Coming to terms with the truth about the Spanish Civil War seems more than ever to pose insurmountable difficulties for those intellectuals—perhaps the majority—who were brought up to believe that Spain in the Thirties was the one great cause in that “low dishonest decade,” as Auden called it, which need never be either reconsidered or repented. Yet the publication of two new anthologies on the fiftieth anniversary of the war—Valentine Cunningham’s Spanish Front and John Miller’s Voices Against Tyranny—together with the discussion they have generated come as a sober reminder that this is a subject that remains part of the unfinished business of recent intellectual history.1 “No episode in the 1930s,” Paul Johnson has aptly observed, “has been more lied about than this one, and only in recent years have historians begun to dig it out from the mountain of mendacity beneath which it was buried for a generation.”2 Judging from some recent commentaries on Spain in the Thirties, there are still many intellectuals who would prefer—even today—to let the terrible truth remain buried rather than have their fantasies of a noble past destroyed.
For most Left intellectuals, in fact, Spain in the Thirties is a cause to be reaffirmed rather than investigated. Reviewing Spanish Front and Voices Against Tyranny in The New York Times, for example, Herbert Mitgang wrote that for all the doubts caused by the actions of Soviet commissars in Spain, George Orwell and other intellectuals “never regretted that they had gone to Spain” in support of the Republican side.3 In the same vein, Christopher Hitchens, writing about Spain in Grand Street, asserts that there is “something creepy about the ‘compulsion’ to chuck Old Left causes [like the Spanish Civil War] over the side.”4 Despite all that Hitchens claims to understand about the betrayal of the Spanish Republic by the Soviets and the Communists, he cites Orwell to support his conclusion that Spain in the Thirties “was a state of affairs worth fighting for.” And writing in The New Republic, the distinguished literary critic Alfred Kazin offers the same quotation from Orwell—who was talking about the libertarian-anarchist revolution of 1936—and comments that “truth would always be Orwell’s ace in the hole.” To Kazin, the “truth” is that the Civil War is simply “the wound that will not heal”; hence, the “destroyers of the Spanish Republic would always be my enemies.”5
For most Left intellectuals, in fact, Spain in the Thirties is a cause to be reaffirmed rather than investigated.
To those like Kazin who still consider Spain “their” war, it was the one pure cause of the 1930s. “It was the passion of that small segment of my generation,” Murray Kemp-ton has written, “which felt a personal commitment to the revolution.”6 The cause was easily definable—support of a legally elected democratic government battling reactionary generals who fought to install a Spanish version of fascism. The democratic Republic stood alone: the Western democracies stayed neutral and refused to sell it arms, while the regimes in Germany and Italy rushed men, airplanes, and weapons to aid General Franco’s rebellion. Defense of the Republic became a symbol for all that was good and decent, as the “progressive” world organized against the tides of reaction and Nazism.
The truth, of course, is not so simple. The Civil War took place because indecisive elections in February 1936 revealed a nation divided in half; the irresponsible militancy of sectors of the more extreme Left fed the aims of the insurgent generals. Once civil war broke out, both sides were responsible for unspeakable and equally repugnant atrocities. The foreign intervention of Germany prevented Franco’s defeat, just as Soviet military aid allowed the Republic the means to beat back the initial advance of Franco’s forces.
The problem was that the Soviet Union exacted a harsh price from the Spanish Republic for receipt of that military aid. Stalin’s involvement came rather late in the war, by way of a policy of cautious military intervention. Soviet tanks, planes, and artillery did not reach Spain until October and November of 1936, and they were of a limited caliber—no match for the heavy equipment supplied by the Germans and Italians. Even so, Stalin insisted upon payment in advance; he took the valued gold reserves of the Republic out of Spain and into Russia. Fearing involvement in a war with Germany and Italy, Stalin limited his aid to bolstering the resistance of the anti-Franco forces in the hope that Britain and France might be induced to abandon their policy of non-intervention.
