THE SPANISH ‘CIVIL’ WAR
World War II ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany. The first military battles between democratic and Nazi-Fascist forces started in 1936 in Spain with the ‘Civil’ war. These battles can, therefore, be described as the first battles of World War II.
Claude C. Bowers, the U.S. Ambassador in Spain at the time of the Civil War, wrote in 1953:
If we are to preserve the heritage of our fathers, we must be prepared to fight as the gallant loyalists of Spain fought and died, holding back with their bodies and their blood for two and a half years the flood of barbarism that swept over Europe until they succumbed to the strange indifference of democratic nations in whose defence they were valiantly fighting. World War II began in Spain in 1936.
At the time, the Western democracies were not on the side of democracy. In the measure in which they took side, it can be said that they insidiously took side with the Fascist forces. At the time, it was not yet known that these forces, instead of moving East would one day move West.
Even today, in the United States, the Right considers it a stain on the political past of an individual if he had once been a volunteer in Spain on the anti-fascist side. These individuals are called ‘premature anti-fascists’. This designation indicates that the US Establishment was sympathising with fascism which won their approval up to the day fascism moved against the West. Only then was it respectable to be against the fascists, not because they were fascists but because they were moving West instead of East. Germany’s intention to move West, was not yet suspected in 1936. To be against fascism in the period 1936-1938 was, according to the U.S. Right, the earmark of a communist or of a communist follower .
In 1936, elections were held in Spain in circumstances very unfavourable to the left . Many of its leaders were still in jail while most of the press and all of the authorities, including the religious authorities were supportive of the right. The victory of the left was not overwhelming. However, in view of the odds that were stacked against the left, that victory was very significant. It indicated that impartial elections would have yielded a much larger margin of victory to the left. The left therefore won their victory fair and square.
The victory of the left was a peaceful revolution . It put an end to a dictatorial rule of violence fear and oppression. In their joy the people took to the street demonstrating in support of their political agenda.
The political parties brought to power were relatively moderate. The communist party, a member of the United Front, had a small representation in the legislative chambers and, at first, no representative in the Cabinet . Moreover, it seemed bent on demonstrating a sense of responsibility and an absence of extremism. Whether this was done on instructions from Moscow or not, the fact remains that there was no threat of extremism coming from the left political parties supporting the Popular Front.
The masses, long deprived of civil rights, land and labour rights, were less patient. They made their voices heard and they sounded very threatening to the propertied classes. Reforms were long overdue but, as usual, not on the agenda of the Establishment.
Had the right graciously accepted its electoral defeat, Spanish society could have evolved without violence from its feudal stage to a modern democratic society.
Many forces may have wanted to push the society more to the left relatively to the Western democracies. Many other forces would have disliked to go that far. It is not possible to say which of the tendencies would have had the final say since evolution in Spain was not allowed to follow a peaceful path. The right, fearful for its excessive privileges, refused to come to terms with its defeat. Being in control of the army and the navy it had recourse to a military revolt against which the new government seemed to be unable to oppose any resistance.
When events are described in these terms, there can be no justification for giving support to the rightist rebels. Therefore, if an English politician disliked the Spanish mobs half as much as he disliked the English mobs, and if he wanted to justify taking the side of the rebels, he had to modify the terms of presentation. All the tricks used in 1917 to denigrate the behaviour of the Bolsheviks, all the invented tales of terror rape and murder, were resuscitated to be applied to the Spanish government. This was facilitated by the fact that, as in Russia, there existed in Spain a Communist party. It did not matter that the party was not in power, it did not matter that it acted within the legal system. It was a convenient target with convenient associations. F.S. Northedge remarks :
..the kind of alarm which had been aroused in British Conservative circles by the Leninist revolution in Russia twenty years before now tended to be revived by the Spanish Government, even though the latter included neither Socialists nor Communists until the Franco revolt was well under way, and although the reforms it had announced since its assumption in office in February 1936 were of the mildest character.
An important part of the British press was supporting Franco and contributing to a campaign of disinformation. Liddell Hart wrote :
..in The Times leaders they were fervently supporting the policy of non-intervention, even though it was proving a matter of non-intervention with intervention — on the part of Hitler and Mussolini. The leaders evaded or toned down this very obvious and ominous development. Similarly, they constantly emphasized the killings in Republican Spain more than those in the Francoist areas — with bland disregard of the facts reported by the paper’s own correspondents on the spot.
