The Spanish Civil War

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

If there was one major event that opened the eyes of the West, it was the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. When it began, in July, the big foreign-affairs issue in Franklin Roosevelt’s first re-election campaign was preservation of American neutrality. By the time it ended, six months before the second world war broke out, the scope and nature of the Nazi threat was clear to anyone willing to see.

That war began with what was supposed to be a quick coup by the military, overthrowing the leftist Spanish Republic. It was supposed to be a three days’ wonder, not even a nine days’ wonder. But the workers took over cities, and part of the military remained faithful to the government, and suddenly the coup was in trouble. A coup that doesn’t succeed in a few days could not be presented as the will of the people, even by the boldest lying (which of course was immediately employed). Without massive injections of troops and equipment from somewhere, the uprising was doomed.

Those troops and that equipment came from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who thought he was going to get another cheap victory to top the one he had achieved the year before in Ethiopia. It was an opportunity for him to show what his troops could do (which, too bad for him, it did). At the same time, Hitler sent Air Force contingents, rotating them every few months, allowing them to practice in actual wartime conditions. But the Spanish resisted, as they always resist foreign domination, and that put the fascist intervention on the world’s front pages and kept it there. And then Russia came to the aid of the Spanish Republic with arms and equipment and experienced officers — but also with commissars and purges and little Stalins, raising the prospect of Spain as a Soviet republic at the gates of the Mediterranean.

The British and French governments turned a blind eye to the fascist intervention, for fear of a Soviet puppet state. It wouldn’t be very long before their people were paying the price. Conservatives in England and France were not happy to see Germany growing so strong so quickly but they were more afraid of Russia which might be geographically more remote but was actively meddling in politics everywhere and seemed to have, in the poor, a vast fifth column in every country. Liberals were split between their anti-fascism and their pacifism. This rendered them totally ineffective against Hitler the master politician.

Western governments refused to sell arms to the Republic, and the peoples of the West gradually learned outrage. The British left in particular learned that their government was their enemy — and they did not forget it in 1945 when they got the chance to overthrow the government and the social system. The Labour government of 1945 and its various socialist reforms is one direct result of the Spanish resistance in 1936, and should be seen as such (but generally isn’t).

Spain bought time. Time for liberals to decide between anti-fascist and anti-militarism; time for Western statesmen particularly in England to reveal themselves as hopelessly unable to combine with workers against fascists; time for the world’s populations to have their attention fixed on the snake-like advance of fascism. That time was bought with Spanish blood. They didn’t die for that purpose, but that was the result. Also — but it didn’t do as much good — the Civil War showed clearly what Stalinism was, if any in the West on the left were willing to see and didn’t already know.

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