The Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War

Post date: 02/06/2016

This article is based on a talk given by Tom Sibley in London on 20 May 2016 at the Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies. If you wish to comment on the article and have your response posted online, send your contribution to

Later this year we mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and in October celebrate the formation of the International Brigades, formed from volunteers from over 40 countries and organised by the international communist movement. Aid for Spain movements sprang up across the globe mainly at the instigation of national communist parties but with broad labour and progressive movement support. These developments mark the high point of international solidarity and owed much to the leadership and support of the Soviet Union, together with the commitment of hundreds of thousands of communists working in every continent of the world.


The political and military contexts were challenging indeed. From the beginning of the 1930s onwards fascism was on the march both in Europe and Asia. By 1936 extreme nationalist parties and movements held sway in Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Japan, amongst others. And in Britain Mosley’s Blackshirts were strutting their stuff, threatening both the Jewish community and the democratic rights of the British people as a whole.


in the face of what appeared to many to be an inexorable fascist tide, within the international communist movement there was much debate about the way both to advance socialist objectives and to defend democratic rights and national sovereignty. The response was the Popular Front strategy adopted by the 7th World Congress of Comintern held in the summer of 1935. This recognised, albeit tacitly, that in this new situation a Bolshevik-style revolution was doomed to failure and that to make advances towards a socialist goal the working class movement had to make alliances with a range of potential anti-fascist forces. So the Popular Front strategy was both offensive and defensive – a way forwards towards a socialist society and a means of defending democratic freedoms. At the centre of this was the need to defend the Soviet Union, the first socialist state which many saw as Hitler’s main target in his expansionist strategy. It was in this context that Togliatti, the Comintern’s representative in Spain during the civil war described it as “an integral part of the anti-Fascist struggle which rests on the widest social base. It is a popular revolution. It is a national revolution. It is an anti-Fascist revolution.”


Nowhere was this clearer than in Spain, where a reforming Government which ushered in the Second Republic in 1931 was replaced in 1933 by a brutally repressive government with fascist representation. By 1935 all progressive parties and movements saw the need for an electoral pact and united action to defeat the right. The Popular Front parties procured a narrow electoral victory in 1936 on a mildly progressive programme which included modest reforms affecting the entrenched interest of the Church, army, the big landlords and capitalist interests, including those of British investors.


In July 1936 the Spanish army officer corps with General Franco in the vanguard rebelled and staged a military coup claiming that the communists were about to take power and that their first act would be to destroy the Church.


In the very early days of the civil war, particularly in the big towns, armed workers’ militias succeeded in defeating the rebels, driving them out of barracks and confiscating their armoury. At the end of July over two-thirds of Spain remained in Republican government hands.


It was at this stage, with Franco’s forces facing the possibility of defeat, that the civil war became a war of intervention against the Spanish people and their right to self-government. Franco called on his Nazi and Fascist friends and asked for both modern weaponry and trained personnel in order to overthrow a democratically elected government. Hitler and Mussolini obliged with thousands of troops and airmen and copious supplies of tanks, planes and bombs. It was this intervention which turned possible defeat for Franco into probable victory, although it took a further two and a half years to achieve this.


Although the Soviet Union at the start of the civil war had no diplomatic representation in Spain it took a close interest in the developing situation. From the beginning it expressed its solidarity with the Spanish people and the Republican government. Oil supplies, food and clothing and other non-military provisions, financed by workplace collections all across the Soviet Union arrived during the early weeks. The Communist Party and the Soviet press led mass campaigns and organised huge demonstrations rallying the people behind the general slogan addressed to the Spanish people: “Remember you are not alone, we are with you.”


From the beginning of the civil war the Soviet leadership proclaimed that the Republican cause was the cause of progressive mankind throughout the world. As Stalin said in a telegram to the Spanish Communist Party: “The liberation of Spain from the yoke of the fascist reactionaries is not the private concern of Spaniards alone but the common cause of all progressive humanity.”


