frontline vol. 2 issue 2.

Salute the heroes of the Spanish Republic

This year is the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War which remains a source of passion and controversy on the left. Bill Bonnar gives his view of this colossal struggle.

In the summer of 1987 I stood with a small crowd on the banks of the Jarama River taking part in a ceremony to remember those members of the British International Brigades who fell fighting for democracy in Spain. It was the 50th anniversary of the battle. General Franco was long dead, and the ceremony was a small dignified affair in a country still trying to come to terms with the legacy of the civil war. I had a personal interest. My uncle Harry, Andrew Bonnar was killed during the battle, his place in family folklore secured.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict. It remains an event which continues to spark interest and debate and that sense of heroism and idealism which drove tens of thousands of young people from all over the world to travel to Spain and fight in defence of the Republic. Quite simply the greatest act of solidarity the world has ever seen.

Seventy years on the arguments continue. Was this really a Civil War or an attack on a sovereign state by the forces of international fascism. Was the Republican Government guilty of sacrificing the prospects of revolution in order to secure a military victory? What role did the Soviet Union play; supporter or saboteur? Were the International Brigades really the heroes of legend or as one writer recently put it; ‘a naïve, proxy soviet army’.

First, however, the events themselves. In February 1936, a left wing Popular Front government won the general election in Spain. Led by Manual Anzana it was a coalition between the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Republican Union Party and the Catalan-based Esquidera Party. Winning 271 out of 448 seats in the Cortes and securing 34% of the vote it took power on a radical and popular programme. Central to this was the consolidation of earlier political reforms such as the abolition of the monarchy and radical land reforms in a country where rural areas had not advanced much beyond feudalism. Ranged against them was a right-wing coalition around the National Party strongly backed by monarchists, landowners and the Catholic Church.

The Republic

The new government immediately began to implement its programme. Within weeks it had released left wing political prisoners from jail, started implementing its land reform programme, transferred right-wing generals to overseas posts, banned the fascist Falange Party, granted full autonomy to Catalonia, established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and sacked the President. However, the speed of its reforms where matched by the swift actions of the Right to prepare and organise a military coup.

On 18th July 1936 the generals seized power in Seville and the Spanish colony of Morocco. The revolt had begun. On July 24th the Nationalist forces captures Granada. Two days later Hitler recognised the Nationalists and began immediately to supply them with economic and military aid. This was followed along similar lines by Mussolini. In response the French Communist Party supported by the Comintern called for the formation of International Brigades to travel to Spain and fight for the Republic. With increasing support from Germany and Italy the Nationalists made rapid gains. In response the Republican Government made a desperate appeal for international support and aid. The response from countries like Britain, the United States and France was one of non-intervention but with the Nationalists receiving all the arms and aid they could possibly want from Germany and Italy this was in effect a military and economic blockade on the Republic to ensure its defeat. In October 1936, arms and supplies begin to arrive from the Soviet Union and the first volunteers from the International Brigades landed in Alicante. Over the next year upwards of 50,000 volunteers would arrive from 55 countries; 2,300 from Britain. Despite the western blockade and increasing military intervention from Italy and Germany including Italian troops and the Luftwaffe, the International Brigades helped turn what looked to be certain defeat into a much more protracted struggle.

However, while the Nationalist forces were united in their actions and confident of international support the Republicans were rocked by devastating internal conflicts. This conflict was essentially between the Communist Party which believed that everything must be sacrificed to achieve military victory and the Trotskyist POUM party and the Anarchists who believed that victory would be best guaranteed by pushing on with revolution. What didn’t help was the intervention of the Soviet Union which exported its own internal conflicts into the Spanish Civil War. This led the Communist Party which by now was the dominant force in the Republican Government to view the POUM organisation and anarchists as enemies. In some places this led to military clashes and the suppression of opponents; not the best way to win a civil war.

Regional Autonomy

What bolstered the Republican Government was growing support in the various Spanish regions such as Catalonia, the Basque Country, Andalucia and Galicia who saw the Nationalist as invaders who would smash any dreams of autonomy. Some of the fiercest resistance came from these areas and in places like the Basque Country and Catalonia it was the intervention of the Luftwaffe which proved decisive.

In September 1938 and after two years of fighting in which more than one million people were killed the Nationalist forces were in control of most of the country. In an attempt to find a negotiated solution it was agreed that the International Brigades be withdrawn. This, however, only emboldened the Nationalists and in 8th March 1939 Madrid eventually fell. General Franco announced final victory in the Civil War on April 1st 1939.

However, the nightmare was not over for the Spanish people or the rest of the world. The Spanish Civil War quickly drifted into the Second World War where European fascism, emboldened by its victory in Spain, pressed ahead with its attempted conquest of Europe. In Spain itself, upwards of 200,000 republicans were massacred by Franco’s forces after the conflict was ended. Spain was then plunged into a new dark age of fascist dictatorship which lasted until Franco’s death in 1975.

