of developing a consistent foreign policy. Neither would intervene to help the Dutch as they had done in the past. The Dutch, too, had become more belligerent. In August, 1618, Maurice of Nassau and the more extreme Calvinists triumphed over a moderate faction led by Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Although more isolated than ever, the new regime was unlikely to concede anything to Spain.

While Spain and the Dutch debated the merits of the truce, tensions in the Holy Roman Empire reached dangerous levels. Confessional differences had been growing since the 1580s, in part because of the emergence of Calvinism as a major force in German politics. After the Imperial Diet of 1608, both Protestant and Catholic princes created formal unions that sought alliances with non-German powers. The Protestant Union in particular had signed treaties with England in 1612 and with the United Provinces in 1613. By 1618, the old and childless emperor Matthias neared death. His nephew, the devoutly catholic Ferdinand of Styria, was expected to succeed him and had already been designated king-elect of Bohemia by the Bohemian Diet, most of whose members were Protestant. Then, on May 28, a long-simmering dispute over the reversion of ecclesiastical properties prompted the Bohemian Protestants to revolt. Their representatives in the Diet threw two of Ferdinand’s regents from a third-story window (the Defenestration of Prague) and set up a provisional government. In the course of the summer, three other Habsburg territories, Lusatia, Silesia, and Upper Austria joined the Bohemians and began the search for a new king. The Protestant Union pledged its support, and in May, 1619, its armies besieged Vienna.

To Zúñiga and his allies at the Spanish court, these actions threatened the survival of the Habsburg dynasty. Of the seven imperial electors, three were already Protestant. If the Bohemians elected a Protestant as they promised to do, the Catholics would be in a minority and sooner or later the Holy Roman Empire would fall into Protestant hands. Over the protests of Lerma’s remaining supporters, Zúñiga convinced the king to abort an attack on Algiers and divert the money to Austria together with 7000 Spaniards from the army of Flanders. By this time Ferdinand had raised an army of his own. The Protestant siege of Vienna collapsed in June, but Moravia and Lower Austria joined the revolt, and on August 22, the expanded confederation offered the crown of Bohemia to Frederick, Count Palatine of the Rhine. Frederick was a firm Calvinist and already an elector in his own right. He was also the son-in-law of James I of England and Scotland. If he survived, he would have two votes out of seven in the Electoral College. The emperor Matthias had died in March and Ferdinand now moved quickly to secure the imperial office before Frederick could be confirmed as King of Bohemia. The electors, unaware of events in Bohemia, duly pronounced him Emperor Ferdinand II on August 28.

In the fall of 1619, Spanish policy moved decisively toward open war. The prospect of a Holy Roman Empire dominated by Calvinists and allied with the Dutch was intolerable. Oñate, the Spanish ambassador to Vienna, helped Ferdinand reactivate the empire’s Catholic League by offering the Upper Palatinate to Maximilian of Bavaria if Frederick were defeated. James of England, influenced in part by Spanish diplomacy, refused to support his son-in-law, and Spanish agents at the Turkish court convinced the sultan to drop his support for Bethlen Gabor, the Calvinist ruler of Transylvania who had conquered Habsburg Hungary in November. By the following spring, Frederick’s support in the Protestant Union had dwindled as the Lutheran princes withdrew their support. They were beginning to fear Calvinists more than Catholics. Genoa, Tuscany, and the pope added to the 3.4 million reichsthalers already provided by the Spanish, and the stage was set for a Calvinist disaster.

In July, 1620, an imperial army invaded Upper Austria, while the Saxons marched into Lusatia. Finally on November 8, Frederick and the Bohemians went down to final defeat at the battle of the White Mountain. The immediate crisis ended, but Spain had not been idle. A detachment of 20,000 men from the army of Flanders occupied the Lower Palatinate, depriving Frederick of his homeland and securing Spanish control over the Rhine. A new Spanish Road that connected Italy with the Netherlands through the Rhineland was now secure. Meanwhile, Spanish and Imperial troops resolved the ongoing struggle for the Valtelline, the upper valley of the Adda that connects Lake Como to the valley of the Inn. The Valtelline had long been ruled by the Protestants of the Grisons. Its Catholic inhabitants rebelled in 1572, 1607, and 1618. In 1620, the Spanish and Austrians sealed off both ends of the valley, allowing the Catholics to rise up and kill the Protestants. The Spanish route from Milan to Austria was now secure as well.

When the Twelve Years’ Truce expired on April 21, 1621, a new Spanish strategy was firmly in place. Philip III had died in March of the same year, leaving the government in the hands of Philip IV, aged 16, and Zúñiga. Archduke Albert died at Brussels in July. Zúñiga, who was old enough to have fought in the Armada of 1588, died in 1622, but his nephew, the Count (later Count-Duke) of Olivares succeeded him as valido and expanded upon his policies for the next 21 years. Gaspar de Guzmán, Count of Olivares, possessed inexhaustible energy. He also understood, perhaps better than most, that Spain’s imperial and foreign policy was in the long run unsustainable for economic reasons, but in light of recent experience the one thing Olivares could not do was avoid war.

The strategy he inherited from his predecessors centered on alliance with Austria, control of northern Italy, and war with the Dutch. It would embroil Spain in almost every aspect of the Thirty Years’ War and, eventually, in a disastrous confrontation with France. Few now believed that the Dutch provinces could be recovered, but Spanish policy makers still wanted to limit their depredations overseas and their ability to support the Protestant cause in Europe. Between 1621 and 1626 Olivares therefore tried to strike at the heart of the Dutch economy. The Republic had prospered by serving as an entrepot between inland Europe and the Atlantic world. Cloths and manufactured goods from Germany reached the markets of Amsterdam by way of the great rivers. Grain, timber, and naval stores from the Baltic were traded there as well, and transshipped to Spain and the Mediterranean. In what seemed an intolerable irony, Spain’s European empire had in the process become largely dependent upon goods imported from its Dutch enemies. Olivares rebuilt the Spanish fleet, which had been sadly neglected under Philip III, and established a squadron of 70 ships at Dunkirk to disrupt the Channel trade. He then worked with imperial forces to secure a Spanish base in the Baltic and set the army of Flanders to secure the inland water routes between Holland and Germany—all without sacrificing the Spanish armies in Italy.

The new strategy achieved early success. In 1625, the best year for Spanish arms in decades, Ambrogio Spínola, the brilliant Genoese commander of the Army of Flanders, took the strategically important Dutch fortress at Breda. Genoa was rescued from a joint attack by France and Savoy, and a Spanish fleet recaptured the Brazilian city of Bahía from a Dutch expedition that had seized it in May of 1624. In England, Charles I succeeded his father, James, and launched a farcical attack on Cádiz in retaliation for his failure to arrange a marriage with Philip IV’s sister, Maria, but fortunately for Spain, England’s military capabilities had degenerated since the days of Elizabeth I. It looked for a time as though Spain was about to revive its ancient glories, but by 1628 the Count-Duke’s strategy was in tatters. The failure arose in part from the fortunes of war, but its primary cause was that the Spanish empire no longer possessed the resources to achieve its strategic ends.

