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The Spanish Civil War: the continuing controversy: I

The historiographical
earthquake
by Mark Falcoff

Only recently, with the virtual passing of lenged by historians and participants alike.
an entire generation, has the Spanish Civil One such was George Orwell in Homage to
War (1936-39) ceased to be a subject of pas- Catalonia (1938), a book whose literary ex-
sionate historical and ideological debate. cellence perhaps eclipses its crucial political
Even so, the marrvrdom of the Second message. Another was Walter Krivitsky, a
Republic (I93I-39) has inspired the con- defector from Soviet intelligence who died
struction of a remarkably enduring histori- under mysterious circumstances in Wash-
ographical edifice. Its main lines are well ington shortly after publishing In Stalin's
known-that in Spain, the democratic West Secret Service (1939). Yet another was Jesus
failed to meet the earliest challenges of Eur- Hernandez, a former member of the central
opean fascism in the guise of General Fran- committee of the Spanish Communist party
cisco Franco's military uprising against the whose memoirs (evocatively titled Yo fui
government of the Popular Front. In so un ministro de Stalin) originally appeared in
doing, it presumably emboldened Hitder 1953.
and Mussolini to venture on to what be- In later years what might be called the
came the Second World War. Revised Standard Version was likewise at-
At the same time, the Spanish conflict tacked by historians left and right-from
occupies a particularly important role in the Trotskyists like Pierre Broue and Emile
apparently endless apologetics for Stalin Temime to liberals like Stanley Payne, but
and the Soviet Union. Whatever horrors the also by E. H. Carr, generally known for his
former may have inflicted on the latter, so Soviet sympathies, and by Ricardo de la
the argument runs, in Spain at least the Cierva, perhaps the most accomplished of
Soviets put Britain, France, and the United Spain's franquista historians.' For reasons
States to shame by expeditious support of probably more cultural and ideological than
the embattled republic. If the Soviets came historical, however, the field has been dom-
to occupy a disproportionately important inated by people like Paul Preston, a British
role in Spanish politics by 1939-again, we academic known among other things for a
are told-the cause lay not in Moscows massive biography of Generalissimo Fran-
ambitions so much as in the failure of cisco Franco. As Preston himself points out
countries who should have hastened to the
aid of one of their own, rather than crouch- i Also worthy of mention is La gunr ciaril espanola:
ing behind a hypocritical posture of "non- una historia diferrte (Plaza y lanes, 1996), by the
intervention ' heterodox Argentine-Spanish leftist historian Ho-
To be sure, almost from the very begin- racio Vasquez-Rial, which has not received any
ning this view of Spanish events was chal- thing like the attention it deserves.

58 The New Criterion September Z001

-- - r----*-
The historiographical earthquake by Mark Fakoff

in a survey of several recent monographs vastly undercutting the long-standing argu-


(The Times Literary Supplement, June 29), in ments of generations of apologists for Sta-
recent years the main thrust of Civil War lin, the Comintern, the Spanish Communist
historiography in Spain has shifted to doc- party, and the republic's final prime minis-
umenting the horrors of the Franco regime, ter, Dr. Juan Negrfn.
both during and after the war.' This serves a
number of useful purposes, the most im- Prior to the outbreak of the war, the
portant of which is to divert attention from Spanish Communist party was the smallest
the troubling questions that persist con- and least significant of the left-wing political
cerning the republic itself groupings in Spain. In spite of nearly two
Alas for Preston and the Spanish histori- decades of patient effort, the party had
ans of whom he happens to approve, these failed to make significant inroads in the
issues will not go away. After the demise of hold exercised by the socialists and the an-
the Soviet Union, in 1991 and 1992, its archists, particularly over the two groups
military archives, as well as those of the most likely to support a social revolution in
Communist International, were suddenly Spain-the urban workers and the landless
made available to Western researchers. For peasantrv. Indeed, as late as 1936 Madrid did
some years now the Yale University Press has not even maintain diplomatic relations with
been publishing selections from this un- the Soviet Union! Three years later, how-
precedented source in its Annals of Com- ever, Moscow was in virtual control of the
munism series, much to the discomfiture of Spanish government and was well advanced
some extremely well-placed members of the in its plans to convert the country into a
American and British historical professions. precursor of the "peoples' democracies" that
Now comes Ronald Radosh, assisted by two sprang up in Eastern Europe under Red
scholar-archivists, to reveal what light such Army protection after I945.
materials shed on Spanish events.: How did this remarkable turn of events
The task itself was daunting, since it re- come to pass? Conventional wisdom has it
quired the translation and careful perusal of that the rise of Communist influence in
hundreds of documents in several lang- Spain was the product of Stalin's decision to
uages. This volume includes some eighty- provision the embattled republic with arms,
one of them, together with a running com- particularly after Hitler and Mussolini
mentary and notes. Some are very long; poured arms and "volunteers" into the in-
others are tedious in the recitation of their surgent side. On the face of it, the proposi-
detail. A few provide particularly vivid pic- tion seems to make sense. Unfortunately, it
tures of a country in the midst of con- falls somewhat short of the truth. A letter
siderable political and military confusion. from Prime Minister Jose Giral to the
But taken together, they constitute some- Soviet ambassador in Paris, dated July 15,
thing of a historiographical earthquake, 1936, establishes that the republic sought to
acquire arms from Moscow when there was
2 "An awareness of guilt: Repression, vengeance and still a possibility that France would honor
the destruction of incriminating evidence in Fran- its commitments to War Ministry pur-
co's Spain. By way of a preemptive strike, Preston chases. Moreover, other documents reveal
begins the piece by aacking the straw man of that the Soviet Union-far from "giving"
Western apotogists for Franco-nowadays, at least, weapons to the embattled republic, swin-
a species as rare as the unicorn-before bludgeon- dled it out of hundreds of millions of dol-
ing readers with the Revised Standard Version. lars. This it accomplished by demanding the
3Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil prior deposit of a good part of the country's
War, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary W Harbeck, gold reserve in Moscow, and then, through
and Grigory Scvostianov; Yale University Press, .537 the imposition of exaggerated exchange
pages, 535. rates, charged almost double what guns,