A victory of the rebellious Franco forces would signify a spread of fascism or of regimes friendly to it. Fascist Italy and Germany were declared enemies of the Soviet Union; this was therefore enough to justify a Soviet stand against Franco and in favour of the Spanish legal government. The Soviet Union would have stood with any government threatened by fascist forces. It stood with the Czechoslovakian government in its squabbles with the Sudeten population and with Germany. If allowed to, the Soviet Union would have stood with the anti-communist Polish Government in similar circumstances. The Soviet stand was in line with international law and with diplomatic traditions. The Spanish Government not only was the legal Government of Spain universally recognised as such, but it was the result of elections held and supervised by a rightist Government.
In Spain the Conservative elements opposed to reforms were in revolt against the will of the people clearly expressed in the electoral success of the republican forces. The battle was that between the people and those who were afraid to lose some of their excessive privileges. However, the supporters of Franco in the British establishment preferred to describe this battle in terms of Fascist and Soviet forces. In this way they could disregard the fact that Franco was in rebellion against the will of the Spanish people.
On January 4, 1937, alarmed at the extent of the Italian intervention in Spain, Eden, at a Cabinet meeting, proposed that the British navy should take an active role in preventing volunteers and arms from reaching Spain. He justified his proposal in terms of British interests and of strategic necessities which request the prevention of the success of the Axis forces. According to Telford Taylor Samuel Hoare disagreed :
Sir Samuel Hoare said that.. we appeared to be getting near a situation where, as a nation, we were trying to stop General Franco from winning. That was the desire of the Parliamentary Parties of the Left; but there were others, including perhaps some members of the Cabinet, who were very anxious that the Soviet should not win in Spain. It was very important to hold the scales fairly
Telford Taylor adds: “It speedily became apparent that Hoare was much closer than Eden to the temper of the Cabinet.” Samuel Hoare had no regard for the will of the Spanish people. He conveniently use the bogey of communism to justify his stand. He says it is “very important to hold the scales fairly”. This seemed to require that no serious effort, such as those proposed by Eden, be made to implement the non-intervention agreement. Since its strict implementation would “stop General Franco from winning” this, in Hoare’s opinion, would not be fair.
One of the themes defended by the British government and the Establishment was that an attempt at strict enforcement of non-intervention could lead to war with Italy and Germany. Liddell Hart writes :
Geoffrey Dawson and Barrington-Ward — like most of the Cabinet, and even Eden at the time — harped on the risk that any action we might take to check German and Italian aid to Franco might involve us in a war with those powers. I questioned that view, pointing out that in this area the strategic trump cards were in our hands. Spain being enveloped by the sea, the German and Italian lines of supply and reinforcement to that area could easily be dominated by the combined British and French navies, while the range of aircraft was then too short for interference by the German and Italian air forces. So long as German and Italian intervention had not actually secured Franco’s victory, our strategic position in the western Mediterranean was too strong to encourage our opponents to fight on this ground.. it was ideal ground strategically to challenge the dictators’ aggressive progress, and produce a sobering check — and the German archives captured in 1945 have shown that Hitler, on the same calculations, would not have ventured to risk a fight over Spain.
It is a matter of record that acts of terror were committed by both sides. It is also a matter of record that the Francoists (the rightist rebels) committed many more acts of terror, and of a much more revolting kind, than was the case with the left. In the case of the left, the authorities were trying to maintain legal order. The acts of terror they could not prevent, were committed in spite of the measures taken by the government. In the case of the rebels, the acts of terror were initiated by the authorities and executed under their control. Liddell-Hart had this to say in this respect :
It also became clear that while appalling atrocities were taking place on both sides there was a very important difference between them. The massacres in the Republican area were carried out by frenzied mobs, which the Government could not control in the chaotic conditions created by the generals revolt. But on the other side the massacres were being directed by the military leaders in pursuance of a deliberate policy of exterminating opponents and stifling resistance to their advance by establishing a reign of terror in the places they occupied. Where their initial coup was successful they promptly executed officers and officials who had tried to stay loyal to the Government. They also sought out and imprisoned people who were known or suspected to have voted for the ‘popular front’ in the last election, and a large number were shot. In many cases their corpses were laid out in market squares or along the roadside as a deterrent to any resistance.
In making my summary of the evidence I confined it to the reports of British press correspondents from papers that were not definitely favourable to the Republican cause. Moreover, these were borne out by what Francoist envoys gloatingly related at private meetings in London to which I was invited by ardent Francoist supporters, including Conservative Party ministers, who assumed that because of my military background I would naturally share their views.