War with France

The failure to reform its economy left the empire ill-equipped for the struggles to come. From 1623 to 1627 imperial strategy had achieved a fair measure of success despite the endless problems of finance. By 1628, however, the crown was 2 million ducats short of the funds needed for the years’ campaigns. Then, in September, the Dutch admiral Piet Heyn caught the treasure fleet from New Spain at anchor in Matanzas Bay, Cuba, and seized its treasure. The captured bullion enabled the Dutch to launch a new offensive against the Army of Flanders. In another military reversal, Spain’s hope of a base in the Baltic died when the imperial general Wallenstein failed to take Stralsund. More significant in the long run was the development of a new Mantuan war that drained Spanish resources. Yet another dynastic crisis gave Mantua and Montferrat to the duke of Nevers, a member of the French branch of the Gonzaga family. To protect Milan, Olivares ordered a siege of the almost impregnable fortress of Casale, hoping that the French would be too preoccupied with their own siege of rebellious Huguenots at La Rochelle to intervene. La Rochelle, however, surrendered at the end of 1628, and in 1629, Louis XIII invaded Italy and forced the Spanish to abandon the siege. The Mantuan War ground on for another two years, but by then Spain’s attention had turned to a new threat in the north. Swedish intervention on behalf of the German Protestants emboldened the Dutch to seize a number of towns along the water line, the most important of which was Maastricht, which fell on August 23, 1632. Spain had to detach troops from its defense of the Palatinate against the Swedes, but the death of King Gustavus Adolfus at Lützen in November blunted the Swedish offensive. A series of imperial successes beginning with the capture of Breisach in 1633 and culminating in the victory over the Swedes at Nördlingen on September 6, 1634, convinced the Lutheran princes to sign the Peace of Prague (May 30, 1635) and to join with the emperor in hunting down those Calvinists who still refused to abandon the Swedish alliance.

At this point France declared war on Spain. The French government had emerged from the problems of Louis XIII’s regency, and since 1624, had fallen increasingly under the influence of Louis’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu and the king were determined to oppose what they saw as a Habsburg consortium that surrounded them on two sides. After the defeat of the Huguenots at La Rochelle, they felt free to adopt a more aggressive policy. Its first objectives were to secure their eastern borders by neutralizing Savoy (hence the Mantuan War) and Lorraine, and by enforcing a French protectorate over Alsace. Spanish distraction during the Swedish intervention had helped them to achieve these goals. Richelieu had also supported the Swedes with large infusions of cash. Now the Peace of Prague confronted France with the prospect of a united empire allied with Spain and unmolested by northern invaders. Louis and Richelieu had no desire to become involved in the military quagmire of central Europe, but thought that if Spain could be defeated, the Austrian Habsburgs would cease to be a threat. The French army, however, lacked the training and experience built up by Spain over more than a century of warfare. The army of Flanders easily defeated a Franco-Dutch invasion of the Spanish Netherlands, and in 1637 invaded France, advancing to within 80 miles of Paris. Had a planned invasion of Languedoc taken place at the same time, France might have been forced to make peace. But time was running out for Spain.

The next campaign season brought a French counterattack on Fuenterrabía, the great fortress that guarded the western flank of the Pyrennees. The siege failed, but far away in Germany, the French army managed to retake Breisach after a long siege. France already controlled Alsace, Lorraine, and Savoy. With the loss of Breisach, Spain’s land route to the Netherlands—long threatened—was now closed. Only by establishing naval superiority in the Channel and North Sea could Spain maintain communications with Brussels and supply the Army of Flanders. In 1639, Olivares decided to mount a new offensive by sea. His government had rebuilt the fleet, and now had 24 ships at Cádiz and 63 at Corunna. Others from Naples and Cantabria brought the total force up to the level of the 1588 Armada, although the new fleet carried more guns. He ordered its commander to clear the Biscayan Coast of French marauders before destroying the Dutch fleet in the Channel. Spanish diplomacy had neutralized the England of Charles I, and for once, the weather cooperated. The Dutch, unfortunately did not. After making contact with a Dutch squadron in September, the Spanish took refuge in the Downs, a broad anchorage off the English coast near Deal. There, on December 21, the Dutch destroyed most of the Spanish fleet.

250th Division: Azul

Instead of a declaration of war in June 1941, Franco, at Serrano’s suggestion, offered to send a volunteer division of Spaniards to serve in the German army, a proposal accepted immediately by Nazi leaders. Spain’s initiative in this regard was unique, volunteering its soldiers before being asked by the Germans to contribute to the anticommunist effort. Recruiting began with a massive demonstration in central Madrid, during which Serrano declared that “Russia is guilty” of beginning the Spanish Civil War, murdering José Antonio, and otherwise contributing to the destruction of Spain’s economy and prospects. Tens of thousands of Falangists, university students, soldiers, and others wanted to join the unit, known officially as the Division Española de Voluntarios (Spanish Volunteer Division) but more popularly called the Division Azul, or Blue Division, for the Falangist blue shirts worn by its volunteers. Among the volunteers were hundreds of Falangist leaders, from Labor Minister José Antonio Giron to the fascist writer Ernesto Giménez Caballero (neither of whom was allowed by Franco to join the unit). Dozens of others were allowed to join, with the permission of Serrano and Falangist Secretary General José Luis de Arrese, including the poet and propagandist Dionisio Ridruejo, National Delegate for Health Agustin Aznar, Falangist student chief José Miguel Guitarte, and two thousand Falangist university students.

The initial wave of volunteers numbered more than forty thousand, and could have manned two or three divisions. Conservative elements within the government, and especially among the highest ranks of the army, were uncomfortable with this prospect, however, and limited the deployment to the original division while insisting that the majority of officers come from the regular army. The recruits volunteered for a number of reasons, including visceral anticommunism, ambition for higher rank in the army or Falange, a desire to find adventure, support for the German-led New Order, unemployment, or a feeling of having missed the combat of the Spanish Civil War.

