Hendaye, France · October 23, 1940

In late November 1939, shortly after the start of World War II, the nomi­nally neu­tral but fas­cist Spanish govern­ment of Gen­er­a­lis­simo Fran­cis­co Franco rati­fied a pact with Germany in which Spain promised “more than favorable” neutrality.

On this date, October 23, 1940, in Hendaye, a town on the Franco-Span­ish border, Adolf Hitler pressed the Span­ish leader to join the Axis camp, con­sisting then of Germany and Italy. Hitler’s meeting with Franco and the next day with Vichy France head Marshal Philippe Pétain was to solidly secure the west­ern part of Europe for the Axis before em­barking on his cru­sade against the Soviet Union (Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa) in mid-1941. In return, Hitler offered to assist Span­ish forces in driving the British out of their Gibral­tar for­tress on the south­ern tip of the Ibe­rian Penin­sula (en­trance to the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea), even setting a date for the deed: Janu­ary 10, 1941. The impli­ca­tion was that Spain would then partner with Germany and Italy in their war against Great Britain.

The wily Franco rejected direct German assis­tance in seizing the Brit­ish strong­hold. Span­ish pride required that Span­ish troops carry out the his­toric mis­sion, Franco told Hitler. What he wanted as com­pen­sa­tion for Spain entering the war on the side of the Axis was equip­ment, money, and food­stuffs to alle­vi­ate the effects of the Span­ish Civil War (1936–1939). To top it off, he demanded border changes with France and prac­ti­cally all the French colonies in North Africa, in­cluding Al­geria and Moroc­co. Acceding to Franco’s demands would have harmed Germany’s rela­tions with Vichy France, which had con­cluded an armis­tice with Germany four months earlier.

German foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop called Franco a “cowardly in­grate” in light of Axis assis­tance to Franco in Spain’s civil war. In a letter to Franco, dated Febru­ary 6, 1941, Hitler wrote that Ital­ian dicta­tor Benito Musso­lini, Franco, and he him­self were linked to one an­other by the most im­plac­able force of his­tory. Hitler’s flat­tery failed to nudge Franco, who none­the­less assured Hitler of his loyal­ty and stressed his sol­i­dar­ity with the Axis short of mili­tary en­gage­ment. To Mus­so­lini, Hitler pre­dicted that Franco’s re­buff would be the big­gest mis­take in the Span­iard’s life. Actually, it wasn’t. Of all the Euro­pean dicta­tors who sided with Hitler and Musso­lini, Franco was the only one not to share their fate—dying peace­fully in his bed in 1975 after almost four decades in power.

Adolf Hitler on His Quest to Add Spain and Vichy France to the Axis

Hitler and Franco greeting one another, Hendaye, October 23, 1940Hitler and Franco reviewing honor guard, Hendaye, October 23, 1940

Left: On October 23, 1940, Hitler’s cream-and-crimson-colored Reichs­bahn train rolled into Hendaye, a French town that borders Spain in the Pyrenees. There he was warmly greeted by a sus­pi­cious Fran­cisco Franco (1892–1975), who ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death on Novem­ber 20, 1975. According to Franco’s daugh­ter, her father was worried about the Germans pos­sibly kid­napping him and forcing him to take Spain into the war on the Axis side.

Right: Franco had arranged an extremely fes­tive recep­tion and honor guard for his meeting with Hitler. Hitler imme­di­ately got down to busi­ness. He explained that he looking for allies in his war against Great Britain. Naturally there must be a quid pro quo, said Franco, who needed money to rebuild roads and railway lines destroyed during the Span­ish Civil War, and to purchase food­stuffs and obtain mili­tary equip­ment to rebuild his army among other needs. Plus, he was inter­ested in acquiring impor­tant French holdings in North Africa to add to Spain’s modest holdings there.

Hitler and Franco in discussions, Hendaye, October 23, 1940Hitler and Marshal Philippe Pétain, Montoire, October 24, 1940

Left: There was no meeting of the minds inside Hitler’s Son­der­zug (private rail­way car) where the two leaders spent seven-plus hours in fruit­less discus­sions. Hitler told Franco that his trip had been use­less in light of Franco’s reluc­tance to enter the war on the Axis side. Though Franco claimed his coun­try was a neu­tral state, in August 1941 he sent some 45,000 volun­teers (the “Blue Divi­sion,” or Divi­sión Azul) to fight along­side the Germans on the Soviet front. Franco also opened his ports to German sub­ma­rines and invaded the inter­na­tionally admin­istered city of Tangier in Morocco after the fall of France in 1940.

Right: Upset with the results of his meeting with Franco (Hitler fumed to Field Marshal Wil­helm Kei­tel: “I’d rather have three of my teeth pulled than have another meeting like this one”), Hitler hoped to fare better with the 84‑year-old Vichy Head of State Marshal Philippe Pétain when the two met in Mon­toire, France, on Octo­ber 24, 1940. A polite duel ensured between Hitler and Pétain, who wanted to know what fruits France would harvest by collab­o­rating with Ger­many: Ger­many still held more than two mil­lion French POWs and there was the issue of France incurring huge costs in main­taining the Ger­man occu­pa­tion army on French soil, etc., etc. Hitler managed, how­ever, to per­suade the French Marshal to put in writing France’s sup­port, “within the limits of its ability,” for measures the Axis powers took to defeat and occupy England.

German Newsreel Footage of Hitler and Franco Conferring in Hendaye, France, October 23, 1940 (in French)