By all accounts, the rightist military revolt should have succeeded speedily. The legal government had no forces to oppose against the Spanish regular army in revolt. It was saved by the heroism and initiative of the people and by superhuman efforts at organising the resistance against the rebels. To the astonishment of the world, it became evident that the rebellion was a failure and that the republic would survive, even stronger than it was. There had been a coup, and it had failed. In the Spanish navy, for instance, crews arrested their officers and sided with the legal government.
It is then that the nature of the rebellion changed. It obtained large and active support from Germany and Italy, and caused what came to be called the ‘Spanish civil war’.
An European Political Microcosm
A study of the stands taken by the different European Governments in regard to the Spanish civil war, illustrates the nature of the policies of these governments and adds clarity to the European politics during the period between the two world wars. In short, the Spanish civil war presents the historians with a microcosm reflecting the realities of the politics of Europe.
Spain has no common boundaries with Germany or Italy. Spain was not, and could not, have been considered as part of a coalition directed against them. Germany and Italy could not pretend that they feared such an occurrence. At no time was a military alliance of any kind with any country or group of countries considered, or expected to be considered, in which Spain would be involved.
The official reason for the Germano-Italian intervention was that they wanted to prevent Spain from becoming communist. However, the success of such an intervention could have important strategical consequences in favour of Germany. A regime in Spain unfriendly to France, could force the latter to maintain larger defensive forces on the Spain frontiers. Spain could be an important source of raw materials which would become available to Germany, in peace time at least, on terms more favourable than cash. A Spain friendly to Germany could either grant her submarine bases in the Atlantic or tolerate such naval activities without active resistance. She also could be a threat to Gibraltar.
Germany’s and Italy’s interventions on the side of the rebellious forces were in violation of international law. According to the definition of aggression, as supported at the League by all nations except for Italy and Great Britain, and therefore not officially adopted, Germany’s and Italy’s actions could have been considered as constituting acts of aggression against the legitimate Spanish Government. In contrast, help, in men and material, to the Spanish government, would be in line with diplomatic traditions.
A superficial look at the situation in Spain, at the start of the Franco rebellion, offered the following picture:
w a democratic Spanish government battling a fascist supported rebellion.
w Fascist international forces (German and Italian) illegally intervening on the side of the rebellion.
w long range strategical considerations pleading for the support of the Spanish legal government by the Western democracies.
w geographical factors (the common frontier between Spain and France, the short distance between French ports and Spanish ports) making it much easier for the Western democracies to help the legal Spanish Government than it was for Germany and Italy to help the Francoists.
w a place, Spain, and a time, 1936, where the democracies could have foiled the fascist plans. The prestige accrued to the democracies, and that lost by the fascist states, could have contributed to the stabilisation of the situation in the whole of Europe.
w the Western countries promoting a policy of non-intervention which was a ‘façade’ to the continuous intervention of Germany and Italy
The fact that, in this militarily and politically ideal situation, when the vital interests of the democracies demanded it so strongly, the democracies, insidiously, helped the Francoist side instead of coming strongly on the side of the legal Spanish government, cannot be casually treated as just a mistake, just an indication of the love for peace of the Western leaders, just the effect of politically short-sighted Western leaders. This fact must be treated as fundamental. It is absolutely characteristic of political stands taken by the English Establishment on all European questions.
In a minute written by O. Sargent on the danger of a creation of rival ideological blocs in Europe we can read :
Our natural instinct would no doubt be to try and remain neutral in this conflict between Fascism and Communism, for presumably to a parliamentary democracy both systems are almost equally abhorrent.
The conflict started in Spain between democratic forces having won an electoral victory and Rightist forces which, when in power, had implemented a dictatorial rule. The rightist forces could not regain power without the extensive help of Fascist forces. As a result of this Fascist intervention, the conflict became one between democracy and fascism. At no moment was communism on the order of the day. Moreover, from the point of view of international law, the conflict was between a legal government, universally recognised as such, entitled to receive help from other countries, and a rebellion movement illegally supported by the two foreign governments, Germany and Italy.
Only the fear of a people taking its fate in its own hands and taking arms in defence of its newly acquired democracy, could make Sargent describe the situation as a conflict between Communism and Fascism. He was acting as if every armed popular movement is bound to end up communist.
Sargent even feared that the Popular Front in France could end up as a porter of communism. He added:
We ought to be able to strengthen the French Government in its efforts — or indeed bring pressure to bear to force it — to free itself from Communist domination, both domestic and Muscovite. Even though this might involve at a certain stage something like interference in the internal affairs of France, surely it would be worth while running this risk?