The New Criterion September 200I


The Spanish Civil War: the continuing controversy I

tanks, and planes should have cost. (On two tal moved first from Madrid to Valencia and
aircraft alone, the Soviets bilked the repub- then to Barcelona, the Soviets were increas-
lic out of $50 million-in the dollars of ingly in control of the cabinet, the armed
those days!) Much of the equipment was forces, and the police.
old and unusable, and some of the weapons The process of getting rid of "uncooper-
were dispatched without ammunition. The ative" Spanish officials was in some ways
Soviets also charged against the total the remarkablv similar to what was going on in
costs of feeding, transporting, and main- Russia itself during these years; those hos-
taining military advisers in the peninsula. tile to Stalin's rule, or whom Stalin im-
agined might become so, were accused not
It is true that the Soviets set up dummy merely of Trotskyism and "wrecking"' but
companies in many parts of Europe (and actually of being agents of Hitler or Mus-
also in the United States) to buy weapons solini. Thus General Asencio could not be
that were supposedlv destined for trans- merely wrong or incompetent but a covert
shipment to unnamed South American re- agent of Franco. Ironically, many of the very
publics. But, in fact, some of these-inclu- people Stalin dispatched to Spain to apply
ding two airplanes ordered from the Doug- these techniques themselves fell into the
las plant in the United States-though same maw when, one by one, they were
charged to the Spanish Republic, were sent recalled to Moscow. One of the few excep-
to China to assist Mao Zedong. Unques- tions, Alexander Orlov, escaped to the Uni-
tionably the perception-assiduously re- ted States, later to provide one of the ear-
tailed in the Spanish Communist press, liest authoritative testimonies of Stalin's
which mysteriously ballooned in size and activities in Spain.
importance after July 1936-that the Soviets The Stalinist purge carried on behind the
were providing what the British, French, lines of the Civil War was not merely about
and Americans were cynically denving the need to get rid of ministers and generals
through the charade of "non-intervention" insufficientlv obedient to their Soviet advis-
obscured the facts of the case. ers; it also responded to the need to elimin-
Rather, the Soviets were able to advance ate other revolutionarv forces in Spain,
their control of the republic through con- those of a different ideological hue
ventional Leninist means-by manipulating particularly in Catalonia, where anarchists
key government ministers like Julio Alvarez were deeply rooted in the local political cul-
del Vayo, by creating a network of political ture. The five-day street battle between
commissars to control the armed forces, and Communists and anarchists in Barcelona in
by identifying and advancing the careers of 1937 has already been told bv George Or-
compliant officers and effectively destroying well. What is new, however, are the docu-
those who resisted party and Soviet "ad- ments (numbers 49-52 in Spain Betrayed)
vice." This was not always easy, and much of that reveal that the Spanish Communist
the book chronicles the difficulties encoun- l'arty, with the support and knowledge of
tered by the Soviet embassy, a bloated mili- the Comintern and Moscow, deliberately
tary mission, and the Communist party in provoked the clash to eliminate their op-
their dealings with Spaniards whose loyalty ponents. In theory the struggle between
was first and foremost to their own coun- Communists and anarchists (and also the
try-Prime Minister Francisco Largo Ca- semi-Trotskyist POUM) turned on differ-
ballero, or Naval and Air Minister Indalecio ences over grand strategy-whether it was
Prieto, or Army Chief of Staff Jose Asencio. best, as the Communists insisted, that the
By 1938, however, all three had been re- flames of revolutionary enthusiasm be
placed with officials more to the taste of dampened until after victory-presumably
Moscow, so that as the actual territory of for fear of alienating the English and French
the republic gradually shrunk, and the capi- governments -or whether, as the anarchists