Stalin’s cynical goal was to steer internal developments in Spain to coincide with the foreign policy objectives of the Soviet Union. He wanted to prolong the existence of the Republic until the Western democracies joined him in supporting the Republicans. It was a strategy of stalemate: Stalin purposely never gave the Republic enough arms with which to win. At the same time, he secretly began to negotiate with Nazi Germany, hedging his bet lest the first course fail to produce results. \
The price paid by the Republic for the much-heralded Soviet aid was the factor that led to the ultimate betrayal. In exchange for military aid, Stalin demanded the transformation of the once free Republic into a prototype of what became the People’s Democracies in the postwar world. The findings of historians have helped us to understand just how total Soviet control of the Spanish Republic had become. Indeed, the most recent contributions starkly confirm the validity of the revelations of General Walter Krivitsky, the very first defector from the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB). At the time—in 1938—much of the left-wing world treated Krivitsky’s confession as anti-Bolshevik paranoia—most especially his revelation that Stalin was already dealing with the Nazis, but also his detailed accounts of the torture and police-state methods brought to Spain by the Soviets as part of their program of “assistance.” We know now that Krivitsky was telling the truth.
When Hugh Thomas published the first edition of his now classic work, The Spanish Civil War, in 1961, he warned readers that “Krivitsky’s evidence must be regarded as tainted unless corroborated.” By 1966, when he brought out the second edition of his history, Thomas had revised that early judgment, and wrote that “Krivitsky’s evidence can generally be accepted.”7 But it was left to Burnett Bolloten, author of the majestic historical study—forty years in the making—The Spanish Revolution (1979), to give Krivitsky’s work a close reading, and to conclude not only that this NKVD general was telling the truth but that “Krivitsky’s revelations have proved to be amazingly accurate, including many of the smallest details, and they constitute a major contribution to our knowledge of Soviet foreign policy aims and Soviet intervention in the Spanish civil war.”8 Regarding torture, Krivitsky had written that what the Russians brought to the Republic was unmitigated repression and terror—a civil war against the Spanish Left. The regular police corps was reorganized. Communists secured the pivotal positions in the newly rebuilt police, which became a formal part of the Soviet apparatus in Spain. The NKVD, Krivitsky wrote in his memoirs, “had its own special prisons. Its units carried out assassinations and kidnappings, filled hidden dungeons and made flying raids. It functioned . . . independently of the Loyalist government . . . . The Soviet Union seemed to have a grip on Loyalist Spain, as if it were already a Soviet possession.”9
The Soviet Union seemed to have a grip on Loyalist Spain, as if it were already a Soviet possession.
At the time, of course, these comments were treated as smears by an untrustworthy renegade who was said to be in league with the Nazis. Just how accurate Krivitsky actually was, however, can best be appreciated by looking at the conclusions reached by the dean of left-wing British historians, E. H. Carr. Carr was as sympathetic to the Soviet Union as any historian could be, yet he declared in his posthumously published book, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War, that by 1937 Russians had brought to Spain an institution known as SIM, “a new body whose professed function was counter espionage,” and that it “quickly spread its tentacles to all parts of Republican Spain, occupying itself with repression and torture.” Spain, Carr wrote, had become “what its enemies called it, the puppet of Moscow.”10
Another British historian, Antony Beevor, writes in his book The Spanish Civil War that the torture introduced was of a new and quantitatively different caliber.11 It went beyond “beatings with rubber piping, hot and cold water treatment, splinters inserted under nails and mock executions.” Under Soviet direction, Beevor tells us, “cell floors were specially constructed with the sharp corners of bricks pointing upward so that the naked prisoners were in constant pain. Strange metallic sounds, colours, lights and sloping floors were used as disorientation and sensory-deprivation techniques.”12