..All these considerations seem to indicate the importance of (1) our preventing France by hook or by crook from ‘going Bolshevik’ under the influence of the Spanish civil war
This is a great deal of intervention in France, coming from someone promoting ‘non-intervention’ in Spain. In the same document Sargent writes:
As for Italy and Germany, it may be said that in both cases the chief incentive which they have to co-operate together is at present not so much a common fear of communism as a feeling that they two stand isolated in Europe. It lies within us to remove this feeling, especially in Rome where it is most keenly felt and feared.
Moreover, in so far as the fear of the spread of Communism is bringing Germany and Italy to co-operate, this fear is centred not so much on what is going to happen in Spain as on what is going to happen in France.
[All these considerations seem to indicate the importance of] (2) our freeing Italy from the feeling of isolation and vulnerability which the Abyssinian affair has left her with.
Italy had helped and was still helping Franco to rob the Spanish people of their electoral victory. Italy had already robbed the Abyssinian people of its freedom, had challenged the decisions of the League of Nations and found itself isolated and vulnerable. Now, instead of exploiting her isolation and vulnerability to teach a lesson once and for all to all Fascist and would-be Fascist politicians, Sargent is suggesting ‘freeing Italy’ from these feelings.
This, in non-diplomatic words, would mean not to interfere with Italy’s presence in Spain and not to be too strict with her intervention in Spain. Sargent, moreover, thought that the real danger is that France, under the Spanish influence could turn communist, a result to be avoided by hook or by crook. How then can Italy be blamed when she was trying, though more by crook than by hook, to prevent Spain from being communist?
The reality is that the British Establishment was equating democratic popular rule with communism, and did not mind stopping it with Fascism. Churchill had previously praised Fascism for having shown the great nations the way to stop communism, the way he would not, he said, in similar circumstances, hesitate to have recourse to. Liddell Hart said
Strategically the danger is so obvious that it is difficult to understand the eagerness with which some of the most avowed patriotic sections of the British public have desired the rebels’ success. Class sentiment and property sense would seem to have blinded their strategic sense.
Liddell-Hart was no Marxist and no left-wing politician. He had been at various times military adviser to Churchill, Lloyd George, Eden, and Hore Belisha. He was also the military correspondent of The Times. He is the author of over thirty books and publications on military questions and was a recognised authority in all problems of military strategy. He was looking at the Spanish civil war exclusively from the point of view of British strategic interests, and strategic interests are vital.
The Stand Taken By The Western Democracies
The British establishment and the British government wished the victory of Franco. Captain Liddell Hart mentioned in his memoirs :
Whitehall circles were very largely pro-Franco, as I found — and that was particularly marked in the Admiralty. Even Churchill, who I thought would see the strategic dangers, was for a long time blinded by emotional prejudices, and only came round too late to avert the triumph of the dictators.
Vansittart wrote on September 1936 about a visit in August to Delbos, the French Foreign minister :
I knew that M. Blum’s chief profession and concern was collaboration with England; but M. Blum must remember as I had told him in Paris, that the British Government was upheld by a very large Conservative majority, who were never prepared, and now probably less than ever, to make much sacrifice for red eyes. The Russian aspect of Spain could not fail to make a difference in these sections of English feeling
The only ‘Russian aspect’ of Spain was the British establishment’s fear that any popular movement, in Spain or elsewhere, could in time move to the extreme left. On August 8th 1936 Harold Nicolson had the following entry in his diary :
The Spanish situation is hell. Philip Noel-Baker writes to The Times pretending that the Madrid Government is one which should command the support of all democratic liberals. In fact, of course, it is a mere Kerensky Government at the mercy of an armed proletariat.
Nicolson was a moderate National-Labour Member of the House of Commons. He would later prove not to be blinded by anticommunism and would, like Churchill, oppose Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’. The majority of the Conservative party was much less liberal than Nicolson. Nevertheless, here was a liberal whose fear of the ‘armed proletariat’ in Spain reached such an extent that he could forget the reason for which the Spanish proletariat was being armed. The Spanish proletariat remained unarmed until the generals started their rebellion. The republic had been betrayed. It had then been saved by the sacrifices of the people who took arms, and did not spare their lives in defence of the government who won the recent elections.
If a ‘liberal’ Conservative could be so frightened of the Spanish armed people as to see in its government a precursor to a communist revolution, it is not difficult to realise what were the feelings of the more characteristic Conservative. Henry Channon, a future member of the Neville Chamberlain claque , wrote in his diary on July 27, 1936:
..Austen Chamberlain..made a really stupid speech in which he attacked Germany with unreasoning violence..