But the Soviet call for international solidarity with the democratically elected Republican government fell on stony ground in the ruling circles around the world. The governments of Britain and France backed a phoney non-intervention pact. This acted to prevent the Republican government from buying the arms it desperately needed, while major US oil and motor companies provided Franco with substantial supplies of fuel and vehicles on heavily discounted terms. Only the Soviet Union and Mexico at state level stood by the Republican side. Throughout the civil war the Soviet Union provided Spain with large quantities of mainly modern weaponry plus food and other forms of material aid, as well as staunch political support at the League of Nations. And on the initiative of the CPSU leadership Comintern organised a volunteer fighting force numbering around 40,000 combatants and medical staff coming from over 40 countries. The International Brigades played a vital role in the defence of Madrid in the early months of the war and throughout the war provided living proof to the Span people that they were not alone. 


Give or take some of the detail, the historiography of the civil war, at least among mainstream historians, accepts that the Soviet Union gave impressive levels of support to the Republican cause and that the International Brigades represented an outstanding expression of international solidarity. But while the facts about levels of support are generally accepted, many historians and commentators question the Soviet Union’s motives. We can safely ignore the views of the CIA-sponsored right-wing, which in this context includes Orwell, who claimed that Stalin wanted to establish a satellite state in Spain. These claims are backed by not a shred of evidence. Indeed they contradict all that we know about Soviet foreign policy at the time as well as the strategy of the international communist movement which was to build an anti-Hitler alliance of nations to avert the threat of a European war and the spread of fascism. Others, including Orwell, claim that Stalin’s main motivation was to quash what these critics saw as a nascent social revolution behind the Republican lines. This so-called revolution was heavily tinged with Catalan nationalism and geographically very limited. It was without either a coherent strategy or the means to carry it forward. Led by a strong anarchist movement it was characterised by high levels of civil violence, forced collectivisation and fierce anti-clericalism, all factors which alienated broad sections of Spanish and international opinion from the Republican cause. 


Throughout the civil war the Soviets were careful not to intervene in the affairs of the Republican government, though in the early days of the war the Soviet leaders put forward three suggestions for consideration.


1. Measures should be taken to satisfy the aspirations of the peasants. The peasants should be encouraged to join the Republican army and also to form guerrilla groups in the rear of Franco’s forces.

2. The petit bourgeoisie and the middle bourgeoisie should be attracted to support the government or at least take an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards it. They should be protected from attempts to confiscate their property and should have freedom to conduct their businesses, otherwise they will support the fascists. 

3. It is necessary to prevent the enemies of Spain from seeing in it a communist Republic, thereby preventing their open intervention which constituted the most serious danger facing the Republic. 


The advice given stresses the importance of building the Popular Front among people as well as political leaderships. Spain was in 1936 a nation of peasants, small business people and professional workers. The urban working class was a minority and was politically divided with socialist and anarchist movements competing fiercely for membership, influence and trade union affiliations. The need to build broad class alliances was accepted by all section of the Popular Front apart from dissident anarchists and the Trotskyist-influenced POUM. This was not as some critics argue simply to appease international opinion. It was mainly in order to build an ant-fascist front strong enough to provide the troops for a Popular Army, mainly from the peasantry, and the sinews of a modernised democratic state capable of mobilising massive support for the struggle against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. In practice, however, only the Spanish Communist Party had the commitment, policy and strategy to construct cross-class alliances in order to cement the popular unity project at both military and civil society levels. But all of the mainstream left accepted that it was necessary to build alliances and any actions which attacked the interests of the peasantry and the small business community would split the popular unity forces, and in some cases throw potential supporters into Franco’s camp. 


