The Spanish Civil War: A New Take





Myles Kantor, in FrontPageMag.com (March 11, 2004):

Stanley Payne is Hilldale-Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An eminent scholar of Spain and fascism, his books include The Franco Regime , Spain's First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931-1936 , and A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 . Payne's The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism is forthcoming from Yale University Press.

What were the causes of the Spanish Civil War?

The main cause was the growth of the revolutionary process, by which the revolutionary movements sought to replace the democratic Republic with a revolutionary regime. But a second cause was the aim of the rightist groups also to replace the Republic, though until the rebellion that began the civil war they were much more respectful of law and order than the Left.

What was at stake in the war?

Two things: one clearly and the second more uncertainly. The first was the future of Spain—the contest between a semi-pluralist Left-collectivist revolutionary regime (not a democracy and increasingly under Communist hegemony) and a rightist authoritarian regime.

The second had to do with its possible influence on the balance, or imbalance, of power in Europe. Whereas the first was clear-cut, the second elicited a variety of different answers. Britain, for example, said it would and should have no influence, and to that end promoted non-intervention. But Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini all wanted it to tilt things in their direction. Both the British and the others were partly right, partly wrong.

You referred to the war as"the contest between a semi-pluralist Left-collectivist revolutionary regime (not a democracy and increasingly under Communist hegemony) and a rightist authoritarian regime." When and how did the former's undemocratic character manifest itself?

Amnesty and impunity for leftist violence and terrorism; punishment of police who repressed; falsification of electoral results (March 1936) and of elections (May 1936); illegalization of legitimate opposition organizations, such as Catholic trade unions (May 1936); closing of Catholic schools, seizure of their property; manifold property confiscations and destruction; use of political militias as deputy police.

When and to what extent did it come under Communist and Soviet hegemony?

Hegemony, not control, basically began under Juan Negrín's wartime government. Both the Right and extreme Left exaggerate this. What was dominated was military, intelligence, security and police policy, and to some extent overall government policy.  But not society or economics or most political organizations.

Why does the extreme Left exaggerate Soviet-Communist hegemony during Negrín?

Because of the sharp conflict that developed between Communists and the extreme revolutionary Left. The latter blamed the Communists for thwarting their plans. Then, after defeat, the Communists could be blamed for it.

What was the course of the Republic's popular support?

The Republic always had a lot of popular support, though different sectors had different opinions on exactly what the Republic should be. At the beginning of the Civil War, the leftist Republic had rather more support than the rightist insurgency. That may have changed by the end of the war, when the leftists were ground down by constant defeat and material privation.

Was there a chief factor that led to Nationalist victory?

The chief factor was military. Franco's army was led and organized to a large degree by professionals and was a more effective army. Secondly, the Axis military support was more extensive and more proficient, though not at every stage.

To what extent were the Nationalists under fascist hegemony or control?

Here one must distinguish with regard to the native Spanish fascism that developed under Franco, though he always kept it under his personal control and saw to it that there was never a radical or revolutionary fascism in Spain. Italy and Germany had no direct influence in his government in terms of being able to control or manipulate anything, only an external indirect influence that Franco could generally manage as he pleased, though he certainly tilted in their direction. It was quite different from the situation with Negrín , who in most things simply followed the Communist line, though he was never a mere puppet.

What are some revelations in your book that have been heretofore unknown, and how do these findings compare with conventional views on the period?

That the Comintern did not follow a moderate policy in Spain before the Civil War, but pressed for the construction of a People's Republic. Second, that Communist policy, pace Hugh Thomas and many others, was never counterrevolutionary.

The summary of your book by Yale University Press similarly notes your conclusion that"the position of the Communist party was by no means counterrevolutionary." Would you please explain the context there?

During the Civil War, Communist policy insisted on prioritizing the military effort--perfectly sensible--and downplaying all-out collectivization, decentralized militias, etc. It maintained its policy of developing the all-Left People's Republic and proposed an NEP policy for the economy, nationalizing major industry but maintaining most private property.

One often finds the civil war described as"a dress rehearsal for World War II."  What is the significance of this claim, and is it accurate?

This claim was soon developed by the defeated Republicans, and Negrín did indeed hope to prolong the struggle until a broader war might somehow rescue the Republic. Other Republican leaders sometimes thought that reckless and immoral. Moreover, even had the civil war continued, French military policy was so timid it might have made little difference.

The Spanish war was a contest between Right and Left. Hitler and Stalin were on opposite sides. But the European war could only begin after Hitler and Stalin joined forces, so what began in September 1939 was quite a different war.

From December 1941, the World War got to be more like the Spanish war, but even so the democracies were sometimes led by Conservatives like Churchill who, had they been Spaniards, would have been fighting against the revolutionary Republic, as indeed was Churchill's position for part of the Spanish war.

During the war, approximately 3,000 Americans fought the Nationalists in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and other forces. To what extent were Battalion members under Soviet hegemony and cognizant of this?

The International Brigades were a Comintern operation at first commanded by Red Army officers, and only integrated directly into the Republican Army command structure in September 1937. There was a minority of naive non-Communist idealists who probably did not understand all this at first. Even some of the Communist majority may not at first have fully grasped the situation.

Was there a Nationalist counterpart to the International Brigades?

There was a small body of foreign volunteers fighting for Franco, including one French battalion and very briefly one Irish battalion. Judith Keene recently published a book on this ( Fighting For Franco: International Volunteers in Nationalist Spain during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 ). The main group of foreign volunteers in Franco's army was the Moroccans, nearly 70,000 of them, many from French Morocco.

Regarding the civil war, has Spain had an equivalent to Germany's Historikerstreit over the Nazi period?

Not much. Most Spanish historical writing is politically correct.

You have written several books on Spain. When did you decide to write this book, and how did you become interested in Spain in general?

I originally wrote a book on The Spanish Revolution in 1970, which is the germ of the present volume. When I started in 1955, Spain was entirely new territory.


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