Monday, October 16, 2006

An Introduction to the Spanish Civil War

     Hi everyone, I'm sorry for the light posting as of late. I had a momentary spike in my "real life" activity, in addition to being busy during my free time reading the book The Battle For Spainby Antony Beevor, which is an in-depth look at the events during and surrounding the Spanish Civil War. I'm finally done with it, and I'll try to give a brief introduction to what it is and leave specific topics for later posts.

     Despite being an extemely interesting period in history, the Spanish Civil War is not all that well known. Perhaps this is because many of the aspects of the winning side, the right-wing nationalists led by the fascist Franco and supported by Hitler and Mussolini, are so similar to many of the ruling or controlling interests in the US. Perhaps it is because the losing side, that of the liberals, socialists, anarchists, and communists, had core values that are much easier for the average person to identify with. Or maybe it was because it was another example where the Church took the complete wrong side, as they openly praised the fascist Franco and took an active role in helping him with his goals whenever it could. Maybe it has to do with the fact that powerful business interests in the US and elsewhere helped Franco overthrow a legitimately elected democratic government. Or perhaps because the United States giving aid to Franco and preventing aid from reaching the Spanish government (despite polls in the US showing overwhelming public support for the left-wing government, henceforth referred to as the Republic), undermines the image of the United States being a warrior for freedom and democracy in the period surrounding World War II. But perhaps I should get started.

     The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and ended in 1939, right before Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia. The war began after a new left-wing government was elected in 1936. The government was not revolutionary, but it was concerned with progressive programs for agrarian reform and it was also in favor of the separation of church and state. This last measure was incredibly irritating for the Church of Spain, who had been a major player in the government and had received large subsidies for centuries. Spain was an extemely polarized country between left and right before the election. Beevor describes the campaigning done by the right:
Millions of leaflets were distributed saying that a victory for the left would produce 'an arming of the mob, the burning of banks and private houses, the division of property and land, looting and the sharing out of your women'. The finance for such a campaign came from the landowners, large companies and the Catholic Church, which hurried to bless the [right-wing] alliance with the idea that a vote for the right was a vote for Christ


The war started when a group of generals, later to be led by Franco, decided to overthrow the democratically elected government on July 18th, 1936. The right, called the nationalists,
argued that they represented the cause of Christianity, order and Western civilization against 'Asiatic Communism'.
On the other side, the Republic portrayed itself as representing
the cause of democracy, freedom and englightenment against fascism


But Beevor also says that
The Spanish Civil War has so often been portrayed as a clash between left and right, but this is a misleading simplification. Two other axes of conflict emerged: state centralism against regional independence and authoritarianism against the freedom of the individual. The nationalist forces of the right were much more coherent becuase, with only minor exceptions, they combined three cohesive extremes. They were right wing, centralist, and authoritarian at the same time. The Republic, on the other hand, represented a cauldron of incompatibilities and mutual suspicions, with centralists and authoritarians, especially the communists, opposed by regionalists and libertarians


    I think the Spanish Civil War is interesting for a few of the following reasons, and I plan to go into more depth on each in the future.

  • Anarchism in action- Spain had a very large anarchist following, with anarcho-syndicalist trade unions with millions of members. When the nationalists began the coup, the official Republican government was extremely slow in reacting. This prompted the anarchist and socalist trade unions to take control of the situation themselves in many cities, setting up their own revolutionary committees and preventing the rebels from obtaining an immediate victory. Barcelona, one of the centers of revolutionary activity, was described by a journalist as
    the strangest city in the world today, the city of anarcho-syndicalism supporting democracy, of anarchists keeping order, and anti-political philosophers wielding power


    The anarchists, despite their superior numbers, did not impose their own system on the population though. The anarchist Garcia Oliver described the alternatives :
    'Libertarian communism, which is tantamount to an anarchist dictatorship, or democracy which signified collaboration.'
    Beevor notes
    Imposing their social and economic self-management on the rest of the population appeared to violate libertarian ideals more than collaborating with political parties. Abad de Santillan [an anarchist] said that they did not believe in any form of dictatorship, including their own


    Many people did join collective ventures during this time though, and agricultural production on collectivized land increased by 20% over what it was previously. Many small farmers who owned their own land also voluntarily joined the collectives. Meanwhile, on the industrial side, production was largely controlled by the unions formed by the workers.

  • The Support of Fascism by the Church- The Catholic Church was very supportive of the fascists. Whether it was lying to international bodies concerning events, giving the nationalists lists of people who didn't show up to church in order to interrogate and/or execute, lobbying the US government to refuse aid to the Republic and to support Franco, or simply making statements comparing Franco's war to a holy crusade against heathens, this aspect of the Spanish Civil War should be interesting to any atheist who is looking for more examples of the Church supporting oppressive institutions.

