Survivors of the Spanish Blue Division, sent by Franco to fight on Hitler’s Eastern Front in the Second World War, say there is no shame in celebrating what they did.
di James Badcock dal Telegraph del 30 novembre 2015
As a veteran of the Russian front in the Second World War, Juan Serrano knows more than nearly European still alive about the brutal hardships of war. So 70 years on from his days as a volunteer on one of the toughest battlegrounds, he is bitterly resentful of the prospect of cuts to war pensions for the unit he fought with.
The 91-year-old Spaniard is not a victim of austerity measures, however, nor is he expecting a public outcry on his behalf. Instead, he is one of the youngest remaining veterans of Spain’s Blue Division, a volunteer corps sent to fight for Hitler by Francisco Franco, Spain’s fascist dictator.
Earlier this month, the division’s surviving members were at the centre of a major controversy after it was revealed that the German government was still paying war pensions to 50 Blue Division veterans and their relatives. But while German MPs have queried the payments to men they describe as “Nazi collaborators”, Mr Serrano is unapologetic. Stalin, he points out, was a tyrant too.
“I would sign up again today,” he told The Telegraph. “We didn’t go to fight against Russia; we went to fight Communism”.
In total, Germany is still funding more €100,000 (£70,000) a year in pensions to the Blue Division. The payments, which typically run to around €400 per month, go mostly to men who were injured in the course of duty, and in some cases to their relatives. MP Andrej Hunko, the Left-wing MP whose parliamentary question brought about the revelation from Angela Merkel’s administration, now wants the arrangement halted.
But volunteers at a museum in Madrid that commemorates the 47,000 Spaniards who fought on the Eastern Front insist that however history may now interpret events, the payments are entirely legitimate.
“It’s a pension for maimed soldiers, a normal humane thing,” said Ignacio Martín, whose late father, Carlos Martín Monasterios, was unable to use his right arm properly due a shrapnel wound suffered while fighting for the Germans between 1942 and 1943.
The pensions stem from a 1962 agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and Franco’s Spain, under which Spain also agreed to pay money widows of Germany’s Condor Legion, the unit sent by Hitler to assist Franco’s side in Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war.
A source from Spain’s labour ministry told The Telegraph that, unlike Germany, Spain no longer honoured the 1962 deal and had not paid these pensions since Franco’s death in 1975. “Some applications have been received but they were rejected,” the source said.
For Alfonso Ruiz, vice president of the Blue Division Foundation which runs the museum, the criticism of Blue Division pensions is disrespectful to men who showed bravery in fighting for a cause they believed in. “It’s a disgrace that they want to take away pensions of no more than €400 a month from these men when immigrants just turn up in this country and get more.”
Mr Ruiz, whose father is among the estimated 200 volunteers who remain alive, said that since he took over day-to-day control of the foundation in 2011, he had taken care to sever any remaining links to far-Right organisations.
This included the remnants of the fascist Falange, whose blue shirts gave the name to the division. “People come in here expecting to see skinheads but it’s nothing like that,” he said.
Survivors meet on February 10 each year to mark the date in 1943 of the Battle of Krasny-Bor, when 70 per cent of the men in service were lost trying to halt the Soviet offensive around Leningrad. “I tell the younger people not to sing [the Falangist anthem] ‘Cara al sol’ and not to stiff-arm salute. But if some of the veterans do so, what can I say to men who are more than 90 years old?” said Mr Ruiz.
With Spain on its knees after the civil war, many Blue Division volunteers felt that they were helping General Franco to keep it out of the Second World War.
“If Franco hadn’t sent the division, Hitler would have invaded Spain,” said Mr Serrano, who has not personally received a pension, but who is sympathetic to the cause of those who do. “Everyone in my house was with the Falange; I had grown up drinking that in.”
Historians have suggested that the Spanish soldiers, though guilty of a share of atrocities in the harsh conditions of the Eastern Front, conducted themselves better than their Nazi allies.
But when fortune began to turn against Hitler’s forces, however, Mr Serrano noted a change in attitudes towards him and his comrades. “The second time I was injured, a Madrid military hospital refused to even treat me. Our efforts were only ever recognised by Germany.”