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9-08-2015, 21:51

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR AND EUROPE, 1936–9

To many contemporaries outside Spain the Spanish Civil War represented a great struggle between the totalitarian forces of the fascist right against the resistance of the Republic, whose legitimate government was composed of the Popular Front parties defending democracy. As it dragged on the war, indeed, came to resemble such an ideological contest. This was because, unlike earlier internal Spanish conflicts, the Civil War occurred at a time of deep European division, when fascism, democracy and communism were seen to be moving towards a showdown, which would decide the fate of Europe. Fascism had spread from Italy to Germany and Eastern Europe. Fascism, so its fervent opponents believed, should be finally stopped in Spain. The battle in Spain was seen as marking the turning point of victory or defeat for the fascists. This was a popular illusion. Governments, communist, democratic or fascist, understood better that events in Spain were a secondary problem. The real question mark hanging over the future of the rest of Europe was how Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy would act in Europe and in Africa. Would they be satisfied with a negotiated revision of the Versailles settlement, or was Europe facing a new struggle for supremacy as in 1914–18? For the major governments of Europe, Spain was a sideshow and policy towards Spain was subordinated to other more important policy objectives. In France and Britain in particular (even in the Soviet Union), there consequently developed a schism between passionate popular feeling, especially among intellectual adherents of the broad left, and governments which appeared incapable of acting against the fascist menace. In Spain, the simple line of ideological division, as seen from abroad, was exploited by both sides since foreign volunteers, and even more so foreign supplies, played a critical part in military success. The warring factions in Spain became known simply as the insurgent Nationalists (the right) and the Loyalists defending the Republic (the left). The battle lines between the parties were not so simple, and the defenders of the Republic, particularly, were deeply divided. On the right the analogy with fascism was not a simple one either. The rise of contemporary fascism and communism in the 1920s influenced the political struggle in Spain itself. Mussolini’s movement had served as a model to some Spaniards, although the dictator of the 1920s, Primo de Rivera, owed only a slight ideological debt to Mussolini. Socialism and Marxism and anarchism, rather than Communism of the Stalinist variety, won adherents in Spain also. But Spanish traditions were strong too. Although political contest assumed some of the forms of the great European ideological schisms of the twentieth century, its roots lay also in the conditions of Spain and in the evolution of past social and political tensions. In searching for the origins of the civil war the purely Spanish causes always lie just under the surface and explain why in 1936 Spain was split into two warring sides which inflicted savage cruelties on each other. In the north the Republicans held most of Asturias and the Basque region; Catalonia, with the large city of Barcelona, became a Republican stronghold; Valencia and the whole Mediterranean coast and central Spain, the eastern regions of Andalucia and New Castile with the capital of Madrid were also Republican regions. The other bigger cities, except for Seville and Saragossa, were Republican too. Western Spain, western Aragon, Old Castile, León and the south – mainly the agricultural regions of Spain – fell into the hands of the Nationalists. Within each of the regions of Spain controlled by Nationalists and Republicans, there were minorities who adhered to the opposite side and so were subject to murderous reprisals. The Church, an object of Republican hatred, suffered grievously in the Republican areas. Landless peasants recruited in the south by the socialists and anarchists were exposed to Nationalist terror. If we look back no further than to the nineteenth century, the contest over how Spain was to be governed was already splitting the country and leading to civil wars. The more extreme monarchists, supported by the Church, fought the constitutionalists and liberal monarchists who then enjoyed the support of much of the army. Superimposed on this constitutional conflict was the desire of the northern regions for autonomy: they opposed attempts to centralise and unify these regions which enjoyed extensive local rights and traditions. Spain’s internal turbulence did not come to an end during the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the establishment of the constitutional monarchy and the granting of universal male suffrage. The votes of the peasants in the countryside were managed by the wealthy and by local men of influence. Despite the liberal constitution, the parliamentary system did not embody the hopes of all the reformers. Popular discontent was further increased by Spain’s poor showing abroad. The loss of colonies, the war with the US at the turn of the century and the failures of its imperial policies in Morocco, where the Spanish army suffered defeats, weakened the authority of