The Civil War in Spain

The Spanish Revolution.
by Burnett Bolloten.
University of North Carolina Press. 644 pp. $29.00.

The Spanish Civil War engaged the passions of an entire generation of European and American anti-fascists. Driven, as they themselves have testified, to the edge of despair by the unchecked spread of fascism, they rallied to the defense of the beleaguered Republic, whose cause, it seemed to them, was indistinguishable from the cause of liberty itself, and whose fate, they believed, presaged their own. Defending the Republic became a moral imperative of the Left, a “duty,” in Hemingway’s words, “toward all the oppressed of the world.”

When the Civil War broke out in July 1936, Burnett Bolloten, a very young British journalist working for United Press, was sent to cover it. Fiercely pro-Republican, and determined to write a book about the war, he began collecting documentation. Eventually, Bolloten amassed more than 100,000 periodicals, 2,500 books, and hundreds of unpublished documents. He also found his true vocation: to write the definitive history of the Spanish Civil War, a task which has occupied him for forty years now. In the course of his exhaustive inquiries, however, Bolloten’s views underwent a considerable change, so that when his first book, The Grand Camouflage, was published in 1961, it shocked the European Left. His current study, a monumental and compelling work of scholarship, is equally disrespectful of venerable leftist orthodoxy.

It is Bolloten’s contention, which he buttresses with an enormous mass of documentation, that the Nationalist rising of 1936 marked the effective demise of the liberal Republic. The army, the police force, and virtually the entire administrative corps of the state went over to the Nationalist side. “Shorn of the repressive organs of state,” Bolloten writes, “the liberal government . . . possessed nominal power, but not power itself, for this was split into countless fragments and scattered in a thousand towns and villages among the revolutionary committees. . . .” The liberal government, presided over by Manuel Azaña, whose high ideals quickened the hearts of Western liberals, was simply a fañade, maintained solely in order to garner Western support.

The main promoters of revolution, especially in the rural areas of the Republic, were the anarcho-syndicalists, Spain’s classic revolutionaries. Animated by a quasi-religious fervor, sustained by the sacred texts of Bakunin and Sorel, the anarcho-syndicalists seized the opportunity provided by the shivering of the Spanish state to expropriate the manufacturers and tradesmen in the towns and to collectivize peasant holdings in the countryside. Their particular animus, though, was directed at the Catholic church, which they regarded in much the same way as the pious Christian regards the Anti-Christ. Hundreds of churches and convents were gutted or put to secular use, and thousands of members of the clergy and religious orders were murdered by the anarcho-syndicalists in the wake of the Nationalist revolt.

While the anarcho-syndicalists were a dominant force in the revolutionary committees, their principled opposition to the state prevented them from taking part in the national government. No such scruples encumbered either the Spanish Socialists or the Communists, who, along with the Republicans, formed the Popular Front coalition whose electoral victory in 1936 precipitated the rightist rising. Of the two “proletarian” parties the Socialists, initially, were by far the stronger, with 89 deputies in the Spanish parliament to the Communists’ 16. But the Socialists’ real power was not nearly so decisive as their numbers suggested, for the party was bitterly riven. While the party executive was in the hands of the moderate or Center faction, the powerful Socialist Labor Federation was led by Largo Caballero, the leader of the party’s left wing. Caballero scorned the moderation of the Popular Front’s electoral program and openly declared himself in favor of a dictatorship of the proletariat. In the tense situation which ensued upon the Popular Front’s victory, Caballero’s ostentatious display of radicalism was extraordinarily ill-timed, and may have helped to provoke the rebellion.

Unlike the warring Socialists, the Communists were bound together by an iron discipline, and they made adroit use of their nominal ally’s discord. As a former member of the politburo of the Spanish Communist party put it, “One day we supported one man against the other; the following day we did the reverse, and on all occasions we incited [the Socialists] against one another so that they would destroy themselves, a game we played in full view and not without success.” The object of this “game,” for the Communists, was to win control of the Republic and to place it at the disposal of Joseph Stalin, who, at this time, was playing his own complicated diplomatic game.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin concluded that a German attack on the Soviet Union, supported either openly or tacitly by England and France, was a very real possibility. To forestall the emergence of such a powerful anti-Soviet alignment, Stalin pursued two mutually contradictory policies simultaneously. On the one hand, he tried to forge an anti-German alliance with England and France; on the other hand, as early as 1936, he began putting out discreet feelers for an alliance with Germany. Although his overtures were rebuffed time and again by all sides, Stalin was nothing if not persistent, and in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he saw yet another occasion for putting his designs into effect. As General Walter Krivitsky, who headed Soviet military intelligence in Western Europe until his defection in 1937, revealed in a book published in 1939: “Stalin believed it possible to create in Spain a regime controlled by him. That done, he could command the respect of France and England, win from them the offer of a real alliance, and either accept it or—with that as a bargaining point—arrive at his underlying steady aim and purpose, a compact with Germany.”

