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Why did Spain not take part in WWI or WWII?

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Why did Spain not take part in WWI or WWII?
Spain's King Alfonso XIII (sitting on the right side with a lighter suit) on a visit Paris in 1913, a year before the start of the First World War. Sitting next to him is the president of the French Third Republic Raymond Poincaré. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s surprising that as one of Europe’s most important nations Spain did not take part in either World War One or Two. These are the main reasons which spared Spaniards from these devastating conflicts.

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On July 28th 1914, exactly a month after Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, beginning what would be the deadliest conflict in history until then: World War I.

But within a matter of days, the Madrid Gazette, which at the time served the same function as Spain's Official State Gazette, announced Spain's neutrality.

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Spain’s monarch at the time, King Alfonso XIII, considered that the country was not prepared for a war either on a military, political or economic level. 

In the first years of the 20th century, Spain was immersed in somewhat of an existential crisis. It had recently lost Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States after the American-Spanish War. Cuba had become independent after what they called 'The Necessary War' against the Spanish and Spain was also recovering from a damaging conflict in northern Africa. 

Spanish artillery in action in September 1913 in the Gaba Forest during the Rif War. Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

There were social fractures as well, evidenced by the violent confrontations between the Spanish army and anarchists, freemasons, socialists and republicans during La Semana Trágica (The Tragic Week) in Barcelona and Catalonia in 1909.

Spain was a fallen giant, poverty and inflation were rife, so by 1914 Alfonso XIII and President Eduardo Dato had the sense that the country had to be kept as far away as possible from any more wars.

In fact, several historians argue that the Triple Entente (France, Great Britain, Russia) considered that “they didn’t need Spain”, in essence shrugging it off as a weakened nation that would be more of a hindrance than a help. 

Regardless of these initial views, Spain ended up being one of the most important neutral nations during WWII, and both benefited and suffered as a result of ‘the war to end all wars’, as its industrial output boomed with fewer competitors but it also suffered severe shortages caused by the global conflict.

Needless to say, Spain continued to be a veritable tinderbox from 1918 to 1936, when a combination of political turmoil, social and economic inequalities, ideological conflicts and regional confrontations led to the eruption of the Spanish Civil War.

Picture shows rubble everywhere in a street in Madrid after an air raid in 1936. Spain was largely devastated after its three-year civil war. (Photo by PLANET NEWS / AFP)

Less than three years of fighting between the Republicans and the Nationalists devastated the country and led to approximately 600,000 deaths.

By the time World War II was declared a few months later on September 1st 1939 after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Spain was again in no position economically, militarily or socially to take part in yet another war.

READ ALSO: 11 must-watch films about the Spanish Civil War

The new Franco government did sell and exchange supplies with the Axis countries and a Spanish division of volunteers and conscripts did join the Axis troops on the Eastern Front, but Spain did not officially participate in WWII. 

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Despite the fact that Spain’s new fascist dictator was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, El Generalísimo kept his devastated country neutral, shifting sides slightly on various occasions to suit his government’s interests.

When the pair met in Hendaye on the Spanish-French border in October 1940, negotiations were reportedly a flop. Hitler considered Franco's requirements for Spain helping the Axis powers beat the Allies "exorbitant", including the return of Gibraltar as well as French Morocco, Guinea, Cameroon and part of Algeria handed over from France to Spain.

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

Spain's yo-yoing went from "strict neutrality" to "non-belligerence" but perhaps Franco had little choice. Given his country's reliance on oil imports from the United States and the partial embargoes that the US and the UK did impose on Spain, the Spanish dictator had to keep the Allies at ease about his links to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

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Comments (1)

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Jordi 2024/06/10 11:45
Franco's meeting with Hitler in Hendaye was in 1940, not 1949. Hitler died in 1945.
  • alex.dunham 2024/06/10 12:24
    Thanks for pointing out the typo, it's now been corrected.

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