Skip to comments.The Red and the Black The end of the myth of the Spanish Civil War
Posted on 01/12/2005 10:52:22 AM PST by robowombat
July 16, 2001/Vol 6, Number 41 The Red and the Black The end of the myth of the Spanish Civil War By Stephen Schwartz
The Spanish Civil Warthe conflict from 1936 to 1939 between the mainly socialist and anarchist militias defending the Spanish Republic, and the right-wing forces headed by General Francisco Francois often described as the last purely idealistic cause of the twentieth century. Certainly this is how the intellectual tradition of the Left remembers it. For radical writers, theorists, and activists in America and England, nothing looms larger than those days when pure-hearted idealists from around the world went to Spain to help the leftist Spanish government resist the forces of Fascism and oppression.
Which means there's something almost sad, like shaking a child awake from a pleasant dream, about the appearance of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, the latest entry in Yale University Press's extraordinary Annals of Communism series. Edited with commentary by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostyanov, the volume consists of over five hundred pages of documents discovered in Russian archives. It will effect a complete overturn in historical perceptions of the twentieth-century Left. With the appearance of Spain Betrayed, the last undefiled temple of the Marxists and their admirers has been permanently undermined.
On March 2, 1938, Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to fellow novelist John Dos Passos that for pure mean-spiritedness would be hard to exceed. In it, Hemingway accused Dos Passos of selling out, for money, the Spanish cause they had both embraced: "When people start in being crooked they usually end up being crooked about everything. . . . Honest Jack Passos'll knife you three times in the back for fifteen cents and sing Giovanezza [the fascist anthem] free. . . . There's always work . . . for anyone who thinks as you do."
The cause of Hemingway's polemic was a series of articles Dos Passos had published after returning from the territory controlled by the Republican forces, in which he exposed the extent of Soviet dominationand betrayalof the Spanish Republic. The prime example for Dos Passos was the disappearance of his Spanish translator, José Robles, a professor at Johns Hopkins who had gone to Spain, like Dos Passos, to serve the Republic. In a sequence of events still unelucidated today, Robles fell afoul of Soviet agents and vanished, never to be seen again.
Dos Passos had gone to Spain as a valued literary asset, but while he searched for clues to the Robles case, he met a Soviet commander known as "Walter." He reported on this encounter in Partisan Review, the New York organ of the dissident left intellect, and Hemingway lambasted him for referring to the officer as a "Russian general." Hemingway wrote, "The only trouble about this, Dos, is that Walter is a Pole. . . . You didn't meet any Russian generals."
This exchange between a pair of American authors is relatively unimportant, of course, but it stands as a microcosm of the historical controversy that has surrounded the Spanish Civil War since it ended more than sixty years ago. One remarkable feature of this debate is that it has been fought exclusively on the Left; almost no intellectuals outside Spain have come forward to defend Franco, who won the war and ruled the country as a dictator for some thirty-five years. To Hemingway, the war involved resistance to the interventionist forces of Hitler and Mussolini, in which the Soviets were heroes and the Spanish people were bystanders, rather like extras in a film. Hemingway would eventually denounce the Communists, but he could not admit his own complicity in promoting them.
For Dos Passos, the fate of the Spanish, particularly the non-Communist Left, was paramount. The distortion of their struggle by the Communists, as well as the political murders the latter committed freely in Spain, marked a personal watershed: He would never again trust radical ideology.
Each of these interpretations had active partisans in the decades that followed. They included foreign volunteers who had gone to Spain to fight rather than, like Hemingway and Dos Passos, to write, but who broke into bitterly opposed factions. A group of Americans, overwhelmingly drawn from the Communist party and its fronts, had enlisted in the Moscow-controlled detachments in the Spanish Republican army, known as the International Brigades, and defended a Soviet-line mythology about the war. They had served in a separate unit, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (whose name, inflated enough in its identification with an American president, they would in memory further inflate by calling their battalion a "brigade"). They insisted the Communists had been the best, if not the only, fighters; that nearly all others (especially the numerous anarchists and the members of a small, anti-Stalin Marxist group, the POUM or Workers' Party of Marxist Unity) were ineffective, cowardly, or traitorous; and that the conflict involved purely "liberal" goals. The Republicans, they claimed, defended an "elected, legitimate government," which was not even leftist, against a German and Italian invasion.
