The Battle for Spain

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Somewhere in The Battle for Spain, Anthony Beevor remarks that the Spanish Civil War may be the only conflict in history to have had its history written by the losers. The ordeal of the Spanish Republic is remembered by most as a great, good cause. If that cause was tainted by its alliance with the Soviet Union, what choice did the Republic have, embargoed as it was by Britain, the United States and (most of the time) France? As for the insurgents, their memory, always dark, has only blackened with the years.

Beevor’s definitive history of the conflict comes to complicate our view. Readers should be warned from the start that it is a demanding book, requiring close attention and a good memory. A mass of details are crammed into relatively few pages, in a writing style that is lucid enough, but that does not pause to help the slower students.

The book’s density arises from the method of the book’s creation. First written a quarter of a century ago, Beevor has massively revised it using new information from the Soviet archives (in which he has worked as a military historian of the battles of Stalingrad and Berlin) and also from the new wave of Spanish studies of the war and its casualties.

In 1937, the left-leaning heiress Nancy Cunard compiled a book titled “Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War.” To a great extent, we are all still at it: It’s almost impossible to address the topic without feeling compelled to express a preference for one side or the other. The war was already 16 years over when NATIONAL REVIEW was launched, yet the early editors of the magazine expressed a vociferous preference – and ongoing support – of the Francoist side. Elsewhere in the literary world, the Republican cause burns as bright as it did seven decades ago.

Yet the more we learn, the uglier both sides look. While the Franco movement was composed of varying shades of political nastiness, in its totality it can only be described as fascist. Franco murdered and terrorized on a scale never approached by Mussolini. Among the European dictators, he ranks behind only Hitler and Stalin in monstrousness; in comparison to Franco, Hungary’s Admiral Horthy looks like a civilized conservative, a Carpathian Lord Salisbury. While Franco’s propaganda claimed to be fighting a great war for Christian civilization, he licensed mass rape by his North African Muslim soldiery as a terror tactic to break civilian resistance.

Some revisionists argue that Franco broke his ties to the Axis as soon as he had secured his victory. He acted, they say, like a fascist Tito. By securing the territorial integrity of Spain, he shielded the British base at Gibraltar. And during the war, he showed himself a man the Western allies could do business with. Thus goes the apologetic case.

Except for the part about Gibraltar, very little of this is true. Franco was an enthusiastic partner in the Axis who even sent troops to the Russian front. Only economic constraints prevented him from contributing even more. His material contributions in repayment of German Civil War assistance materially aided the German cause. The first two decades of his regime at home were as repressive, incompetent, and corrupt as anything behind the Iron Curtain. Not until the 1960s did the Spanish economy begin to open and modernize, but the regime remained deeply corrupt to the end.

Some extracts from Beevor, pp. 403-407, typed by me so please excuse any typos:

Autarchy would only diminish after the bulk of the nationalist debts to Germany and Italy had been settled. To pay its debts to Germany required, between 1939 and 1943, the equivalent of 12 percent of the value of all imports and 3 percent in the case of Italy. … This anti-communist state also proceeded to nationalize the railway network, paying its owners in shares which were worth nothing. …

Prison camps were set up all over the country. Including temporary and transit camps, there were 190 of them, holding between 367,000 and half a million inmates. … Those condemned by military tribunals were sent to military penal colonies … or to mine coal … some had to extract mercury, and many thousands were sent to dig canals and work on other projects close to Franco’s heart. Much of this forced labor proved far from cost-effective, as was the case in Beria’s Gulag, but later the work was subcontracted to various companies who made better use of the unpaid labor than the military authorities. Prisoners were also hired out to landowners who were able to improve their properties with irrigation and other schemes impossible before. The rest who remained in prison, 270,719 of them according to ministry of justice figures, were spread around jails with a capacity for only 20,000. …

We do not have a final figure for the Franquist terror, but recent researches in more than half the provinces of Spain indicates a minimum there of 35,000 official executions. This suggests that the generally accepted figure of 50,000 after the war may be low. If one adds on the unofficial and random killings, and those who died during the war from execution, suicide, hunger and sickness in prison, the total figure probably approaches 200,000. …

The Caudillo used to read through the sentences of death when taking his coffee after a meal, often in the presence of his personal priest …. He would write an ‘E’ against those he decided should be executed, and a ‘C’ when commuting the sentence. For those who he considered needed to be made a conspicuous example, he wrote ‘garotte y prensa‘ (garotting and press coverage). …