The evidence is unmistakable that, by 1937, the Spanish “Red” Republic had more in common with Franco’s territories in Spain, or with the authoritarian regime after his victory, than it did with the libertarian revolt of 19 3 6 that had been heralded by the much-quoted George Orwell. As Beevor so aptly writes, the Communists were in “many ways the counterpart of Franco . . . practitioners of statecraft [who] . . . exploited the war emergency to label any opposition . . . as treasonable to the cause.” As one Anarchist militant put it: for the people of Spain, “whether Negrin won with his communist cohorts, or Franco won with his Italians and Germans, the results would be the same for us.”13
What if the Republic, and not Franco, had won? In The Spanish Revolution, the historian Stanley G. Payne judges that if one goes by left-wing policy during the Civil War, there is little reason to assume that a Communist-dominated Republic would have shown any tolerance for dissent or even led to a subsiding of brutal internal terror. Indeed, Payne writes, “there was nothing in Franco’s zone to equal the almost constant interparty murder that went on under the People’s Republic.” This reality, Payne argues, accounted for much of the “final collapse of morale” within the Republican ranks.14
Even one former Spanish militant in the PCE (Spanish Communist Party), the future novelist and screenwriter Jorge Semprun (who was a leader of the Communist underground between 1959 and 1964), admits that, under Franco’s authoritarian reign, Spain reached a higher level of material and social progress, along with industrial and military strength, than existed in any “socialist” regime under Soviet control. And, he adds, under Franco the working class in Spain had more freedom than their counterpart in any country “improperly called Socialist.” In the Eastern European states, “it is not allowed to strike. It can organize itself only in labor unions that are mere transmission belts of the state apparatus and the single party, compared to which the vertical unions of the Franco dictatorship were genuine democratic paradises.”15 One can honestly agree with the judgment of Joaquin Maurin, once an intellectual activist with the Communist-syndicalist Worker Peasant Bloc, who wrote a full quarter of a century later, in 1966, that “from the moment in which the alternative was posed, beginning in June 1937, between the Communist party, at the orders of Moscow, or the opposing military regime, reactionary but Spanish, the conclusion of the Civil War was predetermined.”16
Understanding some of this history is a prerequisite for evaluating the story of the Western intellectuals and their response to the Civil War. As we have seen, Alfred Kazin and others make much of Orwell’s statement that though there was much he did not understand and did not even like about revolutionary Barcelona, “I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” The quotation is accurate, but those who cite Orwell tend to omit the careful distinction he made between the original revolt and the very different reality after 1937. Orwell recognized this new reality full well, and he did not like what he saw. While he heralded Spain of August 1936 as a people’s revolt, he had reached the sad conclusion that by January of 1937 “the Communists were using every possible method, fair and foul, to stamp out what was left of the revolution.” He went on to cite, as one of his reviews reprinted in Spanish Front reminds us, “the ceaseless arrests, the censored newspapers and the prowling hordes of armed police,” comparing the situation to a “nightmare.”17 Does anyone really think that this was the Spain that Orwell saw as worth defending and fighting for?
Spain, as Mr. Kazin has so eloquently reminded us, became the central metaphor for artists, intellectuals, and writers of the 1930s. Hemingway immortalized the conflict in For Whom the Bell Tolls, although the veterans of the International Brigades were angered by his critical portrayal of the fanatic French commissar, Andre Marty. Nicknamed “the butcher of Albacete” because of his murder of at least five hundred of his own men for desertion or Trotskyism, Marty is believed to have killed, by a minimum count, one-tenth of all the volunteers who died in Spain.
“Madrid is the heart,” of a world, a civilization and an ideal, Auden opined in his poem “Spain” (1937). He spoke for a generation when he said one had to put aside “the walks by the lake . . . the bicycle races.” There was only one task: “But to-day the struggle.”18 These two new anthologies devoted to writings about the Spanish Civil War remind us of just how much the attitude epitomized by Auden’s poem (which he subsequently—to his honor—repudiated) was typical of the intellectual response at the time. They also serve to remind us, as Paul Johnson wrote, that “the intellectuals of the Left did not want to know the objective truth; they were unwilling for their illusions to be shattered. They were overwhelmed by the glamour and excitement of the cause and few had the gritty determination of Orwell to uphold absolute standards of morality.”
The role of Stephen Spender is particularly instructive.