On the other side of the debate were those like George Orwell who fought alongside the Spanish rank and file, in a militia column of the execrated POUM. To Orwell and those like him, the Communists were sinister opportunists who sought to divert the conflict from its original, social-revolutionary aims. Indeed, Orwell saw in the war the end of the historic, high-minded tradition of European socialism and the triumph of Soviet totalitarianism within the international Left.
In general, the split between Stalin's supporters and opponents reflected a division between cynics and idealists. As depicted in a devastating memoir by the left-wing writer Josephine Herbst, The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, Hemingway shrugged off the liquidation of Dos Passos's friend Robles, while reveling in his supplies of food and other luxuries in Madrid, a city under siege in which a slice of dry bread was the typical daily ration. Herbst described herself and Dos Passos sharing the meager fare of Spanish militiamen, and virtuously declining when Hemingway leaned over the banister in his hotel and called them to breakfast, the odors of bacon, eggs, and hot coffee wafting around him.
For Hemingway, Stalinism was a form of masculine affirmation, comparable to bull-fighting, big-game hunting, or deep-sea fishing. The American veterans of the Lincoln Battalion shared this hard-shell outlook, which they have maintained as they die off, a dwindling band who denounce Orwell, not Franco, as their enemy.
By Franco's death in 1975, however, the battle of historical memory within Spain had clearly been won by the anti-Stalinists. The Muscovite claim that the war was a pure and simple struggle between democracy and international fascist aggression is largely absent from the contemporary Spanish historical discourse, in which the conflict of the 1930s is typically referred to as "la revolución." While a (right-wing) Spanish government recently granted citizenship, in a complicated bureaucratic process, to surviving International volunteers, that action was as perfunctory as it was sentimental. Much more illustrative of post-Franco Spanish reality was the election in 1984 of Ramón Fernandez Jurado to the Catalan regional parliament; forty-six years before, he had been the victim of Communist attacks as a POUM militia leader.
Neither Hemingway, nor the Lincoln Battalion combatants, nor Dos Passos, nor Orwell, would have been likely to predict such outcomes; for them, the Stalinist vision of the Spanish war, whether they loved it or hated it, seemed destined to prevail. And certainly, that picturethe dominant myth, outside Spain, for decadesanswered the need of foreigners for a simplistic account, and it remained. It is difficult to imagine them anticipating that, sooner or later, at least some part of the Soviet archives would be openedmuch less that it would be opened to non-Communists, and that a volume like Spain Betrayed would be the result.
It turns out that Dos Passos, not Hemingway, was right after allas demonstrated by a report from the Pole "Walter," whose real name was Karol Swierczewski, and who, regardless of his nationality, was indeed a Soviet general. The vindication of the anti-Stalinist position on Spain does not end there. As presented in these documents, the role of the Communists, both foreign and domestic, and their role in the Spanish Republic, is appalling.
The aim of Moscow from the beginning proves to have been to take the Republic out of the hands of the non-Communist Spaniards, whether socialist or anarchist, and deposit it with Stalinist cadres. As it happens, the Communists, who had almost no following in Spain's labor movement, never gained the backing of the Spanish masses, even in the heat of the war. The Russians and their agents, notwithstanding their arrests, assassinations, and other, subtler means, never succeeded in completely suppressing their leftist critics, among either anarchists or the POUM.
As late as November 1938, Erno Gero, a sinister Hungarian sent to Spain to coordinate Soviet transformation of the Spanish regime into a "people's republic," complained that anti-Soviet socialists and anarchists, along with the "Trotskyists" of the POUM, had launched "a strong offensive . . . against the Communist Party" and its influence over the government. In one of many extraordinary admissions, Gero noted the "fear of Communists that exists in the various parties and institutions . . . owing to the growth of the Communist party's influence . . . especially in the army." The Russians' effort to destroy their left-wing rivals and gain advantage for their Spanish pawns had failed.
The character of the International Brigades, including their American participants, is equally discredited from the mouths of the Soviet functionaries. General Walterthe same one Dos Passos had metpointed out that the fifteenth brigade, which included the Americans, was top-heavy with command staff, adding dryly, "one of the most important concerns of the command must be finding useful work for this platoon of officers." The English-speaking volunteers (including British and Canadians) seemed to have thrown away their bayonets, apparently on the assumption they would not have to do any real fighting, and did not know how to keep their rifles clean. "There was only a handful of cleaning rags in the brigade," Walter commented.
But the most shocking element of the picture, especially for those who for sixty years have witnessed the Lincoln veterans preening themselves for their antifascist virtue, consists of the marked discrimination practiced by the foreign volunteers among themselves, as well as against the Spaniards. A Soviet officer of worldwide fame in his time, under the combat alias "Kléber," commented that the "international" officers treated the Spanish troops "as the officers of the imperialist armies related to the soldiers in the colonial armies."