  • The Support of Facism by the first-world "democracies"- Great Britain, the United States, and even France helped to turn events in the nationalists favor. This is most likely due to the ruling business interests of these countries fearing the consequences of a democratic government's existence, both in terms of the example it would set and also in terms of likely losses in profits. Many politicians and business leaders of these countries were openly pro-fascist. Lady Chamberlain of Great Britain, for example, "proudly wore fascist badges and insignia".

  • The Possibility of Something Similiar Occuring in the US- Could this sort of event happen in the US? While I don't believe that there is currently enough polarization between left and right for a civil war (despite us being constantly told about how divided we are), it's certainly possibly that we will become further polarized. The fact that 30% of Americans still support Bush is a sign that we could become much more polarized, since a large amount of this 30% would likely follow the neo-cons to nearly any extreme if the message was mixed with the proper amounts of patriotism and religion.

         If anyone is interested in learning more about the Spanish Civil War, I would definitely recommend this book. It was a #1 bestseller in Spain and seems to be most widely recognized account of the war.
  • 8 comments:

    Mookie said...

    I knew about the communes and such, but I didn't know they were so successful. Shoots down that idea that such a system would be impossible.

    It is no surprise that the church would side with the oppressors. Even the oppressors of other nations sought to help the oppressors in Spain.

    Tanooki Joe said...

    Of course, I think that the Spanish Civil War is less known also because Franco's victory largely cut off Spain from the rest of Europe for the next 35 years (at least the people were -- the Western governments were of course buddy-buddy with the anti-Communist Francoists).

    I'll definitely need to check this book out.

    SH said...

    Well, church is a big business/scam so it's not a surprise that they would protect their interests by helping right-wing forces. In addition to that, the left is (or at least was at the time) largely secular or openly anti-religious, so that, I am sure, played its role in turning religious leaders against the democratically elected government.

    Anarchism in action would be an interesting topic to learn more about. I am very skeptical of their successes but it might be because I don't know much about them.

    Could this sort of event happen in the US?

    I sure hope not. And I think it's not the people on the extremes of the political spectrum that matter, not 10% of crazies who would die for Bush and not 10% on the left who would die for ideals. It is what the people in the middle will do. People in power learned many lessons since the end of 19th century. One of the lessons, I believe, was that you have to keep the majority reasonably satisfied and busy with either worthless crap or day-to-day labor, so they would not be persuaded to go to the streets and demand their rights to be respected or their conditions to be improved. This is what the majority of the populations of first-world countries have become: "Give us Survivor, give us McDonalds and you can keep our stinking freedom." So I don't see a whole lot of polarization, I see a lot of people in a very deep sleep.

    Thank you for another interesting post.

    Drunken Tune said...

    I am not joking when I say that I check your blog every day, waiting for you to update. Please do so more often! Every post is great.

    Delta said...

    Thanks for the comments all.

    mookie and sh,

    The anarchism in action is what really interested me as well, and it's what made me read about the Spanish Civil War (aka Spanish Revolution) in the first place. I'm currently reading a book called The Anarchist Collectives which should go into more detail on the economic organizing and will focus less on the actual war, in contrast to the other book. I'll let you know what it has to say.

    tanooki joe,

    Good point, that may also have something to do with it. Western governments surely wouldn't be offering good educational resources on the Spanish Civil War and risk turning off the Francoist dictatorship and losing them to USSR influence.

    drunken tune,

    Thanks bud, I'll try to update more often!

    Mookie said...

    I just watched Land and Freedom last night. I couldn't understand the French and Spanish parts very well, but that wasn't a problem. I liked how the movie showed the split between the anarcho forces and the USSR-backed "communist" forces. The town meeting scene was also very interesting. The movie did a good job of making the struggle look real and noble.

    Thank you for recommending the movie and the book.

    Delta said...

    I'm glad you liked it mookie. I don't recall how much of it is in spanish, but you can download subtitles for it online. There's a program called vobsub that you can download and I believe it automatically embeds the subtitles that you download in your choice of video player.

    The USSR-backed Communists were a huge problem for the Republic. The book goes into some detail about how their military tactics were almost purely based around propaganda and not on strategy, and may have caused the Republic to lose the war. But the USSR was the only major country that would sell the people weapons, while the nationalists received high-tech support from Germany and Italy, as well as many trucks from Ford, which someone in the Franco government later said were crucial to winning the war.

    If you liked that movie, you'd probably also like Libertarias. Personally I like Libertarias better, although the subtitles that I could find for it are somewhat out of sync, so it's a little frustrating.

    maswey said...

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