In this respect, the role of Stephen Spender is particularly instructive. Spender has written the introduction to John Miller’s anthology, Voices Against Tyranny, and he uses the opportunity to reflect on what Spain meant to the writers and artists of his generation. Spender now says that Auden, who had been criticized by Orwell for the poem on Spain, “came to agree with Orwell to the extent of feeling that his conscientious attempt to politicize his poetry in support of ‘Spain’ led him into very alien territory”; it opened him, Auden felt, to the grave charge of “using poetry to tell lies.” Hence, because of the concluding lines of “Spain” Auden never allowed it to be reprinted during the remainder of his lifetime. The last lines of the poem had declared that
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
Auden commented that “[T]his is a lie.” As for himself, Spender now admits that “there were atrocities on the Republican side perhaps equalling those committed by the rebels.” On the subject of atrocities, however, he never refers to Arthur Koestler’s account, in The Invisible Writing, of the way Comintern propagandist Otto Katz manufactured phony fascist atrocities out of his office in Paris.19 This is an important part of the story, for Stalinism was thus aided, as Paul Johnson writes, “not only by superb public relations but by the naïveté, gullibility and, it must also be said, the mendacity and corruption of Western intellectuals, especially their willingness to overlook what W. H. Auden called ‘the necessary murder.’”
One might hope that, fifty years later, Western intellectuals would have more perspective on the events that once moved them into such tight corners. Yet, judging from Spender’s introduction to Voices Against Tyranny, Spain still appears to be what Spender calls a simple “direct confrontation between good and evil, right and wrong, freedom and tyranny.” In this view, there was only one bad side—that of Franco. Spender does observe that Auden and he too curbed their true shock over things like the destruction of the churches. Looking back, he reflects, there was an authentic Wordsworthian recognition of the joys of rebellion, but he bemoans the fact “that we could not see any of the terrible murders happening behind this scene of revolution.” He now acknowledges “that there is no trust to be placed in travellers’ impressions of popular rejoicing soon after revolution.”
Spender, however, is still being disingenuous. His own career is a salutary reminder of how total identification with the “right” side corrupts intellectual integrity. One of the documents reprinted in Valentine Cunningham’s Spanish Front is Spender’s “I Join the Communist Party”—printed in the London Daily Worker in 1937 —in which Spender apologized for first doubting that the Moscow trials were anything but honest, and explained that he now understood the nature “of the gigantic plot against the Soviet Government.” This early heresy, Spender told his new comrades, occurred because he was then only “a liberal approaching communism.” Now that Spender understood that Stalin was right, he was ready to join the Party, evidently a necessity if one desired to go to Valencia to engage in anti-Fascist propaganda.20
Having joined the Party, Spender became an ardent spokesman for it. In that capacity, he took part in the International Writers’ Congress held in Madrid in 1937. This was the prototype of those events that were later to occur with regularity in Havana during the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s—events in which Western intellectuals reaffirm their closeness to the revolutionary struggle by partying in its midst. In Spain, Spender recorded, he and other delegates were “treated like princes or ministers . . . riding in Rolls Royces, banqueted, fêted, sung and danced to,” all while the battle raged around them. The same Writers’ Congress was noted for its conclusion, which consisted of a massive attack on André Gide, who was excoriated as a “fascist monster” for the book he had recently published criticizing the USSR.21
Spender’s 1937 account tells how they were “woken up at 4 a.m. by the air-raid alarms,” as the reality of the war intruded upon the Congress. Evidently, it did not intrude too much for Spender to proclaim that the Spanish writer Jose Bergamin was the right man to rebuke Gide, because Bergamin had a “mind which sees not merely the truth of isolated facts which Gide observed in the USSR, but the far more important truth of the effect which Gide’s book is going to have.”
If Spender bought the classic rationale of the Stalinized intellectual, it was this affair that caused another participant in the Congress, the Dutch Communist Jef Last, to suffer a severe disillusionment. Proud that the Congress condemned the murder of writers by Franco and other Fascists, Last asked, “why this conspiracy of silence around the cultural reaction in Russia . . . ?” Last could not accept the argument, presented to him by Egon Erwin Kisch, that when you hear of a Fascist bombing of a school you have “to defend everything that has been done on our side, even the trials!” Acting alone, Last protested against the Soviet delegates’ demands that Gide be attacked by the Congress. Indeed, he pointed out, few in attendance had even read the book they were being asked to condemn. Gide had not been translated into Spanish and his book was not available anywhere in Spain.22
Spender then stood with the regular Communists. Later, of course, he broke with them, and today he writes that there is a “‘truth’ of‘ Spain’ that remained independent of, and survived the mold of, Communism into which successive Republican governments were forced.” Even anti-Communists who supported the Republic, Spender writes, “nevertheless retained their belief in the justice of the Republican cause.”