A full infantry division sent by General Francisco Franco to fight alongside the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, ostensibly in belated response to Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). It was not a division of the Spanish Army, though all its officers were regular Army at Franco’s insistence. Its enlisted men initially comprised a great majority of Spanish Falangist volunteers. The party uniform of these former blueshirts lent the division its popular nickname. Not all its members were volunteers, even at the start: Franco forced men into the division that included a number of his most bitter, left-wing opponents. The DEV was organized from June 27, 1941, by Franco’s brother-in-law and foreign minister, the committed fascist Serrano Suñer. He provided enthusiastic political support while regular officers shaped some 18,000 Falangist volunteers into a reinforced fighting division. Most of the original contingent were radical Falangists, many students from the universities but also men of the middle class and workers. Motivations of those joining the DEV were a mix of fascist enthusiasm, expectation of German victory, and anti-Communist and anti-Soviet feeling dating to the Civil War. While Franco was well pleased to see such committed revolutionaries depart Spain, his other interests were to soften the impact on German relations of Spain’s long-postponed entry into the war and repay the blood debt owed to the Kondor Legion . DEV participation in fighting on the Eastern Front would mark the height of Spanish collaboration with the Axis. No other nonbelligerent country raised an entire division for Adolf Hitler.

In Bavaria for basic training by July, the DEV was registered as the 250th Division of the Wehrmacht and reorganized to fit within the German order of battle. It took nearly two months for it to reach the front due to terrible German logistics. Most DEV troops prudently discarded their Spanish blue uniforms once they reached the Eastern Front, switching to German feldgrau. Some still wore blue shirts, however, when the DEV saw first combat on October 7. The 250th fought well but was badly bloodied as part of Army Group North, fighting around Leningrad for the next two years. By the end of 1941 it had suffered 1,400 dead, but also made a strong impression on local German commanders and on Hitler. The Blue Division saw more heavy action in the first months of 1942. It experienced especially heavy fighting over the next winter, when it was finally cracked by a Red Army assault in a bloody fight at Krasny Bor on February 10, 1943. On that single day the DEV lost 2,252 men, including over 1,100 dead. That was one-quarter of all casualties it suffered over two years. Its last seven months on the Eastern Front were more quiet. As casualties rose fewer Falangist volunteers could be found. More conscripts or regular army troops and more enemies of the regime were shipped out instead. During 1943 the Division was wholly reformed with replacements. Spain paid all wages and maintenance costs, but Germany provided weapons and military equipment.

Once Franco finally realized that Germany was going to lose the war, and as he came under increasing pressure from the Western Allies to end collaboration with the Hitler regime, he disbanded and recalled the Blue Division in October 1943. Over two thousand committed Spanish fascists refused to leave. Reinforced with conscripts, they were reorganized as part of German 121st Division under the designation “Spanish Legion” (Legion Españolo de Voluntarios), or “Blue Legion.” Even that small force was ordered dissolved by Franco and to return to Spain in March 1944, as Western Allied pressure on Madrid increased and Franco feared invasion and overthrow of his regime. The last surge of ideological enthusiasm among Blue Division veterans came in mid-1944, as 300 crossed into southern France looking to join Wehrmacht units readying to fight the Western Allies. A last few true fanatics were still in the east in 1945: 243 men who had not had enough of war in the fascist cause refused Franco’s 1944 order to return to Spain, staying on to form the “Spanish Volunteer Unit.” They and other Spaniards recruited separately into the Waffen-SS fought in the east until the final conquest of Germany in 1945. Almost none saw Spain or family again.

Of more than 45,000 men who served one-year enlistments or longer in the DEV just under 5,000 were killed, 8,700 were wounded, about 400 were captured by the Red Army, and another 8,000 had severe frostbite or other front-related illnesses. A vast praise literature later developed in Spain that portrayed Blue Division men as unusually kind to Russian civilians, absolving them from known German atrocities carried out in the east. The moral difference of the DEV from the behavior of other Wehrmacht units or Waffen-SS men was exaggerated in this nationalist revisionism, but the charge of somewhat greater decency was not wholly baseless. Most Spanish fascists who volunteered for the DEV were anti-Communist ideologues rather than Nazi-style race-haters, and not a few DEV men were unwilling working class conscripts who had no loyalty to the fascist cause whatsoever. Several hundred DEV prisoners were returned to Spain by the Soviet Union in 1954 and 1959.

The Blue Division received the official support of the government for its first two years on the Eastern Front. Newspapers contained frequent mentions of the heroism of the unit, memorializing fallen soldiers and denouncing the evil of communism. Congregations throughout Spain held special masses in honor of the troops, attended by prominent figures in the Falange and government, and the Women’s Section of the Falange organized drives to collect winter clothing and other gifts for the unit, especially around Christmas. Upon their return from battle, Blue Division veterans gained the same hiring preferences as those who had fought in the civil war, and one year of service in the unit credited a soldier with two in the regular Spanish army. One result of the dispatch of the Blue Division was the rise of General Agustin Muñoz Grandes, the unit commander, as a popular figure. With his army background, experience as secretary general of the Falange, and proven battlefield leadership, he became the focus of great attention. He had also been commander of Spanish forces near Gibraltar in 1940 during German planning to attack the citadel, and so was trusted by Nazi military leaders. The Spanish press covered his speeches hailing the courage of his soldiers, which were also broadcast over Spanish radio: “Hard is the enemy, and harder still is the Russian winter. But it does not matter: even harder is my race, supported by reason and the courage of its sons who, embracing their heroic German comrades, will in the end achieve the victory, towards which we fight without ceasing.”

Muñoz Grandes also garnered the attention of Hitler, who saw in him a potential replacement for Franco. The Führer met several times with the general, awarding him the highest military decoration and encouraging him to remain involved in politics. Franco heard about these discussions and replaced Muñoz as divisional commander in late 1942, although he delayed this action for several months at the insistence of Hitler, who wanted to ensure that the Blue Division’s commander gained sufficient victories to become even more popular in Spain. Upon Muñoz Grandes’ return to a hero’s welcome, Franco promoted him to the rank of lieutenant general-too high to command an army division again-and appointed the general in March 1943 to head the dictator’s military household, in charge of Franco’s personal security and military ceremonies. Despite the celebrations and banquets in his honor, it would not be until March 1945- just before the end of the Second World War-that Franco would trust Muñoz Grandes with troops, giving him command of the prestigious Madrid Military District.

Blue Division: Spanish Blood in Russia, 1941–1945 by by Xavier Moreno Juliá (Author)

Until recently, the best book on the Spanish Division Azul remained Gerald Kleinfeld and Lewis Tambs, Hitler’s Spanish Legion: The Blue Division in Russia. While reliant on German and Spanish archives, as well as use of interviews, it also exhibits a vibrant writing style and avoids the temptation, so common in modern writing about Spain, to condemn the Franco dictatorship and its supporters as completely identified with Nazi Germany. A newer Spanish-language manuscript, La Division Azul, by Xavier Moreno Julia, incorporates more extensive research and interviews, as well as the massive historiography on the unit that has emerged since the publication of Hitler’s Spanish Legion.


