Authors: Preston Paul
‘It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward. It is this, without doubt, which explains why so many men throughout the world regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’
hen Spain’s Second Republic was established on 14 April 1931, people thronged the streets of the country’s cities and towns in an outburst of anticipatory joy. The new regime raised inordinate hopes among the most humble members of society and was seen as a threat by the most privileged, the landowners, industrialists and bankers, and their defenders in the armed forces and the Church. For the first time, control of the apparatus of the state had passed from the oligarchy to the moderate Left. This consisted of the reformist Socialists and a mixed bag of petty bourgeois Republicans. Together, they hoped, despite considerable disagreement over the finer details, to use state power to create a new Spain by curtailing the reactionary influence of the Church and the Army, by breaking up the great estates and by granting autonomy to the Basque Country and Catalonia. These hopes were soon blunted by the strength of the old order’s defences.
Social and economic power – ownership of the land, the banks and industry, as well as of the principal newspapers and radio stations – remained unchanged. Those who held that power united with the Church and the Army to block any challenges to property, religion or national unity. Their repertoire of defence was rich and varied. Propaganda, through the Right’s powerful press and radio networks and from the pulpit of every parish church, denounced the efforts at
reform as the subversive work of Moscow. New right-wing political parties were founded and lavishly funded. Conspiracies were hatched to overthrow the new regime. Rural and industrial lock-out became a regular response to legislation aimed at protecting worker interests.
So successfully was reform blocked that, by 1933, the disillusioned Socialists decided to leave their alliance with the liberal Republicans and go it alone. In a system heavily favouring coalitions, this handed power to the Right in the November 1933 elections. Employers and landowners now cut wages, sacked workers, evicted tenants and raised rents. Social legislation was dismantled and, one after another, the principal unions were weakened as strikes were provoked and crushed – notably a nationwide stoppage by agricultural labourers in the summer of 1934. Tension was rising. The Left saw fascism in every action of the Right; the Right smelt revolution in every left-wing move.
On 6 October 1934, when the authoritarian Catholic party, the CEDA, entered the government, the Socialists called a revolutionary general strike. In most of Spain, it failed because of the swift declaration of martial law. In Barcelona, an independent state of Catalonia was short-lived. However, in the mining valleys of Asturias, there was a revolutionary movement organized jointly by the Socialist union, the Unión General de Trabajadores, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo and, belatedly, the Communists. For nearly three weeks, a revolutionary commune heroically held out until finally the miners were reduced to submission by heavy artillery attacks and bombing raids co-ordinated by General Franco. The savage repression that followed was to be the fire in which was forged the Popular Front, essentially a re-creation of the Republican–Socialist coalition.
When elections were called for mid-February 1936, a well-financed right-wing campaign convinced the middle classes that Spain faced a life-or-death fight between good and evil, survival and destruction. The Popular Front campaign stressed the threat of fascism and demanded an amnesty for those imprisoned after October 1934. On 16 February, the Popular Front gained a narrow victory and thus shattered right-wing hopes of being able to impose legally an authoritarian, corporative state. Two years of aggressive rightist government had left the working masses, especially in the countryside, in a determined and vengeful
mood. Having been blocked once in its reforming ambitions, the Left was now determined to proceed rapidly with meaningful agrarian reform. In response, right-wing leaders provoked social unrest, then used it in blood-curdling parliamentary speeches and articles, to present a military rising as the only alternative to catastrophe.
The central factor in the spring of 1936 was the weakness of the Popular Front government. The Socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero had insisted that the liberal Republicans govern alone until the time came for them to make way for an all-Socialist government. He was mistakenly confident that, if reform provoked a fascist and/or military uprising, it would be defeated by the revolutionary action of the masses. So he used his power in the Socialist Party to prevent the formation of a strong government by his more realistic rival Indalecio Prieto. Mass hunger for reform saw a wave of land seizures in the south. Thoroughly alarmed, the Right prepared for war. A military conspiracy was headed by General Emilio Mola. The liberal Republicans of the Popular Front watched feebly as the terror squads of the growing fascist party, Falange Española, orchestrated a strategy of tension, its terrorism provoking left-wing reprisals and creating disorder to justify the imposition of an authoritarian regime. One such reprisal, the assassination on 13 July of the monarchist leader, José Calvo Sotelo, provided the signal for the conspirators.
The rising took place on the evening of 17 July in Spain’s Moroccan colony and in the peninsula itself on the next morning. The plotters were confident that it would all be over in a few days. Had they faced only the Republican government, their predictions might have come true. The coup was successful in the Catholic small-holding areas which voted for the CEDA – the provincial capitals of rural León and Old Castile, cathedral market towns such as Avila, Burgos, Salamanca and Valladolid. However, in the left-wing strongholds of industrial Spain and the great estates of the deep south, the uprising was defeated by the spontaneous action of the working-class organizations. Yet, ominously, in major southern towns such as Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada and Seville, left-wing resistance was swiftly and savagely crushed.
Within days, the country was split into two war zones. The rebels controlled one-third of Spain in a northern block of Galicia, León, Old
Castile, Aragón and part of Extremadura and an Andalusian triangle from Huelva to Seville to Cordoba. They had the great wheat-growing areas, but the main industrial centres remained in Republican hands. Vain efforts were made by the government to reach a compromise with the rebels. Then, to appease the Great Powers, a new cabinet of moderate Republicans was formed under the chemistry professor, José Giral. There was some reason to suppose that the Republic would be able to crush the rising. Giral’s bourgeois Republican cabinet hoped to secure international assistance, and it controlled the nation’s gold and currency reserves and virtually all of Spain’s industrial capacity.
