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                                The Spanish Civil War: A Brief Synopsis

                                                                                  by  JR

No modern war has inspired the idealism and horror of civilians, soldiers and scholars alike as much as the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Spain, on the eve of its civil war was a country plagued by untenable divisions of both class and ideology. The modernizing reforms that had swept through much of Europe passed over Spain, leaving a country that was conservative, backward, and home to growing unrest among the poor and those who sought to break down the power of the military, the landed nobility, and the Catholic Church. In 1931, these tensions forced the abdication of King Alfonso XIII and the establishment of a liberal democracy in the form of the Second Republic. The new left-leaning government embarked on a series of ambitious measures to secularize the country and curb the power of the Catholic Church and wealthy landowners. This led to outrage and fury from conservatives, and also disillusionment from many rural peasants, who remained mired in poverty and were impatient for dramatic reform. Consequently there was a backlash in the form of a right-wing coalition that triumphed in the elections of 1933. Factions among the Spanish left tried to launch a nationwide revolutionary strike the following year. They were most successful in the northern coal-mining region of Asturias, where the strike morphed into a military uprising. Miners held out for two weeks before they were bombed and shelled into submission and overrun by government forces. The uprising led to accusations from the right that their opponents on the left respected the electoral process only when they were successful.

The left, however, did learn the lessons of democracy. It formed a broad coalition of socialists, liberals, Catalan nationalists, and anarchists who called themselves the Popular Front to contest the 1936 elections. The Popular Front defeated a right-wing coalition known as the National Front, and in May 1936 Manuel Azaña was elected president of the Republic. By this time, however, the divisions within Spain were irreconcilable and conflict was moving beyond the political arena.

Spain's right wing military elite began planning a coup to depose their country's elected government. It was launched, by Francisco Franco and other generals, on the night of 17 July 1936, with a revolt by the colonial army in Morocco. The rebellion spread to mainland Spain the following day. It was, however, not totally successful. Some military garrisons remained loyal to the Republic; others that rebelled were defeated by informal citizen militias. Almost immediately, Spain was divided into regions controlled by forces loyal to the insurgents and those that stood with the government. The Franco rebels were victorious in much of northwestern Spain. Crucially, however, the Basque and Asturian regions remained loyal to the Republic. Although traditional and fiercely Catholic, the Basques - like the Catalans - sought greater autonomy and supported the government because it promised them exactly this. The Republic held most of eastern Spain, including its two greatest cities, Barcelona and the country's capital, Madrid. Both sides committed widespread atrocities against real and imagined political opponents. These acts hardened divisions within Spain.

Those who supported the coup feared the changes underway in their country and fought to preserve the old order and their privileged positions in it. Their coalition included monarchists, conservatives, outright fascists, wealthy landowners and the complete and total endorsement of the Catholic Church hierarchy.

Those who opposed the rebellion included socialists, anarchists, regional nationalists, liberal democrats, and communists. During the course of the war their unlikely alliance would be strained - sometimes to the breaking point. At issue was not their mutual opposition to fascism or to Franco's rebellion but, rather, contrary ideas about how the war should be fought and the kind of country they wanted Spain to become. Some fought for regional autonomy and for their rights as Basques or Catalans. Some fought for communism, some fought for socialism, some fought for an anarchist revolution, and some fought for a traditional liberal democracy. These competing visions were reconciled - or at least accommodated - for much of the war. But tensions among those who fought together on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War also erupted into episodes of violence.

Some of those who fought with the Nationalists (Franco), or for the Republican government, also did so because of an accident of geography. The tragic reality of a civil war is that many will find themselves trapped in what they consider to be enemy territory.

