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Thoughts on the Spanish Civil War

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Republican officers inspect Soviet armor in Spain

2,525 words

The uprising of General Francisco Franco against the Leftist Republican Spanish government began in July of 1936. The fratricidal bloodbath that was the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1, 1939, with the Republican surrender to Franco’s Nationalist forces. The history of that conflict deserves intense, careful scrutiny, and for a number of reasons. First, of course, for its fascinating, enormous historical complexity.

Spain was the backwater of Western Europe at the war’s outbreak in 1936, but suddenly moved into the international spotlight and became the vortex in which there swirled and intermingled so many of the twentieth century’s dark and sinister forces. Hitler sent his Luftwaffe Condor Legion bombers, Mussolini sent troops, and Stalin sent the International Brigades and his NKVD agents who exported Russian-style secret police terror to the Iberian Peninsula. Compressed into the thirty-three months of this war was almost every ideological, cultural tension of the mid-twentieth century that not only included the competition of Soviet communism with Nazism and Italian fascism, but also secularist-atheist fanatics — Spanish anarchists — who launched a violent assault on Spain’s deeply culturally embedded Roman Catholicism.

Second, as a study in the cynicism and duplicity of international diplomacy, the Spanish Civil War has few rivals. Stalin quickly jumped into the fray. He was secretly hoping to install a Bolshevik-run government on the Mediterranean. However, to ease British fears of communist expansionism to western Europe, he pretended that the Soviet-organized-and-run International Brigades and Soviet aid were all about saving “Spanish democracy” — the 1930s version of the current “our democracy” joke. When it looked like Madrid was going to fall to Franco in the Fall of 1936, Stalin snookered the Spanish socialist government into shipping him seventy-three percent of Spain’s gold reserves — 510 tons — for safekeeping, and to pay inflated prices for the crappy, outdated arms he sent in return. None of the gold ever came back.

Leon Blum, the French Prime Minister of the Left-wing Popular Front government, was eager to help the Leftist Republicans, but being a Jew and a Socialist, he knew he would get lynched by the French Right — hence, French neutrality. British conservatives tilted toward Franco as they contemplated the orgy of arson, rape, and murder of nuns by the Spanish anarchists [2]. Winston Churchill, still in his anti-communist phase, was strongly disposed toward Franco as he was toward Portugal’s strongman, António de Oliveira Salazar. England, like France, remained neutral.

Stalin eventually decided he could maneuver Hitler into a partnership that would enable him to gobble up eastern Poland and the Baltic states. For this, he quietly threw the Spanish Republicans under Franco’s bus. The Molotov-Ribbentrop (Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact) was inked in August, 1939, just four months after Franco’s troops marched into Madrid, a pure coincidence.

To continue with cynicism in its US manifestations: communist fellow traveler Eleanor Roosevelt, corresponding with Leftist journalist Martha Gellhorn in Spain, was rooting for the Republicans, and the American Friends of Spanish Democracy (AFSD) — yes, “democracy,” what else would they call it? — with luminaries such as Albert Einstein, John Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr among its ranks were pushing FDR to support the Republicans. Roosevelt, always the consummate opportunist, however, was looking at the November 1936 election and was concerned with the fallout from the large bloc of urban Catholic voters he needed who thought Franco was preferable to the anarchists who were burning down churches and shooting priests. The U.S. remained neutral.

Hitler and Mussolini, ironically, were perhaps the most open and obvious in their motivations and actions. 

Third, the Spanish Civil War remains the twentieth-century prototype of the trending virtuous-victim ideology. The Republican losers were to acquire the halo of martyrs for democracy. Many of the victims of Franco’s post-victory revenge were from Catalonia. Catalonia’s secessionist ambitions were a major cause of the civil war, and it was, both materially and ideologically, the most vigorous region in opposition to the Nationalists. It was also an anarchist stronghold and the place where George Orwell observed for posterity in Homage to Catalonia the crushing of the non-Stalinist Left (POUM) by Stalin’s NKVD. Today it offers an exotic fusion of hyper-Left-wing politics, academics, and social justice activism. Visiting it now is sort of like finding a Berkeley, Madison, Ann Arbor, and San Francisco all rolled together in a beautiful Mediterranean setting. Standing in front of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, [3] you might think you had just dropped some acid. To see today’s Left’s rapidly decomposing, debauched pathologies proudly with an in-your-face display [4], go to Barcelona — a depressing contrast to conservative, still-somewhat-Catholic, Madrid.