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The means by which Stalin gained control of Republican Spain are described by Bolloten in the most amazing detail. Essentially, Stalin’s modus operandi consisted of placing loyal agents in key positions in the secret police, the army, and the defense ministry, all of which were gradually reconstituted under the watchful eyes of Soviet “technicians.” As the sole purveyor of arms to the Republic (the British and French refused to aid either the Republicans or the Nationalists, even though Germany and Italy had intervened openly against the Republic), Stalin was in an excellent position to secure compliance with his demands, which were often quite specific. Bolloten quotes a left-wing Socialist deputy who described how the Soviet Ambassador to Spain, Marcel Rosenberg, “used to carry in his pocket a collection of notes couched in the following or similar terms: ‘It would be expedient to dismiss X, chief of such and such a division, and replace him by Z’; . . . ‘It is necessary to imprison M and bring him to trial for disloyalty,’ and so on, ceaselessly.” While many of Stalin’s appointees were Communists or philo-Communists, a good number were either ambitious careerists, eager to do anything to get themselves ahead, or victims of Communist intimidation, who sought to avoid the punishments—ranging from defamation to murder—which the Communists meted out to recalcitrants. Under these circumstances, the Socialists and anarcho-syndicalists were easily outmaneuvered, and it was not long before “the spontaneous, undirected terror of the [anarcho-syndicalists] in the heyday of the revolution had given way to the more sophisticated, centrally directed, and, hence, more fearful terror of the Communists.”

And yet, even as the Communists were in the process of converting the Spanish Republic into a Soviet province, they went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their objectives, and to maintain an image of statesmanlike moderation. “We are fighting for the democratic Republic,” declared Santiago Carrillo, who currently heads the Spanish Communist party, and who in 1937 was the leader of the party’s youth section. “There are some who say . . . that we are practicing a deception, that we are maneuvering to conceal our real policy. . . . Nevertheless, comrades, we are fighting for a democratic Republic, for a democratic and parliamentary Republic. This is not a stratagem to deceive Spanish democratic opinion, nor to deceive democratic opinion abroad.” In fact, of course, Communist emphasis on the democratic nature of their aims was a stratagem designed to mask the secret communization of the Spanish state and to gain the support of the Spanish middle class and the sympathy of the West. Interestingly enough, the head of the Comintern’s Latin section, who was dispatched to Spain to oversee the policy of deception, was Palmiro Togliatti, later appointed head of the Italian Communist party and nowadays regarded as one of the patron-saints of “Eurocommunism.”

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The defeat of the Communist-dominated Republic by the Nationalists is a theme which Bolloten has wisely deferred for a future volume. In this study he has confined himself to a meticulous description of “the double policy of public conservatism and secret communization” (the phrase is Hugh Trevor-Roper’s) by means of which the Spanish Communist party transformed the Republic into a Stalinist satrapy. It is a policy which Communist parties have applied ever since. In postwar Czechoslovakia, for example, Klement Gottwald, the head of the Czech Communist party, and the future President of the People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia, renounced the dictatorship of the proletariat and pledged that Czechoslovakia would take the democratic route to socialism. Even as he said this, however, his followers were consolidating their control over the ministries of interior, national defense, and information, which were of inestimable value to them in their subsequent coup d’état. Similarly, in Italy today, while the heirs of Togliatti trumpet their “principled” support of the democratic state, the Italian Communist party maintains its relentless drive to communize the police, the army, the unions, and the media. Indeed, “Eurocommunism” in general may be defined as the effort to transform the essence of the “bourgeois-democratic” state while leaving its outer forms intact.

This “double policy” was perfected by the Communists during the Spanish Civil War, and, for this reason alone, the inner history of that conflict is profoundly significant. We are in Burnett Bolloten’s debt for telling it so magnificently.

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