Tuesday is the 65th anniversary of the rebellion of the Spanish army generals against that country's democratically elected government. Their action led to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and would end three years later with the establishment of Gen. Francisco Franco Bahamonde as dictator, a position he was to hold until his death in 1975. The Spanish Civil War generated some of the most enduring myths of the last century, myths that to some extent have continued to live after many of the other great political symbols of the time have faded away.
It is sometimes said that civil wars are more significant than other wars because civil wars are really "about" something. If we assume, for the sake of discussion, that this is so, then what was the Spanish Civil War "about"? The Spanish conflict has borne many names, depending on who is providing the definition: Fascism versus Democracy, Fascism versus Communism, Western civilization versus Nazism, Christian civilization versus Communism and so on.
The Spanish conflict was above all else a great revolutionary civil war, one of a long series of revolutionary-counterrevolutionary struggles that began in Russia and Finland in 1919 and eventually extended throughout the world, lasting in one form or another through the entire 20th century. What made the Spanish war unique was that it was the only one of these conflicts to take place in a Western European country, that it developed in peacetime out of largely domestic causes rather than world war or decolonization and that it drew enormous international attention in an era of massive political publicity and rapidly increasing international tensions. It stemmed from the polarizing revolutionary process that had developed during Spain's democratic Second Republic of 1931-36 but quickly achieved major international significance because neither the left nor the right was in a position to fight a civil war on the basis of domestic resources alone and hence quickly sought foreign assistance. This led to the intervention of the three major dictatorships of that era--those of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin--and a further complication of the issues. While some saw the Republic as primarily fighting against fascism, others saw Franco as primarily fighting against communism. The Spanish conflict became a sort of political self-assembly kit for political opinion around the world.
Both sides in Spain also redefined their civil war as a war of national liberation, the left purporting to liberate Spain from Germany and Italy, the right liberating Spain from the Soviet Union. Hitler and Mussolini, however, largely limited their roles to military assistance, while the Soviet Union's role was both more extensive and more complicated.
The Soviet Union was of course already active in Spain through the Comintern, being the only one of the dictatorships to maintain its own political party in Spain. Spanish historians Antonin Elorza and Marta Bizcarrondo two years ago brought out an excellent history of the Comintern in Spain during the 1920s and '30s, based on newly accessible Soviet documents. They demonstrated conclusively that there was no such thing as an independent Spanish Communist Party but rather that the party was merely a Spanish section of the Soviet-controlled Communist International.
In "Spain Betrayed," Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov go considerably further in opening up the whole range of Soviet activity in Spain through the judicious presentation of an extensive set of original documents recently drawn from the Soviet archives. This material has been carefully edited and annotated, providing the context that readers will need to make full use of the rich materials presented here for the first time.
One of the first documents presented is a report by Georgi Dimitrov, secretary of the Comintern, only five days after the fighting began. It lays out the basic Comintern and Soviet policy that he followed throughout the war: "We should not, at the present stage, assign the task of creating soviets and try to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain. That would be a fatal mistake. Therefore we must say: act in the guise of defending the Republic." Communist policy would seek to channel the explosive workers' revolution of anarchosyndicalists and Socialists and to disguise the revolution to try to elicit support from Britain and France. The emphasis of Communist policy would be Popular Front unity, discipline and centralization to build military strength for winning the Civil War. In the process, all rightist forces would be eliminated, and communism would become a major force in Spain for the first time. As Dimitrov put it, "When our positions have been strengthened, then we can go further."