The bloodshed ended in 1939, but did the Spanish Civil War really end when the Republicans finally surrendered to Franco’s Nationalists? No. Two separate thoughts apply here. First, it was a civil war, and unlike conventional wars where the losers sue for peace and the winners, content with the terms, go home, the victors and the vanquished (for the most part) have to live together — intimately, in some cases. The victors take their revenge, daily, in ways big and small. For the vanquished, it’s the experience of resentment that never ceases to fester and is passed through the generations. Moreover, resentment, if properly nourished and managed, can become a powerful political weapon. Think of the aftermath of the American Civil War and the current assault on Confederate monuments and statues. In Spain, resentment rules. Flip Clausewitz and you have the current Spanish Civil War as conducted by the Marxists: “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.”

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You can buy Stephen Paul Foster’s new novel When Harry Met Sally here. [6]

Second, the Spanish Civil War also is, perhaps, unique in the twentieth century as a political-military rebellion where the forces of reaction prevailed against well-organized, highly-energized far-Left terrorism supported by and aligned with the liberal and Left-wing elites in politics, the universities, and haute culture.

Also unique is that the narrative of the Spanish Civil War that eventually triumphed was produced and widely promulgated not by the winners (Francoists) but by the losers (the Left). Its success was due in large part to its simplicity as a tragic, but inspirational morality play. The freedom-loving, democratically elected Republicans, supported and defended by the International Brigades, succumbed to the tides of Spanish fascism under the leadership of General Francisco Franco, goose-stepping in a junior partnership with Hitler and Mussolini.

This is the widely promulgated Manichean version of the Spanish Civil War — the forces of Good, advancing democracy, equality, and freedom, confronting Evil in the form of fascism with its instinctive brutality, militarist atavism, and racial bigotry. It is wonderfully free of any moral ambiguity — the losers as heroes and martyrs in opposition to tyranny and oppression, abandoned by the Western democracies; the winner, a mediocre cretin who took his revenge, built his dictatorship, and finally drifted into senescence.

In 2012, the British Marxist Paul Preston published a massive tome, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. Just the title and sub-title alone are a vicious smear: the Catholic Church does Auschwitz. Preston, a prolific and erudite Spanish Civil War historian, is widely read and admired in Spain. His Spanish Holocaust, predictably, is in keeping with the Left’s reductio ad hitlerum approach to modern history. In the Prologue, he writes: 

I thought long and hard about using the word “holocaust” in the title of this book. I feel intense sorrow and outrage about the Nazis’ deliberate attempt to annihilate European Jewry. I also feel intense sorrow and outrage about the lesser but none the less, massive suffering undergone by the Spanish people during the Civil War of 1936-9 and for several years thereafter, I could find no other word that more accurately encapsulates the Spanish experience than “holocaust.” 

I also feel intense sorrow and outrage at reading this book, but many words could be found to show how tendentious, dishonest, and outrageous Preston’s choice for his title really is. Suffice it to say that he is entirely consistent in playing the Left’s tiresome game of the brown smear and preserving the fiction of the Spanish Civil War as fascism crushing democracy.

Relieved of its romantic For Whom the Bell Tolls mythology, however, the historiography of the Spanish Civil War, thanks to the herculean labors of researchers like Burnett Bolloten [7] and Stanley Payne [8], gives way to the contemplation of communist (Stalinist) duplicity and treachery heavily cloaked in the rhetoric of democracy, equality, and freedom. While contributing human and material assets to the Spanish Republicans ostensibly to resist the fascist rebels, Stalin’s NKVD agents were moving through Spain, rounding up, torturing, and murdering dissident communists, like Andreu Nin [9], taking control of the army, and insinuating themselves deeply into positions of governmental power. Stalin’s Trojan horse modus operandi in Spain was a dress rehearsal for how the communists would operate to support the unfolding of “democracy” in devastated counties like Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Poland at the end of World War II, countries that we all know became models of social equality and so bursting with confidence, prosperity, and opportunity that no one was allowed to leave.

During this civil war, Stalin’s assassins were also chasing his former revolutionary colleague Leon Trotsky around the globe and killing his family members until the Soviet-trained Spaniard, Ramón Mercader [10], murdered him in Mexico City in 1940. Mercader’s mother, incidentally, was Caridad del Río Hernández [11], an ardent communist who fought in the Spanish Civil War and doubled as a Soviet agent. The Leon Trotsky of Stalin’s invention and dissemination was supposedly in league with Franco and the fascists. In historical retrospect, it is difficult to conceive how such a preposterous fiction could have taken hold with anyone, but Stalin’s dramaturgical skill in service to his jealousy and megalomania was second only to the eager gullibility of his acolytes and fellow travelers.

