What Really Happened During the Spanish Civil War?

Fact & Fiction

Dr. Whealey is author of Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1989).

Editor's Note: Last week HNN published an article by Ronald Radosh regarding the reception given his recent book about the collapse of the Spanish Republic. Dr. Whealey, in response, sent us the following piece.

History News Network just published an article by Ronald Radosh about what the USSR did in Spain 1936-1939. Like Frances Lannon, whose TLS review Radosh savages in"Time for the Old Left to Come to Terms with What Happened in Spain," I also recently reviewed his book Spain Betrayed..., published by Yale University Press. That review can been seen on H-Net.

Radosh's article on HNN underlines his journalistic biases and weakens his admittedly genuine scholarship. He proves beyond a shadow of a doubt his anti-Stalinist credentials as a journalist.

Paragraph 1 Radosh objects to American, British, French and Spanish journalists who wrote in the 1930s and who Radosh now labels as writers on"the old left,""the pro-communist left" and"fellow travelers." He posits his own right-wing argument claiming that the old left were wrong in the 1930s by making fun of"evil Western appeasers." This language is a throwback to the fanaticism of a manichaen journalist. He has little interest in this article in discovering the historical truth about what happened in Spain. What happened to the ideal of the Spanish Constitution of 1931 and Spanish democracy? What happened to the results of the February 1936 elections in Spain?

Paragraph 2 It is false to say that Franco got"aid from Germany and Italy" implying that Axis aid was less effective than Soviet aid to Spain. Hitler and Mussolini delivered more men and more and better war material to Franco's government than the Comintern. And incidentally, both sides in Spain were expected to pay for the war material so generously sent by these foreign"friends." Still, Nationalist Spain, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy won their wars in Spain. French and Spanish democracy, and, to a lesser extent, American and British democracy, were the losers. Stalin's dictatorship in the Soviet Union was also a loser. Radosh's statement --"had the Republic won, [the Soviets would have established] the first successful 'Peoples Republic'" -- is based on superficial reasoning and speculation. Radosh assumes the government would have been similar to the"People's Republics" set up as satellites by Stalin during 1945-1948 in Eastern Europe. The Spanish Republic was not a"success." If Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin's government had won in 1938, no one knows what"would have" happened in Spain.

Radosh's Paragraph 3 is a useful survey of how his book Spain Betrayed has been reviewed so far. The readers can consult those reviews to see who is biased in which direction. Stalin died in 1953 (almost 50 years ago), so nobody is now in"his orbit." Stalin himself may have been some kind of leftist in 1917-1923, but he basically became a reactionary who killed more Communists than anybody else, with the possible exception of Mao Tse-tung.

I agree with Radosh that Spain Betrayed should be consulted -- as well as Hitler and Spain and Paul Preston's Franco. I agree with Radosh that Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is a good book.

As Radosh's journalistic ideas go on in a dozen paragraphs, he develops the theme that the"old left" is somehow related to leftist journalists of today. Who are the left? Liberals, Democratic Socialists, Russian Communists in the Russian Federation, Third World neo-socialists? The Greens? American Democrats? The British Labour Party? Pacifists, Christians, anarchists? By any standard George Orwell was a man of the left who was anti-fascist as well as anti-Stalinist. Christopher Hitchens's statement in the Wilson Quarterly, that"everything that was ever suspected about the Comintern line in Spain turns out to have been true" should warn us about the weakness of journalism as a profession. I have agreed and disagree with many things that Hitchens has written in many articles. But a journalist who writes that"everything""ever suspected""turns out to have been true" is being too simplistic.

Radosh's article brings publicity to his own scholarly book, the only substantial compilation of secret Soviet documents now published on the civil war, but he tries here to do too much by taking on too many people on the left. Perhaps in the future Radosh should research the meaning of democracy and constitutional government and do less reading of propagandists, ideologues and journalists who have a weak understanding of history.

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Arthur Mitzman - 3/27/2002

Robert Whealey's comment on Radosh's assertion that Stalin would have set up a "People's Republic" in Spain if Franco had been defeated -- "If Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin's government had won in 1938, no one knows what "would have" happened in Spain" -- is insufficient. Radosh's perspective is ideological anti-communism, and it is totally ahistorical. The "Peoples' Democracies" were buffer states established after the victory over Nazism both to protect the Soviet Union against any future aggression from the west and to reestablish the pre-1914 Czarist Empire as a zone for exploiting the cheap labour and raw materials of its weak eastern neighbors. They had as much to do with world revolution as the comparable U.S. control over Latin America has to do with democratic ideals. In contrast to ideological hype believed by simple-minded communists as well as anti-communnists, the Stalinist Empire, like the Czarist one, never aimed at world revolution but only the subjugation of weaker states on its periphery, where it could easily intervene militarily. From 1934 to 1939, Stalin, who privately described the Comintern as a gyp joint, was primarily focussed on keeping France and England on an anti-Hitler track. His aim in creating the Spanish and French Popular Fronts was simply to build the largest possible anti-fascist political coalition by playing down the Communists' Marxist heritage and assuring conservatives that Communists would cooperate in preventing revolution. This is why the Spanish Communists supported the Republican army in driving the POUM and the anarchists out of their strongholds in Barcelona. It's also why the French communists were surprised and disturbed by the general strike and factory occupation that greeted the victory of the Front Populaire in the spring of '36, why Thorez told the workers they had to know how to end a strike, and, once they had done so, extended the French Communists' "fraternal hand" to the Church and the arch-reactionary (but anti-Nazi) Croix de Feu.