How a town on Spain’s Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Traditional wisdom tells us that many Nazis escaped to South America, but hundreds more also made Spain home following WWII with the help of fascist dictator Franco. The Valencian town of Dénia in particular hides a very dark past.

nazis in spain
Otto Skorzeny, Gerhard Bremer and Léon Degrelle were three of the hundreds of high-ranking Nazis who found a safe haven in Francoist Spain post-WWII.

Dénia, a small upmarket Costa Blanca port town on Spain’s easterly Mediterranean coast, is most famous for its golden beaches and lively street life.

If you’ve visited, you might’ve taken a stroll through the quaint town up to its castle, overlooking the picturesque marina, or seen the Roman ruins in its museum.

What you might not have realised is that that following the Second World War, Dénia became not only a place of transit for Nazis fleeing Europe (known as a ‘ratline’) but a place of safe haven for many who were allowed to make a home and enjoy their retirement there.

In reality, Dénia’s crystal clear waters have a much murkier past that reveals the ease with with Nazis settled on Spain’s costas, and the uncomfortable relationship between Franco’s Spain and the Third Reich.

READ MORE: Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

From the 1930s to the mid-1990s there is evidence of the presence of prominent Nazis in the town of Denia (Alicante province). Photo: Capturando el Tiempo en Segundos/Unsplash

Costa Blanca, Nazi retirement home?

The Costa Blanca is one of the most sought after and visited tourist spots in the world. So much so, it seems, that even former Nazis agreed.

Dénia was, for example, the chosen destination of Gerhard Bremer, a high ranking Sturmbannführer in the Waffen SS who was awarded, among a whole host of medals and awards, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – an accolade only awarded for serious commitment to Nazi Germany.

After being convicted at the Nuremberg trials, Bremer lived happily in Dénia until his death in 1989, becoming a local businessmen and building bungalows and hotels during the birth of tourism on the Costa Blanca.

Bremer and his family were reportedly integrated in the community, with his children attending local schools. 

In fact, some Nazis were so comfortable in Spain that many, although remaining discreet of course, never felt the need to renounce their Nazi ideology.

According to Spanish historian José Muñoz, every April 20th a group of Germans met at the Finita restaurant in Dénia to celebrate Hitler’s birth.

“They did it in a discreet way, a small group of people during the week, not with a party open to the whole town,” he told Spanish website Newtrawl, “they were not idiots”.

READ MORE: Spain seeks return of Nazi gifts ‘proving’ Aryan origins

Another of the first to arrive on the Costa Blanca was Johannes Bernhardt, an honourary general of the SS and businessman who had supplied weapons to Franco, who then rewarded him with Spanish nationality in order to prevent his deportation.

According to historian Stanley G. Payne, “Bernhardt lived discreetly between Madrid and Dénia, without integrating with the locals. In 1953, he left for Argentina.

A third prominent Nazi in Dénia was Anton Galler, alleged by the Italian government to be the commander of the Nazi army responsible for a massacre at Sant’Anna. He lived in Dénia for the rest of his life and was buried there in 1995.

It is also believed that the notorious Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the mission to rescue Benito Mussolini from captivity in September 1943 and who was nicknamed ‘the most dangerous man in Spain’, also lived on the Costa Blanca. 

Hitler shakes hands with Spanish fascist dictaror Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border October 23rd1940. (Photo by AFP)

Nazis in other parts of Spain

These notable examples of known high-ranking Nazis in Dénia are just handful of hundreds of suspected Nazis that made their homes in Spain following the war.

And it was no secret; in 1947 the United States wrote to Franco with a list of 104 people suspected of being Nazis, or at least connected to the Nazi party, who were on Spanish territory.

Their initial list was as many as 1,600 names, although ultimately the Americans focused on the 104 most notorious names on the list for extradition. 

But perhaps former high-ranking Nazis making their home in Spain didn’t come as that much of a surprise to the British intelligence services.

During the war many in the British establishment worried about Spanish sympathies towards Nazi Germany, so much so that MI6 bribed top Spanish officials with bribes equivalent to €179 million in order to maintain the country’s neutrality.

Infamous Belgian Nazi Léon Degrelle made a home in Málaga, on the Costa del Sol, and in this case went to no great lengths to hide his identity. After relocating to Málaga with the help of the Spanish government and keeping a low profile for a few years, Degrelle became an increasingly public figure in the 1960s.

He socialised with other Nazis hiding out in Spain, including Austrian SS coronel Otto Skorzeny, and even wore his SS uniform to his daughter’s wedding in1969. 

After diplomatic tensions between Spain and Belgium throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Degrelle took Spanish citizenship and lived very comfortably in Málaga having done well financially because his construction company built American airbases in Spain, incredibly, under his real name.

Degrelle felt so comfortable in Spain, in fact, that he attended a centenary celebration of Hitler’s birthday in Madrid in 1989.