Those who escaped a death sentence faced many years of terrible conditions in one of the 500 penitentiaries. The director of the Model Prison of Barcelona, Isidro Castrillion Lopez, said to his charges, ‘You should know that a prisoner is a ten millionth part of shit.’ Prisoners were made to suffer thirst as well as hunger. Sometimes they received no more than the equivalent of a small can of water in three days. There were epidemics of typhus and dysentery even in prisons holding mothers and small children …

[T]he corruption among wardens and indeed senior officials was striking. In the penal colony of San Simon in Ponteverda provisional liberty was sold and, most appalling of all, a death sentence could e given to someone else if a very large sum was paid. … Those captured after 1 April 1939 were known as the ‘posteriores.’ They were often political militants or members of the guerilla resistance to the regime. Many of them were subjected to terrible tortures ….

[The regime removed children from politically suspect parents.] In 1943 there were 12,043 children taken from their mothers and handed over to the Falangist Auxilio Social, to orphanages and to religious organizations. Some of these children were passed on for adoption to selected families ….

So we should all then be Republican partisans, looking back with nostalgia to the International Brigades? Alas, that choice too is also far from unspotted.

The Republicans carried out fewer atrocities than the Francoists, but what they did do was amply bad enough.

During the war the nationalists claimed that 20,000 priests had been slaughtered; afterwards they said that 7,937 religious persons were killed. That figure was still over a thousand too high. Today we know that out of a total ecclesiastical community of around 115,000, thirteen bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 members of other orders and 283 nuns were killed, the vast majority during the summer of 1936. (pp. 82-83.)

(The Francoists also turned their hands against priests who opposed them. They were especially harsh against Protestants, killing 20 ministers who fell into their hands.)

The Spanish civil war began on July 18, 1936, when units of the Spanish army in Spanish Morocco attacked civilian institutions and seized power. In a coordinated plan, the mainland army attacked the next day. But while the African army was immediately and bloodily successful, the mainlanders by and large were not. Control of most of the major cities remained in government hands. The army of Africa crossed over to the mainland; the government armed unionists to create militias. Supporters of the republic launched a counter-attack on any target that symbolized the old order in Spain: churches, army barracks, and wealthy individuals.

The worst of the violence occurred in the first few days [after the coup] throughout the republican zone in Spain, though it varied greatly from region to region. On the whole the depressed areas saw more ferocity, especially in New Castile, where over 2,000 people were killed by the left during the course of the war. In Toledo 400 were killed between 20 and 31 July [1936], in Ciudad Real some 600 were killed in August and September. There was great savagery also in parts of Andalucia, such as Ronda where the victims were thrown over cliffs. …

There was relatively little violence in Malaga before 27 July, but on that day nationalist aircraft bombed the market, killing women and children. … [T]he air raid had a traumatic effect. Suspects were hauled out of prison and shot against the nearest wall and there was a further round-up in the wealthy areas of the town. Altogether some 1,100 people were killed. … During the same period Valencia and Alicante also experienced terrible violence, which killed 4,715 people throughout the region.

The main characteristics of the situation in the republican zone were the almost total lack of control in the first days of the rising, the intensity and rapidity of the killings, and the attempts by left-wing and republican leaders to stop the violence. (p. 86)

All told, perhaps some 38,000 people were murdered in the zones ruled by the republican forces.

Later in the war, republicans would turn on each other, with communist-controlled secret police forces arresting and executing factional rivals.

Beevor makes a powerful and convincing case that the two sides killed in very different ways. For the Francoists, murder was a goal in itself. They called it limpieza, cleansing, ridding Spain of everything undesireable that had crept into society in a century of modern life. Francoist atrocities were not only vastly larger but also fully supported by the highest command.

But the republicans, who possessed the legitimacy of legality, were accordingly also less able to afford illegality. Their atrocities damaged the republican cause no less for being spontaneous.

At home, the bloodshed of 1936 helped tip the social balance away from the republican cause. Early 20th century Spain was a country of stark class and regional divisions. Spain had prospered as a neutral during the First World War, but the prosperity had shriveled when peace restored normal market conditions. Prices for Spanish agricultural produce fell, and Spain’s inefficient industries yielded to better and cheaper competitors. Living standards came under pressure, triggering unrest in factories and on farms. Inspired by the 1917 revolution in Russia, Spain’s unionists adopted radical ideologies and militant tactics. Frightened employers hired gunmen to intimidate and sometimes murder workers and their leaders.

