Tuesday is the 65th anniversary of the rebellion of the Spanish army generals against that country's democratically elected government. Their action led to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and would end three years later with the establishment of Gen. Francisco Franco Bahamonde as dictator, a position he was to hold until his death in 1975. The Spanish Civil War generated some of the most enduring myths of the last century, myths that to some extent have continued to live after many of the other great political symbols of the time have faded away.
It is sometimes said that civil wars are more significant than other wars because civil wars are really "about" something. If we assume, for the sake of discussion, that this is so, then what was the Spanish Civil War "about"? The Spanish conflict has borne many names, depending on who is providing the definition: Fascism versus Democracy, Fascism versus Communism, Western civilization versus Nazism, Christian civilization versus Communism and so on.
The Spanish conflict was above all else a great revolutionary civil war, one of a long series of revolutionary-counterrevolutionary struggles that began in Russia and Finland in 1919 and eventually extended throughout the world, lasting in one form or another through the entire 20th century. What made the Spanish war unique was that it was the only one of these conflicts to take place in a Western European country, that it developed in peacetime out of largely domestic causes rather than world war or decolonization and that it drew enormous international attention in an era of massive political publicity and rapidly increasing international tensions. It stemmed from the polarizing revolutionary process that had developed during Spain's democratic Second Republic of 1931-36 but quickly achieved major international significance because neither the left nor the right was in a position to fight a civil war on the basis of domestic resources alone and hence quickly sought foreign assistance. This led to the intervention of the three major dictatorships of that era--those of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin--and a further complication of the issues. While some saw the Republic as primarily fighting against fascism, others saw Franco as primarily fighting against communism. The Spanish conflict became a sort of political self-assembly kit for political opinion around the world.
Both sides in Spain also redefined their civil war as a war of national liberation, the left purporting to liberate Spain from Germany and Italy, the right liberating Spain from the Soviet Union. Hitler and Mussolini, however, largely limited their roles to military assistance, while the Soviet Union's role was both more extensive and more complicated.
The Soviet Union was of course already active in Spain through the Comintern, being the only one of the dictatorships to maintain its own political party in Spain. Spanish historians Antonin Elorza and Marta Bizcarrondo two years ago brought out an excellent history of the Comintern in Spain during the 1920s and '30s, based on newly accessible Soviet documents. They demonstrated conclusively that there was no such thing as an independent Spanish Communist Party but rather that the party was merely a Spanish section of the Soviet-controlled Communist International.
In "Spain Betrayed," Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov go considerably further in opening up the whole range of Soviet activity in Spain through the judicious presentation of an extensive set of original documents recently drawn from the Soviet archives. This material has been carefully edited and annotated, providing the context that readers will need to make full use of the rich materials presented here for the first time.
One of the first documents presented is a report by Georgi Dimitrov, secretary of the Comintern, only five days after the fighting began. It lays out the basic Comintern and Soviet policy that he followed throughout the war: "We should not, at the present stage, assign the task of creating soviets and try to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain. That would be a fatal mistake. Therefore we must say: act in the guise of defending the Republic." Communist policy would seek to channel the explosive workers' revolution of anarchosyndicalists and Socialists and to disguise the revolution to try to elicit support from Britain and France. The emphasis of Communist policy would be Popular Front unity, discipline and centralization to build military strength for winning the Civil War. In the process, all rightist forces would be eliminated, and communism would become a major force in Spain for the first time. As Dimitrov put it, "When our positions have been strengthened, then we can go further."
The growth of Communist influence and power in Spain was based above all on military strength, but that in turn depended on direct Soviet military intervention. It has often been said that the wartime republic turned to the Soviet Union only after Britain and France had adopted a policy of nonintervention, leaving the Soviet Union the only remaining source of support. In fact, the documentation presented here shows that, consistent with the revolutionary process, the Republican government first requested military assistance from Moscow on July 25, 1936, before the nonintervention policy had been adopted.
Stalin's policy proved to be bold and cautious at the same time. He took nearly two months to decide to embark on major military intervention, so that Soviet arms in any quantity did not arrive in Republican Spain until October 1936, just in time to turn the tide in the defense of Madrid. With the arms came many scores of Soviet military advisors, who played a key role in the development of the new revolutionary Republican People's Army, which, with its red-star insignia, clenched-fist salute and ubiquitous political commissars, was modeled on the Soviet Red Army.
"Spain Betrayed" contains an excellent selection of reports from the Soviet advisors that reveals their own estimate of military problems and performance in Spain and of their extensive influence in the Republican command. With some exceptions, the Soviet advisors did not give the Republicans very high marks and went on at great length about political division, indiscipline and poor organization. The documents also demonstrate that in the Stalinist era, Soviet officials fed one another internally the same rhetoric that they broadsided externally through agitprop. Republican failures were not seen as human error, inexperience or the product of haste but more often than not darkly attributed to "traitors," "fascist agents" and "Trotskyism."
There is also a series of very telling reports on the International Brigades. The foreign volunteers, mostly Communists recruited from a score of countries by the Comintern, enjoyed enormous publicity and have provided one of the most enduring (and frequently attractive) legends of the war as idealistic volunteers from around the world fighting for democracy against fascism. The reality was somewhat different. As the novelist William Herrick, a veteran of the American Lincoln Brigade, has written, "Yes, we went to Spain to fight fascism, but democracy was not our aim." The Brigades were thrown into the thick of the battle, often as shock troops, and suffered unusually heavy casualties. Soviet documents reveal that as early as the summer of 1937, foreign volunteer units were suffering grave problems of discipline and low morale, including political unrest. Their communist idealism did not preclude severely ethno-racist attitudes toward the Spanish and even toward each other, with internal ethnic friction extensive. It had already become necessary to fill gaps with large numbers of Spanish draftees, until most units became international in name only.
