When idealists go to battle: why the Spanish Civil War still matters

The long shadow cast by the Spanish Civil War is more potent because the progressives lost.

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The Spanish Civil War holds a perennial fascination for a non-Spanish audience. Even if we cannot quite claim to have “Spain in our hearts”, histories of the conflict have kept alive the liberal conviction that the republican cause was just, while Franco’s emerging dictatorship was not. At least one veteran interviewed by Adam Hochschild in his absorbing study of the Americans who went to fight in Spain reflects simply: “I wish we’d won.” It is difficult after reading these three volumes not to echo that wistful response.

In recent years there has been some attempt to rescue historically the nationalist cause, with its conservative defence of nation, church and family, and at the same time to highlight the atrocities perpetrated by the republican side. Indeed, the Western powers used the reputation of the left in Spain to explain their unwillingness to help the legitimate government formed by an alliance of republicans. Even-handedness,
however, has its limits. Spain’s Second ­Republic represented the aspirations of millions of impoverished Spaniards to overturn long decades of extreme economic and social exploitation and to destroy the inherited power of the Catholic Church and the old landowners. The bitterness of the conflict came about not because the left was uniquely violent and unruly, but because the nationalists used terror and atrocity as their means to eradicate any vestige of the surviving democratic spirit in Spain. One American journalist, Hochschild writes, witnessed a nationalist officer pushing two young girls captured from the republican militia into a room of forty Moorish ­soldiers. When he protested, the officer merely shrugged and told him that the girls would be raped to death in a few hours. No amount of special pleading is ever going to turn Franco’s campaign into a decent ­defence of conservative values.

For millions of Europeans and Americans this was evident from the start of the war in 1936. The young idealists who ventured out to Spain to volunteer on the side of the Republic, despite objections by their mealy-mouthed governments, went there as the vanguard of popular opposition to fascism and all it seemed to represent. Their ideals varied, and their motives, too, but they shared an embedded hostility to extreme nationalism, ruling-class power, capitalist self-interest and social intolerance.

These were ideals powerfully held and powerfully expressed, captured in the wealth of contemporary literature – novels, poetry, short stories – that the conflict generated, and sustained in most of the literature on the war produced ever since. Writers were generally on the side of the angels. When various British authors were invited in 1937 by the heiress Nancy Cunard to say where they stood on the war, only two showed any sympathy for Franco. This bias is evident in the useful collection of writings on the civil war selected and edited by Pete Ayrton, who has also included many Spanish and Catalan authors in his anthology. Most of the pieces are fiction, although many are rooted in real experience.

It is not easy to explain why images of the civil war are so evocative. In some cases very fine writers were involved directly, and not just Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, but a host of others, too, Spanish and non-Spanish. Partly it is because Spain is near and far, a part of Europe yet a part cut off from the mainstream, with a culture and history that in the 1930s made it seem an exotic destination. Partly it is because of the geography, human and physical. The high sierras, the wide and arid plains, the miles of forested hillside, the architectural mix of the Arab and the Gothic, the great diversity of peoples and milieus, all helped to make Spain a writer’s dream, so different from life in Britain, France or even the United States. Spain generated in writers the same romantic attachment to place and people that can be found in literature on Russia: both at the extreme edge of Europe, both with an ancient history, both experiencing European modernisation in their own, distinct way.

Why, then, did the Republic fail? There is plenty of contemporary judgement that idealism alone is not enough to confront a determined and savage enemy. This may be true in its way (though there was idealism of a different sort on the nationalist side, too) but the answer is evidently more complicated. All three of the books reviewed here, marking the 80th anniversary of the start of the conflict, make the point that the fault lines in the republican constituency were critical. The Spanish centre and left were divided between moderate socialists and democrats – for whom civil war was an uncongenial consequence of the political crisis – and communists, Trotskyists organised in the POUM, and Spanish anarchists, particularly strong in Catalonia.

Despite Popular Front rhetoric, these various groups were scarcely reconcilable. Communist officials, under direct instructions from Moscow, murdered their anarchist and Trotskyist allies; anarchists murdered Trotskyists; democratic socialists were distrusted by all the more radical groups. When Orwell entered Spain he decided on a whim to join the POUM, and a few months later only just managed to escape across the frontier to avoid arrest and possible execution by the enemies of his chosen militia. Surprisingly, these conflicts did not stop the republican side from fighting the nationalists, though they certainly inhibited the centralisation of the war effort and a spirit of effective collaboration between the various elements. Given the growing disparity in arms and organisation between the two sides, it is remarkable that the Republic lasted as long as it did.

