Twenty Five Years After

The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas, Eyre & Spottiswood. 42s.


The Spanish Civil War began 25 years ago and Mr. Hugh Thomas thinks that the time has come when a study could usefully be made of a tragedy which though dwarfed by subsequent world events, nevertheless cost 600,000 lives, including about 100,000 “who may be supposed to have died by murder or summary execution”


He has made a very good job of collecting and presenting information on the complex and fast-moving events of the three-year Civil War. In his 720 pages he carries the reader forward from the election of the Popular Front Government in 1936 to the revolt that faced it soon afterwards; through the military campaigns with their alternating advantage first to one side then the other, to the final collapse of the Republican forces in March, 1939. Six months later the principal governments that had helped or hindered the Republican forces in Spain were involved in the World War—all except Spain itself, under the-victor of the civil war, General Franco.


The League of Nations which had been impotent to do anything about the “local” war was brushed aside by World War II. Yet when that war ended and the United Nations inherited the shabby mantle of the League, Spanish Republican Exiles had still learned so little that they were hoping that the new organisation would dispose of Franco.


It might have been expected that the world war and all that has happened since would have destroyed interest in the Spanish Civil War, but the steady stream of books proves otherwise. It is not the size and destructiveness of the war, but the passions aroused in participants and onlookers alike that make it still memorable. There is also the inevitable speculation about what would have happened if only some politician or party had turned in a different direction at the crucial moment.


It is memorable, too, for the flood of outside volunteers who wanted to help.


Some adventurers were bound to be attracted to Spain in the Civil War, but the majority of the 40,000 volunteers from France, Germany, Britain and U.S.A. and many other countries who joined the International Brigades were men anxious to fight and, if necessary, willing to die, “for democracy and against Fascism.” (Doubtless the same idealistic motives sent Irish and other Catholic volunteers to fight for Franco “in defence of religion”).


Many soon became disenchanted when they found that war is not just dying, but living in mud and blood and hardship, and enduring the indignities of army discipline—they were learning again what their fathers who volunteered for war in 1914 could have told them. Mr. Thomas writes of early 1937:


  The volunteers had discovered in battle that “a War of ideas” is much the same as any other conflict. In Spain, or elsewhere, there was confusion of orders, jamming of rifles at the critical moment, uncertainty about the whereabouts of the enemy and of headquarters, desire for cigarettes (or sweet-tasting, things), fatigue, occasional hysteria. . . . From the start, the wilder volunteers had got into trouble with the authorities, if only for drunkenness. But now trouble was incessant. Those who wished to return home were not permitted to do so when they wished. Some complained that they had volunteered on the assumption that they could go home in three months time. Here the principles of a volunteer army conflicted with military needs. (P. 390.)

Some deserted and landed up in military detention camps (“re-education camps”) and some were shot as deserters.


But, of course, the war was not won and lost by the volunteers, but by the intervention of foreign governments Germany, Italy and Russia. And the fighting men were to discover then, or alter the war, that governments have reasons of State and of profit that have little to do with the slogans and speeches about democracy and religion.


The Anarcho-Syndicalists and others on the Republican side, who quarrelled bitterly with the Communists, were particularly incensed because Russian military aid had to be paid for; partly with the £63 million of Spanish gold that was early sent to Russia for safe keeping.


Mr. Thomas dismisses as unreal the charge that the Russians “cheated” the Republicans of the money, but concedes (p. 310) “that Russia drove a hard bargain for her goods. In addition to the gold, Spanish raw materials were despatched to Russia in bulk.”


Typical of the beliefs of Spanish critics of Russia was a statement published in London in 1941 by their Anarchist friends, in a pamphlet The Russian Myth:


  No arms or food were sent to Spain before the end of October—three months after Franco had rebelled. Immediate payment in gold was insisted upon by Stalin for such arms as were sent.


The writer of the pamphlet went on to contrast Stalin’s insistence on cash down, with “Hitler and Mussolini, who gave Franco long-term credits—still in part unredeemed.” He was quite wrong; German Capitalism might bait the hook with long-term credits, but not out of charity; only because a really big fish was to be caught, Spanish mineral wealth. It was German aid that was finally decisive in the autumn of 1938, but the price exacted for the arms “was German participation in all the important iron ore projects in Spain. In return for this rich prize Germany committed enough war material to Spain to tip the balance finally towards the Nationalists” (p. 612).


Mr. Thomas notes that in August, 1936, after German military help had already reached the Republican Government’s enemies in Spain, the Government was trying to buy war planes in Germany (p. 235). There is no evidence to show that Germany considered supplying the planes. If they had been in doubt they would have been duly influenced by the fact that the mineral wealth they were after in Spain was in Franco-controlled provinces.


Apart from foreign intervention with war material, troops, planes and pilots, and naval action, Mr. Thomas contrasts Franco’s success in getting a high degree of unity among his supporters with the way the Republican Government was “terribly hampered by the disputes between the parties who supported it” (p. 611). He goes on:


  One excuse might be that all the parties felt so strongly about their own policies that defeat itself seemed preferable to a surrender of the purity of their individual views. It would perhaps be more truthful to say that no one was able to forge a real unity out of the Republican warring tribes as Franco and Serrano Suner were able to do among the Nationalists. (P.611.)