Facing a probable defeat in the early days of the war, the Spanish fascists requested and received assistance from Adolf Hitler to transport the crack Army of Africa, including Spain's foreign legion, across the Strait of Gibraltar to southern Spain, from where their columns began a seemingly unstoppable offensive north. Hitler and his fellow dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy would later provide Franco with tanks, artillery, planes, pilots, instructors, and tens of thousands of troops. Germany's contribution amounted to some six hundred planes, two hundred tanks, highly effective artillery pieces, and sixteen thousand men, including civilian instructors. Spain functioned as a testing ground for Hitler's incipient war machine and was also something of a secret playground for the young pilots of Germany's Condor Legion such as Adolf Galand who would eventually become Germany’s top ace for the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

The background to the Spanish Civil War can be explained in part by the conditions that had arisen from World War I. The First World War had been primarily a conflict between two major groups of imperialists over control of colonies. It ended in the defeat of one imperialist group over another and in the overthrow of the monarchy and ruling elites in Russia, and the formation of the world's first working-class state - the Soviet Union. This was a very dangerous scenario for conservatives everywhere and especially the capitalist countries of the world such as the United States, Britain and France. All three of these capitalist countries sent thousands of troops and military equipment in support of the Romanoff monarchy, inciting a brutal civil war after the Bolshevik revolution. The growth of socialist and communist movements worldwide is one reason why, after Hitler came to power in Germany, the Nazis and the German industrialists hastened to build industry and to strengthen their armed forces to the hilt. But something stood in the way of the Third Reich and the Ruhr barons of industry in their desire to develop German industry to its full potential. What stood in the way was the German working class. The German working-class movement was very strong at that time. Consequently Hitler and the German imperialists saw that they had no choice, if they were to fulfill their expansionist ambitions, to crush the unions and clear the decks of leftist intellectuals and leftist political factions. This is the essence of fascist corporatism. In Italy Mussolini followed the Hitler template. Following Hitler, in order to create an effective rival to British and French imperialism, his first priority was to destroy the working-class movements and other progressive organizations.

The aims of the fascists were, then, to prepare for war with a view to re-dividing the world, and, in order to achieve that, to smash all working-class resistance. At the start of the Spanish Civil War, fascism had already triumphed in Germany, Italy and Austria. It was now to advance on Spain. According to the Daily Mail at that time, fascism was inevitable in Spain and other backward countries where people's living standards were dismal and who were finally rising against their oppressors, the monarchy, the Catholic Church and the landowning aristocracy. Spain had been ruled by the army representing big landowners, including the Catholic Church and nothing much had changed since the feudalism of the Dark Ages. The Spanish army was a parasitic organism, having one officer for every three men. Its barracks were situated in city centers, because its main concern was to keep the working class under control. The other task of the army was to maintain Spain's hold over her colonies. In these bleak circumstances the Spanish people were desperate for justice and democratic institutions. For this reason the various disparate groups on the left decided to form the tenuous coalition called the Popular Front. It is important to remember who were in this government. The majority of Republicans were “'liberals”, not socialists – and there were only a handful of communists. Anarchist groups also had a dominant influence. The Popular Front Government based on this coalition was elected in 1936 and began to carry out democratic changes. Political prisoners were released from jail. Reforms were introduced in the educational system which was completely dominated by the archaic Catholic Church, which kept the masses ignorant and primarily illiterate. After the Republicans gained power in 1931, it became easier for landless peasants to acquire land. These changes were too much for the ruling groups mentioned above to tolerate. In 1936 Franco emerged as the leader of a group dedicated to overthrowing the Popular Front government. Franco thought that it would be as easy for him to introduce fascism as it had been for Hitler and Mussolini. But the Spanish people had learned from what had happened in Germany and Italy They knew fascism was their main enemy and that they had to fight against it.
Ever since reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, I’ve had an obsessive fascination for and interest in the Spanish Civil War and I’ve learned a great deal from my extensive readings and studies. The war covered such a broad spectrum of disparate political factions from anarchists to socialists, communists, liberals, conservatives, plutocrats, theocrats, monarchists and fascists of every stripe during a crucial period of twentieth century history. It’s a most fascinating part of Twentieth Century history that not only prefigured the Second World War that followed it, but introduced a new and brutally intense form of warfare that would come to define the twentieth century. Underlying the horrors of civil war, however, was a social idealism that echoed the aspirations of many in Europe and America following the grim years of the Depression. These were the ideals for which international volunteers would join the bastion of democracy, Spanish Republicans to fight - and fall - against the brutal fascist Franco who represented the oppressive anachronisms of conservatism - the monarchy, the Catholic Church and the landowning plutocracy. Another major interest for me is Anarchism and Spain has a long tradition with anarchists of various persuasions playing an important role on the Republican side.