government. Besides the constitutional conflict, the problem of the regions and the failures of foreign and imperial policies, Spanish industrialisation, though slow, was concentrated in the north and so added to regional particularism as well as leading to bitter economic conflict between worker and employer. Spain was a very poor country, and suffered perennially from the agricultural problem of its landless and impoverished peasantry. In the early twentieth century socialism made headway in Spain. As in France, the movement was divided and the anarcho-syndicalists who believed in direct action had won many adherents among the workers of the north and some of the peasants in the south. The strength of their main trade union organisation, the CNT, lay in Catalonia and especially in Barcelona. Before 1936, the Communist Party was small. On more than one occasion in the early twentieth century Spain seemed to be poised on the brink of civil war; Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, was a focal point of bloodshed and civil conflict. The civil guard, hated by the workers, kept unrest just in check by ruthless force. Spain was disintegrating amid warring factions, while the politicians of the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, proved unable to provide effective and stable governments. In September 1923, repeating a pattern familiar in the nineteenth century, an army general seized power to bring peace to Spain and save it from monarchist politicians. Compared with other dictators, this general, Primo de Rivera, was a charismatic figure. The king, Alfonso XIII, acquiesced in the overthrow of the constitution. Primo de Rivera followed a policy of repression of politicians, the Socialist Party, anarchists and supporters of Catalan regionalism. The socialist trade union, the UGT, became a mainstay of the regime. He also inaugurated public works which, in the 1920s, seemed to promise some economic progress. Yet by 1930 he had exhausted his credit and lost support in the army, and the king dismissed him. The king himself did not long survive. The cities had turned against him and he left for exile in 1931. The second Republic was then established without violence or bloodshed. Its history was brief and filled with mounting political and social conflict. The left had drawn together, temporarily as it turned out, to take charge of the country. But it was characteristic of the politics of the left and the right that, once the electoral victory was won by electoral pacts, rivalry between the parties would thereafter prevent any coalition from providing stable government. First, until the end of 1933, the Republic was governed by a coalition of the left and moderate Republicans under the leadership of Manuel Azaña. He sought to solve the regional question by granting autonomy to the Catalans; he promoted educational reform, and plunged into a programme of agricultural reform which achieved little. In the summer of 1932, there was an abortive generals’ rising against the government of the Republic. It was a fiasco. What caused the greatest bitterness was the anti-clerical legislation of the government, which regarded the Church as the bulwark of reaction. It drove moderate supporters who were faithful Catholics into opposition. The anarchists stirred up the workers in violent strikes which the government suppressed with bloodshed, thus alienating supporters on the left. The moderate politicians, of whom Azaña was an example, were assailed by extremists on the left and right, and even the more moderate Socialists looked fearfully over their shoulders lest supporting the government should lose them the allegiance of their followers to those political groups further to the left, especially the anarchists. During the election of November 1933, the left no longer fought by means of electoral agreements. It was the turn of the right to strike such bargains, forming a common opposition to the government’s anti-clerical legislation. Gil Robles founded CEDA, a confederation of right-wing Catholic groups. A new electoral pact, with the radicals changing sides and now supporting CEDA, gave the centre-right a resounding victory. From 1934 to 1936 the Republic struggled on amid mounting tensions. The coalition government of the centre supported by CEDA reversed the ‘progressive’ aspects of the legislation of Azaña’s government. With the roles reversed, the miners in Asturias, under the united leadership of socialists, communists and anarchists began a general strike in October 1934 and seized Oviedo, the provincial capital. Simultaneously there occurred an abortive separatist rising in Catalonia. The government retaliated by using the Foreign Legion and Moorish troops from Morocco bloodily to suppress the Asturian rising. The shootings and tortures inflicted on the miners increased the extreme bitterness of the workers, while there was strong Catholic feeling against the godless Marxist conspiracy. Both the left and right were strengthening their following. Among groups of the right, José Antonio, son of Primo de Rivera, attracted increasing support to the Falange Party, which he had founded in 1933 and which came closest to a fascist party in Spain. But in the election of February 1936 the parties of the left, which were out of power, organised an effective electoral pact and presented themselves as