Nevertheless, by the autumn of 1938 it was clear that the Republic had lost. Franco’s forces made heavy weather of the campaign, partly to ensure that the captured areas were savagely “pacified”, treating the Spanish people as if they were colonial rebels. An estimated 150,000 people died at the hands of the nationalists over the course of the civil war, some of them murdered in grotesque displays, some killed to satisfy a sadistic urge for vendetta. The question facing the embattled republican government, with no allies internationally (except for the dubious value of support from Moscow), was how to end the conflict in a way that would not bring on a final bloodbath of revenge. It is this awkward ending that supplies the subject matter of Paul Preston’s latest book on the war. He reconstructs in meticulous detail the death agonies of the regime, played out between three anti-heroes: Juan Negrín, the Republic’s last prime minister; Segismundo Casado, an ambitious colonel who chose to overthrow him at the last moment; and Julián Besteiro, an ageing ­political ally of Casado’s who hoped to broker terms with Franco.

This unhappy trio shared the belief that it might be possible to find a way to end the war by agreement with the nationalists, perhaps even establish an honourable peace. Franco, not unnaturally, wanted unconditional surrender because he was in a position to insist on it. Preston is harsh on the latter two of his trio for undermining the possibility of Negrín brokering a settlement, and blames Besteiro, who in this account proves a brave and principled man in the face of defeat and arrest, for deluding himself that terms could be agreed that might protect the population. In this bleak time, he seems more honourable than that.

Preston’s sympathies lie with those who argued that continued resistance was the only realistic option and who recognised that with Franco no compromise was possible. Yet surely this begs the question as to whether the Republic had any further power to resist. Continued resistance would have led to more deaths in the field and an even more remorseless repression once Franco had won. The indecisions and confusions of the final weeks of the war certainly made flight and possible safety difficult for the remnants of the republican army, but it is a daunting task to explain why Franco would ever have agreed to let his enemies go.

This argument also sidesteps the problem that getting access to sanctuary in France, or anywhere else, was dangerous. A brave Welsh sea captain, Archibald Dickson, took one of the last boatloads of refugees through the nationalist blockade and out of Alicante, crammed so full that the vessel threatened to sink, but it had to remain afloat outside the French empire port of Oran in Algeria for a month, short of food and water, because the authorities would not allow the men among the people on board to disembark. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands who made it across the border to France were put in concentration camps, in appalling conditions, and used as virtual forced labour to help build French defences against the German threat. It was an insulting end to the ordeal that Spanish republicans had undergone fighting against Franco and his German ally, with no help forthcoming from the French government.

For the foreign fighters, there were also paradoxes to confront. The American volunteers in Hochschild’s account were among those International Brigades sent home from Spain in November 1938 with the words of the republican heroine Dolores Ibárruri ringing in their ears: “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend.” When the volunteers for the Brigades returned to the US they had their passports confiscated and found themselves the victims of official scrutiny for defending the “communist” republic. One volunteer was so anxious that he burned his own account of the war in case the FBI found it. That the ideals they had fought for in Spain were ideals also enshrined in their own political tradition made little difference. The few black members of the American Brigade were subjected to routine discrimination once they were back in democratic America.

The messy aftermath of the conflict raises questions that have a powerful resonance for us. The present refugee crisis strongly echoes the crises that faced Spaniards as they struggled to find anywhere that would take them in. Syrian and Iraqi refugees today are also victims of a cruel civil war in which the West pays lip-service to humanitarian ideals but is cagey about the human consequences. On the other side are “international brigades” of Muslim fighters travelling to support Isis. The analogy is nevertheless a strained one. The Spanish war was recognisably a European ideological conflict and the refugees then were fleeing from a force that threatened to engulf the continent.

If there is a contemporary resonance, it lies in the current European crisis, exemplified by the Brexit referendum, which has revived nationalism, social and racial intolerance, and the politics of exclusion. Across the continent there are profound divisions between those who espouse inclusion and internationalism and those who reject them. This is not the 1930s, but the net effect may be to push Europe back to an age of national self-interest and political polarisation from which the European Union was intended to rescue it.

The fascination of the Spanish Civil War for a modern audience is precisely that the forces of progressive idealism lost, and today’s idealists, like Hochschild’s veteran, wish they had not. How to stop it happening again is a challenge to all who share something of that idealism.

Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter. His books include “The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars” (Penguin)

¡No Pasarán! Writings from the Spanish Civil War, edited by Pete Ayrton, is published by Serpent’s Tail (448pp, £20)

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) by Adam Hochschild is published by Macmillan (442pp, £25)

The Last Days of the Spanish Republic by Paul Preston is published by William Collins (390pp, £25)