“Fascist” in Stalin’s lexicon was his preferred term for whomever at the moment he saw as a competitor for power, his enemy du jour. Contemporary Stalinists, Antifa still attach it to their political adversaries, a term that now completely lacks denotation and functions purely as an instrument of abuse. Inside the Soviet Union from 1936 through 1938, Stalin purged the bulk of the old Bolsheviks like Bukharin and the senior officer corps, men who, like Trotsky, were supposedly in league with the fascists. Most of them were deeply committed communists, revolutionaries from the early days of the Bolshevik revolution. But Stalin feared and loathed them because he viewed them as competitors for his own power base within the party. Into Spain with the support of Santiago Carrillo and his Spanish communist followers, he exported his signature calumnies, purges, and show trials with the accompanying tortures and executions. His agents moved against Francisco Largo Caballero and the socialists with a ferocity and ruthlessness that was directed against the forces of Franco in lesser proportions. All of the non-Stalinist Left in Spain, at one time or another during the civil war, was linked to or tarnished with the label of fascist.

With “fascism” being so protean and flexible, how absurd to try to render the Spanish Civil war as a battle of democracy against fascism when in many ways it more resembles a replay of French Jacobins against the ancien régime.

However, the resemblance is imperfect. Franco did manage militarily to crush the Republicans and punish and purge all the Spanish Leftists he could get his hands on. He also tried mightily to make twentieth-century Spain into an earlier Catholic Spain — not exactly a strictly fascist sort of obsession, evidenced also by his marginalizing of the Falange after his triumph.

But Franco’s 36 year-long “brutal dictatorship” was largely a bust. The Spanish Jacobins came roaring back, literally. After Franco’s death in 1975, the legendary Spanish Communist and devout Stalinist, La Pasionaria, Deloris Ibárruri [12] of “No pasarán” fame, returned to Spain from exile in the Soviet Union and eventually took an elected seat in the Spanish Parliament. General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) Santiago Carrillo [13] also returned to Spain from the Soviet Union. Carrillo, a scheming, treacherous Stalinist to the core, had supervised the Paracuellos massacres [14] by a Republican faction in 1936. He also arranged for the murder of those Spanish communists who had incurred Stalin’s disapproval during the civil war. Back in post-Franco Spain, Carrillo joined Ibárruri in Parliament. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Autonomous University of Madrid in 2005. La Pasionaria and Carrillo, both very old, with bloody hands and unrepentant, died, so to speak, in the “odor of sanctity” in the crumbling remnants of Franco’s Spain.

It should also be noted that in his recently published biography of Santiago Carrillo, The Last Stalinist: The Life of Santiago Carrillo, Paul Preston notes with approval Carrillo’s 1977 speaking tour in the United States with stops at Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins Universities. Preston mentions no protests at these universities by virulent anti-communists or anyone perhaps offended by such a gracious welcome extended to a butcher and errand boy for one of history’s most vile dictators. From the Harvard Crimson, November 22, 1977: “Professors and graduate students from local universities will dine with [Santiago] Carrillo at the Center for European Studies before this evening’s speech, Peter M. Lange, Associate Professor of Government said. ‘Carrillo will hold a press conference at the Center at 4 p.m. today.’” 

So, last or not, unrepentant or not, for those Stalinists who live long enough, there is forgiveness and dinner with the Harvard faculty. 

Post-Franco, it seemed like only minutes before Spain joined the rest of secularist, consumerist, western Europe with all the once-forbidden goodies — liberated women, no-fault divorce, gay rights, abortion (eventually). With the fading of a Catholic Spain and the Iberian embrace of secular hedonism, you might think that the Spanish Marxists would be happy campers. But, no. Leftists everywhere are unhappy and resentful. Resentment brings victims (as subjects of political patronage) and targets victimizers (as objects of proscription and revenge). In the US the victims are “people of color” and the victimizers are white racists, committed to the retention of their “privilege” and the pursuit of their “supremacy.” In Spain, the left has Franco as the great victimizer, having achieved, per Paul Preston, Hitler status. When you have yet another Hitler in place, there are ample victims for consideration and no place to hide for those who cannot quite grasp the new reality. Franco, unlike Hitler, won his war, and the Spanish, unlike the post-WWII Germans subjected to de-Nazification, managed to elude a systematic de-Francoization. But the Left persists. In 2007 the Socialist Party passed the eerie sounding “Law of Historical Memory” which formally condemned the Franco regime and began the process of the dismantling of all things Franco in Spain — statues, street names, etc. The ultimate prize was Franco’s memorial and tomb, Valle de los Caidos, Valley of the Fallen. In October 1919, after a years-long legal battle, Franco’s remains were extracted from the mausoleum and flown by helicopter to a family cemetery just north of Madrid where he was reburied next to his wife.

The Spanish Civil War will never be over until the Left has finished turning Spain into a multicultural hellhole.

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