A Rehearsal for WW2 – The Spanish Civil War

 

I use to think that the interwar years were those of peace between two world wars. My mistake, which a reading of Adam Hochschild, Spain In Our Hearts, Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) makes clear. It illustrates the state of the global political economy, especially in Europe, North America and the Soviet Union at that time.

Economically, these were the depression years in North America, illustrated in prose by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and later in a movie. In the Soviet Union there were ghastly experiments taking place especially in agriculture, which led to many deaths through starvation. And in Europe the political choice for the future was seen by many to be between Fascism and Communism, with the prospects for capitalism and liberal democracy considered by many to be non-existent.

And yet the last survived in North America and Europe, and to various degrees in countries such as Japan and India, although not in many parts of the former Soviet Union, where elements of liberal democracy are a rare find.

The opponents in the Spanish Civil War were right-wing Spanish Nationalists and left-wing Spanish Republicans. When the war started, Spain was ruled by the Republicans who, having disposed of the monarchy, were to be overthrown by  Francisco Franco. He ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. From 1978 to the present, the country has operated as a constitutional monarchy which was not something Franco had planned for.

At home, Franco was backed by parts of the military, the Catholic Church and the wealthier classes especially the landowners. Abroad, he was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, as well as by certain interests in North America and Europe. Germany provided aircraft and pilots, using the occasion to prepare for warfare that was to follow in Europe after 1939. Texaco supplied fuel for Franco’s planes and tanks.

Some of the Spanish armed forces remained loyal to the official Spanish government run by the Republicans, but they were supplemented with foreign fighters from an estimated 50 countries, including the Soviet Union, France, the UK, US and Canada. These international brigades, organized by the Communist International, contained about 60,000 people overall, principally male, of which about 20,000 were active at any one time. A memorial to over 1500 Canadians who served in the Mackenzie-Papineau brigade during the civil war was unveiled in Ottawa in 2001. It is situated on Green Island off Sussex Drive.

Hochschild’s account of the war is based on interviews, correspondence and writings of those present at the time such as George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) and Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls). It is likely that there are no living veterans, but their descendants are still around. A book about the Canadian participants is Michael Petrou, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, UBC Press, 2008; and there are numerous titles (book and magazine) about other aspects of the war.

A link between the world wars

The threads that bind 1918, the end of WW1, to 1939 and the start of WW2, include the global economic conditions, especially the burden of reparations imposed by the victors on Germany at the end of the war. Keynes accurately portrayed in Economic Consequences of the Peace the damage to future world order that these payments would create. They lead to the rise of Hitler and the demise of democratic institutions in that country.  At the same time, Mussolini, in cooperation with the Pope and Vatican, established a Fascist dictatorship in Italy. Both Hitler and Mussolini had supporters in the US, UK and other parts of Western Europe who were prepared to make a deal with the dictators.

Mussolini came to power in Italy in the 1920s about a decade before Hitler. God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner provides a good account of the Vatican’s cooperation with Hitler (reviewed in this blog March 28, 2016):

…Pope Pius XI signing the Reichskonkordat with ­Hitler, which, in return for winning a measure of freedom for German Catholics ­under the Nazis, assured silence from the Holy See over the forced sterilization of 400,000 people and then only the faintest of ­objections to the Holocaust. 

Another interwar thread was made up of the hyper-inflationary conditions in Germany, the economic depression in the US and elsewhere, and the pressure for political independence by a number of countries associated with European empires. Independence was to come in the postwar period. Today there are about 200 sovereign countries, although sovereignty often does not come with much political or economic independence, as Scotland may soon find out.

Adam Hochschild’s first rate treatment of the Spanish Civil War fits neatly into this inter world war period, describing a time of localised economic and military conflict, while the major combatants prepared for the main action which was to start in 1939 in Europe and the Far East.

The events described are based on the author’s personal interviews with survivors, and materials which participants recorded, often in letters, about their combat experiences. The war pit Spaniard against Spaniard, leaving tensions which remain, including issues of Basque and Catalan sovereignty. Today we can read about it but also view the war in a television documentary made a few years ago by Granada TV.

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