But when Spender was in Spain—at the very time he was attending the 1937 Congress and spoke in Britain on behalf of aid for the International Brigades—he privately held to a different “truth.” It is to the credit of Valentine Cunningham that he includes the remarkable letter which Spender wrote to Virginia Woolf on April 2, 1937, in which the poet reflects that “politicians are detestable anywhere,” and that Spain has shown him “the lies and unscrupulousness of some of the people who are recruiting at home” for the International Brigades, including those “of the Daily Worker.” He had not seen the poet Julian Bell, her nephew, Spender wrote to Woolf, and he assumed that “he has not joined the Brigade.” While Spender himself spoke in England in favor of the volunteers, he told Woolf that he hoped Bell “will not do so,” since participating in the Brigades called for “terrific narrowness and a religious dogmatism about the Communist Party line,” as well as “toughness, cynicism and insensibility.”23
Since Spender never said anything similar in public—and does not say anything like this in print even today—his letter is riveting. “The sensitive, the weak, the romantic, the enthusiastic, the truthful live in Hell,” he wrote to Woolf, “and cannot get away.” The Hell he spoke of was not that of Franco. “The political commissars . . . bully so much that even people who were quite enthusiastic Party Members have been driven into hating the whole thing.” Spender told the story of one veteran he spoke with, who “complained to me bitterly about the inquisitional methods of the Party.” Noting that it was a lie that the men were volunteers who could leave when they liked, Spender wrote Woolf that actually they were “trapped there,” and wounds or mental collapse were not considered grounds for leaving, “unless one belongs to the Party elite and is sent home as a propagandist to show one’s arm in a sling to audiences.” Bitterly, Spender revealed that his closest friend fought in an offensive in which the men were sent to be slaughtered, with only olive groves for protection. After his friend’s mental collapse, Spender tried to hire him as his personal secretary. The Party refused, and sent the man back to battle. He sought to escape, and was then put in a labor camp. Spender asked that nothing he had written be repeated, particularly “the more unpleasant truths about the Brigade.”
Privately, Spender sought to help such men leave Spain, and he condemned the total fanaticism of the Party leaders who were really “unconcerned with Spain” and were intolerant of any dissent. But such truths had to be carefully guarded. Thus, Spender asked Woolf to quote his letter anonymously “to any pacifist or democrat who wants to fight.” Privately, he hoped they would refrain from enlistment with the International Brigades. Publicly, Spender towed the line, and his published poems supported the cause. Of the martyred John Cornford, he said, in a review written in September of 1938, that he exemplified “the potentialities of a generation” that was fighting “for a form of society for which [it] was also willing to die.”24 When Spender wrote the letter to Virginia Woolf, was he secretly hoping that she would show it to Cornford before he made the fatal decision to join the battle, as Cornford wrote, “whether I like it or not”?
How are we to judge a writer who says one thing to a friend in private and quite the opposite to an innocent and credulous public on such a momentous issue? It is no wonder that Richard Gott was recently moved to observe that, the more we gain some historical perspective on Spain, “the more blurred becomes the morality.”25 It is worth remembering, however, that there were some writers who grasped the morality of the situation at the time, and showed an exemplary bravery and candor in acknowledging the villainy of their chosen side. The Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, once a supporter of the rightist and anti-Semitic Action Française, saw firsthand the horror of the atrocities perpetrated by the Franco forces and sanctified by the Catholic priests. In his searing account from A Diary of My Times (1938), which appears in the Cunningham anthology, Bernanos tells of “the organizing of Terrorism” by the Italian Black Shirts brought to Majorca by Franco.26 Bernanos recoiled in horror at the figure of three thousand killed by right-wing death squads, as we would call them today, in a brief seven-month period. On that small island, he wrote, one could “witness the blowing-out of fifteen wrong-thinking brains per day.” Hating “the sound and sight of it,” Bernanos told the world the truth, despite the fact that it meant he was criticizing his own side. Bernanos saw that civil war meant “there is no longer any justice,” and he pointed out that even moderate Republicans were shot “like dogs just the same,” even though they had nothing to do with the Red Terror of Barcelona. To this Catholic intellectual, civil war meant terrorism had become “the order of the day.”