the Popular Front. Its cry was that the Republic was in danger and that the parties of the right were fascist. The parties of the right called on the electorate to vote for Spain and against revolution. Spanish politics had become so polarised that neither the parties of the right nor those of the left were ready to accept the ‘democratic’ verdict of the people. The Popular Front combination gave the left the parliamentary victory, but the country was almost equally split between left and right in the votes cast. What was now lacking was a strong grouping of the centre, a majority who believed in a genuine democratic peace and parliamentary institutions. The familiar spectacle of the united left achieving electoral victory, and then falling into division when they got to power, was repeated in the spring and summer of 1936. The left-wing socialists, led by Largo Caballero, rejected all cooperation with left ‘bourgeois’ governments; Caballero continued the Popular Front but would not serve in the government. He was supported by the communists; but despite all his revolutionary language, he had no plans for revolution. On the right, however, plans were drawn up to forestall the supposed revolution of the left. The generals justified their July 1936 rising on precisely these grounds. Attacked by those who should have supported the Republic, the government was too weak to suppress the generals’ rising as easily as in 1932. But the right, on its own, was unable to wrest power from the government, either electorally or by force. It called on the army to restore conservative order and to uphold the values and position of the Church. And the army assumed this task in an action that had more in common with nineteenth-century Spanish tradition and the military seizure of power by Primo de Rivera in 1923, than with Nazi or fascist takeovers which were backed by their own paramilitary supporters, the army standing aside. The government of the left in 1931–2 had offended army feeling by attempting its reform, replacing many officers with those whose loyalty to the Republic seemed certain. A large number of such promotions after the victory of the Popular Front in 1936 offended the traditionalist officers, and General Francisco Franco, ‘banished’ to the military governorship of the remote Canary Islands, protested that such unfair practices offended the dignity of the army. The leader of the officers’ conspiracy was not Franco, however, but General José Sanjurjo, and General Emilio Mola was its chief organiser. The army itself was divided between those ready to overthrow the Republic and those still prepared to serve it. Franco himself hesitated almost to the last moment. The increasing disorder in Spain – the lawlessness and violence of demonstrations of the left, which the government seemed unable to control – finally decided the army conspirators in July 1936 to carry out a military coup, ‘planned’ since the previous April, to take over Spain. Franco had finally thrown in his lot with the conspirators and secretly, on 18 July, left the Canary Islands to take charge of the army in Africa. On 13 July, the murder of a well-known anti-Republican politician by members of the Republican Guard provided a further pretext for the military rising, which had actually already been set in motion. A day early, on 17 July, the army rose in Morocco. General Mola had ordered the risings to begin in Morocco on 18 July and the garrisons in mainland Spain to take power a day later. But the risings on the mainland also began earlier, on the 18th, and the following day spread to Spain’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona. Here the risings were successfully suppressed. Thus the army failed to take over the whole of Spain in one swift action. Within a short time the Nationalist and Republican zones were becoming clear. Their respective military resources were fairly equally balanced in metropolitan Spain with about half the army and most of the air force and much of the fleet siding with the government of the Republic. What decisively tipped the balance was the help Hitler and Mussolini gave to Franco, providing transport planes to ferry the African army to the peninsula. Franco decided not to risk crossing by sea. The Republican fleet’s doubtful capacity was thus not tested. The disorganisation on the Republican side extended to the air force, which made no efforts to intercept the German and Italian transport planes. The Nationalists speedily dominated the west and much of the south. By the end of July, Burgos in the north had become the capital of Nationalist Spain. There, Mola had set up a junta of generals. However, it was Franco who was accepted by all the generals as their commander-in-chief; by the end of September he was also declared head of the Spanish state as well as of the government. This marked the beginning of a long, undisputed hold on absolute power which was to last until his death thirty-nine years later in 1975. As the Nationalists captured Republican-held territory, prominent Republican leaders, civil and military, were murdered in their tens of thousands. Terror was a weapon used to cow workingclass populations. On the Republican side attacks were indiscriminately directed against the Church. The Church’s political identification with the right (except in the Basque provinces) was beyond doubt, but the