Soviet assistance

The Soviet Union provided crucial assistance at all stages of the civil war. Without modern Soviet arms, particularly aircraft, tanks and machine guns, and without the infusion of the International Brigade, Madrid would almost certainly have fallen in early 1937, and without Madrid the rest of the country would have followed shortly afterwards. But the Soviets could not and did not seek to intervene in Spanish affairs. Even if they had wanted to they could not have promoted a Bolshevik-style revolution, nor conversely could they have quashed one in the interests of appeasing British and French sensibilities. As Juan Negrín the Spanish premier put it: “Whenever the USSR supported the justice of our cause she has never at any time demanded any quid pro quo. And from this disinterestedness springs our friendship and our gratitude to Russia.” (September 1937)


What determined the outcome of the war was the refusal of the Western democracies to stand up to Franco and Hitler and to provide the democratically elected Spanish government with arms and diplomatic support. To borrow and misuse a Hilary Bennism, the Soviets did their bit with knobs on, while the Brits, included the labour movement leadership, sat on their hands and in effect ushered in the Second World War. 


The Spanish gold question

Much has been written about the Spanish gold reserves and the provision of war materials by the Soviet Union. Early in the civil war and before the communists were represented in the Republican government the socialist Prime Minister Largo Caballero and Finance Minister Negrín took the decision to relocate the country’s substantial gold reserves. They did so for fear that otherwise they would fall into the hands of Franco’s advancing army. And they decided to send the gold to the Soviet Union knowing that British and French banks would not release such funds to in effect break the non-intervention pact to which their governments were signed up.


It appears that the Spanish ministers made this decision unilaterally and without pressure from the Soviet government. Their decision did of course suit both sides. The Republican government secured their reserves while freeing them up to buy arms form the Soviet Union directly and to finance purchases on the international arms market through Soviet agents. 


It has been argued that the Soviets abused this arrangement. But it should be remembered that in 1936 the Soviet Union was no economic or military superpower, so the amount of aid it could provide was constrained particularly since on its Asian borders it was also supplying Chinese nationalists with arms to aid their struggle against Japanese imperialism and occupation. Remember too that by 1936 it was becoming clearer by the day that Hitler and his allies posed an existential threat to the Soviet Union, particularly since Britain and France refused to commit to collective security arrangements against a common threat. The Soviets’ first responsibility was the defence of its own people. And yet in 1936 over 50 per cent of all Soviet arms production was sent to Republican Spain. This had to be replaced and replaced quickly. The Spanish payments made this possible.


By 1938 the Spanish gold reserves had been exhausted. In the face of a massive offence by Franco’s forces in Catalonia the Spanish Government asked the Soviets for military equipment valued in current money at the best part of a billion pounds. Stalin agreed to extend a credit line to cover the Spanish government's request knowing full well that the loan would never be repaid and that the Republicans were facing almost certain defeat. Unfortunately the French authorities failed to facilitate the swift transfer of these arms and by the time they arrived at the Catalonian front it was too late to prevent a swift victory for Franco.


Some commentators claim that the Soviet authorities, by manipulating exchange rates and other methods, short-changed the Republicans, and others say that many of the guns supplied were old and dysfunctional. It is clear that private-sector arms dealers, which in extremis were used by both the Soviets and the Republican government, did what arms dealers do – they exploited a seller’s market to the full. But it is also clear that much of the weaponry provided by the Soviets was state of the art and extremely effective. The main problem here was the lack of training and inadequate tactical nous in the use of this weaponry. What cannot be denied is that Soviet arms saved Madrid in early 1937. They also enabled the Popular Army to regroup in late 1937 to emerge as an effective fighting force capable of launching successful offences, although seldom able to sustain them, usually for lack of trained reserves. 


Both Bill Alexander, Commander of the British Battalion at Teruel, and Bert Ramelson, who later became Industrial Organiser of the CPGB, have attested to the quantity and quality of the planes, machine-guns and tanks provided by the Soviet Union. But there was always a shortage of reliable rifles and matching ammunition. These should have been provided by the Spanish small arms industry based mainly in anarchist-controlled Barcelona but this was not efficiently organised until Negrín became Prime Minister in May 1937. 


