The Magazine

Spanish Upheaval

Republicans, nationalists, and the crucible of modern Spain

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The virtues of Stanley Payne, the outstanding living historian of the Spanish Civil War, are on gratifying display in this comprehensive volume. He writes with appropriate sweep: “[C]ivil war in Spain was not a complete anomaly, but rather the only massive internal conflict to break out in Western Europe during the 1930s. It would reflect all the tensions, hatreds, and ideologies found in these other conflicts, while adding further features of its own, characteristic of Spain and to some extent of Europe as a whole during the decade before World War II.” Still, Payne concentrates on the domestic history that produced the convulsion. 

Francisco Franco (center) and colleagues (1938)

Francisco Franco (center) and colleagues (1938)

He begins with the decline of Spain’s empire, once the world’s greatest in geographical extent, controlling territories from North Africa across the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific to the Philippines. He notes that, early in the 19th century, the invasion of Spain by Napoleon’s armies and the ensuing defeat of the French fostered local constitutionalism resulting in a “Spanish contradiction.” That is, the country adopted an advanced, modernizing political system but maintained an undeveloped society and economy, a traditional culture, and weak educational resources.  

Payne also offers a reliable account of the main episodes of 20th-century Spain’s armed torment. These begin with the fall of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1930 and the abdication of King Alfonso XIII in the next year. A republic was then proclaimed and a liberal and social-democratic coalition was elected, followed by the eruption of leftist extremism. That last was evidenced by ferocious anticlericalism, the growth of an anarchist labor movement uniquely strong in Europe, and a shift of Socialists toward revolutionism, alongside which the Moscow-controlled Spanish Communist party was an alien force without significant roots.  

The emergence of a radical-right alternative soon followed. While it was identified most notoriously with the Falange Española, or Spanish Phalanx, which was inspired by Italian and German fascism, the counter-movement to Spain’s radical left was represented more widely by conservative Roman Catholic politicians and traditional monarchists—the latter known as Carlists for their support of a slighted pretender to the throne, Prince Carlos, passed over by the predecessors of the ill-fated Alfonso XIII. 

In 1934, the most important of several failed leftist insurrections occurred. That rehearsal for a full-fledged civil war was organized (as Payne shows) with considerable preparation and thoroughness by the radicalized Socialists. But it was defeated—and enabled the victory at the polls of a rightist government, which aggravated the crisis.  

Elections in 1936 brought the liberals, leftists, and Communists of the People’s Front to power, but the revolutionary tide ran ahead of them. The People’s Front won the balloting in part because of incidents of leftist violence that skewed voting results, but also thanks to the numerous votes of the anarcho-syndicalists and Socialists, neither of whom were willing to participate in the new administration. Revolution had seized the minds of the radical left, but a major opposing offensive was about to begin. It would come under the leadership of General Francisco Franco, and it would prevail.

In the summer of 1936, the antirevolutionary faction in the Spanish Army rose in defiance of the new government and was dubbed “the nationalists.” The armed forces had been divided no less deeply than the rest of the country: Franco admitted that leaders were badly split inside the military establishment and supported no common position other than “law and order.” That is why, in Franco’s view, no military intervention against the left had been organized successfully between 1934 and 1936. The electoral triumph of the People’s Front, however, provoked further violent confrontations between the two ideological poles, dramatizing the disintegration of the state.

Franco began his uprising from Spanish Morocco. The nationalists quickly seized most of the Spanish north (which was sympathetic to them) with the support of Falangist cadres and Carlist militias. But Franco himself was stuck in Morocco, as the Spanish Navy remained loyal to the Republic. Franco and his colleagues went to Germany and Italy for airplanes and pilots, along with weapons, to evade the Republican closure of the Strait of Gibraltar. Hitler and Mussolini obliged, sending their own combat personnel to assist the nationalists in beating the naval blockade. Franco ferried thousands of soldiers and Moroccan mercenaries onto the mainland.

The nationalist coup failed, however, to subdue the main Spanish cities: Madrid, the capital; Barcelona, the main industrial center; and others. According to Payne, without the swift capture of Madrid, the nationalists lost the initiative and condemned Spain to a war of attrition. He deems the Battle of Madrid “the first turning point” in that war; indeed, Madrid became a global publicity symbol for the Republican cause. The city was defended with the help of Russian arms and officers: Stalin chose to back the Republic, but Moscow’s obvious desire to impose Communist dictation on the Spanish left made it the equivalent of the interfering fascist powers rather than a firm ally of the Republic.

In Barcelona, where the anarcho-syndicalist union movement was a leading force, a distinct outcome emerged with the defeat of the military plot. The social demands of the left took precedence over the preservation of the Republican system. The Catalonian nationalist president Lluís Companys and his regional government submitted to a system of dual rule alongside the labor revolutionaries. In Payne’s words, the anarchists “accepted a limited semi-pluralism,” in contrast to Communist totalitarianism. Following the Barcelona model, “multiparty committees and councils of revolutionary power .  .  . sprang up in towns, provinces, and sometimes entire regions throughout the Republican zone.”

Payne judges that the social revolution in leftist-controlled territory was “proportionately the most extensive, and also the most nearly spontaneous, worker revolution in a European country. It was carried out by genuine worker organizations on the local level .  .  . from the bottom up, rather than being organized from the top down by a political party of middle-class intellectuals and activists”—like the Bolsheviks in Russia. Payne appears to agree with Andreu Nin, leader of the anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and in whose militia George Orwell served. Nin called events in Spain “a more profound proletarian revolution than the Russian Revolution,” and he had a certain expertise in the subject: Nin had been a functionary of the Communist International in Moscow from 1921 to 1930 before fleeing Russia as a Trotskyist. 

Stalin’s Russia frowned on Spanish revolutionary ambitions. With the Communists weak at the outbreak of the war, but represented in the People’s Front, Stalin faced a “dilemma [he] never fully resolved,” according to Payne.

For nearly two decades, the Soviet Union had preached revolution and civil war. Suddenly—and paradoxically, against Soviet wishes—civil war and violent revolution had broken out in Spain, but it was an anarchist and Socialist revolution.

Challenged by the limited influence of the Spanish Communists, Moscow turned to infiltration of existing Republican institutions. The Russian foreign minister warned Stalin that support for Spanish radicalism might prevent Russia from securing allies in the West. For these and other reasons, Soviet aid to the Spanish Republic diminished considerably as the war continued, leading Republican leaders to accuse Stalin of abandoning them. Payne argues that, at the beginning, Russian assistance to the Spanish left far exceeded what Franco received from Hitler and Mussolini, who responded by escalating their involvement.

Soviet deceit in Spain led to a “second counter-revolution” by Communists against their leftist rivals. Soviet agents murdered the POUM leader Nin. Meanwhile, as months went by, General Franco and his colleagues carried out a patient strategy of political consolidation within their movement and a successful campaign to break Catalonia (as the center of resistance) away from the rest of Republican-held territory. In April 1939, 75 years ago, the Spanish Republic capitulated.

In this rich panorama of ideology and politics, Stanley Payne has included an argument that deserves emphasis. The anti-Stalinist POUM and, in the 1960s, the Spanish Communist party’s “Eurocommunist” leadership came to agree that, with Soviet intervention on the anti-Franco side, the Republic embodied the first example of a “people’s democracy,” the political model imposed by Stalin in Eastern Europe after World War II. But as Payne affirms, “The [Spanish] Republic was a sovereign state, not a satellite of the Soviet Union, and there were definite limits to Communist hegemony.” This invaluable contribution reminds us that the Spanish revolution and civil war of 1936-39 remain relevant and worthy of study. 


Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.