Church had not participated in the uprising. Twelve bishops and thousands of priests and monks were murdered. Many thousands suspected of sympathy with the Nationalists were summarily executed. The government of the Republic could not control its followers in this bloody lawlessness. The bitter hatreds of the fratricidal war have lived on as long as survivors of both sides remain to recall the atrocities of three years of war. These murders on both sides have been estimated to total a ghastly 130,000 (75,000 committed by the Nationalists and 55,000 by the Republicans). To these losses must be added deaths in battle – 90,000 Nationalists and 110,000 Republicans – and death from all other causes, about 500,000, out of a total population of 25 million. The Republicans had the difficult task of welding together an effective central government in Madrid from all the disparate forces of the left, and a cohesive army from the many military formations that had gathered spontaneously. The Communists, declaring that the ‘revolution’ had to be postponed, joined the moderate Socialists and Republicans. Largo Caballero headed a Popular Front government in the autumn of 1936 which even the anarchists, dominant in Catalonia and Barcelona, joined. But the left could not maintain unity through the war. Their ‘fraternal’ strife, with the communists fighting the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist Marxists (known by their initials as POUM), was the main cause of the ultimate defeat of the Republic. On the other side, despite the heterogeneous political complexion of the Nationalists, Franco and the army dominated and created an effective unity and an impressive fighting force. After the Nationalist advances in August to October 1936, the Republic still held half of Spain – the whole east and south-east, as well as a strip in the north. Madrid remained in government hands, having repulsed the Nationalist advance. In 1937 the Nationalists finally overcame Basque resistance in the north. In Madrid the government was reorganised to take a stronger line against dissidents. The Communists, whose strength rapidly grew, took a lead in fighting against the POUM and the anarchists. Caballero was replaced as premier by a socialist professor, Dr Juan Negrin. By now the Republicans had organised a well-disciplined army. In the winter of 1937 the Republican army launched an offensive against the Nationalists. Franco’s counter-offensive, however, recovered all the lost territory and went on to split the Republic in half, separating Barcelona and Catalonia from central and southern Spain. The defeat of the Republic appeared imminent. Unexpectedly the Republicans won a short-lived victory in the summer of 1938, but then in the autumn suffered a catastrophic defeat when Franco counter-attacked. Internationally the Republic simultaneously sustained devastating blows. France, which intermittently had allowed arms to pass the Pyrenees frontier, closed it, and Stalin gave up sending aid to the Republic. Franco’s victories and the desertion of the Soviet Union and France doomed the Republic. In January 1939 Barcelona fell. Still Negrin inspired the final resistance. The Republic came to an end in confusion, with part of its own armed forces in rebellion. At the end of March 1939, Madrid finally capitulated to Franco’s army. The Spanish Civil War was over. It had dragged on with enormous loss of life. Refugees now flooded across the Pyrenees into France. But Europe’s attention was only momentarily fixed on the final agony. War between the European powers had been only narrowly averted in the autumn of 1938, and now in March 1939 Hitler again held the centre of the stage. The world would soon turn upside down. The Communists, seen by the left-wing idealists as the real opponents of the Fascists and Nazis in Spain, would that same year, in September 1939, praise Hitler and condemn the imperialist-capitalist Western democracies for going to war to check Nazi expansion in Europe. German and Italian help had been critical in the early stages of the war and favoured Franco’s advance to the gates of Madrid. But massive Soviet military assistance including planes and tanks saved Madrid in November 1936. Britain and France, ostensibly with German, Soviet and Italian agreement, set up a Non-Intervention Committee whose undertaking not to send weapons to either side was honoured only by the two Western democracies. The Germans sent tanks and experts and the notorious Condor Legion, which, with a hundred planes, played an important role and horrified the democracies by bombing defenceless towns. The wanton destruction of Guernica (26 April 1937) symbolised the terror of war on civilians. The lesson was not lost on the British who week after week saw on their cinema screens the horrible effects of those air raids. Not surprisingly it strengthened the desire of the British people to keep out of war and to support those politicians who were trying to do so, though the committed did go to fight in Spain. Mussolini sent over 70,000 volunteer troops. The Russians, from headquarters in Paris, organised the volunteer International Brigades and sent tanks and planes. All this foreign aid succeeded in staving off defeat for either side for a time, but it was not sufficient to ensure a victory.

 

 

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