The Soviet intervention took place under the political banner of the Popular Front, a new tactic of unity with other left-liberal forces against both fascism and conservatism that had been introduced by the Comintern in August 1935. As Comintern leaders had made clear, the Popular Front represented a change only in tactics, not in strategy. Within democratic republics like those of France and Spain, its aim was to facilitate the introduction of a "new type" of "democratic republic" as a transition regime to socialism, the terminology representing a preliminary euphemism for the "People's Republics" imposed on Eastern European countries by the Soviet Union after 1945. Though no progress could be made in France, Soviet historiography would later hail the wartime Spanish Republic as the first "People's Republic" in Europe.
This model required ruthless centralization and development of military and police power, combined with stringent control of the anarchosyndicalists' very different kind of libertarian revolution, which was to be replaced by statist nationalization. The extreme left called the communist program "counterrevolution," while the communists countered that it was the only way to true revolution, something of which only communists had practical experience. The bte noire of the communists was the only independent Communist party in Spain, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), which modeled itself on the Leninism of 1917-19, and advocated the immediate introduction of revolutionary socialism. This close competitor was labeled "Trotskyist" and condemned to sudden destruction in 1937 as the Spanish revolution first began to devour its own.
The documents presented here provide vivid examples of the communist role in internal republican politics and of the Soviet concern to provoke a showdown in Barcelona with the extreme revolutionaries that would make it possible to carry out greater government centralization and to liquidate the POUM. Both goals were achieved.
The height of communist power was achieved with the formation of the Popular Front government of Juan Negrin in May 1937 and even more with Negrin's second government of April 1938. Negrin, who epitomized the will to leftist unity and victory, became the great wartime leader of the republic, but in the process he became the most controversial figure of the Civil War and, by the end of 1938, the figure most widely hated within the republican zone. Negrin's de facto alliance with the communists to achieve victory has long been clear, but the controversy has had to do with the full extent of that alliance and whether he retained any independence at all.
The documents presented here shed considerable light on this problem, for they reveal the Soviets to have been generally quite satisfied with the extreme receptiveness and high degree of cooperation exhibited by Negrin. Nonetheless, this satisfaction was not complete, for the Comintern and Soviet advisors complained that the republican prime minister did not always follow through completely on all their initiatives and criticized him for sometimes deferring to his own party, the Socialists, showing interest neither in seizing control of the party himself nor in forcing it to fuse with the communists, sine qua non of a "People's Republic" strategy. Important testimony with regard to Negrin's ultimate political plans is in the reports dispatched late in 1938, which discuss Negrin's proposal for forming a single-party front organization for the republican zone and his assurances that, if victory were achieved, the republic would not return to "parliamentarianism" or "the free play of parties" as did the democratic Second Republic but would have an authoritarian leftist system with nationalized industry.
The truth is that each of the Spanish leftist parties desired its own form of "People's Republic" or all-left republic, with all conservative political and economic interests liquidated. This was the root cause of the Civil War. But each party had its own version of political utopia. The communists made surprising progress, in conjunction with Negrin, in building a new centralized system, but it was never completed. As defeat neared, the other leftist groups began to lose their fear of the communists.
Thus the final irony of this most paradoxical of wars is that in March 1939, it ended in exactly the same way that it had begun in July 1936: with the revolt of a sizable part of the republican army against the current republican government, proclaiming the need to free the republic from the danger of communist tyranny. The revolt of March 1939 overthrew Negrin and the communists and in effect brought the war to an end. By that time republican democracy had been dead for three years, and the only alternative facing Spain was the dictatorship of Franco. The left had discovered democracy three years too late. Murderous civil war and an increasing communist hegemony had taught harsh lessons but not in time.
The Soviet intervention had been surprisingly economical. Since Soviet diplomats had convinced the wartime government to ship most of the Spanish state's gold reserve to Moscow, Stalin may have taken in more than he ever gave out in military equipment. Scarcely any more Soviet than American citizens had participated on the republican side: some 3,000 Soviet military and other personnel, compared with 2,800 American volunteers in the International Brigades. About 200 Soviets were killed, while the Americans, constantly involved in heavy combat, lost at least three times as many.
Soviet policy failed both on the Spanish domestic and international levels. Stalin feared to commit enough military aid to enable the republic to win, so the counterrevolution triumphed completely and the nascent People's Republic scarcely developed before it expired. Moreover, the sight of Soviet armed intervention in Western Europe undermined Stalin's diplomacy of collective security vis-a-vis Britain and France.
The dictator best served by the Spanish war was not Stalin but Hitler, because the Nazi leader's goal was not so much to enable Franco to win a quick victory as to drag out the Spanish conflict as long as possible to serve as a distraction from his own rearmament and expansion in central Europe, to deter the democracies, to divide France internally and to bind Mussolini to German goals. In all these aims, Hitler succeeded only too well. The Spanish Civil War was a unique conflict unto itself, not the "opening round" of World War II, as some have said, for Franco never entered the wider war. But the terms in which the Spanish war developed and dragged on had a purely destructive effect on European relations and facilitated Hitler's plans.
The editors of this volume deserve the highest commendation for presenting an absolutely unique trove of original documentation as illuminates Soviet policy and internal republic politics as no other previous work has done.
All students of Soviet policy, the Spanish war and European international relations, as well as all informed readers in these fields, will be indebted to them for an unprecedented collection of material that marks something of a watershed in the history of the period. It is a book that no one interested in the Spanish Civil War can afford to be without.