Soviet secret police and the May 1937 events

Many accounts give great emphasis to the role of the Soviet secret police (the NKVD) in orchestrating the oppression of POUM and other enemies of the Popular Front government. And yet at a recent meeting chaired by the leading British historian Paul Preston, former NKVD operative Boris Volodarsky, who has written extensively on the Spanish Civil War, stated that there were no NKVD prisons in Spain. Neither were there that many Soviet agents in Spain. Their allotted task was to keep an eye on foreigners attached to both the International Brigades and Franco’s forces, as well as the Italian and German secret services operating in Spain.


From the first days of the war it became clear to the Republicans that agents and fifth columnists were infiltrating political and military structures across the board. The Spanish counter-espionage services were poorly organised and ineffective. So the Republican government turned to the Soviets for advice and assistance in order to re-organise and sharpen up its security operations. A small group of NKVD officers were sent to Span and this was later supplemented by Red Army intelligence offices and experienced operatives from other Comintern countries. Soviet agents were there at the request of the Spanish government and in a purely advisory capacity. The evidence suggests that this remit was by and large followed and that Soviet agents were accountable to the Republican authorities.


To some the infamous case of Andreu Nin appears to contradict this assessment of the NKVD’s role. Nin was the leader of the POUM, a small Marxist group influenced by Trotskyism. On 3 May 1937 POUM and a large group of dissident anarchist activists staged an armed insurrection in Barcelona against the Republican government. In the ensuing fighting over 500 of them were killed in what has been described as a civil war within the civil war. The anarchist leadership condemned the insurrection but POUM continued to demand the overthrow the government and call for its replacement by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets, with delegates appointed by their organisation, not elected by the people as a whole. 


It is often claimed by ultra-left apologists that Soviet NKVD men acted as agents provocateurs to encourage the Anarchist/POUM-led insurrection. But a leading modern authority on the civil war, the Spanish historian Ángel Viñas, having studied the relevant Moscow archives, concludes that there was no Soviet involvement. Furthermore he provides conclusive evidence the anarchists had laid careful plans for an uprising and that they had accumulated large quantities of arms including tanks for that purpose. He also shows that anarchist militiamen had left the Aragon Front in previous weeks and returned to Barcelona. 


This action was the culmination of several months of anti-government agitation. It was sparked by a government decree to disband the militia, to re-allocate the militias’ men and arms to the Popular Army under a central command. When unarmed police tried to repossess the telephone exchange from the anarchist-led workforce in order to improve military links between Barcelona and Valencia they were fired on and this was the signal for the anarchists to launch an all-out assault on government buildings and personnel.


The uprising was put down within three days. Outside of Barcelona there was no support for this brutal attack on government forces loyal to the Republic. And in Barcelona itself most workers accepted the advice of their political and trade union leaders and stayed at home for the duration of the fighting. The POUM leadership was immediately arrested on the orders of the newly appointed Prime Minister, Juan Negrín. Nin was interrogated for several days and then disappeared. According to Volodarsky he was probably shot by Spanish military police without the sanction of government ministers, but the body was never found and there is no clear corroborating evidence, though every likelihood that Nin was murdered. The POUM was subsequently banned and its leadership tried on charges of taking up arms against the state. They were given long prison sentences by a non-military court. Not one was executed. 


It is of course important to contextualise these events. At a time of war, a war in which the Republic was constantly on the back foot, a group of ultra-leftists took up arms against an elected anti-fascist government and called on its supporters to open fire on the Republic’s police force. What do you imagine would have happened if the British state was faced with a similar situation? My guess is summary execution by firing squad for the leaders of such a revolt.


It would be naïve to believe that Soviet agents and Soviet diplomats did not, on occasion, try to press the Republican government to take stronger action against what the Soviets saw as Trotskyist traitors objectively assisting the fascist cause. There is strong evidence to support that documents were forged and reports doctored to indicate direct links between POUM members and Franco’s intelligence agencies. Whilst such links undoubtedly existed, there was little credible evidence that these were ever sanctioned by the POUM leadership. 