There would, however, be two big differences between the two sides that would eventually decide the conflict – the African Army and the help of the fascist powers. At first, the rebels’ strongest card, the ferocious colonial army under Franco, was blockaded in Morocco by Republican warships. However, the fact that power in Spain’s streets lay with the unions and their militia organizations – particularly as interpreted by the conservative newspapers of Europe and the United States – totally undermined the efforts of Giral’s unrepresentative government to secure aid from the Western democracies. Republican requests for assistance met only hesitance from the Popular Front government in Paris. Inhibited by internal political divisions and sharing the British fear of revolution and of provoking a general war, the French premier Léon Blum soon drew back from early promises of aid. Franco, in contrast, was quickly able to persuade the local representatives of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy that he was the man to back.
By the end of July, Junkers 52 and Savoia-Marchetti 81 transport aircraft were undertaking the first major military airlift in history. The bloodthirsty Foreign Legion and the so-called Native Regulars were carried across the Straits of Gibraltar to Seville. Fifteen thousand men crossed in ten days and a
going wrong became a long and bloody civil war. That crucial early aid was soon followed by a regular stream of high-technology assistance. In contrast to the state-of-the-art equipment arriving from Germany and Italy, complete with technicians, spare parts and the correct workshop manuals, the Republic, shunned by the democracies, had to make do with over-priced and obsolete equipment from private arms dealers.
While Mola attacked the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, cutting it off from the French border, Franco’s Army of Africa advanced rapidly northwards to Madrid, leaving a horrific trail of slaughter in its wake, including the massacre at Badajoz where two thousand prisoners were shot. In part because of their iron control of the despatches of foreign correspondents, rebel atrocities made little impression on public opinion in the democracies. In contrast, revolutionary terror had a profound impact on foreign perceptions of the war, to a large extent because of the way in which it was treated by the conservative press. The subsequent sympathy of many foreign correspondents for the plight of the Republican population had therefore considerable obstacles to overcome before they could influence popular opinion in favour of the democratic cause.
One of the greatest was the fact that an inadvertent result of the coup was to leave the Republican government virtually without the structures of law and order. The consequent terrorism in the Republican zone, mainly directed against the supporters of right-wing parties and the clergy, predisposed foreign opinion in favour of the rebels. The disappearance of the police force and the judiciary had permitted revolutionary crowds to open the jails and release the common prisoners. Accordingly, for about four months, behind rhetoric of revolutionary justice, acts of violence of all kinds were perpetrated. Revenge was directed at the sections of society on whose behalf the military was acting. Thus, hatred of an oppressive social system found expression in the murder or humiliation of parish priests who justified it, Civil Guards and policemen who defended it, the wealthy who enjoyed it and the employers and landlords’ agents who implemented it. In some cases, there was a revolutionary dimension – the burning of property records and land registries. But there were also criminal acts, murder, rape, theft and the settling of personal scores. Courts were replaced by revolutionary tribunals set up by political parties and trade unions.
About 55,000 civilians were killed in the Republican zone in the course of the war while more than three times that number were murdered in the rebel zone. Some, like the imprisoned army officers killed at Paracuellos del Jarama and Torrejón de Ardoz during the siege of Madrid, were victims of military decisions based on an assessment of
their potential danger to the Republican cause. Some were executed as known fifth columnists. Others died in explosions of mass rage which occurred as news arrived of the savage purges being carried out in the Nationalist zone and especially of atrocities committed by Franco’s Moors. Air-raids on Republican cities were another obvious trigger of popular fury. Whatever the reasons behind the violence, it seriously damaged the reputation of the Republic abroad and undermined its efforts to secure international support. Most notably, the near indiscriminate violence of anarchist elements in Barcelona in the first months of the war branded the Republic – whose authorities were desperately trying, with gradual success, to re-establish law and order – as a bloodstained regime of terror. In contrast, the atrocities in the Nationalist zone did nothing to diminish its standing in British and French government circles, let alone in Berlin or Rome.
In the first days after the military coup, the events in Catalonia saw newspapermen flocking from around the world. One of the first to arrive was the swashbuckling Sefton ‘Tom’ Delmer of the
He had set off with his new wife Isabel for a holiday in Mallorca. The military coup in Spain took place while they were motoring through France. He managed to bluff their way through the frontier by flourishing his League of Nations press card. As they neared Barcelona, they were stopped by anarchists who either did not respect or could not read the card. However, the presence of a Siamese cat in a basket in the car convinced them that they were indeed dealing with holidaymakers. The couple were taken to the village of Mollet, just north of Barcelona. After just one night there, a night interrupted by the sounds of firing squads executing fascist sympathizers, they were obliged to return to France.
From Perpignan, Delmer sent a report on their adventure which set the tone for much early reporting from the Republic zone. Under the headline
ARMED REDS BAR WAY TO CITY OF TERROR,
he relayed unsubstantiated gossip about thousands killed in Barcelona despite the fact that he had been prevented from visiting the city:
The Red Terror wave that has broken out following the army’s uprising has given the excuse for the settlement in the Barcelona district at least, of many private feuds. I heard of no fewer than
three similar murders which had taken place during the last twenty-four hours in Mollet and the villages around.