The situation in Spain.. is very serious. The army of the Right elements, revolted by the appalling Left government, have tried by a coup de main to seize power. For a few days, we had hoped they would win, though tonight it seems as if the Red Government, alas, will triumph
The Spanish Government is called ‘Red’, an adjective associated with the Russian revolution. It helps confuse the issues. Channon soon became more optimistic. On March 8, 1937, the day his appointment as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Rab Butler was announced, he wrote in his diary :
I am relieved that the FO is not so opposed to Franco as I had feared, and seem well aware of the tricks of Republican Spain.
Channon expresses the feelings of the establishment and those of the British Government. The British people, though, had a different stand. Channon writes in his diary on March 29:
Franco advances — victory is clearly his. He has been so misunderstood, so misrepresented in this country that to champion him, and I have done, is dangerous from a Constituency point of view
The Spanish Government was entitled to bring the matter of Germany’s and Italy’s support of Franco, to the attention of the League of Nations. However, as F.P. Walters mention :
In their anxiety to avoid any open break with the Axis powers, Britain and France, persistently discouraged any suggestion that the war in Spain should be dealt with by the Council or the Assembly.
The official position of the British Government was that it would favour all possible measures intended to confine the conflict within Spain and prevent its extension to the rest of Europe. The British Government became therefore a proponent of the policy of ‘non-intervention’ purportedly to realise the stated aim.
The logic of non-intervention was that, if all the countries would agree to and respect that policy, there would be no grounds for confrontation between the European powers. In reality, this was just a mask, a ‘façade’ . The British government — as the Cabinet minutes show — and the British establishment wished the victory of Franco. The general public in Britain supported the cause of the ‘loyalist’, i.e. the cause of the legal republican government of Spain. Moreover, the diplomatic traditions and international law requested the support of the recognised legal republican government. The British government therefore could not support openly the rebellion. Since support could only be to the Spanish democratic government, the closest the British government could come to support the rebellion was to oppose supporting any side. In a memorandum dated December 14, 1936, Eden writes :
The exact circumstances in which the Balearic Islands have become a focus of danger to British interests were not foreseen, indeed were hardly foreseeable. What was anticipated in August was the possibility that General Franco would make himself master of Spain largely as a consequence of help received from Italy, to whom he would thus in a sense have mortgaged the policy of his country
Here was a candid confession of what really was the British policy in August 1936 when Britain pressured France into the policy of non-intervention. This was done with the anticipation that Franco, with Italy’s help, would become master of Spain. It is also a recognition that the Spanish people were against Franco. Heading the Spanish army, Franco would need no Italian help if an appreciable part of the Spanish population was behind him. Eden however knew that Franco’s victory depended on Italy’s help. Eden’s assertion that the dangers to British interests ‘were hardly foreseeable’ is contradicted by the fact that Liddell Hart did not stop warning the British government against these dangers.
The hypocrisy of the non-intervention policy has been best described by F. Schuman :
When gentlemen tell things which they know to be false to other gentlemen who believe them true, the result is deception. When the other gentlemen know that what they are told is false, the result, to outside observers, is hilarity. But when the first gentlemen also know that the other gentlemen know that what is said is false, the result is play acting. And when all the gentlemen exchange statements which all know to be false, the play becomes a farce. The farce becomes delectable indeed when all the gentlemen pretend to one another that all the falsehoods are true
A patent example of bad faith is given by Eden’s intervention in the House of Commons on November 19, 1936. Concerning breaches of the non-intervention agreement he said:
So far as breaches are concerned, I wish to state categorically that I think there are other Governments more to blame than those of Germany or Italy
Major C.S. Napier from the War office wrote four days later to Roberts :
You will see that our evidence does not bear out Mr. Eden’s statement in the House of 19th of November.. I cannot help feeling afraid that this statement may be seized on by Germany and Italy to justify intervention, at least to their own nationals
Mr. Roberts made a minute of a conversation he had previously with Major Napier
whom he had told that he felt sure that Mr. Eden ‘had in reality no doubts as to the flagrant manner in which both Germany and Italy had disregarded the Agreement’
Mr Collier, minuting on Major Napier’s report, wrote on November 24, 1936:
that he too had been surprised by Mr. Eden’s statement, since the papers which he had seen seemed to establish ‘not only that the Italian and German Governments had begun to ship arms to General Franco before they joined the Non-intervention Agreement.. but that, in the case of Italy at least, there was evidence that the Spanish revolt had originally been prepared’ with Italian connivance if not instigation. He thought that the Soviet Government only began to supply arms when German and Italian non-observation of the Non-intervention Agreement became apparent
This must be seen in the context of statements made by Eden at a Cabinet meeting. Telford Taylor wrote :
Eden was doing his best to suppress information about Axis transgression in Spain. On October 14 he told the Cabinet that “the Italians were breaking the rules in the Balearic Island,” but that “the moment was particularly inopportune for raising the matter in the Non-Intervention Committee.”