The reality is that most POUM activists were committed anti-fascists. Unfortunately their misguided actions served to weaken the Republican cause. It is also clear that any Soviet pressure to quash POUM was directed at an open door – all sections of the Popular Front supported the banning of POUM. Despite this, the Republican cause was harmed internationally by these actions, linked as they were to POUM’s earlier denunciation of the Moscow trials. The attempts, almost certainly orchestrated by Soviet advisers, to label POUM members as fascists and part of an international Trotskyist conspiracy were both dishonest and counter-productive. 


Most of the accounts of the crackdown on POUM alleging Soviet complicity come from two discredited NKVD officers and George Orwell – the latter producing no evidence for his apriori version of history. As Paul Preston points out, one of the officers, Walter Krivitsky, was never in Spain and all the so-called facts in his book were actually invented by a ghost writer, while Orlov defected to the United States and re-wrote history in order to please the FBI and to earn a living writing well-paid articles for Life magazine. 


The no score draw thesis

Let’s turn now to what I will call the no-score draw thesis. Unlike Orwell, the ILP and the CIA-sponsored right, most serious commentators acknowledge that the Soviet Union played an important role in sustaining the Republic’s defence of Spain’s democracy and national independence. But in recent years a consensus has emerged summed up by Paul Preston, who is widely recognised as the foremost authority on the Spanish Civil War. When analysing Stalin’s motives he says this: “Stalin helped the Spanish Republic not in order to hasten its victory but rather to prolong its existence sufficiently to keep Hitler bogged down in an essential adventure.” And when discussing Stalin’s aims Preston asserts: “Essentially he needed to prevent the Republic being defeated but he wished to avoid an outright victory for the Spanish revolutionary left.” The comment about the revolutionary left is easily dealt with. First there was never a possibility of the self-proclaimed revolutionaries, by which Preston means the anarchists and POUM plus a tiny fragment of left socialists, winning any sort of victory – the anarchists had no strategy, POUM was tiny and the socialist left were a sectarian group wedded to reform through Parliament. The anarchists were a mass movement but at several points (for example in May 1937 and February 1939 when they backed Casado’s coup which overthrew the Republican government) they were more intent on defeating the communists than they were in fighting the fascists. 


Stalin urged the Popular Front government to incorporate the anarchists, whose mass membership was crucial to the war effort in the factories, on the land and in the army. But there is no evidence, and nor could there be, that Stalin saw the possibility of a socialist revolution in Spain during the early years of the Spanish Civil War. What he did see was civil violence behind the lines as anarchists attacked and murdered clerics and forced through collectivisation against the wish of the peasantry and small business owners. And he saw the treachery of POUM when they turned their guns on Republican forces in Barcelona in May 1937. Stalin knew that to defeat Franco and his powerful allies it was essential to build a modern army with a unified command structure and that to do so undisciplined anarchic practices and romantic revolutionary notions of democratically controlled militias, each responsible to their own organisations, had to be stamped out or rejected. Neither, I would venture after the heady days of July 1936, when the militias drove out Franco’s troops from Barcelona and Madrid, did Stalin see any possibility of hastening a Republican victory. Once German and Italian forces where involved in large numbers the best that could be hoped for was a change in the non-intervention policy of the western democracies and a diplomatic initiative which would result in Hitler and Mussolini withdrawing their forces. This may have been a slim hope and yet were it not for the Casado coup which enjoyed the enthusiastic support of both the anarchists and the anti-Negrín socialists it is possible that the Republican army, still strong in central south Spain, could have held out until war broke out in Europe, which development would have of course ended the farce of non-intervention.