The ‘Arab’ invasion army which defeated the Visigoths at the Transductine Promontories in 711 numbered 12,000 men including only 300 Arab cavalry, the remainder being Berber infantry. However these were reinforced in 712 by another 10-18,000 Arabs and Syrians. In 741 they were further reinforced by the 10,000 survivors (out of27,000) of the Syrian Junds of Homs, Damascus, Jordan, Palestine and Qinnasrin, which had been severely manhandled by Berber rebels in North Africa. Their leader, with the Jordan contingent, settled in Cordoba, the Horns contingent settled in Seville, that of Damascus in Elvira, Qinnasrin in Jaen, and Palestine in Algeciras and Medina Sidonia. It was through these Junds, staunch supporters of his dynasty, that an Umayyad exile, ‘Abd ar-Rabman, became Amir of Cordoba in 756. These Spanish Umayyads assumed the title of Caliph under ‘Abd ar-Rabman III (912-961) and lasted down to 1031, after which the Caliphate disintegrated into a number of minor amirates (the Taifa kingdoms) which were steadily absorbed by the Spaniards until conquered by Murabit Berbers in I 090.

‘Abd ar-Rahman I (756-788) established an army of 40,000 mercenary Berbers imported from North Africa (he distrusted the Junds), as well as a Black Guard- the first recorded regular Negro unit in a Moslem army. The later at least was organised on a decimal basis, consisting of2 units of 1,000 men, each divided into 10 companies of 100.

Thereafter Andalusian Umayyad armies comprised 5 principal elements, these being: (1) the native regulars from those districts owing military service, i. e. the old Junds whose obligations were hereditary; (2) temporary volunteers called hashid or ‘recruits’ who were enlisted for a single expedition; (3) religious volunteers called mujahids or al-murabitun who lived in fortified frontier communities called ribats, to whom fighting the Christians was a religious duty; (4) permanent units of foreign mercenaries, the murtaziqa, paid regular salaries; and (5) irregular foreign mercenaries called muttawi’a whose only pay, like that of the mujahids, came at the end of the campaign in the form of booty and other gratuities. In addition ‘Abd ar-Rabman II, who ruled in the mid-9th century, made military service compulsory for all Andalusians, but they do not seem to have often been called on to fulfil this obligation.

Under al-Hakam I (796-822) the army was comprised chiefly of Berbers and Negroes but also included Christians (the commanding officer of his bodyguard bearing the title of comes) both from Northern Spain and even beyond the Pyrenees. His famous Guard, established c. 807, consisted of 2,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry and was called al-Khurs (‘The Mutes’ or ‘The Silent Ones’), since none of its members could speak Arabic! In total the standing army at his disposal numbered 50,000 men, a mixture of mercenaries and ghulams. 2,000 of them were permanently posted ai<.ng the banks of the River Guadalquivir on the frontier with the Christians, this force being divided into 20 units of 100 horsemen each under an officer called an ‘arif.

Masudi, writing c. 940, records the total strength of Caliph ‘Abd ar-Rabman rii’s standing army as an unlikely 100,000, which required one-third of Andalusia’s total revenue for its maintenance. An alternative source records the higher figure of 150,000, adding that his bodyguard numbered 12,000 men of whom 8,000 were cavalry. lr was he who introduced formal unit organisation into the Andalusian army, based on a corps of 5,000 men under an amir; within this were 5 units of 1,000, each under a qa’id, subdivided into 5 units of200 men under naqibs, in turn comprised of 5 units of 40 men each under an ‘arif. The smallest unit consisted of8 men under a nazir.

By the mid-10th century the royal bodyguard of ghulams is recorded as 3,750 men, all ‘Slavs’, though in Spain the term was by this time used for Franks, Lombards and Spaniards as well as true Slavs. This Slav guard was disbanded c. 978 by the vizier Ibn Abi Amir(better known as al-Mansur, 976-1002) who distrusted its members, but Slav ghulams continued to be employed down to 1031. Nor did al-Mansur trust the native Arab aristocracy, and he resolved to totally reorganise the army by abolishing the tribal units, the Junds, on which it was still based. Many of these were thereafter exempted from military service in return for a cash payment, the money being used to hire large numbers of Berbers from North Africa plus considerably smaller numbers of Christian cavalry from Leon, Castile and Navarre. All these plus Arabs and Negroes be intermixed in regular regiments without regard for family or patron so as to eliminate tribal jealousies. Al-Mansur allegedly increased Andalusia’s armed forces to as many as 600,000 men (probably 60,000), the large Berber element transforming the army into a practically all-cavalry force.

The name Andalusia derives from the Arabic ai-Andalus, ‘The Land of the Vandals’.


In the early period after the Moslem conquest Visigothic organisation appears to have persisted virtually unchanged in those corners of Spain that remained in Christian hands. However, as territory was steadily regained from the Moslems military organisation underwent steady change.

A system of landholding, originally instituted by the Frankish marcher lords (who had been established in Northern Spain by Charlemagne), evolved in the 9th century in the granting of tracts of wasteland in exchange for their cultivation. These grants were called aprisiones, which tended to become allodial possessions. Never· the less many of the landed nobility thus created were obliged to perform mounted military service for either the king or their own overlords, though others served in exchange for cash payments and yet others served simply as an obligation of their social status. The king’s own vassals, irrespective of which category they individually belonged to, were the fideles or milites regis. The bands of retainers such nobles led were usually maintained at their own expense.

Up to the close of the 10th century some of the Christian states acknowledged the overlordship of the Umayyad Amir, later Caliph, of Cordoba, which gave them the opportunity to expand steadily at the expense of their Moslem neighbours, securing their gains by the construction of forts. These were garrisoned from the 10th century onwards by regular troops paid for by taxes levied from the surrounding lands. Few of these soldiers held land of their own so they were not feudal troops, particularly since the majority were non-noble. As the frontiers expanded similar non-noble mounted soldiers called caballeros vi llanos, freemen of sufficient income and property to own a horse, came to owe service in exchange for non-hereditable grants of conquered land called caballerias, infantry similarly owing military service for smaller grants of land called peonias; both of these types began to appear in the middle to late 10th century.

As in Andalusia military service was technically owed by all able-bodied freemen but was likewise rarely called upon, warfare being largely a matter of raids and counter-raids launched by the nobles’ mounted bands, these sometimes penetrating as far south as Lisbon and Cordoba itself. However, when required infantry could be raised by a levy of one man out of every 3 by the 10th century, the other 2 of the trio paying for his rations and supplying an animal for his transport, presumably a donkey or mule since all men with horses were automatically obliged to serve as cavalry.