Though it was anticipated that Franco would win with the help of Italy, and notwithstanding the fact stressed by Eden that Italy’s actions in Spain threatened British interests:
Hoare let off.. by a recommendation “to get Italy out of the list of countries with which we had to reckon.” His view won immediate approval from Chamberlain, MacDonald, Inskip, Halifax, and others; the Colonial Secretary (Ormsby-Gore) opined that there was “a feeling in the country that we were tied up too much with France and that that had prevented us getting on terms with the dictator Powers.” In conclusion the Cabinet agreed that the Foreign Office “should in the light of the discussion adopt a policy of improving relations with Italy.”
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the friendly feelings towards Italy, expressed at the Cabinet meeting, were related to the satisfaction with Italy’s help to Franco’s forces. Such an Italy has to be crossed out of the list of potential enemies.
F.S. Northedge writes with deep insight :
Moreover, above and beyond these reactions to the Spanish conflict in official British quarters, there was also the recognition that the traditional British attitude to civil wars, since at least the French Revolution in 1789, was that they were of no concern to Britain unless they were accompanied by a distinct threat to the balance of power and British security. Had it been assumed that Franco’s protectors, Germany and Italy, were already Britain’s potential enemies in a future war, this principle would have seemed to justify British intervention on the side of the Spanish Government
Italy was taken out of the list of potential enemies. As to Germany, while still considered a potential threat, it was hoped, as we saw, that she would expand to the East. The real potential enemy, in the eyes of the British establishment, was therefore the people of Spain.
Halifax described as follows the role of the Non-intervention Committee :
The immediate practical value of the Committee was not great. I doubt whether a single man or gun less reached either side in the war as a result of its activities. What, however, it did was to keep such intervention as there was entirely non-official, to be denied or at least deprecated by the responsible spokesman of the nation concerned, so that there was neither need nor occasion for any action by Governments to support their nationals. After making every allowance for the unreality, make-believe, and discredit that came to attach to the Non-intervention Committee, I think this device for lowering the temperature caused by the Spanish fever justified itself.
Halifax found valuable a device by which denial of facts by violators of the Non Intervention Agreement, could be facilitated. He was however wide out of the mark when he said that Non-intervention policy did not influence the amount of help received by the battling sides in Spain. France, for one, could have sent a far larger amount of help to the Republicans. The Republican could have bought a large amount of armaments, was it not that they were prevented from doing so. Even orders placed in France before the civil war, in compliance with the policy of non-intervention, had not been honoured. On the other hand, the Italian intervention was as open as could be in support of its nationals who happened to be regular soldiers of the Italian army.
As decided by the British Cabinet with respect to the situation with Spain, efforts were made to improve relations with Italy. Eden mentions that on January 2, 1937:
I returned from Yorkshire to the Foreign Office to learn that further large contingents of Italian volunteers had just arrived in Spain. Since the Agreement had been signed two days before, it seemed only too likely that Mussolini had used our negotiations as a cover plan for his further intervention. To make matters worse the Nazi press was now mischief-making, seeking to interpret our Agreement as an encouragement to Franco.
The German opinion is not new. On November 21, 1936, Phipps, the British ambassador in Germany, reported to Eden that, talking to Neurath, he enquired if Germany’s decision to recognise Franco implied that she would cease to participate in the London Non-intervention Committee. “His excellency replied that it would not, but he added smilingly that ‘non-intervention’ in Spain had for some time past been a farce”.
Walters wrote :
The general sentiment that non-intervention was little more than a farce had been deepened by Mussolini’s formal declaration that he would not permit the existence of a Communist or near-Communist government on the shores of the Mediterranean. It was indeed no less obvious to the democratic governments than to the general public that he intended to maintain his intervention until Franco’s victory was complete. But it annoyed and disconcerted them to have it stated so plainly.
In view of the failure of the non-intervention policy, Spain requested from the League’s Assembly to declare that Spain was the victim of Foreign Aggression, that the non-intervention plan had failed and be withdrawn and that the Spanish government be permitted to import all the arms it required. Walter wrote :
..But the French and British, on whom so much depended, were compelled to face the facts, not only by those who supported the Spanish demand, but by Mussolini himself. On September 25th , ..he declared that thousands of Italians were dying in Spain to save civilisation from the false gods of Geneva and of Moscow. There was little they could say in defence of a situation thus clearly defined
Britain and France accepted a resolution which, in substance, supported the Spanish contention. It requested the immediate and complete withdrawal of all combatants, or else the consideration of ceasing the policy of non-intervention. Only two states voted against the resolution: Albany and Portugal. Albany was careful not to displease Italy while Portugal was a fervent supporter of Franco.