In July 1936, the Fascist Generals Franco and Mola revolted against the centre-left Spanish Republican government which had been first elected in 1931, instituting sweeping reforms throughout feudal Spain. They were elected earlier in 1936, having formed a loose coalition of liberals, leftist and anarchists called the Popular Front. The intention of the fascists, supported by virtually the entire Spanish right wing, was to overthrow the government and replace it with a right wing, and highly authoritarian, Catholic dictatorship which would overturn the secular democratic reforms of the Republic. Democracy had never been fully accepted by Spanish conservatives and now they were prepared to destroy it through force and bloodshed. This sort of event is not mere history but in fact resonates through the years to the present; we can see parallels in the US-backed military and paramilitary attacks on democratic governments in Chile, Nicaragua and elsewhere throughout the world.

The Nationalists, or supporters of Franco’s coup, did not win easily, and the civil war extended over almost three years. The Fascists got support from four main sources: Spanish conservatives, the catholic Church, the German, Italian and Portuguese fascist governments and big business interests in Britain, France, the US and elsewhere.

In addition, the formally "neutral" policies of the British, French and American capitalist governments were in practice to the advantage of the Fascists.  Paul Preston tells us: "The pro-Nazi president of Texaco oil company, Thorkild Rieber, for instance, risked six million dollars by supplying the fascist Nationalists with a substantial proportion of their oil needs on credit. He was penalized with a small fine." Today, of course, oil corporations continue to be at the heart of western imperialism and western business backing for dictatorships (such as Shell’s support for Nigerian bloodshed). Other aid to the Fascists came from such companies as Standard Oil of New Jersey; Ford; Studebaker; and General Motors. The Fascists spent at least $10 million on US oil alone. (Ford Motors, of course, was run by Henry Ford, the widely respected capitalist who was also a Nazi sympathizer and admirer of Hitler).

On 31st March 1939, the Fascists finally won victory, and the Pope greeted their success with "great delight". The following day, Franco announced: "Today, with the Red Army captive and disarmed, our victorious troops have achieved their final military objectives. The war is over." But the war against the Spanish people was not over. It had only just begun. Madrid, the Spanish capital would remain beyond the reach of Franco until the final days of the war in March 1939. By then the Spanish republic was defeated and in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were streaming toward France or to Spanish ports hoping, usually in vain, that they would be evacuated before Franco’s troops caught up with them. Their fears were justified. Tens of thousands of suspected Republican supporters including soldiers, socialists, communists, anarchists, liberals and freethinkers were either shot or imprisoned, sentenced to forced labor, often dying from overwork and malnutrition. For decades following the war, in Franco’s bloody purges, tens of thousands were executed and buried in unmarked shallow graves. Others who did manage to escape the country were rounded up by Hitler’s henchmen and were summarily executed or ended up in slave labor or concentration camps. Remarkably, some were able to get to the Soviet Union and fought against Hitler on the Eastern Front.

Franco’s regime - a brutal, authoritarian military dictatorship which had come to power with the enthusiastic backing of big business, world fascism and the Catholic Church - remained in power until Franco’s death in 1975. As late as the year of his death, executions of anti-fascists continued. Democracy was not restored to Spain until 1977, and within five years, the Socialist Party had won power in a free election. Before that glorious day, the Spanish people had to suffer under a fascist regime that was glorified by the US government as "anticommunist"; an authoritarian dictatorship that US propagandists referred to as part of "the free world".