In addition Moslem mercenaries can often be found in Christian employ, though their numbers were smaller than in succeeding centuries. At the very end of this era we also find multi-national armies fighting alongside the Spaniards in the role of proto-crusaders; Frenchmen, Normans, Aquitanians and Burgundians arc encountered in this guise in 1064, and Papal and Italo-Norman contingents are also claimed by some authorities. Two sources even claim that French knights had been regularly crossing the Pyrenees to assist in the Reconquista since Sancho the Great of Navarre’s reign (1000-1035).

Reconquest, Holy War, and Crusade I

Caliphate of Córdoba, circa 1000

When the crusaders assaulted and captured Jerusalem in July 1099 the struggle between Christians and Muslims in Spain had been in progress for nearly four hundred years. From 711, when a mixed force of Arabs and Moroccan Berbers crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and overthrew the Visigothic kingdom, until the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031, Muslim supremacy in Spain was unquestioned. As the seat of Islamic power was Córdoba, an eccentric location in the southern part of the peninsula, the Muslims did not permanently occupy large stretches of mountainous zones in the north. That made it possible for small groups of Christians to form the tiny, independent states of Asturias, León, Castile, Navarre, Aragón, and Catalonia. Clinging to the Cantabrian and Pyrenees mountains, this congeries of Christian enclaves, variously ruled by kings or counts, was kept on the defensive for nearly three hundred years, as Muslim armies marched northward every summer to ravage their lands but never to conquer them. In those early centuries a no-man’s land stretching along the Duero River from the Atlantic to the borders of Aragón separated Christian and Muslim territory, but it was many years before the Christians dared to venture southward to occupy that zone. As the Christian population increased a gradual movement toward the Duero occurred and the process of settling that frontier zone commenced. In the northeast, however, Muslim rule reached as far north as the foothills of the Pyrenees until the late eleventh century.

After the occupation of the Duero valley, the Christians took advantage of the breakup of the Caliphate to move into the Tagus valley, capturing Toledo in 1085. The invasions of the Almoravids (al-murābiṭūn) from Morocco soon afterward and of the Almohads (al-muwaḥḥidūn) in the middle of the twelfth century put the Christians on the defensive again, however, and temporarily checked their advance. Early in the thirteenth century victory over the Moroccans enabled the Christians to press forward to the Guadiana River and to capture the principal towns of the Guadalquivir valley. By mid-century all of Islamic Spain was in Christian hands except the tiny kingdom of Granada, and that was reduced to tributary status to Castile-León. Occupying the central meseta, the largest segment of the peninsula, the kingdom of Castile-León maintained a contiguous frontier with the Muslims until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. Meanwhile, the kingdoms of Portugal on the west and Aragón-Catalonia on the east had expanded as fully as possible by the middle of the thirteenth century, and their boundaries would remain fixed thereafter save for some minor adjustments. Thus in the closing centuries of the Middle Ages the conquest of Islamic lands remained the primary responsibility of the kings of Castile-León.

Reconquest, Holy War, and Crusade

When the crusaders assaulted and captured Jerusalem in July 1099 the struggle between Christians and Muslims in Spain had been in progress for nearly four hundred years. From 711, when a mixed force of Arabs and Moroccan Berbers crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and overthrew the Visigothic kingdom, until the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031, Muslim supremacy in Spain was unquestioned. As the seat of Islamic power was Córdoba, an eccentric location in the southern part of the peninsula, the Muslims did not permanently occupy large stretches of mountainous zones in the north. That made it possible for small groups of Christians to form the tiny, independent states of Asturias, León, Castile, Navarre, Aragón, and Catalonia. Clinging to the Cantabrian and Pyrenees mountains, this congeries of Christian enclaves, variously ruled by kings or counts, was kept on the defensive for nearly three hundred years, as Muslim armies marched northward every summer to ravage their lands but never to conquer them. In those early centuries a no-man’s land stretching along the Duero River from the Atlantic to the borders of Aragón separated Christian and Muslim territory, but it was many years before the Christians dared to venture southward to occupy that zone. As the Christian population increased a gradual movement toward the Duero occurred and the process of settling that frontier zone commenced. In the northeast, however, Muslim rule reached as far north as the foothills of the Pyrenees until the late eleventh century.

After the occupation of the Duero valley, the Christians took advantage of the breakup of the Caliphate to move into the Tagus valley, capturing Toledo in 1085. The invasions of the Almoravids (al-murābiṭūn) from Morocco soon afterward and of the Almohads (al-muwaḥḥidūn) in the middle of the twelfth century put the Christians on the defensive again, however, and temporarily checked their advance. Early in the thirteenth century victory over the Moroccans enabled the Christians to press forward to the Guadiana River and to capture the principal towns of the Guadalquivir valley. By mid-century all of Islamic Spain was in Christian hands except the tiny kingdom of Granada, and that was reduced to tributary status to Castile-León. Occupying the central meseta, the largest segment of the peninsula, the kingdom of Castile-León maintained a contiguous frontier with the Muslims until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. Meanwhile, the kingdoms of Portugal on the west and Aragón-Catalonia on the east had expanded as fully as possible by the middle of the thirteenth century, and their boundaries would remain fixed thereafter save for some minor adjustments. Thus in the closing centuries of the Middle Ages the conquest of Islamic lands remained the primary responsibility of the kings of Castile-León.

The Reconquest: Evolution of an Idea

The preceding historical sketch summarizes a long period in the history of medieval Spain that Spanish historians have called the Reconquista. The reconquest has been depicted as a war to eject the Muslims, who were regarded as intruders wrongfully occupying territory that by right belonged to the Christians. Thus religious hostility was thought to provide the primary motivation for the struggle. In time, the kings of Asturias-León-Castile, as the self-proclaimed heirs of the Visigoths, came to believe that it was their responsibility to recover all the land that had once belonged to the Visigothic kingdom. Some historians assumed that that ideal of reconquest persisted without significant change throughout the Middle Ages until the final conquest of Granada and the inevitable union of Castile and Aragón under Ferdinand and Isabella.

Nevertheless, in the last thirty years or so historians have challenged these assumptions, asking whether it is even appropriate to speak of reconquest. Did the reconquest really happen or was it merely a myth? If it is legitimate to speak of reconquest, then what exactly is meant by that term? Doubts about the validity of this idea are reflected, for example, in Jocelyn Hillgarth’s consistent placement of the word “Reconquest” in quotation marks. However that may be, Derek Lomax pointed out that the reconquest was not an artificial construct created by modern historians to render the history of medieval Spain intelligible, but rather “an ideal invented by Spanish Christians soon after 711” and developed in the ninth-century kingdom of Asturias. Echoing Lomax’s language, Peter Linehan remarked that “the myth of the Reconquest of Spain was invented” in the “880s or thereabouts.” Like all ideas, however, the reconquest was not a static concept brought to perfection in the ninth century, but rather one that evolved and was shaped by the influences of successive generations. In order to assess these views it is best first to trace the origins of the idea of the reconquest in the historiography of the early Middle Ages.

