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Fostering friendly relations between Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain through music

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

The timing of the festival illustrates how the relations between Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain were often founded on opportunism and pragmatism rather than on pure ideological affinity. When the Second World War was declared, Franco claimed neutrality; with Spain just out of a three-year long civil war, a second conflict could have dashed all hopes of reconstruction. Subsequently, though, he entertained the idea of entering the war on the side of the Axis. A meeting between Franco and Hitler took place in Hendaye on 23 October 1940, with no agreement being reached, but the Russian in summer 1941 campaign lifted Franco’s hopes again. Indeed, it was only a few days before the festival started that Franco’s Foreign Affairs minister, Ramón Serrano Súñer, admitted to a German newspaper that Spain had moved from non-belligerency to moral belligerency.

The Spanish expedition included pianist José Cubiles, who had toured Germany during the Spanish Civil War playing recitals in swastika-clad concert halls; guitarist Regino Sáinz de la Maza, an enthusiastic member of Falange, the Spanish fascist party; composer Joaquín Rodrigo, who had recently reached household name status in post-Civil War Spain with his Concierto de Aranjuez; and Federico Sopeña, then at the beginning of a prolonged career as a music critic and administrator. Sopeña was the one to best capture the spirit of the festival, writing on 3 August 1941 for the Spanish newspaper Arriba:

The fact that the most musical of nations, Germany, organizes in the middle 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 again fight against their universal enemy: Communism. (…) Tomorrow, our shared triumph in the trenches which protect the best essences of both nations will originate a new artistic communion.

In a country devastated by civil war and repression, stories about performers, authorities and critics travelling around Europe to pay homage to music likely very attractive: later in 1941, the chronicles that Sopeña and composer Joaquín Turina sent from Vienna, where they took part in the Mozart centenary celebrations at the invitation of the Reich’s government, described in detail the palaces and the atmosphere of the city, and not only what they had heard in the concert halls. But such writings, as well as the events they reviewed themselves, also presented 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 reawakened the old imperial brotherhood of the  Hapsburg Empire and Rome, and Falange founder Ernesto Giménez Caballero stated that Aryan ‘blonde’ peoples needed to form alliances with other Aryan “black-haired” peoples so that both could accomplish their destinies  – in an attempt at justifying Germany’s alliances with Italy and Spain with historical and racial arguments.

Several of the Spanish-German musical exchanges which took place from the beginning of the Second World War to late 1943 were explicitly political. On the occasion of the second Hispanic-German festival, which took place in Madrid and San Sebastián in 1942, the German and Spanish delegations paid tribute the tomb of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of Falange. Other musical events were meant to support the war effort: in May 1943 Hans Knapperbutsch conducted the Berliner Philharmonie – one of four times that the orchestra toured Spain during the Second World War – to help support financially the División Azul – a group of approximately 20,000 Spanish volunteers who fought with the German army on the Eastern front between summer 1941 and autumn 1943

When I first came across the musical exchanges between Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany as I started my doctoral research in 2006, I was astounded that such events, which helped translate ideological and diplomatic maneuvering into something greater contingents of Spaniards could understand, did not feature at all into Spain’s memory of the dictatorship; in fact, at the time they were even marginal in academic research, brushed under the broad category of propaganda or even ignored completely. Nevertheless, although the rhetoric surrounding the festivals would be unacceptable to most Spaniards today, their legacy can still be felt. The festivals forced those in charge of musical policies under Franco to think about what their musical canon was – the selection of composers and works they wanted to present to Germany, regarded at the time as the model nation in music. Whereas 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 Francoist officers left the most durable footprint: with a significant number of composers in their twenties, thirties and forties having gone into exile or at least left public musical life as a consequence of the Franco regime, the festival showcased the work of Joaquín Rodrigo and Ernesto Halffter, both of them firmly entrenched in the tonal, nationalist field – suitably modern but not too dissonant. Both of them, especially Rodrigo, still embody to a great extent how Spanish music of the mid-twentieth century is perceived both in Spain and abroad, at the detriment of other musical languages Spanish composers cultivated contemporaneously, 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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