As for Skorzeny, who wasn’t so happy to also be nicknamed Scarface, in an interview with the Daily Express in 1952 he said: “I finally feel free in Spain, I can remove my mask and don’t have any reasons to live in secret”.

There are hundreds more Nazis and Nazi sympathisers who found a safe haven in Francoist Spain, from the Basque Country to Barcelona or Mallorca, living the rest of their lives in peace under the Spanish sun despite the crimes they committed. 

If you wish to delve further into the history of the Nazis in Spain, there are several books offering far more detail on the matter, as well as the 2021 Spanish-Belgian film The Replacement (trailer below) or the new Spanish series Jaguar.   

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Belchite: the open wound of Spain’s Civil War

Like many Spanish villages, Belchite was devastated by Spain's 1936-39 Civil War. But it is the only one which looks largely as it did at the end of the conflict, with piles of rubble strewn about, the clock tower barely standing and mass graves.

Belchite: the open wound of Spain's Civil War

“Here we found men, women and children,” said Ignacio Lorenzo, a 70-year-archaeologist as he exhumes the last skeletons from a mass grave in this village in the northern region of Aragon.

“Their crime was to have voted for left-wing parties or to be members of a union,” he said.

The siege of Belchite was part of a Republican offensive in 1937 to capture Zaragoza, the capital of Aragón, from the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.

Franco went on to win the war and establish a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.

The repression of Belchite by Nationalist forces at the start of the war resulted in the execution of 350 of its roughly 3,000 residents, according to witness testimony from survivors.

The grandparents of veteran Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat were among those killed.

Lorenzo and his team have so far found the remains of 90 missing Republicans in the cemetery, some of them with their hands and feet bound. Others displayed signs of having been tortured.

British historian Paul Preston, author of “The Spanish Holocaust”, estimates that 200,000 Spaniards were killed far from the front lines — 150,000 in areas controlled by Franco’s forces and the rest in Republican areas.

Franco’s regime honoured its own dead, but left its opponents buried in unmarked graves scattered across the country.

“There are still 114,000 disappeared,” mostly Republicans, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said earlier this week. Only Cambodia had more missing people, he added.

His government has drafted a law that, for the first time, will make exhumations of those who disappeared during the war a “state responsibility”. The bill faces its first parliamentary vote on Thursday.

Belchite was devastated during “the Battle of Belchite” in the Spanish civil war in a series of military operations confronting loyalist Spanish republicans and General Franco’s nationalists forces between August 24th and September 7th 1937. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

‘Forget it’

Belchite was captured by Franco’s forces shortly after the start of the war, then taken over by the Republican camp a year later before being recaptured by the Nationalists.

The fighting left at least 5,000 dead and completely destroyed the village.

After the war, Franco visited Belchite and ordered it to be abandoned and preserved in its ruined states for propaganda reasons. A new village was built next door for the surviving residents.

The ruins of Belchite are now fenced off and can only be visited via a guided tour.

belchite spanish civil war

Volunteers from several countries work to clean up and restore the streets of the old town of Belchite. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

“A rupture took place after the civil war, the past was left behind,” said Mari Angeles Lafoz, a socialist councilwoman in Belchite.

Domingo Serrano, the mayor of Belchite between 1983 and 2003, strove during his mandate to preserve what was left of the old village but lacked any real means.

He himself was born in 1946 in “old Belchite”, in one of the few houses that had survived the war.

“We let it go downhill,” said Serrano. “It’s as if we thought it was better to forget it.”

But the €7 million ($7.0 million) recently earmarked by the government for “old Belchite” were coming “40 years too late,” he said.

View of the village of Belchite, south of Zaragoza, which was totally destroyed in battle in August 1937. Following the battle Franco ordered that the ruins be left untouched as a “living” monument of war. (Photo by CIFRA / AFP)

‘Sensitive issue’

The ruins of Belchite — which include a cathedral pockmarked with bullet holes and gouged by mortar shells — were visited by 40,000 people in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted travel.

It has been dubbed “Spain’s Pompeii”, after the Roman city frozen in time when it was buried under ash from a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, said archaeologist Alfonso Fanjul.

The 48-year-old president of the Spanish Association of Military Archaeology heads a team of volunteers from around the world who clean and restore the village’s original cobblestones.

“I think it’s really one of the only places in the world that can this starkly remind you of something that has happened like this,” said one volunteer, Ellie Tornquist, a 24-year-old student from Chicago in the United States.

But the civil war continues to divide Spain.

While leftwing parties want to rehabilitate the memory of the Republican victims of the conflict, the right accuses them of seeking to open the wounds of the past.

The current mayor of Belchite, Carmelo Pérez of the conservative Popular Party, admits the war is a “very sensitive issue”.

But the village “is a unique place in Spain” where we can “restore dignity” and create a place of peace, he said.