The vote demonstrated that the policy of non-intervention was working for Franco against the legal Spanish government. Naturally, Italy wanted the policy to be continued.
In view of the lack of unanimity, the vote was not binding. However, thirty two nations having voted in its favour, it represented a great moral victory for the Spanish government. This victory had very little practical consequences. Walters wrote :
Mussolini returned a contemptuous negative to the Franco-British proposal that the question of withdrawing foreign combatants from Spain should be immediately discussed between the three powers. Even the right-wing papers in France were beginning to resent his attitude. Eden, in a public speech on October 15th declared that his patience was almost exhausted. But the Duce had no misgivings as to what the British Government would do. In the previous July, Neville Chamberlain had succeeded Baldwin as Prime Minister; and he was an unshakeable adherent of the policy of co-operation with Italy. One of his first acts as Premier had been to write a personal letter to Mussolini expressing his admiration for the Duce’s personality and his desire to collaborate with him in removing all misunderstandings between their two countries.. Under pressure from London the French also were induced to change their mind.. Grandi and Ribbentrop were allowed to reduce the meetings of the Non-Intervention Committee to an even more dreary farce than before
The Stand Of The United States
With respect to the Spanish Civil War, the United States’ establishment took a stand similar to that of Britain. It supported the policy of non-intervention and proclaimed an embargo on arms to Spain.
There, however, are essential differences between the embargo on arms proclaimed by the United States in relation with the war between Italy and Ethiopia, and the embargo proclaimed in relation to the Spanish Civil War. In both cases the measure was detrimental to the cause of democracy. However, in the case of the war between Italy and Ethiopia, it could be argued that the American administration was bound by the neutrality acts to take the blockade measures. Such was not the case concerning the Civil War in Spain. Robert Bendiner writes :
The same type of “moral suation” as was used in the Ethiopian affair was invoked to discourage war trade. It promised a fair degree of success until December, when a Mr. Robert Cuse applied to the State Department for a license to export, presumably to loyalist Spain, 411 airplanes engines.. The Department was obliged under the law to issue the license. The Loyalist government was overjoyed, but the Government of the United States scored the deal as unpatriotic. When the British Foreign Office made anxious inquiries concerning the shipment, the State Department announced that it had no recourse but regretted “the unfortunate non-compliance by an American citizen with this Government’s strict non-intervention policy.”
When these stern words appeared lost on the determined Mr. Cuse, the President went into action. In his message to the Congress on January 6, he asked that the Neutrality Act be amended at once “to cover specific points raised by the unfortunate civil strife in Spain.” The resulting embargo, wrote Charles A. Beard, “was a violation of international law. It was a violation of a specific treaty with Spain. It was an insult to the Government of Madrid, which the Government of the United States recognized as de facto and de jure.” Yet this was the policy worked out in detail by the one department which of all the agencies of the American Government most prides itself on legalism, which maintains always that it is guided solely by the well-established rules of international law.
So great a stroke for peace and democracy deserved the kind of tributes it received. From General Franco came the accolade: “President Roosevelt behaved in the manner of a true Gentleman.” His neutrality legislation, stopping export of war material to either side — the quick manner in which it was passed and carried into effect — is a gesture we nationalists will never forget
It did not take long for the U.S. administration (at least for the President) to realise how blind had been their policy with respect to the events in Spain. Harold Ickes , on January 29, 1939, wrote in his diary:
The President also brought up the question of the Spanish embargo. He very frankly stated, and this for the first time, that the embargo had been a grave mistake.. The President said that we would never do such a thing again, but I am afraid that will not help us much. He agreed that this embargo controverted old American principles and invalidated established international law.
..Realistically, neutrality in this instance was lining up with Franco, and lining up with Franco has meant the destruction of Democratic Spain, in the trail of which may come the remaking of the map of Europe and a very great threat to our own democratic institutions and our economic life. The President said that the policy we should have adopted was to forbid the transportation of munitions of war in American bottoms. This could have been done and Loyalist Spain would still have been able to come to us for what she needed to fight for her life against Franco — to fight for her life and for the lives of some of the rest of us as well, as events will very likely prove.