The Spanish Civil War is one of the formative historical events of the twentieth century. Upon its outcome hung the fate not just of Spain, but of Europe as a whole because victory there would have been a signal of resistance to the growth of fascism and by the working classes elsewhere on the continent. Workers in Germany and Italy, where fascism had already come to power, perhaps would have been inspired by the success of the Spanish working classes. France, which was on the brink of revolution in 1936, would almost certainly have become directly involved in events in Spain. The entire course of European history would have been different if fascism had been defeated in Spain. Certainly, it would have been almost impossible for Hitler to launch a European-wide war when he did. But conservative political elites and investors in counties such as Britain and France feared both Hitler and the rise of a worker’s socialist/anarchist state taking control in Spain. Not only did Britain, France and the United States not help the anti-fascist Republican cause, they imposed embargos on Spain and even prevented volunteers from their own countries from joining the cause. The leaders of these countries seemed to have no problem with a fascist dictatorship in Spain. Neville Chamberlain for example was an admirer of Hitler as were many influential conservative politicians and wealthy businessmen in all three countries.

Canadian Involvement

Canada, second only to France, had more men volunteer for the International Brigades in Spain, despite the vehement objections of Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Almost 1700 Canadians fought in the Spanish Civil War.* R. B. Bennett, the Conservative Prime Minister in Canada who preceded King was also an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer. The Communists Party of Canada, led by Tim Buck, was instrumental in recruiting men to fight fascism for the Spanish Republic was declared illegal in Canada, but not the Catholic dominated fascist National Socialist Christian Party, led by Adrian Arcand, which was prominent in Quebec. In 1934, Arcand established the Parti National Social Chrétien (National Social Christian Party), which advocated anti-communism and promoted the deportation of Canadian Jews to Hudson Bay, an idea that was inspired by his friend, noted British Rhodesian fascist Henry Hamilton Beamish, who suggested sending the Jews to Madagascar. Even then, R. B. Bennett secretly hired Arcand as his chief electoral organizer in Quebec for the 1935 federal election. Arcand’s party statutes called for the following oath to be taken at the beginning of every party meeting:

"Moved by the unshakable faith in God, a profound love for Canada, ardent sentiments of patriotism and nationalism, a complete loyalty and devotion toward our Gracious Sovereign who forms the recognized principle of active authority, a complete respect for the British North America Act, for the maintenance of order, for national prosperity, for national unity, for national honour, for the progress and the happiness of a greater Canada, I pledge solemnly and explicitly to serve my party. I pledge myself to propagate the principles of its program. I pledge myself to follow its regulation. I pledge myself to obey my leaders. Hail the party! Hail our Leader!" 

Arcand never wavered in his belief in Adolf Hitler, and, in the 1960s, was a mentor to Ernst Zündel, who became a prominent Holocaust denier and neo-Nazi propagandist in the latter part of the 20th century.

When a Republican delegation from Spain toured Canada on a recruitment tour for the cause their meetings were regularly disrupted by Arcand’s fascist thugs, much to the delight of Premier Maurice Duplessis and prominent Catholic clerics. These are the same swastika uniformed hooligans who regularly marched through the Montreal Jewish communities threatening Jews and smashing up their businesses while the Montreal police stood idly by, refusing to intervene. During this period both provincial and federal governments in Canada used the illegality of the Communist Party as an excuse to raid the offices of labor leaders and leftist groups, many of whom ended up in prison for extended periods on trumped up charges.