The deteriorating economic and political situation prompted another in Spain’s long series of coups, dating back all the way to the Napoleonic wars. The military governor of industrial Catalonia, Miguel Primo de Rivera, appointed himself dictator in 1921, while continuing to recognize King Alfonso XIII as head of state.

Primo de Rivera’s rule lasted for almost a decade. He attempted to balance interests, even for a time co-opting the socialists and trade unionists. But his economic policies – which basically amounted to borrowing heavily to finance dams and other public works – failed to deliver results, and step by step he forfeited his constituencies. Primo de Rivera was an authoritarian, but his appetite for power had limits. Facing a wave of labor and student strikes, he resigned his office in 1930.

The king tried to find a replacement for Primo de Rivera, but succeeded only in agitating internal rivalries in the armed forces – and provoking still more political unrest. Elections in April 1931 returned a big majority of socialists and liberals. Spain’s second republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931.

By then however Spain was coping with the onset of the Great Depression. It hit Spain hard. Labor turned more militant than ever. In 1934, trade unionists attempted a seizure of power, to be defeated by armed forces commanded by General Francisco Franco.


The clearer minds on the left saw that the rising had been a terrible disaster. But for the militants … it had produced an intoxicating whiff of revolution. For the right, on the other hand, it seemed to show … that the army … was the only guarantee against revolutionary change. … It certainly appeared to confirm conservatives in their belief that they must do everything possible to prevent another attempt to create the dictator of the proletariat, especially when Largo de Caballero [the leader of the Spanish socialist party] declared: ‘I want a Republic without class war, but for that one class has to disappear.’ (32)

More strikes, more violence, more changes in government brought Spain to the visible edge of crisis by the spring of 1936. A wave of church burnings, bombings and assassinations – some the work of fascists, others of anarchists – unnerved the country. At the May 1936 May Day parade, socialists paraded under images of Lenin and Stalin. The socialist leader Largo de Cabellero told a vast crowd in Madrid, “the republic we want can only be achieved by violence.”

The future defenders of the Spanish republic in other words stand numbered with the Francoists among its destroyers.

And to the end, the fanaticism of Spain’s ultra-left factions alienated and frightened crucial elements of the Spanish nation.

Among the most short-sighted of those factions: the Trotskyist communists of the POUM militia, a group that gets a much better reputation than it deserves from the adventitious fact that Eric Blair – the future George Orwell – fought in their ranks. Generations of democratic leftists have learned from Orwell to hate the communists for unleashing the secret police on POUM ranks on the glaringly false charge that the POUMists were fascist agents.

The communists were liars and crooks and totalitarians every bit as sinister as the Francoists on the other side of the trench line. But in one way they did have a point. The communist leadership, following orders from Moscow, pursued a policy of “popular front.” To sustain alliances with non-socialists, the communists disapproved radical excesses – so much so that Spanish leftists joked, “To preserve private property, vote communist.”

And after all, it was their own revolution that frightened so many propertied Spaniards to prefer even fascism to another October 1917.

Nor can we be entirely certain that they were wrong. As Beevor points out, we have no idea of the kind of regime the republicans might have imposed had they somehow emerged triumphant from the war. Had the communists gained the upper hand, their rule might well have approximated Franco’s in its paranoia and bloodiness.

But whatever an alternative future might have held for Spain, we can say with greater certainty that the defeat of the republic was a disaster for the western allies.

Once Hitler came to power in 1933, there is only one plausible historical path that avoids a great European war: a military coup in Germany. Many important German generals feared that Hitler was leading the country to disaster. One failed gamble and they might have acted. Instead Hitler scored success after success from the Rhineland onward.

Spain was the second gamble in the series. Had it gone bad, the internal case against Hitler would have been strengthened. And even if Hitler had not been toppled, his own calculus might have been importantly altered. Would he have moved against Czechoslovakia if Britain and France had shown themselves willing to act to stop him the year before?

American intervention in Spain is also imaginable. Franklin Roosevelt delivered his famous speech urging a “quarantine” of the fascist dictators in October 1937. Economic aid to the Spanish republic could have qualified as a method of quarantine. Isolationist sentiment was strong that fall, however, and with many in the US Roman Catholic hierarchy openly favoring Franco, Roosevelt did not even attempt to turn his words into action.

The job was left instead to the Soviet communists and Joseph Stalin, with all the disastrous consequences to be expected from such hands.

Beevor tells the story authoritatively thoroughly, lucidly, and – if not dispassionately, then fairly – for readers willing to concentrate hard and follow carefully.

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