frontline issue 4

Soviet Archives Prove Stalin's Betrayal of Spanish Revolution

Spain Betrayed: the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, R. Radosh, Mary Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov (eds.), Yale University Pess, London, 2001. '27.50. reviewed by Mike Gonzalez.

It is a commonplace among socialists that history is always written by the victors. In the case of the Spanish Civil War, the battle for the truth has been fought on more than one front.

On July 18th 1936, a group of military commanders, including Francisco Franco (who had become infamous for crushing the Asturian miners' rising of October 1934), declared themselves in military rebellion against the Republican government of Spain. Three years later, the Republic was defeated and Franco, now undisputed leader of the Nationalist forces, declared himself the ruler of Spain in the name of God and traditionalist, centralist Spain.

More people were killed in the vengeance that followed victory than in the war itself. But Franco, the friend of Hitler and Mussolini, never managed to have his version of the Spanish Civil War accepted (it was expressed in a ridiculous film called 'Raza' in which the war was presented as a crusade against barbarians and Bolsheviks).

Instead a different legend was created - Spain as the first battlefield between fascism and democracy (which it was) and where the defeat of the Republic led almost directly to World War II. In this version, the moral victors were the men of the International Brigades ' 30,000 or so foreign volunteers who went from all over the world to fight in Spain. 7,000 or more died there; other anti-fascist fighters were forced to return to countries like Germany, Hungary and Italy to fight the same enemy in another uniform. The reasons given as to why they lost this heroic battle, in the atmosphere of the Second World War, with its new alliance (after 1941) between the Britain and the Soviets, pointed to the military support that Franco was given by Hitler and Mussolini - symbolized by the Condor Legion's bombing of the ancient Basque capital of Guernica.

But this explanation hid far more than it revealed. The revolutionary left had more than enough evidence to demonstrate what really happened in Spain in those years. But our version of the story was usually rejected in the storms of moral outrage that came from the International Brigade Veterans Associations and the Communist parties to which most of them belonged.


The significance of Spain Betrayed is not so much that it offers a new vision of the Spanish events, but rather that it adds powerful new evidence, incontestable evidence, to support the arguments that have consistently been presented by revolutionary socialists. The book's editors have had access to Soviet archives, and they have matched the documents they found to key moments in the Civil War.

There are no sudden or spectacular new insights; but here is the cold hard proof that what we have always argued on the left - and what sometimes might have seemed hard to credit - was true.

The explanation from the Republican government for the military coup was that the army and the church had broken the rules. They had placed themselves outside the democratic process. That was true - but the reasons why are the important thing.

In July 1936, the third Republican government since 1931 was elected. The new government represented the Popular Front, a coalition of centre and left organizations united around a kind of minimum programme of reform.

They had the support of the Communist Party - then a small organization compared with the 2 million members of the anarchist trade union federation (CNT) or the level of support enjoyed by the Socialists and their trade union organization, the UGT.

But the previous years had witnessed government repression against Landworkers' organisation, the arming of the landowners, the jailing of trade unionists and the crushing of the Asturian miners. The key national demands ' for Basque and Catalan independence - had been rejected by a right wing in power between 1933 and 1935.

February 1936 brought electoral victory - but it was also seen as an opportunity for the mass movement to take back what had been lost and to seize the initiative for more far-reaching changes. The compromises and negotiations of an earlier moderate Republican government had got them nowhere. Now things would move on the ground, without waiting for the leadership to make up its mind. The class struggle took to the streets.

For the Soviets this posed a problem. The Republican government was a valuable ally and open to Communist influence. But the mass movement on the ground was dominated by anarchists, in places by nationalists, and particularly in Catalunya, by the small but influential POUM, led by Trotsky's one-time secretary Andreu Nin.

What is immediately clear from the earliest documents in this book, is that Stalin's agents (and there were several hundred in Spain at the beginning of the war) saw the revolutionary Left as a threat. Why ?


In 1936, Stalin's main concern was to win Western European support against a Nazi Germany which would certainly sooner or later expand into Russia. The new popular front politics he advocated reflected that search for an alliance with social democracy; the fact that it was the complete reverse of what he had been arguing just four years earlier seemed of little consequence.

Support for Republican Spain, therefore, was just that - not a secret plan to conceal a revolution, but a determination to demonstrate to the world that Soviet Russia was opposed to social revolution. It is not an exaggeration to say that Soviet policy from July 1936 to May 1937 was devoted to winning political authority over the Republican government and simultaneously destroying any revolutionary possibility. It was argued (by Antonov-Ovsenko, for example, on behalf of the Comintern) that this was just a short-term measure; in fact it was the sole and overwhelming purpose. The book contains an incredible report from U.S. journalist Louis Fisher, for example, in which he creates a fabricated image of Soviet help to Spain while reproducing all the lies and allegations against the revolutionary Left as truth.

By May 1937, the groundwork had been laid. The Communists effectively controlled the government and the police; while anarchists and Trotskyists were at the forefront of the fighting, they were starved of arms and the subject of all sorts of black propaganda. George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia describes how the atmosphere in Barcelona changed from the revolutionary carnival of late 1936 to an increasingly bourgeois city early the following year.

Spain Betrayed provides the documentary proof that the confrontations in Barcelona over the May Day celebrations, the armed ejection of the CNT unions from the telephone exchange, were the last act in a carefully scripted process. Revolutionaries were jailed, tortured and killed; the popular militias were replaced by a military command structure; the possibility of revolution became the reality of war. Read this together with Felix Morrow's flawed but revealing eye witness account Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain or in the company of Ronald Fraser's wonderful oral history of the war, Blood of Spain. I began with the International Brigades because they were in some ways a key support for Stalinist narratives of the Civil War. They were ordinary men and women who volunteered out of solidarity and rage; they became, as the authors say, 'in effect a Soviet army within Spain'. The legend has served to drown the real Spanish tragedy - the assault on the revolution by the Soviet state in the name of communism but in reality in defence of its own national interests at the expense of the workers of Spain and the rest of Europe.

Because had the revolution spread through Spain, it would surely not have stopped at any frontier - and the history of our 20th century would have been very different. Other historians of the war, like Paul Preston, see the tragic aspects elsewhere - in the collapse of the political Centre, for example. What Spain Betrayed reveals with painful force is that the Soviets cynically used Spain in their own power games; it was the Spanish working class who were the victims of this duplicity. Because then, as now, the only guarantee that their needs and interests would be fulfilled was to destroy fascism not just in Spain, but everywhere.