The Spanish Civil War: A Product of Appeasement
The Spanish Civil War was a product of appeasement. The policies of Britain and other European powers that lead to Hitler’s rise and eventual expansion come to fruition. Appeasement also conveniently played to the interests of the capitalist class who preferred the fascists to the Spanish republic’s socialist policies. The democratically elected left-leaning Republican government was subsequently left to fend off its fascist usurpers without aid.
Although not an illustration in the graphic sense, Paul Preston’s “The Spanish Civil War: An Illustrated Chronicle 1936-39” outlines the factors that led to the eventual victory of Franco and his fascist compatriots.
As a new student to the history of the Spanish Civil War, Preston’s book was an excellent introduction. The length, digestible format, photographic documentation, and combo of extensive details coupled with broad themes culminated in an exhilarating read. If the growth of fascism pre-WWII interests you, then this is a worthwhile read.
It did surprise me how much I did not know about the Spanish Civil War. It’s as if all trace of it is scrubbed from historical summaries of the leadup to WWII. As mentioned already, the far-right military coup factored into policies of appeasement. Policies that allowed Hitler and Mussolini to gain traction and strength also applied to the rising fascist movement in Spain, and Francisco Franco specifically. Britain and France spearheaded non-intervention in the civil war, along with twenty-seven other nations. Britain’s conservative party, elites, and media advocated neutrality, militantly. Warships were sent to intercept arms shipments, and volunteering to fight in the Civil War was considered a crime. Although, that didn’t stop around four-thousand volunteers from going anyway. France, on the other hand was a little more fluid with its stance. Conflict between French Prime Minister Léon Blum, the leftist “popular front” government, and right-wing politicians over possible intervention in the civil war was a constant. Despite signing the non-intervention agreement with Britain in August of 1936, Blum would send military aircraft and pilots from August through December of that year. Spanish Nationalists would be continually wary about the possibility of French intervention, even after French supplies ended.
The Soviet Union, despite signing the non-intervention agreement (along with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy) disregarded it in favor of arming the republican forces (Both Germany and Italy disregarded the agreement too, to support the nationalists). Communist organizations made up a large part of the republican war effort. In fact, communist (and socialist) involvement was routinely used by various European powers as an excuse for neutrality, and subtle support for nationalist forces.
The USSR’s support for the republicans was moderated by Stalin’s wish not to anger European nations into action. Painting the governmental force as chiefly democratic and republican was viewed as essential in Stalin’s eyes to encourage European support. Liberal politicians, and their capitalist backers, were cautious of the spread of communism and Stalin did not wish to exacerbate their fear. Stalin ordered the Spanish communist party to aim for solidarity across ideological aisles. Both to increase the front against the fascist uprising, and to downplay the role of communists and the USSR in the republican war effort.
Preston breaks down the various ideological movements and individuals, and the interplay between them, that made up both sides. Compared to other national conflicts, the Spanish Civil War seemed uniquely diverse in its number of actors and movements. Could be my personal perception. But regardless, the nuance was welcoming.
The Spanish communist party’s internal conflicts played into international communist ideological evolutions. It was during the Spanish Civil War that Trotskyist and Stalinist factions battled for control. The Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) represented the anti-Stalinist, former Trotskyist communists. It was POUM that began to doubt moderating the revolutionary to paint the loyalist cause as mainly a bourgeoisie republic front to gain Western favor. Foreign business and political interests, they argued, knew Franco was a superior option no matter what the republic became. Limiting the revolutionary imagery only hurt the war effort against the fascists (the fascists were not moderating themselves to appear more attractive).
The Communist Party of Spain (PCE) was the official Moscow-oriented faction in the Popular Front. And as expected, led the charge against the POUM. Labeling POUM “enemies of the USSR,” “fascist spies,” and “Trotskyist agents,” the PCE began its campaign to silence the communist dissidents. POUM units were sent to the front with old weaponry, ragged uniforms, and inadequate supplies. George Orwell, commenting on the infighting said that “a government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and keeps the biggest men and the newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than of the fascists.”
His words would continue to ring true as the PCE breakdown of anti-Stalinist groups ramped up. POUM fighters were rounded up by Communist secret police, as tensions between anarchists, Communists, and anti-Stalinists increased. Violence erupted after a National Confederation of Labor (CNT: a confederation of anarchist-syndicalist trade unions) central telephone exchange was raided by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC: a PCE controlled alliance of various socialist movements). The CNT, POUM, and an extreme anarchist group known as the Friends of Durruti, fought the Communists for several days. Eventually the CNT laid down their arms once they realized victory would cost the war for the Republic. But to fully dissolve the POUM, the Communists had to go through the Prime Minister, Largo Caballero. He refused, triggering a vote that resulted in his resigning and the appointment of the Finance Minister and socialist, Dr. Juan Negrin to Prime Minister. According to Preston, this marked the end of the power struggle between the revolutionary forces and the Communists. It left the war effort in the hands of the Republicans and moderate Socialists.
It’s odd describing the Communists as opposing the revolutionary factions. It’s usually assumed the Communists are the revolution. Yet, the approach Stalin took toward the USSR and international Communist movements effectively neutered them. Stalin’s first priority was the safety of the USSR both domestically and diplomatically. Inciting revolutionary fervor was not conducive to cultivating happy neighbors. As a result, Stalin played chaperone (or a cautious father-figure) to international Communist movements.
The potential course of the revolution if it weren’t for Stalin’s suffocating grip is up for discussion. The role Western powers played in letting a fascist rebellion take place against a democratically elected government is undeniable. Fearful of communist infiltration coupled with a policy of appeasement and business interests led Spanish Fascists to receive aid, eventually overcoming the Spanish Republic, instilling a dictatorship that wouldn’t end until the early 70s.