Foster friendly relations between Hitler’s Germany and Francoist Spain through music


As the Wehrmacht launched its offensive against the USSR in the summer of 1941, a contingent of Spanish musicians and critics traveled to Bad Elster, on the border between Bavaria and Bohemia. In the spa town, they participated in the first of three Hispanic-German music festivals held during WWII aimed at fostering cultural and political understanding between the two countries.

The timing of the festival illustrates how relations between Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain were often based on opportunism and pragmatism rather than pure ideological affinity. When World War II was declared, Franco claimed neutrality; with Spain barely emerging from a long three-year civil war, a second conflict could have dashed all hopes for reconstruction. Subsequently, however, he had the idea to go to war alongside the Axis. A meeting between Franco and Hitler took place in Hendaye on October 23, 1940, without any agreement being found, but the Russian campaign of the summer of 1941 again revived Franco’s hopes. Indeed, it was only a few days before the start of the festival that Franco’s Foreign Minister, Ramón Serrano Súñer, admitted in a German newspaper that Spain had moved from non-belligerence to moral belligerence.

The Spanish expedition included pianist José Cubiles, who had toured Germany during the Spanish Civil War, performing recitals in concert halls adorned with swastikas; guitarist Regino Sáinz de la Maza, an enthusiastic member of the Phalange, the Spanish fascist party; composer Joaquín Rodrigo, who had recently achieved surname status in post-Civil War Spain with his Concierto de Aranjuez; and Federico Sopeña, then at the start of a long career as a music critic and administrator. Sopeña was the one who best captured the spirit of the festival, writing on August 3, 1941 for the Spanish newspaper Arriba:

The fact that the most musical of nations, Germany, organizes in the midst of the war a series of concerts dedicated to Spanish music is not only a sign of vitality, but also a symbol of what unites these two nations, whose sons are struggling. again against their universal enemy: communism. (…) Tomorrow, our shared triumph in the trenches which protect the best essences of the two nations will be born a new artistic communion.

In a country devastated by civil war and repression, the stories of performers, authorities and critics traveling across Europe to pay homage to music are probably very appealing: later in 1941, the chronicles that Sopeña and the composer Joaquín Turina sent from Vienna, where they participated in the celebrations of Mozart’s centenary at the invitation of the Reich government, described in detail the palaces and the atmosphere of the city, and not just what they had heard in concert halls. But such writings, as well as the events they themselves reviewed, also provided an opportunity to subtly disseminate notions about Spain’s role in the world order that the regime’s ideologues were developing elsewhere. . Poet José María Pemán argued that German and Italian aid to Franco’s Spain awakened the former imperial brotherhood of the Habsburg Empire and Rome, and Phalange founder Ernesto Giménez Caballero said that the Aryan “blond” peoples had to form alliances with other Aryan “black hairs”. peoples so that both can fulfill their destiny – in an attempt to justify Germany’s alliances with Italy and Spain with historical and racial arguments.

Many of the Spanish-German musical exchanges that took place from the start of World War II to the end of 1943 were explicitly political. On the occasion of the second Spanish-German festival, which took place in Madrid and San Sebastian in 1942, the German and Spanish delegations paid homage to the tomb of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Phalanx. Other musical events were intended to support the war effort: in May 1943, Hans Knapperbutsch conducted the Berliner Philharmonie – one of the orchestra’s four tours in Spain during World War II – to help financially support the División Azul – a group of about 20,000 Spanish volunteers who fought with the German army on the Eastern Front between the summer of 1941 and the fall of 1943

When I first discovered the musical exchanges between Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany at the start of my doctoral research in 2006, I was amazed that such events, which helped translate the ideological and diplomatic maneuvers in something that larger contingents of Spaniards could understand, did not figure at all in the Spanish memory of the dictatorship; in fact, at the time, they were even marginalized in academic research, swept under the broad category of propaganda, or even completely ignored. Nonetheless, while the rhetoric surrounding festivals is unacceptable to most Spaniards today, their legacy is still being felt. The festivals forced music policy makers under Franco to think about what their musical canon was – the selection of composers and works they wanted to present to Germany, considered at the time to be the model nation. in music. While some names in the Spanish canon had been well established for decades (Albéniz, Granados, Falla), it was in the selection of their own contemporaries that the Francoist officers left the most lasting imprint: with a significant number of composers. in their twenties, the thirties and forties having gone into exile or at least left public musical life as a result of the Franco regime, the festival presented the work of Joaquín Rodrigo and Ernesto Halffter, both firmly anchored in the tonal field and nationalist – suitably modern but not overly dissonant. Both, especially Rodrigo, still embody to a large extent how Spanish music of the mid-twentieth century is perceived both in Spain and abroad, to the detriment of other musical languages ​​that Spanish composers cultivated at home. period, both in Spain and in exile.

Featured Image: “Banda de Gaites Naranco” by Michel Curi. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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