The Moscow gold

Franco´s regime made hay with the myth of the Republic simply having handed over Spain’s reserves

One of the watchwords of the Franco era in Spain was the "Moscow gold." The gold reserves in the Bank of Spain, abundant after the favorable trade balances of World War I and the 1920s, were supposed to have been shipped to Moscow in the Civil War and "deposited" there, entrusted by the Republicans to the Russians for safekeeping. Then, when the Republicans had lost the war, the Russians, rather than hand the gold back to a fascist regime, had impudently robbed it, retaining it in Moscow. Such was the story.

This was one of the great myths of the Franco era. It was also the dictatorship's most guarded state secret. For example, certain humiliating clauses in the 1953 American bases treaty soon became widely known within the regime. But the truth of the "Moscow gold" was communicated only to a tiny circle. In fact, as common sense would suggest, the Republicans used the gold to buy arms from Russia. This is now well known, but the Republicans kept it secret at the time. The Russians, too, were loath to admit it, since they were supposedly providing arms gratis to liberate a fellow people from the grip of fascism.

However, little has been heard of the concoction of a later propaganda gambit: Franco's "strategy" to recover the gold. It throws light on the inner workings of his regime. It was designed by Franco and his foreign minister, Martín-Artajo, after receiving in 1956 a set of documents on the "deposit" of the gold in Moscow, which had been kept by the Republican President Juan Negrín in exile. The public were told only that thanks to "skillful handling," the regime had obtained the documents. The secret strategy included lying even to close collaborators, while letting it be known, in the censored press, that the government was "in a position to recover" the gold. With the exception of Pravda, the international press echoed this claim.

Even the most loyal fascist must have suspected the obvious -- that the Republicans had spent the gold on arms

Many servants of the regime, who ought to have known better, kept silent or bent to the will of the head of state. Relevant papers were removed from the Bank of Spain, whose governor did nothing apart from threatening his subordinates, lest they say a word about the matter. Martín-Artajo's successor, Fernando María Castiella, at least kept his dignity by resisting attempts to have him "do something" about recovering the gold.

So what was Franco's professed aim? Well, to take the Soviet Union to court in The Hague, on the strength of the "deposit" shown in the document. Apparently no jurist stepped forward to cast doubt on the feasibility of such a move. But even the most loyal fascist must have suspected the obvious -- that the Republicans had spent the gold on arms. One eminent jurist was found to claim that "the legitimacy emanating from the Franco regime should be placed ahead of that of international law." He did not say how. Had this been heard in Paris, Washington, London or Moscow, the laughter would have been Homeric. But the ministers in Franco's government were short on a sense of humor, and admitted the jurist's argument that the "robbery" of the gold, in itself, justified the Civil War. Indeed, this was an article of faith in the regime.

One piquant aspect was the fact that, in the ecstasy of victory in 1939, Franco's Spain had renounced, before the League of Nations, its right to appeal to the court of The Hague. As, indeed, the Soviet Union had also done.

Franco's real aims were otherwise. He wanted to: discredit the personality of Negrín and, thereby, the whole losing side in the Civil War; sow dissension among the ranks of the exiled Republicans (which indeed happened, with the help of Indalecio Prieto, always ready for a dig at his deceased antagonist. His articles in El Socialista, maligning Negrín, were brought to Franco's desk, for the dictator to gloat over); and to propagate the idea that the Republicans, a mob of scum, had robbed the nation's treasure. So, if Spain's economic recovery from the war was going rather slowly, the blame lay with these "bad Spaniards." Not with him or his regime.

Ángel Viñas is a professor at Madrid's Complutense University and will soon publish Las armas y el oro (Pasado & Presente).