According to Walter, the International Brigades, inspired by slogans of worldwide unity against Fascism, were plagued by a "petty, disgusting, foul squabble about the superiority of one nationality over another. . . . Everyone was superior to the French, but even they were superior to the Spanish, who were receiving our aid and allowing us to fight against our own national and class enemies on their soil." Anti-Semitism was a serious problem among these "progressive" fighters. Above all, the International Brigades possessed transport, food, and other supplies far in excess of their Spanish counterparts, with whom they resolutely refused to "share their wealth." Walter observed "mountains of ammunition thrown out as unwanted, although that same materiel would have met the needs of Spanish brigades."
In later years, the Lincoln veterans always seemed to refer to a Spanish war completely separate from that experienced by the Spanish people. General Walter's reporting confirms that this was so: "We internationalists live our own isolated life," he wrote. International Brigade officers accounted exactly for the numbers of foreigners killed and wounded in battle, but "never knew of the casualties of the Spanish personnel."
British and American volunteers, receiving plentiful food and cigarettes from home, paid no attention to the fact that Spanish troops went for long periods of time without tobaccoa demoralizing factor in any war. It is perhaps characteristic that, in recent years, the surviving Lincoln veterans have exulted in the Spanish government's offer of recognition to the remaining International Brigaders, but ignore the fact that no veteran's benefits have been awarded to the thousands of Spanish survivors of the Republican Army.
The well-equipped foreigners, Hemingway with his food hoard and the Lincoln volunteers with their Lucky Strikes, could not win the Spanish war, no matter what their intoxication with police powers and ideological control. Agents and accomplices of Russian imperialism seeking to colonize Spain, they prevented a victory by the starving, self-sacrificing Spanish militias, who held out for three years. These forgotten, ordinary, Spanish heroesthanks in very great part to Radosh and his team of collaborators, Yale Russian translator Mary R. Habeck and Moscow archivist Grigory Sevostyanovmay now attain, outside Spain, their rightful place in history.
By Stephen Schwartz
Thank you for posting this article. I had not appreciated how Franco was able to defeat both Stalin's communists and avoid joining Hitler and Mussolini's Axis powers. Quite a feat.
As a result of the post I read the chapter on Hemingway in Paul Johnson's book, "Intellectuals." It is a very shocking and indicting portrait of Hemingway's involvement with the Spanish Civil War for someone who, like so many others I presume, had read Hemingway as an adolescent and felt his realism imparted a new honesty.
I received the impression from then reading Johnson's last chapter, "The Flight of Reason," from "Intellectuals" that Normal Mailer continued in the intellectual left tradition and radicalized it further by attempting to "legitimize personal violence" in his thesis published in 1957, "The White Negro," thereby becoming one of the most corrupting influences of American society in the 60's and 70's. Johnson says in the chapter that "Norman Podhoretz attacked it as 'one of the most morally gruesome ideas I have ever come across' which showed 'where the ideology of hipsterism can lead'." I daresay not one American in 10,000 had any idea what was at stake from these corrupting influences that gained a glamor from just being in the media spotlight.
Thank goodness Ronald Reagan was able to come along and reverse dramatically for a while this cultural illness.
Robert Kaplan points to a pious and sanctimonious image and attitude effecting an irresponsible moral absolutist frame of mind - not unlike that of the Grand Inquisitors of medieval times - characterizing much of the 1960's in America. (Intellectuals are a kind of secular priesthood according to Paul Johnson.)
Kaplan sees this as an ongoing danger by some in the global media which can terrorize by its ability to expose and destroy personal reputations or make careers (and celebrities) overnight. Even politicians are cowed by this power. (See his essay "The Media and Medievalism" in Hoover Institute's Policy Review Online http://www.policyreview.org/dec04/kaplan_print.html).
I then read Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter in "The Brothers Karamazov" which I take in a first reading to be discussing the theme of moral absolutism and the demoralization and reactionary danger that can result. (The "Grand Inquisitor" was a clue.) All of this seems part of an effort such as Nietzche was struggling with (unsuccessfully and incompletely from what I can tell) to overcome the paralysis and fundamental ineffectivenss of moral perfectionism, utopianism and elitism (also Dostoevsky's book, "The Idiot") as some read into Christianity and find a warrior ethics (an ethics that can deal with the war aspect of life) that can, in all conscience, live with itself. (There is obviously much self-deception danger possible here.)