6o The New Critcrion September 2001

r
The historiographical earthquake by Mark Faloff

and the POUM believed, only a societv al- faircs in December, 1938, the prime minister
ready transformed into a republic of equals allowed himself to speculate on the creation
was capable of winning the war. In fact, of a "distinctive new party." Negrin saw this
however, these arguments were somewhat as necessary because efforts to unify his own
abstract and irrelevant; the real issue was Socialist partv with the Communists had so
political power and who would be left far continualiy met with resistance from his
standing after the victory to dictate the colleagues. "But what kind of party?' the
shape of the successor state. memorandum quotes him as asking rhetor-
icallv. For reasons of international image, it
The German and Italian motives for inter- could not be a Communist party, though
vention in Spain were partly ideological, the Communists should give it workers
partly strategic, and partly practical-to "but not, at first, [figure] among its lead-
gain a new ally in Europe and to test out ers-better to use little known people. The
new weapons. But what of the Soviets? "At leaders of the new party's organization and
the present stage' wrote Comintern secre- propaganda work must be handed over to
tary-general Georgi Dimitrov within days of the Communists?' Clearly, Negrin was
the outbreak of the war (July 23, 1936), "we thinking of something like what emerged as
should . . . not assign the task of creating the Socialist Unity lParty a decade later in
Soviets and try to establish a dictatorship of East Germanv.
the proletariat in Spain. That would be a The same document reveals that Negrin
fatal mistake. Therefore we must say . . . do was also contemplating a very different po-
not abandon the positions of the democra- litical and economic system for postwar
tic regime in Spain at this point'-which is Spain than bourgeois democracy. 'The
to say, until "the complete destruction of bourgeois will not recover their positions'
the fascist counter-revolutionary elements, he told the Soviet diplomat, "All of the
and then we can proceed from there, resolv- principal branches of Spain's economy will
ing concrete questions" (emphasis added). be nationalized?' More remarkable still was
By the end of 1937 "concrete questions" his affirmation that there would be
had indeed been largely resolved. Although
only two ministers in the Negrfn govern- no returning to the old parliamentarism; it
ment were members of the Communist will be impossible to allow the "free plav" of
party, hully 60 percent of army personnel parties as it existed earlier, for in this case the
were, including five of eleven corps com- Right might once again force its way into
manders and fifty-six of seventy-two brigade power. This means that either a unified polit-
commanders. The army's political commis- ical organization or a military dictatorship is
sars were either party members or recruited necessary.
from among the ranks of pro-Moscow
socialists. Moreover, the party's influence Negrin, the diplomat added, "does not see
over the military was also accomplished it aniy other way."
through terror-non-Communist wounded A Soviet intelligence report dated Feb-
were reftised medical aid and non-cooperat- ruary 20, 1937 characterized the purposes of
ing officers were denied the weapons or Hitler and Mussolini in Spain to be "to stifle
ammunition they needed. Even more at- the working masses of Spain, to set up a fas-
tention had been given to control of the cist regime there, and to tLrn Spain into a
police, with a party man becoming chief of base and appendage of German and Italian
security, replacing a Caballero appointee. imperialism?' If these were in fact their ob-
Moreover, Negrfn himself had begun to jectives, the Nazi and fascist dictators suc-
think about a very different political design cceded in attaining the first two, but failed
for Spain once the war was over. In a long miserably in the last. In spite of enormous
conversation with the Soviet charge d'af- pressures, Hitler was unable to convince

The New Criterion September zooi


The Spanish Civil War: the continuing controversy: I

Franco to enter the Second World War on One cannot conclude this review without
the side of the Axis. (The fact that the paying particular tribute to Ronald Radosh.
generalissimo's reluctance to do so had more This book represents yet another milestone
to do with prudential rather than ideological in his remarkable career as a major historian
considerations seems-at the end of the of the twentieth century. To Spain Betrayed,
day-somewhat irrelevant.) Without for a as indeed in all his work, he brings a sharp
moment minimizing the repression and critical intefligence, an uncompromising
bloodshed of the Franco years, these docu- honesty, and above all an exemplary courage
ments justifv speculation on whether indeed to confront the cherished myths of the left.
a different outcome to the war would have It is regrettable, but not wholly surprising,
had happier consequences for Spain-and that after a lifetime of productive and im-
indeed for the West in general. At the very portant work, the history department at
least, they make it impossible for serious his- George Washington University decided re-
torians to continue to claim that what was at cently that he was apparently not suffi-
stake in Spain in 1936-39 was nothing more ciently accomplished to deserve a place in
than fascism versus democracy-unless, of it-an episode that illustrates once again the
course, one regards Communism as an ex- fecklessness and mediocrity that has come
otic variant of the latter, which unfortunately to characterize the American historical
many still do. academy.

62 The New Criterion September 2001


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TITLE: The historiographical earthquake


SOURCE: The New Criterion 20 no1 S 2001
WN: 0124401518007

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