The Loss of Spain and the Recovery of Spain

The idea of the reconquest first found expression in the ninth-century chronicles written in the tiny northern kingdom of Asturias, the so-called Prophetic Chronicle, the Chronicle of Albelda, and the Chronicle of Alfonso III, which proposed to continue the History of the Gothic Kings of Isidore of Seville (d. 636).6 These texts, written in Latin no doubt by churchmen, have generally been associated with the royal court and probably reflect the views of the monarch and the ecclesiastical and secular elite. What ordinary people thought is unknown, but the chroniclers developed an ideology of reconquest that informed medieval Spanish historiography thereafter. The Chronicle of Alfonso III also served as the basis for subsequent continuations in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by Sampiro, bishop of Astorga (d. 1041), Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo (d. 1129), and the anonymous author of the Chronicle of Silos.

The history of the idea of the reconquest may be said to begin with the collapse of the Visigothic Monarchia Hispaniae of which Isidore of Seville spoke. From their seat at Toledo, the Visigoths were believed to have extended their rule over the whole of Spain, including Mauritania in North Africa, in other words over the whole Roman diocese of Spain. Given the interest of medieval and early modern Spaniards in the possibility of conquering Morocco, it is well to remember that they knew that Mauritania or Tingitana was anciently one of the six provinces of the diocese of Spain. In the early fourteenth century Alfonso XI of Castile (1312–50), repeating the language of the canonist Álvaro Pelayo, laid claim to the Canary Islands because, as part of Africa, the Islands were said to have once been subject to Gothic dominion. In the fifteenth century Alfonso de Cartagena made much the same argument. The concept of a unified and indivisible kingdom embracing the entire Iberian peninsula, though it hardly corresponded to reality, was one of the most significant elements in the Visigothic legacy. That idea was reflected in the thirteenth-century account of Infante Sanchos protest against the plans of his father, Fernando I (1035–65), king of León-Castile, to partition his dominions among his sons: “In ancient times the Goths agreed among themselves that the empire of Spain should never be divided but that all of it should always be under one lord.”

The Muslim rout of King Rodrigo (710–711), the “last of the Goths,” at the Guadalete river, on 19 July 711, brought the Visigothic kingdom crashing to the ground and changed the course of Spanish history in a radical way. The contemporary Christian Chronicle of 754, written in Islamic Spain, deplored the reign of King Rodrigo, “who lost both his kingdom and the fatherland through wicked rivalries.” Decrying the disaster that befell the Visigoths, the chronicler lamented that “human nature cannot ever tell all the ruin of Spain and its many and great evils.” The Prophetic Chronicle declared that “through fear and iron all the pride of the Gothic people perished . . . and as a consequence of sin Spain was ruined.” In varying degrees the ninth-century Asturian chroniclers mourned the loss or extermination of the Gothic kingdom, the ruin of Spain, and the destruction of the fatherland. Similar language appears in the chronicles of later centuries.

By contrast with the catastrophic loss of Spain, the chroniclers tell us that through Divine Providence liberty was restored to the Christian people and the Asturian kingdom was brought into being. This reportedly occurred when the majority of the Goths of royal blood came to Asturias and elected as king Pelayo (719–737), son of Duke Fáfila, also of the royal line. Pelayo, formerly a spatarius or military officer in the Visigothic court, supposedly was King Rodrigo’s grandnephew. When faced with an overwhelming Muslim force demanding that he surrender, Pelayo, in the chronicler’s words, responded:

I will not associate with the Arabs in friendship nor will I submit to their authority . . . for we confide in the mercy of the Lord that from this little hill that you see the salvation of Spain (salus Spanie) and of the army of the Gothic people will be restored. . . . Hence we spurn this multitude of pagans and do not fear [them].

The ensuing battle of Covadonga, fought probably on 28 May 722, was a great victory for Pelayo, for “thus liberty was restored to the Christian people . . . and by Divine Providence the kingdom of Asturias was brought forth.” Among the Asturians the battle of Covadonga became the symbol of Christian resistance to Islam and a source of inspiration to those who, in words attributed to Pelayo, would achieve the salus Spanie, the salvation of Spain.

The inevitability and the inexorability of the struggle that Pelayo commenced was stressed by the Chronicle of Albelda, which declared that “the Christians are waging war with them [the Muslims] by day and by night and contend with them daily until divine predestination commands that they be driven cruelly thence. Amen!” Recording the prophecy that the Muslims would conquer Spain, the Prophetic Chronicle expressed the hope that “Divine Clemency may expel the aforesaid [the Muslims] from our provinces beyond the sea and grant possession of their kingdom to the faithful of Christ in perpetuity. Amen.!”

Identifying the Goths with Gog and the Arabs with Ishmael, the author of the Prophetic Chronicle offered this reflection on the words of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 38–39) addressed to Ishmael: “Because you abandoned the Lord, I will also abandon you and deliver you into the hand of Gog . . . and he will do to you as you did to him for one hundred and seventy times [years].” Although the Goths were punished for their crimes by the Muslim invasion, the chronicler proclaimed that “Christ is our hope that upon the completion in the near future of one hundred and seventy years from their entrance into Spain the enemy will be annihilated and the peace of Christ will be restored to the holy church.” Calculating that those one hundred and seventy years would be reached in 884, the author predicted that “in the very near future our glorious prince, lord Alfonso, will reign in all of Spain.” Aware of Alfonso III’s (866–910) recent successes against the Muslims, as well as internal disorders afflicting Islamic Spain, the chronicler was confident that the days of Muslim domination were numbered. This anticipation of the imminent destruction of Islam proved illusory, but the hope persisted for centuries.

The notion of continuity existing between the new kingdom of Asturias and the old Visigothic kingdom, whether actual or imagined, had a major influence on subsequent development of the idea of reconquest. The ninth-century chroniclers were at pains to establish the connection between the old and new monarchies, identifying the people of Asturias with the Goths, and linking the Asturian kings to the Visigothic royal family. Indeed, the chroniclers consciously conceived of themselves as continuing Isidore’s Gothic History. According to the Chronicle of Albelda, Alfonso II (791–842) “established in Oviedo both in the church and in the palace everything and the entire order of the Goths as it had been in Toledo.” Exactly what that meant is not entirely certain, but the purpose of the statement was to affirm the link between Asturias and the Visigothic kingdom, however tenuous that might be.

