Heinrich Himmler thought that he could find immortality and victory for Germany at Catalunya’s sacred setting of Montserrat.
On the evening of October 22nd, 1940, Heinrich Himmler was enjoying a sumptuous banquet at the Barcelona Ritz in a city in which the Nazi party enjoyed considerable power and influence. Officially, he had come to check on the dense network of Abwehr and Gestapo agents and commercial interests built up by the Nazis here.
During the supper, doubtlessly distracted by the attentions of his hosts and the high-class prostitutes hired for the occasion, the Reichsführer of the SS had his document case pinched. MI5, the French resistance and anarchists have all been blamed. Whoever it was, the thieves may have only gained some strange maps detailing the cave network in Montserrat as Himmler had come to Catalunya, in part, on a rather unusual tourist visit.
Himmler had flown to El Prat after checking security for Hitler’s conference with Franco, an event at which the two dictators toyed with the idea of Spain entering the Second World War. They met, face-to-face for the first time, at Hendaye train station on the French Basque frontier on October 23rd, 1940. They did not get on. Hitler famously warned he would “rather have three or four teeth pulled” than go through another meeting with the Spaniard. No agreement was reached but, ultimately, rather than it being a case of saving Spain from the Second World War, Franco had asked for too much. He wanted Gibraltar, which might have been acceptable, but also French Morocco. Hitler did not want to upset Vichy France and refused.
Meanwhile in Barcelona, the day before the meeting in Hendaye, the local authorities welcomed Himmler with open arms, festooning the streets with numerous swastikas, while a large crowd of local fascists acclaimed him in the newly Castilianified Plaza de San Jaime. He was also taken to the Pueblo Español (sic.) where he was entertained with regional dances from around Spain, before being driven to the Hotel Ritz on the now renamed Gran Via de José Antonio Primo de Rivera after the Falangist leader.
Nazi influence in Catalunya had been considerable in the Thirties, but the network had been broken up at the start of the Civil War in 1936. With Franco’s victory, it was quickly re-established and by the early Forties, there were an estimated 20,000 Germans living in the region, making it the largest, most active and wealthy community of foreign residents, and representing half of all Germans living in Spain. Many were prosperous, middle-class upwards and sympathetic to the ideas of National Socialism, but the Nazis wanted to be sure about their loyalties and set about systematically observing and controlling the Germans living in the country, often in tight collaboration with the Falange, the Spanish fascist party.
In Barcelona, this function was carried out from offices at Carrer Avinyó number 2, effectively the headquarters of the Gestapo in Barcelona. But the Nazis also had considerable commercial and industrial interests in Catalunya, and used them to exert as much political and economic influence as possible. Moreover, Barcelona also functioned as a staging post for the Nazi party for the whole of South America, which would serve them well in their bid to escape from the Allies after 1945. It was a key location in their operations, and much of the big business was conducted in the luxurious rooms of the Ritz.
Opened in 1919, the Hotel Ritz (now renamed Hotel Palace after a legal dispute in 2005) quickly became a symbol of wealth and privilege for bourgeois Barcelona, boasting the most opulent restaurant in the city staffed by an army of tuxedoed waiters and kitchen staff, including, curiously, a young Ramón Mercader who worked here in the early Thirties and who would later take an ice pick to Trotsky to assassinate him. After the defeat of the military coup in the city in July 1936, the hotel-restaurant was collectivised, renamed ‘Hotel Gastronómico número 1’ and turned into a worker’s canteen. The waiters continued to dress in their crisp uniforms, but now served cheap meals to militia members, cabaret artists and factory workers, people who just a few weeks before would never have dreamed of entering the building, at least as customers. The revolutionary’s dream was not to last. When the Franco regime won the war, the Ritz was, unsurprisingly, returned to its old owners, becoming a focal point for moneyed Nazis. Himmler was on home territory when he stayed here, though this did not prevent his attaché case being robbed. The morning after the banquet, he awoke, presumably dismayed to have lost his maps; however, determined to continue with his mission, he was driven to Montserrat in a convoy of Gestapo agents.
Montserrat had entered the German imagination through great thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Goethe, who, imbued in the ideals of Romanticism, had marvelled at its sublime nature. Esoteric Germans had later become aware of the mountain after Richard Wagner had published his opera Parsifal in 1913. The work, steeped in racial mysticism, suggested that the Holy Grail, the chalice supposedly used by Christ at the Last Supper, could be hidden in “the marvellous castle of Montsalvat in the Pyrenees”. Wagner was probably himself inspired by the writings of the 13th-century troubadour Wolfram von Eschenbach who claimed he knew where the sacred chalice lay hiding. Moreover, like all esoterics who are always on the look-out for concealed clues where nobody else has apparently looked, Himmler also hit on the fact that the first authorised performance of the opera was at the Liceu in Barcelona. Spooky, eh?
Himmler arrived mid-morning at Montserrat, where the Abbot, aware of the repression of the Catholic Church in Germany, refused to greet him, instead passing the job onto a young monk who was the only member of the congregation who spoke reasonable German. But Himmler was more interested in the hidden secrets of the mountain than the abbey. If he could only find the Holy Grail, it would help Germany win the war and, moreover, give him supernatural powers. Evidently, Himmler found nothing of merit on the mountain. He returned to Barcelona and flew back to Germany later that day, and over the next few years continued to take a leading part in the greatest mass murder in history. His brief, ignoble trip to Catalunya was soon forgotten, though perhaps a certain movie by Steven Spielberg took some influence from it.
Despite the influential presence of Nazis here in the Thirties and Forties, clearly not all Germans living in Barcelona in the Thirties were Nazis or, for that matter, wealthy. According to police estimates, in 1935 there were around 5,500 ‘illegal’ German immigrants in Barcelona, many of whom were political or Jewish refugees, but there were also economic migrants who arrived after the 1929 crash and who made their living hawking wares in the streets. They faced the constant threat of deportation by the Republican authorities, often resulting from complaints by local shopkeepers. Many of the political refugees were anarchists, members of DAS (Gruppe Deutsche Anarchosyndikalisten im Ausland—the German anarchist organisation in exile), which had moved to Barcelona after the rise of Hitler in 1933. (Many anarchists from Italy, Portugal and Argentina also came here, escaping their own fascist dictatorships.) The Germans came under the murderous gaze of the Gestapo who, from their Avinyó headquarters, would on occasion order their abduction; this would see them whisked onto boats moored in Barcelona harbour to then be sent back to Germany and the camps.
During the revolutionary tumult of July 1936, a group of DAS members and Spanish anarchists stormed the German consulate (then at Passeig de Gràcia 132). Not only did they manage to seize a stash of arms—including a machine gun—they also chanced upon the membership list and numerous documents of the Nazis in Spain. This would prove vital in breaking up the secret network the latter had developed. Despite this, the German consulate remained open throughout the most revolutionary period in Barcelona’s history, as the Republic and Germany maintained diplomatic relations until the latter broke them off in November 1936—even though the Condor Legion had been aiding Franco since almost the outbreak of the war. The seized documents were later displayed to the press. A journalist from the British newspaper the News Chronicle inspected them and reported being filled with feelings of “dismay, indignation”. The anti-Nazi German residents who survived the Civil War faced a very uncertain future. Many crossed the border into France in 1939. Some ended up in the concentration camps, while others fought in the French resistance.
Nick Lloyd runs Civil War tours in Barcelona and runs the website www.iberianature.com