Leading businessmen and politicians were acutely aware that they faced the threat of working class revolution in this difficult period of the Great Depression and, as the contemporary press demonstrates, they focused their anxieties on the person of Leon Trotsky, whose responses to each stage of the unfolding pre-war political crisis were followed avidly in the pages of the leading newspapers. Trotsky was out of power, a wandering exile, with a small number of followers. But if the Russian Revolution had taught the European political elite one thing, it was that a revolutionary leader whose program articulated the needs of masses of people could go from obscurity to power with great rapidity when a revolutionary situation unfolded.

The Spanish Civil War was the culmination of a slowly emerging revolution that began in 1931 with the overthrow of the draconian conservative forces of landowning plutocracy, oppressive Monarchy and the tyrannical Catholic Church, leading to the creation of a democratic republic. In July 1936, the working class of Barcelona resisted the attempted military coup led by General Francisco Franco. The Popular Front Republican government, a disparate mixture of liberals, leftist factions and anarchists, collapsed in the face of this coup and power fell into the hands of the workers, who set up committees of action and militias. But in Spain, unlike Russia, there was no party that was prepared to take power but they all agreed on one thing – Franco and fascism had to be defeated. The most militant sections of the working class were organized by the Anarchist union federation, the CNT, which rejected any form of state power, even a workers’ state. Within this environment of confusion, the Spanish Civil War.

*For accounts of the Canadian involvement in the Spanish Civil War I highly recommend Mark Zuehlke’s The Gallant Cause (1996) and a fascinating new book published by UBC Press by Michael Petrou called Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War (2008).

Anarchism and the Spanish Civil War

Anarchism has long flourished in Spain. The first Anarchist journal, "El Porvenir", was published in 1845, but was quickly silenced.  Branches of the International were established by Guiseppe Fanelli in Barcelona and Madrid.  By 1870, there were over 40,000 Spanish Anarchists members; by 1873, 60,000, mostly organized in workingmen's associations, but in 1874 the movement was forced underground.  In the 1880's and '90's, the Spanish Anarchist movement tended toward terrorism and insurrections.

The Spanish civil war was the perfect opportunity to finally put ideas into action on a large scale.  Factories and railways were taken over.  In Andalusia, Catalonia and Levante peasants seized the land. Autonomous libertarian villages were set up, like those described in Kropotkin's 'The Conquest of Bread'.  Internal use of money was abolished, the land was tilled collectively, the village products were sold or exchanged on behalf of the entire community, and each family received an equal share of necessities they could not produce themselves. Many of these communes were even more efficient than the other villages. Although the Spanish Anarchists failed because they did not have the ability to carry out sustained warfare, they succeeded in inspiring many and showing that Anarchy can work efficiently.

Although two of the greatest Anarchist leaders, Bakunin and Kropotkin, were Russian, totalitarian censorship managed to suppress most of the movement, and it was never very strong in Russia. Only one revolutionary, N.I. Makhno, a peasant, managed to raise an insurrectionary army and, by brilliant guerilla tactics, took temporary control of a large part of the Ukraine from both Red and White armies. His exile in 1921 marked the death of the Anarchist movement in Russia.

There is much more to the anarchists' craving for knowledge about their own past than the Spanish Civil War. History in general was espe­cially important to anarchists because it is in the nature of anarchism, as the denial of rigid ideology, bureaucracy and hierarchy, that it must lack the artificial memory built into formal political institutions. Ironically, this weakness has helped keep anarchism vital by giving it so much of the plasticity that it requires of itself and promises to others. Anarchism continues—still flourishes would be too strong a phrase—in reaction to both authoritarian socialism and slash-and-burn capitalism. Yet without endorsing liberalism unequivocally, save optimism about the future of the humanist enlightenment and the human spirit. Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy and those other nineteenth-century figures were the ultimate idealists, with their dream of a free association of equally free individuals acting in their own collective best interests, without the yoke of government or other man-made institutions. Their faith in the essential goodness of human nature has never been surpassed; it can hardly be equaled without lapsing into organized corporate religion—a superfluous progression, given the vernacular religious impulse that often underlay those classic anarchists of old.


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