Britain professed to be against an ideological stand in the case of the Spanish Civil War or in any other case. The reason for it is understandable. Britain was a democracy, and so was republican Spain. Franco was rebelling against a democracy in order to establish a Fascist regime similar to that of Italy. Since Italy and Germany, in line with their ideology, were supporting Franco, an ideological stand by Britain would have found her supporting the Spanish Loyalists.
The British Establishment, however, had never completely come to terms with democracy. Strictly speaking, democracy does not go well with imperialism, and England was very reluctant to liquidate her colonial empire.
We saw that many of the British leaders had expressed their misgivings with English democracy. As to Spain, the British establishment looked at it as a battle between the haves and the haves-not. And so it was because the haves were against democracy while the haves-not, being much more numerous, were fullheartedly for democracy.
The British establishment wanted to avoid a stand resulting from the nation’s democratic ideology. It therefore proclaimed that it would take distance from ideology. In fact it took a consistent ideological stand, that of the haves, of the aristocracy, the bankers, the industrialists who, most of them, were admirers of Fascism, and did not mind stating it.
The Soviet Union had a regime which brought the haves-not to power. Fascism and Nazism were means of preventing a similar occurrence in Italy and Germany. No wonder therefore that the Soviet Union stood against Fascism and Nazism her worst enemies.
In the case of Britain, the national interest required a stand against Fascism and with the democratic Republican Government. Such was the recognised stand of the general public. To take a stand against the national interest, the establishment had to qualify the national interest stand as ‘ideological’.
With respect to the Spanish Civil War, there was in Britain an antagonism between the interests of the establishment and that of the nation. It is to the long lasting praise of Churchill that, in spite of his sympathies for Fascism and for Franco, he overcome his feeling and put the national interest above the narrower interests of the British establishment. Late in the game, after having supported Franco for too long a time, he changed his mind and recognised that the national interest of England would be better served with the defeat of Franco .
In the case of the Soviet Union, there was not such split between the interests of the Soviet People and that of the establishment, i.e. the communist party leaders. Since the defeat of Trotsky, the Soviet Union positions in foreign policy were more national than ideological. The support to Spain was therefore not ideologically based but nationally based. At no point did the Soviet Union exert pressure on the Spanish Republican Government to have them move more to the left. The Spanish Communist party itself exhibited more of a national spirit than may have been expected from a purely ideological stand.
In its stand with respect to the Spanish Civil War, the British Establishment was not behaving differently than in the case of the problem of peace and war in Europe. The British establishment in the thirties was supportive of Germany’s effort at rearming and expanding. This was done in the name of abstaining from ideological stands and in the name of justice for the vanquished, justice for a peaceful Germany and the requisite for lasting peace. All these considerations were gathered into the single term of ‘appeasement’ in order to reach an ‘understanding’. The parallel with Spain is clear in that here too the public and the national interest requested standing against the dictators while the British establishment was doing the opposite.
Here too, the Soviet Union, more from its national interest than from an ideological standpoint, was active in its efforts to build a front against Nazism.
The parallel is not astonishing. The fate of Europe was being played in Spain. As matters turned out, when the battle finally became clearly one against Fascism and Nazism, the Franco forces were during World War II battling against the allies, the Soviet Union included, while those republican forces which took refuge in France and were interned there, volunteered for the ranks of the French army.
These later events made it clear where the national interests stood. It requested an alliance between the western democracies and the Soviet Union. Their combined power was hardly sufficient to overcome the terrible military machine of Germany. Those who stood either against the realisation of that alliance or in favour of the Fascist and Nazi regimes were doing it against the national interest of their countries, motivated as they were by much narrower interests. The Civil War in Spain had been a mirror of the clash of all interests, narrow and national, in Europe.
And finally, it is instructive to read a passage of Chamberlain’s revision of a draft reply to be sent to Mr. Morgenthau U.S. Secretary of Finance :
His Majesty’s Government.. have no doubt whatever that the greatest single contribution which the United States could make at the present moment to the preservation of world peace would be the amendment of the existing neutrality legislation. Under this legislation an embargo would be imposed on the export from the United States of arms and munitions, irrespective of whether a country is an aggressor or a victim of aggression.
Did the British leaders fail to realise that this was a condemnation of their own policy of embargo on arms for Italy and Abyssinia? They did know that their embargo was ‘irrespective of whether a country is an aggressor or a victim of aggression’. It can also be argued that the quoted paragraph is also a condemnation of the policy of non-intervention. Not only did it not differentiate between a legal government victim of the aggression of a rebellion supported by foreigners, but, on the contrary, it worked effectively to blockade the arm exports to the victim, while ignoring the intervention on the side of the aggression.