Tangier, Northern Morocco, and the Spanish Civil War

TALIM Tangier Gazette Spanish Civil War formatted

The Spanish Civil War erupts, July 1936. From the Tangier Gazette archives at the TALIM research library.

Ali Al Tuma of the Institute for History at Leiden University, the Netherlands, has published "Tangier, Spanish Morocco and Spain's Civil War in Dutch Diplomatic Documents" in the June 2012 issue of JNAS, The Journal of North African Studies (Vol.17:3 (2012) pp.433-453) of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS).  Al Tuma has found a valuable resource in the rarely consulted archives of the former Dutch Legation in Tangier, which in its reports did not hide its distaste for Spanish "reds," as it termed the Republicans.

The following excerpts illustrate the confused and "precarious" situation in Tangier at the outset of the Civil War, which ended with Franco's victory and his later takeover of the Tangier International Zone after the fall of France in June 1940.  The entire article can be obtained through the JNAS website of publisher Taylor & Francis.  The excerpts (in plain text below) are presented with the permission of the author, the publisher, and the JNAS editor.

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Tangier: Spain to the north & Spanish Protectorate to the south; Spanish in the International Zone

An international territory since 1923, Tangier's neutrality was supposed to be guaranteed by "The Powers" – represented in the International Zone by the Committee of Control – in time of war, tested for the first time by the Spanish Civil War.

This was not easy, especially during the first stage of the conflict. Tangier was surrounded by the Spanish Protectorate where the military rebellion against the Republic first started and prevailed. Spanish political and diplomatic representation in Tangier was Republican, but the Spanish colony, the largest European one, was divided between Republicans (the majority) and those pro-Franco.

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Firefights over the bay of Tangier

In July 1936, seven Republican warships came to Tangier, precluded from using the Nationalist-held ports of southern Spain for refuelling.

Republican sailors had formed ‘committees’, imprisoned the officers, and asked Madrid to send leftist officers to take command. Franco requested the Mendoub (Sultan’s representative in Tangier) to prevent the ships from leaving the harbor or he would reserve the right to undertake ‘violent measures’. British and Portuguese envoys requested more ships to safeguard the city. Franco’s planes flew over Tangier from Cadiz, [and Republican] ships opened fire. ‘This happened in the immediate neighborhood of the bay in front of thousands of onlookers’. The situation was so tense that the Comité de Contrôle requested French and Italian marines to guard legations.

[Note: Shortly thereafter a British cargo ship was attacked, and the British destroyer Whitehall engaged Nationalist planes.  The Republican ships left Tangier, but later submarines came into Tangier.]

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Welcoming refugees from the Civil War

Allied to Franco's Nationalist cause, the Italians in Tangier – aided by Italian warships – provided safety to large numbers of refugees from ‘all nationalities’ at the Italian school. The Dutch reports failed to mention the many leftist refugees who fled the Franco-dominated Spanish Protectorate towards the safety of Tangier.

The 1939 recognition of the Franco regime by European powers and the Moroccan government started to push the active Republican elements to leave, as the Nationalists were taking over in Tangier.  The Dutch reported that leading leftists started selling household effects and cars and preparing for a speedy departure: 'Last Sunday a true exodus took place towards Casablanca.'

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TALIM Tangier international zone map

From "The Status of Tangier," RIIA December 14, 1940

Brawls among peacekeepers

September 1936: international warships in Tangier – four Italian, two British, one Portuguese and one French.  The commanders devised a ‘plan de campagne’ in case order in the city was disturbed.

November 1936: French sailors and ‘red tainted Spanish’ gave passing Italian sailors the ‘Communist salute’, retreated to a café which was later besieged by the Italians. The report commented that it was ‘unfortunate that this inexcusable action was taken by those who in case of need should guard the order in Tangier’.

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Misplaced fears of French takeover

‘It is not a secret that the French, in the case of a European war, will enter the Spanish Zone. The fate of Tangier is uncertain’ the [Dutch] report concludes, as there is ‘talk’ of occupation by either Britain or France, and it wonders ‘how much the international character of the zone will be respected’. Despite assurances by the Nationalists in 1939 that they had no intention of invading, General Franco, using troops of the Mehal-la (officially belonging to the Moroccan government in Spanish Morocco) occupied Tangier on 14 June 1940.

[Note: Franco's occupation of the Tangier International Zone lasted 5 years, until August 31 1945].

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The secret of Franco's success with Moroccans

‘The Marxist government of Madrid made the mistake of sending to Spanish Morocco only officials who, though very red, lacked the knack of dealing with the native population. The first thing General Franco did was to replace these people with the old officials who know the mentality of the Mohammedans. This led to the welcoming of the new regime. Remarkable are the attempts by the Spanish Nationalist government to endear itself to the Mohammedan population’. A Dutch protégé in Tangier recounts his Franco-sponsored pilgrimage to Mecca, [when his] steamer was escorted by Nationalist warships. The ‘whole thing’, comments the Dutch report, ‘was an imposing manifestation’.

[Note: Franco recruited numerous Moroccans to the Nationalist cause, covered in this blog post].

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