As to the second proposition, that of keeping Hitler bogged down in order to prevent the Nazi war machine turning eastwards towards the Soviet Union, this may well have been a consideration following the defeat of the Republic’s Ebro offensive. But it was almost certainly a secondary consideration. Throughout the civil war Stalin stood by the Republic, supplying arms and providing political and diplomatic support. This continued to the end despite the increased threat to the Soviet Union due to the Munich Agreement and the increased call on Soviet resources as the nationalist Chinese asked for military aid to repel the Japanese invasion. 


This unwavering anti-fascist stance was a central plank of Soviet foreign policy in the second half of the 1930s. Stalin knew that Hitler always aimed to turn east and that collective security pacts with France and Britain were the best way of stalling Hitler’s expansionist objectives. He also knew that Britain in particular was an unreliable potential partner and that the British ruling class was prepared to appease Hitler and Mussolini rather than recognise the threat that fascism posed to world peace and British interests in the world. It was an open secret that British ruling circles would not have been unhappy to see Hitler attack the Soviet Union and become embroiled in a long costly war which sapped the strength of both sides.


By 1936 the Soviet position was that the only way to defeat fascist aggression was to stand up to it. If Hitler and Mussolini remained unchallenged militarily and politically and left free to attack democratic states, then they would go from one outrageous venture to another. The Spanish people, with the assistance of the Soviet Union, showed that it was possible to stand up to fascism and to battle against what appeared to be impossible odds. But Britain maintained its appeasement policies, preferring “peace in our time” to an anti-fascist alliance with the Soviet Union. Peace in our time proved to be pie in the sky and within a few months of Franco marching unopposed into Madrid World War II broke out.



Let us look at the Soviet Union’s options. Firstly doing nothing was not an option even if it might have been well-received in government circles in London and Paris. And at the other end of the spectrum it was not possible to send the Red Army at a few weeks’ notice without an invitation from the Spanish government and with every prospect of sparking a European-wide war. But in between these extremes there were a number of possibilities. Aid could have been restricted to non-military provisions, for example food, clothing, oil. Political support could have been directed at working in the Non-Intervention Committee and mobilising the world communist movement to put pressure on national governments to support the Republican cause at the League of Nations. Limited action of this kind would have minimised levels of disquiet in London and Paris, but the Soviets chose to listen to the requests coming from the Republican government and within their means responded to them promptly and with generosity.


The essence of the Soviet position was this. With the intervention of Germany and Italy it was not possible for the Republican side to win the civil war without support from Britain and France. In the early months of the war Stalin supported the Non-Intervention Pact in order to limit Franco’s ability to secure arms. This position was supported by the Republican government. But once it because clear that German and Italian armoury was pouring into Spain to support the rebels in defiance of the Non-Intervention Pact, the Soviets knew that the balance of forces was tipped decisively in Franco’s favour. There was no way in 1936-37 that the Soviets could match the support given by Germany at Italy. Remember that at that time the Soviet Union was not a major industrial or military superpower, and remember the logistical problems involved in transporting Soviet arms to the Republican side. As the war drew out it became increasingly difficult to get shipments through. Both the Soviet and Republican sides were short of merchant shipping and Soviet arms shipments to Spanish ports were either intercepted or bombed by the Italian and German navies and air forces. Shipments sent to French ports were often held by the local authorities for months on end and at crucial times (for example, the defence of Catalonia in late 1938 to early 1939) arrived too late to be of use. So the only way of redressing the balance was for Britain and France either to enforce the Non-Intervention Pact on Germany and Italy or to end the pact so that Republican Spain could obtain arms on the international market. So the Soviets and Republican Prime Minister Negrín made every effort at the League of Nations to win the war of diplomacy. To do this, with any hope of success, they knew that military resistance had to be sustained for as long as possible. And in the forefront of their minds was always the possibility that world events would force Britain and France into the anti-fascist camp.


I do not know how the International Brigades and the Soviet Union’s solidarity efforts will be marked in Russia during this 80th anniversary year. But I do know that at some stage in the future the Russian people will look back with great pride on the support that their forebears gave to Republican Spain. This was, after all, the finest hour in the history of international solidarity.

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