The Gothic connection thus established was repeated again and again in subsequent centuries, though without any further attempt at proof. For example, the twelfth-century author of the Chronicle of Silos described Alfonso VI, king of León-Castile (1065–1109) as “born of illustrious Gothic lineage.” Two centuries later, Álvaro Pelayo recalled that Alfonso XI was descended from the Goths. When Enrique of Trastámara claimed the throne in opposition to his half-brother Pedro the Cruel (1350–69), he declared that “the Goths from whom we are descended” chose as king “the one whom they believed could best govern them.” Fifteenth-century expressions of this sort were commonplace, and even Ferdinand and Isabella were reminded of their Gothic ancestry. By asserting, though not demonstrating, the bond between the medieval kings and their supposed Visigothic forebears, the chroniclers also underscored the close link between the Visigothic monarchy and its purported successor in Asturias-León-Castile. In doing so they justified the right of the medieval kings, as heirs of the Visigoths and of all their power and authority, to reconquer Visigothic territory and restore the Visigothic monarchy.

The emergence of the kingdoms of Portugal and Aragón-Catalonia in the twelfth century, and to a lesser extent, of Navarre, necessitated some readjustment in Castilian thinking as it became apparent that the eastern and western monarchies would also have their share of the old Visigothic realm. In expectation of the inevitability of conquest, the kings of Castile, León, and Aragón optimistically made several treaties that will be discussed in later chapters, partitioning Islamic Spain. Even more optimistically the kings of Castile and Aragón concluded a treaty in 1291 providing for the partition of North Africa, allotting to Castile Morocco—ancient Mauritania—over which the Visigoths reportedly had once held sway, and to Aragón Algeria and Tunis.

Reconquest and Holy War

The Christian struggle against Islamic Spain can be described as a war of both territorial aggrandizement and of religious confrontation. In speaking of the warlike activities of the Asturian kings the chroniclers tell us that the king “extended the kingdom” or “expanded the land of the Christians with the help of God.” The greatest encomium that could be bestowed on the monarch was that he had increased the extent of his dominions. The thirteenth-century Latin Chronicle, for example, emphasized that Fernando I “liberated Coimbra from the hands of the Moors.” Later in the century, Fray Juan Gil de Zamora remarked that Alfonso III had “liberated from Arab dominion” Gallia Gothica (southeastern France and Catalonia), Vasconia (the Basque provinces), and Navarre. Then, after repeatedly noting that “Spain was recovered” (recuperate fuit Hispania) or “liberated” (liberata fuit) by this king or that, he summed up the process by commenting that “Spain was recovered by many noble kings.”

Among them was Fernando III (1217–52), who, as he lay on his deathbed, admonished his son, the future Alfonso X (1252–84), as follows:

My Lord, I leave you the whole realm from the sea hither that the Moors won from Rodrigo, king of Spain. All of it is in your dominion, part of it conquered, the other part tributary. If you know how to preserve in this state what I leave you, you will be as good a king as I; and if you win more for yourself, you will be better than I; but if you diminish it, you will not be as good as I.

In effect, after recalling the reconquest of lands lost by Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king, Fernando III urged his son to continue a policy of territorial aggrandizement and expansion.

While the king might hope to increase the size of his kingdom, the soldiers who did his bidding often were motivated, as we shall see, by the desire to enrich themselves and to raise their social standing by the acquisition of booty. Beyond that, they looked for pasturage for their flocks, and over the centuries extended the sheepwalks or cañadas from the northern stretches of Castile into Andalucía (Ar. al-Andalus). They were also anxious to secure land for cultivation, to acquire the wealth of Islamic Spain, and ultimately to control markets and means of production. In order to accomplish all that they had first to dominate a given territory and to hold it by the establishment of fortified settlements or by taking possession of old Roman towns then in Muslim hands.

The ideas of territorial aggrandizement and religious expansion were coupled in the late eleventh century, just before the First Crusade, when Sancho I Ramírez, king of Aragón and Navarre (1063–94), expressed his aspirations in this way:

Let it be known to all the faithful that for the amplification of the Church of Christ, formerly driven from the Hispanic regions, I, Sancho . . . took care to settle inhabitants in that place [Montemayor] . . . for the recovery and extension of the Church of Christ, for the destruction of the pagans, the enemies of Christ, and the building up and benefit of the Christians, so that the kingdom, invaded and captured by the Ishmaelites, might be liberated to the honor and service of Christ; and that once all the people of that unbelieving rite were expelled and the filthiness of their wicked error was eliminated therefrom, the venerable Church of Jesus Christ our Lord may be fostered there forever.

In other words, the liberation of the kingdom, following the destruction and expulsion of the Muslims and the extirpation of their rite, would result in the recovery, growth and fostering of the Christian religion.

Damian Smith suggested that the reforming popes of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries influenced the idea of reconquest by their use of such words as recuperare, restituere, liberare, reparare, reddere, reuocare, restaurare, and perdere. Urban II, for example, referred to the liberation of the church of Toledo and commended the efforts of the count of Barcelona to restore the church of Tarragona. Noting the restoration of the metropolitan see of Toledo, Paschal II remarked that the church there “was ripped from the yoke of the Moors and the Moabites.” Such language, although referring primarily to the restoration or liberation of churches, likely reinforced the idea of territorial liberation or reconquest.

Muslim authors were aware of the Christian ambition to dispossess them. ʿAbd Allāh, king of Granada (1073–90), commented in his memoirs that “the Christians’ thirst for al-Andalus became quite evident.” The early fourteenth-century Moroccan chronicler, Ibn ʿIdhārī, whose work reliably reflects traditions handed on by his sources, reported that Fernando I made the following reply to a deputation from Islamic Toledo seeking his help against their fellow Muslims of Zaragoza:

We seek only our own lands which you conquered from us in times past at the beginning of your history. Now you have dwelled in them for the time allotted to you and we have become victorious over you as a result of your own wickedness. So go to your own side of the Strait [of Gibraltar] and leave our lands to us, for no good will come to you from dwelling here with us after today. For we shall not hold back from you until God decides between us.

Thus the Christians made plain their belief that the Muslims had no right to the lands they held and would eventually be driven out.

Territorial conquest undoubtedly prompted many military actions along the frontier and may have been uppermost in the minds of many warriors over the centuries. Religious considerations, however, also fueled the struggle against Islam. Menéndez Pidal remarked that “the war of reconquest always had a religious character” and Sánchez Albornoz emphasized that the struggle with the Muslims “was not only a war of reconquest, but also of religion, and it was maintained, not only by the desire to recover territory, but also by hatred between creeds.”