To what extent was this genuinely a civil war or was it in the words of President Anzana; ‘an attack by the forces of international fascism on our sovereign country’. Certainly the role of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy cannot be overestimated. Italy gave significant economic and logistical aid to Franco and committed substantial numbers of troops to help secure his victory; Hitler provided almost unlimited supplies of arms and the use of the Luftwaffe which used Spain as a training ground for the wider conflict to follow. Critics will argue that this was more than balanced by the role of the International Brigades and the support of the Soviet Union and that the International Brigades were also guilty of foreign intervention. However, these volunteers were invited to defend the Republic by the legitimate government of the country in direct response to a foreign attack while Soviet aid was small compared to what the Fascist powers where pouring in or in terms of the western blockade. Put simply, Franco would never have succeeded without international fascist support.

Internal Strife

What about the internal conflicts which rocked the republican forces? There is a scene in the recent Ken Loach film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, about the war against the British occupation of Ireland in the period 1918 to 1921. The Republicans have control of Cork and have set up republican courts. In the scene a local landlord brings a case for eviction against an old widow for money she owes. It turns out that he has been charging exorbitant interest and the court decides in favour of the old woman. The landlord is outraged and immediately turns to the local IRA commander for support and they then head to the pub to ‘sort the problem out’. On witnessing this the chairperson of the court calls back the IRA commander to ask what’s going on. He explains that this landlord is giving them money for an arms shipment which is arriving next week and wants the judgement against him reversed. There then follows a heated debate in which the republican court say that if they can’t protect the interests of a poor old widow against a greedy rich landlord what is the point of defending the Republic. The IRA commander argues that if they don’t get the money to buy the arms there soon won’t be a Republic to defend. Of course, both sides in this argument were entirely correct and Ken Loach quite brilliantly exposes one of the most basic contradictions in any revolutionary movement. When does political expediency override political principle. A similar debate went on during the Spanish civil war. The Poum and Anarchists argued that the Republic was not worth defending if it did not lead to social and economic revolution. The Communist Party argued that unless military victory, at any cost, was secured then the revolution would not survive anyway. This led to immense conflict and division within the Republican side in Spain and has been a point if intense debate ever since.

The Soviet Union

This tends to overlap into a discussion about the role of the Soviet Union. Some argue that the Soviet Union played a key role in supporting the Republic which without that support would have succumbed much earlier. Others that the Soviet Union actually gave minimum support while actively sabotaging the Republic for their own international and internal interests. Wherein, lies the truth? It is an incontestable fact that the Soviet Union gave significant aid to the Spanish Republic. This included everything from arms to machine parts to oil at a time when the major western powers where applying what was, in effect, economic and military sanctions against the Republic. The Soviet Union was engaged in major sanction busting and played a key role in keeping the Republic afloat. However, the Soviet Union at the time was engaged in another strategy elsewhere. It was actively pursuing an alliance with Britain and France against Germany in attempt to isolate the Nazi regime. The Soviet Union wanted to appear as a moderate, responsible European country not one which would be seen to be actively supporting revolution abroad. This resulted in a degree of restraint in terms of the aid given and the language used in support of the republic.

An interesting development is that since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Moscow archives concerning the Spanish Civil War have been opened up revealing that Soviet support for the Republic was actually much greater than originally thought. In particular the buying of arms and other supplies on the world market and shipping them to Spain via third parties has revealed that much Soviet support for the Republic was very covert. Another interesting piece of information was that while in the end the Soviet Union was calling for some kind of negotiated solution to bring about an end of the civil war there appears to have been a very active Soviet plot to have Franco assassinated.

International Brigades

Without a doubt the most notable feature of the civil war was the involvement of the International Brigades. The call to form such brigades was first made by the French Communist Party and the role of the PCF proved to be crucial. Of the estimated 50,000 volunteers who went to Spain, France was very much the largest contributor. Around 80% of the volunteers were members of Communist Parties , the remainder from other Left organisations and none. France was also the main route into Spain for volunteers with the PCF operating a network of supply routes, safe houses, arms dumps and information centres. It is interesting that when the clock is wound forward three or four years to the German occupation of France and the rise of the French Resistance Movement. The nucleus of the French Resistance came from the Communist Party and the core of them were veterans of the International Brigades. The Brigades were crucial in halting the advance of Fascism in Spain at least for a while and played a key role in shoring up the Republic. Although ultimately withdrawn in a vain attempt to forge a settlement in the conflict they remain some of the greatest heroes the international socialist movement has ever known.

With the 70th anniversary of the Civil War now upon us a range of commemorative events are being held throughout the country. This will continue over the next three years as different key events in the conflict are marked. At the centre of these commemorations will be a celebration of the courage and foresight of the volunteers who fought and in many cases died in Spain. There are very few of them still left but that doesn’t really matter. Heroes live forever. P