Any discussion of Europe during the 1930s and 1940s almost invariably turns to the Second World War. But here’s a question for you: what side did Spain fight on?
Let’s see. They had a dictator, Francisco Franco… he was Fascist… so I guess they fought on Hitler’s side, right?
Wrong. It was a trick question. Spain actually didn’t participate in any combat during the war. For one thing, the country was devastated from its brutal three-year Civil War, which had just ended in 1939. The conflict between communists and anarchists tore apart cities, villages, and even families. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Infrastructure was destroyed, and hunger was a national problem in the years after the war.
But another reason recently was brought to light, as reported in The Guardian. Declassified papers show that the MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA, gave more than 200 million dollars in bribes to high-ranking Spanish government officials to keep Spain out of the war.
Of course, this is no surprise if you’ve read C. J. Sansom’s excellent 2006 historical novel, Winter in Madrid. The book takes place mainly in Spain in 1940, telling how Harry Brett is drawn into the shadowy world of espionage, and the twists and turns he finds. Although Harry is a fictional character, he comes into contact with real historical figures, such as Sir Samuel Hoare, the British ambassador in Madrid. Hoare — both in the book and in real life — was a critical player in delivering the bribes.
The Guardian quotes Hoare as saying, “It may well be that Spain’s entry in the war will depend on our quick action.” Meaning he believed that the British pounds were the only thing keeping Franco from throwing his support behind Hitler.
Whether author C. J. Samson had wind of this or whether it was just an insightful guess, this is paralleled in the book. Harry is an interpreter in a meeting with a fictional Spanish general when he hears a cryptic reference to “the Knights of St. George.” He later realizes it’s a reference to money and that dealings at the British embassy are more complex than he thought.
As befitting a good mystery novel, this is not the only plot line in Winter in Madrid. There’s also the ex-Red Cross nurse, secretly trying to find her old lover who went missing in a crucial battle; Harry’s former schoolmate, now a shady businessman involved in suspicious deals; and the young Spaniard dogging Harry’s footsteps all over Madrid.
The book is told in well-researched historical detail, which you notice until about halfway through, after which point you’re so gripped by the plot, you can’t pay attention to anything else.
Maybe Samson knew about the bribes and maybe he didn’t. In any case, the new revelation only serves to heighten the accuracy and suspense of this terrific novel.