Kaplan says mature judgment sees that instead of moral absolutism, one has to choose between imperfect alternatives or even if one chooses correctly that the outcomes can be imperfect such that anyone can be "exposed." (Even not choosing is a decision. The ancient Greeks recognized that decisions had to be taken with imperfect knowledge, thus the sense of tragedy and fate.)
So if the spotlight is shown brightly enough, anyone can be "exposed" and the process can be made highly selective and political. The danger is that this will inhibit risk taking (Kaplan) which is necessary to maintain our freedom. [Without risk taking our freedom deteriorates until all that is left is impulsiveness and violent action.] Leaders therefore are able to proceed without paralyzing moral anguish by knowing they are doing the best they can under the circumstances, and where they fall short take responsibility without being judged by the false standards of the moralistically pious.
Here the mature Christian message would seem to lend support by recognizing this fallability and the need to decide, recognizing too the courage it takes to make moral choices and the sacrifice needed to see them through, judging the situation within the overall context using the standard that "love is the fulfillment of the law," and forgiving and redeeming accordingly given the context. Hopefully our political and media culture can get out of this moralistically pious tone of absolutism and not hold infallability as the standard.
This moral indignation and exposure is key to how much power is gained and held and may also explain the growing litigious society. Ronald Reagan was able to stand up to it by not buying into it. Because the truth cannot be told for fear of this Grand Inquisitor attitude, the truth gets bent to political ends, soon it is all spin and hypocrasy and real risk taking is avoided such that problems do not get solved. Future leaders will only step forward if they feel they are not going to be the victims of a high-tech lynching. Franco I'm assuming could have been exposed for many "lesser of two evils" actions, but would Spain have been better off if he had declined leadership? From the new book, "Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War," the answer sounds like it is a resounding "No."
Viva Don Francisco Franco, General de los heroicos ejercitos y Caudillo de España por la gracia de Dios.
I'm with you, Rodney. Franco's heroism is all the more meaningful for the fact hat he sought no personal gain or glory from his fight with the communist bandits who had murdered both the Church and the State in Spain. On the contrary, he knew the leftist Western press, from Norman Corwin on down, would make it their personal quest to drag his name down through history as a pirate and a Nazi. To this day he is regarded as the fascist par excellence in the historical literature, with Hemingway and his saintly crew of bourgeois "freedom fighters" as the eternal Good Guys, just because the communist government of the so-called Spanish Republic was voted into power and Franco was not.
This is not a notion confined to liberals alone; the idea that democracy trumps everything is common among even so-called conservatives. Even here on FR you will hear the bleats of the democracy-worshippers who truly believe that any government is okay as long as its is an expression of the all-important will of the people. "Well, if the people of Spain voted for communism, that's what they should have gotten.," they claim. "Franco had no right to overthrow a government established by the will of the people!" Yeah? Well, my question for these folks is: what if the will of the people chooses evil? Should a soldier stand back and watch satanic madmen turn his country into a hell on Earth just because 51% of the idiots out there voted for it?
No. The will of the people is not the final arbiter of good and evil. Vox populi is not vox dei. Soldiers have the duty to defend their country from all enemies, internal or external, elected or not. An evil government in a gven country should be overthrown by the defenders of that country the military even if 51%, 75%, or 99% of the people want that government to be in power. It is the duty of the military to defend the nation against ALL enemies even if the enemy is the will of the people.
Francisco Franco was a soldier of Spain and he knew his duty. There are more important things in this world than one's historical reputation. Someday he will be recognized as the hero he truly was. Someday, when the web or its sucessor technologies have smashed the global media/historical monopoly once and for all, the real truth of the Spanish Civil war will be revealed: that it was the opening battle of World War III, the so-called "cold War" against global communism.
Viva España, Viva Franco and Viva Cristo Rey.
Thanks for the ping, this was a refreshing read. I'm glad to see there are some people still around who havn't swallowed the lie that Franco was the very bogey man. Was he pure as the driven snow? I don't think so, and frankly he most likely would not have been as successful if he had been.
My favorite analogy to use with Franco is Jack Nicholson's character in "A Few Good Men". Franco was a military man, which meant he didn't do politics, he destroyed threats, he found the enemy and he killed them. The liberals might not like that, they may be sickened by the death he unleashed, they may be offended by his autocratic style and Roman salutes, but at the end of the day, the whole world 'wanted Franco on that wall; we needed him on that wall'.
Totally agree. But I still love his writing.