Failing to get aid from the West the Spanish Government had to rely more and more on Russia and the Communists —which only increased the division in its own ranks.
In April, 1939, the National Committee representing the Spanish Confederation of Labour (Anarcho-Syndicalist), the Anarchists and some other bodies published a statement, Three Years of Struggle in Spain, giving their version of events and the reason for failure. The virulence of their charges against Russia and the Russian-directed Spanish Communists shows that Mr. Thomas has understated the impossibility of Republican Unity. The National Committee bluntly declared, on the strength of their experiences in the just-ended civil war:


  Neither in war nor revolution has anti-fascist Spain had a worse enemy than Stalinism. . . . What unity did the Communist Party expect or attempt to establish? None whatever—Agents of the U.S.S.R. murdered thousands of non-Stalinist Comrades who had come to Spain and joined the International Brigades. . . .

They accused the Communists of almost every crime that they had charged against Franco, plus desertion and cowardice. They still half-believed that, but for the Communists, they would have won against Franco and his allies.


Along with evidence on which the reader can base an opinion, Mr. Thomas sums up his own by saying that most of the governments were using the opportunity of the Spanish conflict to test out weapons and study tactics for future use in larger wars. This included Republican France, and it was Léon Blum who at his trial in 1942 spoke of the Spanish war as a “test for French aviation material” (p. 615). Of course, Germany, Russia and Italy were exploiting the same opportunity, though it is one of the ironies of the situation that most of the observers appear to have drawn the wrong lessons or failed to profit by the right ones. The exceptions were the Italians and Yugoslavs who learned a lot about the kind of war the Partisans were to carry on later in both countries.


Other than that, the intervening and non-intervening governments were thinking about alignments and manoeuvring for position for the threatening world war. Each government, however, seems to have been hesitant about pushing intervention so far as to provoke that war immediately.


When the Spanish democrats complained about the governments of Britain, France, Russia and U.S.A. not being prepared to take all measures to save Republican Spain “for the sake of democracy,” they were forgetting that all Capitalist groups (Russia included) are motivated by the same kind of economic and strategic interests: deciding policy on the basis of ideologies is not to be expected of any of them. If any Republicans still held this illusion in the Spring of 1939 when the Republican armies collapsed they had only to wait six months to see Germans and Russians who had been warring in Spain for three years, hobnobbing together to celebrate the Stalin-Hitler pact of friendship.


But though all the other Powers were sooner or later caught up in World War II, Franco reversed the roles—he was willing to give aid to Germany, at a price, but he was not drawn into the war as a combatant Power. This did not save the Spanish Blue Division from sharing the horrors of the war in Russia, fighting alongside the German armies. On the Republican side, Mr. Thomas relates that Russian officers who fought in Spain were among those liquidated by Stalin in the purges (p. 621), and “nearly all veterans of the Spanish Civil War in Eastern European countries were arrested and many were shot.” Later on, after the death of Stalin in 1953, they were ” rehabilitated.”


In the Epilogue in which Mr. Thomas briefly notes the subsequent fate of those who came to prominence in Spain, he tells of the Republican general El Campesino who as an exile was welcomed to Russia, but fell foul of the authorities. He escaped and in appalling difficulties made his way to Persia; only to be handed back by the British. He escaped again and is still hoping to unseat Franco. In El Campesino’s own memoirs he says that what queered him with the Russian authorities was that, on being asked at a military academy which was the world’s most effective fighting machine, he named the German army!


Mr. Thomas’s material shows how heavily the scales were weighted against the Republicans in the international field. He expresses the opinion that “the financiers of Europe and America not only expected the Nationalists to win but desired them to” (p. 273). A vital help for Franco was that of the Texas Oil Co. was at once willing to supply oil on long-term credit, without guarantee.


Nevertheless, Mr. Thomas’s implied criticisms of the American and British Governments seem designed to invite speculation as to what might have happened if, say, American Capitalism had had big and immediate interests endangered by a Republican defeat, or if those British Conservatives who supported the Republicans had been able to persuade the Government that long-term British Capitalist interests were involved and that they should support the Republicans and risk major war with Germany and Italy. In which event the world war may have come a little sooner.


Those who, for whatever reasons, hold the view that the workers should support war can say that in 1936 that risk was worth taking. But those who reject it had and have another aspect of the Spanish conflict to consider.


It is not merely being wise after the event to say that the Republicans’ position was impossible and that civil war could not solve their problems. Many observers saw this at the time. The Popular Front which, by a bare majority of votes, won the 1936 election, was composed of such divergent elements that the aim of some of them, a sort of Labour-Liberal Parliamentary democracy, was at that time as much out of the question as the establishment of Socialism. There were the Communists, aiming to establish dictatorship on the Russian model; the Basque and Catalonian separatists inspired by hatred of central government; and the very large body of Anarcho-Syndicalists who repudiated politics and parliamentary methods, which they called “empty phrasemongering,” and who believed in direct action, violence, and armed revolt, as much against a Republican Government as any other. Their support for the Popular Front and the Popular Front Government was a denial of all their principles, regretted almost as soon as it was given.


If we concede that by some different balance of international Capitalist interests the Popular Front could have emerged victorious at the end of the civil war, what could they have done with victory that would have borne any resemblance to the democratic Spain they, or some of them, had hoped for?


Edgar Hardcastle