Such a war may be described as a holy war, though to do so is surely a travesty. War, which of its very nature entails the destruction of life, the infliction of extreme harm on human beings, and the ruination of crops, homes, churches, temples, and other structures, is not holy or sacred. The type of war of which we are speaking was not holy but rather religious. A religious war was a conflict between two societies, in each of which the spiritual and the temporal, the sacred and the secular, were wholly integrated. In such a society religion and religious values were paramount, touching upon and regulating every aspect of individual and community life. Full participation in the community was dependent upon one’s adhering to the community’s religion.

By proclaiming oneself a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, one espoused not only specific religious doctrines such as the Christian dogma of the Trinity, or the absolute monotheism of the Muslims or the Jews, but one also accepted an entire system of cultural values affecting one’s daily life, habits, traditions, laws, and even language. Thus Christian and Muslim societies were mutually exclusive, by reason not only of social and legal differences, but above all because of religion which suffused every facet of life. Daily interaction between Christians and Muslims did contribute to a degree of acculturation, especially in matters of language and social usage, but there was no real possibility of the full integration of Christians into Muslim society or Muslims into Christian society. In each instance Christians or Muslims could only be protected minorities with limited political and legal rights.

The purpose of war against Islam was not to convert the Muslims. Aside from the challenge to Islamic rule by the ninth-century martyrs of Córdoba, and some Mozarabic apologetic treatises of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Hispanic Christians were remarkably passive in confronting Muslim theology. Those who did make an attempt to preach the Gospel among the Muslims tended to come from beyond the peninsula. One of the first recorded efforts of this sort was undertaken around 1074 by a Cluniac monk, Anastasius, who offered to prove the certitude of the Christian faith by undergoing an ordeal by fire; but when the Muslims proved obdurate, he “shook the dust from his feet” and returned home. Less than a century later, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, visited Spain and obtained a translation of the Qurʾān (done by the Englishman Robert of Ketton) so he could refute Islamic doctrine, but he did not initiate any serious effort at conversion. Although Mark, a canon of Toledo, also translated the Qurʾān early in the thirteenth century, that apparently did not prompt any missionary campaign. From time to time individual Muslims converted, but the popes and northern Europeans expressed greater interest than peninsular Christians in persuading the Muslims to adopt the Christian faith.

In time the Muslims came to be regarded as invaders wrongfully occupying territory that by right belonged to the Christians, and whose entire way of life was foreign to that of the Christians. Thus the aim of the conflict was to drive the Muslims from the peninsula. Sampiro of Astorga put that succinctly when he remarked that Fernando I appeared on the scene “to expel the barbarians.” The difficulty, if not the impossibility, of reconciling or assimilating different religious and cultural points of view was at the root of the conflict between the Christians and Muslims. Both sides came to understand that it would end only when the Christians completed the subjugation of the Muslims or ousted them from the peninsula. Though the discord was obviously based on religious antagonism, the term holy war or guerra santa appeared for the first time that I am aware of in fifteenth-century peninsular sources.

Some scholars have argued that a holy or religious war was totally contrary to Christian belief. Jaime Oliver Asín, for example, stated emphatically that “neither here [Spain] nor in any Christian country could there be born by itself alone a kind of war whose spirit was essentially anti-Christian: the propagation of religious faith by the violence of arms.” This statement misunderstands the nature of the war in Spain as well as the crusades to the Holy Land. Neither the reconquest nor the crusades were intended to convert anyone by force, but rather to evict them from territory claimed by the Christians or at least to subject them to Christian rule. Américo Castro, following Oliver Asín, argued that because warfare is inconsistent with the tenets of Christianity the source of the holy war must be sought in the teachings of Muḥammad. Castro concluded that “the holy war against the Muslims in Spain and Palestine, leaving aside the difference in its aims and consequences, was inspired by the jihād or Muslim holy war.” He also believed that the idea that those who fell in war against the “infidels” were martyrs to the faith was borrowed from Islam and was “simply a reflection of Islamic ideas and emotions.”

The Islamic concept of jihād (a word etymologically signifying any effort aimed at a specific objective) was a precept established in the Qurʾān. A religious duty incumbent upon all male members of the community, its aim was the subjugation of all people to the rule of Islam. This was an obligation that would continue until the rule of Islam had been extended throughout the entire world. Given the universal and unified nature of the Islamic community in theory, there could be no holy war against other adherents of the faith. Warfare against non-Muslims might be interrupted by truces (though these ought to be limited to a ten-year period), but there could never be permanent peace with them until they had finally submitted to Islam. Service in the holy war, according to Muḥammad, was the most meritorious of all works, bringing spiritual benefit to the participants. In several places in the Qurʾān God promised the reward of heavenly bliss to those dying in the holy war, who were accounted as martyrs (shuhadāʾ) to the faith.

It was understood that all peoples should be invited to embrace Islam, and only after they had refused to do so would the holy war be declared against them. In practice, pagan peoples were forced to accept Islam, but Christians and Jews, as “Peoples of the Book” (ahl al-kitāb), peoples who had received a revelation from the one true God, contained in their respective scriptural texts, were allowed to worship freely, provided that they submitted to Muslim rule, and paid both the poll tax (jizya) and the land tax (kharāj). The opportunity to participate in the holy war in Spain and to obtain religious merit and even entrance into paradise drew many volunteers to the peninsula. Al-Andalus, according to al-Ḥimyarī, was “a territory where one fights for the faith and a permanent place of the ribāṭ.” Following an ascetic regimen, volunteers (al-murābiṭūn) were stationed in frontier garrisons (ribāṭ) in defense of Islam.

The argument that the Christians had to borrow from Islam in this respect because of Christianity’s repugnance to the use of force needs to be subjected to close scrutiny. Given the obvious similarities between Christian and Muslim concepts of holy war, one could argue that the idea ultimately derives from the Hebrew Scriptures, a common source for both Christian and Muslim teaching. Even though the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” explicitly and without qualification prohibited killing, God directed Joshua, Judah Maccabee, and other Jewish leaders to take up arms and gave them victory over their enemies. Victory was attributable to God’s care for his people, and defeat was construed as a sign of his wrath, a punishment for sins. When the continuator of Lucas of Túy, described Fernando III as a new Joshua, he was doubtless aware of God’s promise to Joshua: “Your domain is to be all the land of the Hittites.” With that promise in mind Joshua instructed his officers: “Prepare your provisions, for three days from now you shall cross the Jordan here, to march in and take possession of the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you” (Josh. 1: 4, 10). After noting that Joshua “had conquered the kings who occupied the promised land,” the continuator went on to say that, like Joshua, Fernando III, had conquered the Muslim kings and “established the people of León and Castile, who are the sons of Israel, in the land of the Moors.”