Tom Sibley writes…
This week we mark the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War. After nearly three years of heroic resistance the Republican forces succumbed, facing as they did the combined might of Franco’s army supported as it was with copious supplies of armed and trained soldiery provided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Until the end of February 1939 Prime Minister Juan Negrín and his only reliable allies, the communists, were determined to fight on despite a series of crushing military defeats in Catalonia. The Republicans still controlled a large area of central Spain and had over 500,000 men under arms. It was Negrín’s belief that, if the Republican side could hold on for a few more months, it was just possible that the gathering war clouds over Europe would force the Western powers to take military and diplomatic action against Franco. The alternative, an outright victory for Franco was unthinkable given Franco’s track record of revengeful violence and his total disregard for human rights, civil liberties and international law. The following months and years were to prove that Negrín’s forebodings were well justified.
In early March under the leadership of Colonel Casado, appointed commander of the Republican Army of the Centre the previous year, a group of renegade Republican military and political leaders, including well known socialists and anarchists, formed the Consejo Nacional de Defensa (CND) with the intention of deposing the elected Popular Front government. The renegades’ actions were informed by virulent anti-communism as were Franco’s in 1936. They justified their treachery by claiming that the Communist Party, backed by Negrín and the Soviet Union, was about ‘to take control of all levers of power in the Republican Zone’ and ‘that Spain was about to fall under a Stalinist dictatorship’. Given that Franco’s victory was by that time inevitable these claims were absurd.
The CND began arresting Madrid communists and their supporters. When these actions were forcibly resisted a civil war within the civil war broke out. For the first few days communists held the initiative and were on the verge of defeating Casado’s coalition troops. But, with a nod and a wink from Franco, the 14th Division of the Republic’s Popular Army, controlled by the anarchists and under the direction of General Mera, left an active front in the war against Franco to march on Madrid in order to confront the Republican loyalists. Faced with insurmountable odds, the communists were forced to leave their strongholds and retreat. Over 1,000 communists and supporters were killed in their last-ditch and failed attempt to save the Republic. Some two weeks later Franco’s army marched unopposed into Madrid. And all attempts to negotiate favourable peace terms came to nothing as Franco ruthlessly pressed home his military advantage.
General Franco at his victory parade in Madrid on 19 May 1939.
At the time many saw Casado’s coup as a cowardly betrayal. The author of ‘Homage to Catalonia’, George Orwell, took a contrary view. In a review of Casado’s memoirs published in January 1940, Orwell wrote in his usual omniscient style: ‘Considering the actual military situation it is difficult not to feel that Casado was right.’ Yet those on the spot, or at least those who remained loyal to their Republican cause and saw the dangers inherent in a Fascist victory, thought otherwise. Even Orwell came to recognise the error of welcoming Franco’s victory. Less than a year after his original review he declared that Franco’s victory was a disaster for the Spanish people.
In the early 1940s, probably influenced by discussions with Negrín, who was at the time in exile in Britain, Orwell had second thoughts. He conceded that the war was not lost because of splits on the left and the suppression of the POUM (Partido Obrera de Unificación Marxista) by Popular Front government forces. Rather, contra to ‘Homage to Catalonia’, he had come to the view (in ‘Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War’, 1943) that ‘the Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false. The fascists won because they were stronger (militarily). No political strategy could offset that.’ But Orwell made little, if any, attempt to ensure that future editions of ‘Homage to Catalonia’ reflected his true views on the POUM and the real reasons for the Republic’s defeat. He and his publishers preferred to retain the anti-communist and anti-Soviet views expressed in the book, knowing that these were in line with the Cold War positions which found favour in the late 1940s with the political establishment of both Britain and the United States.
Although the Republican side was defeated, the stand taken by democratic Spain showed that it was possible to confront the growing threat of expansionist fascism. Notwithstanding the adverse balance of military forces, the example of the Spanish Republican army, aided by the International Brigades and supported by the Soviet Union, was to inspire the resistance movement throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. In many respects the Spanish Civil War was the first battle in the struggle to defeat Nazism. That the Second World War was won owes much to the stance taken by the Spanish people and the International Brigades, who showed that it was necessary and possible to stand up to the fascist war machine, thus showing up the futility of the appeasement strategy of the Western powers before 1939. But the fruits of this victory were not passed on to the Spanish people. Over the next 35 years many thousands were to die in Franco’s prisons while the Western democracies stood aside, seeing Franco as an important ally in the Cold War against the spread of socialism and national liberation.
Among Tom Sibley’s publications is a biography of former Canadian International Brigader Bert Ramelson, ‘Revolutionary Communist at Work’ (Lawrence & Wishart, 2011). He has also co-edited and written an introduction for ‘Two Pamphlets from the Spanish Civil War’ (Manifesto Press, 2019).
Posted on 21 March 2019.