Bernanos saw that civil war meant “there is no longer any justice.”
On the Left, Simone Weil was Bernanos’s counterpart. “[H]oping every day,” she wrote in a letter to Bernanos, “. . . for the victory of one side and the defeat of the other,” Weil went to Spain in August 1936.27 After two months there, Weil no longer saw the war as one “of starving peasants against landed proprietors and a clergy in league” with them, but instead she viewed it as “a war between Russia, Germany and Italy.” Almost witnessing an unjustified execution of a priest by Republican militants was enough to push Weil toward pacifism. Seeing the famed anarchist Durruti execute a young Falangist soldier, who had been conscripted against his will, never stopped weighing on her conscience. What Weil objected to was the relentless pleasure in murder that occurred on all sides. Killing “Fascists” and seeing them as beasts made the Republicans, in Weil’s view, no better than the enemy; they too were excluding “a category of human beings from among those whose lives have worth.” Such behavior, she wrote in her letter to Bernanos in 1938, soon obscured “the very purpose of the struggle.” She had her sympathies with the anarchists and their cause, but Weil put her finger on what made the soldiers—as it made the Marxist guerrillas of the 1960s—a new elite. “An abyss separated the men with the weapons,” Weil wrote, “from the unarmed population,” an abyss Weil saw as similar to that which separated “the rich from the poor.” Hence Weil felt that Bernanos, a monarchist, was closer to her than the proletarian comrades of the Aragon militia she had come to Spain to support.
If the Spanish War was a “People’s War,” as Valentine Cunningham claims, “the most potent and emotionally engaging focus of thirties democratic struggles and progressive working-class ambitions,” it was also a writers’ war, in which almost all writers felt the need to take sides. It is true that most writers of merit were on the Republican side. But can one say with a clear conscience that the forces of the Republic were fighting, as Cunningham suggests, for the survival of art and culture in free societies, when, had the Red side won, such a free society would have been just as much at risk as it was after the Franco victory?
Orwell had warned, in the concluding pages of Homage to Catalonia, that one should beware of partisanship, and of the distortion caused by his having seen only one corner of events. And he warned that readers should “beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period.” What happened, of course, was that writers went to Spain and, on the basis of brief tours, committed themselves and their art to the cause. Weil noted that it was “in fashion to go on a tour down there, to take in a spot of revolution, and to come back with articles bursting out of your pen.” She noted such endeavors had to be superficial, especially since in the gale of civil war and revolution “principles get completely out of phase with realities,” and the criterion for judging events disappears. How, she queried, could one “report something coherently on the strength of a short stay and some fragmentary observations?”
The problem continues into our own day. As Paul Hollander has lately reminded us, scores of modern-day political pilgrims continue the journeys to “socialist” countries and bring back their enthusiastic accounts of revolution, despite the realities that somehow evade their notice.28 As even Cunningham acknowledges, Spain does not “sustain the earliest lyrical and romantic readings of the war as the zone where the necessary evils and terrors of revolution and war might after a temporary outing prove the gateway to happy conclusions.”
We need to be especially alert to the accounts of the International Brigades in Spain, for on this subject particularly a great deal of emotion has been invested and a great many lies told. When, some years ago, Orwell condemned a memoir by the International Brigidista John Sommerfield as “sentimental tripe,” he wrote that “we shall almost certainly get some good books from members of the International Brigade, but we shall have to wait for them until the war is over.”29 Such a book was in fact written, and k is far more powerful, honest, and moving than many of the didactic excerpts to be found in either of the new anthologies. William Herrick’s novel Hermanos!, first published in 1969, is again available from Second Chance Press.30 Herrick has given us what is perhaps the first honest portrayal of the war from within the Brigades in Spain, a searing, tough indictment, filled with the bitter reality of youthful bravery and idealism crushed by the agenda of the Comintern and its decision to allow so many thousands to die for nothing. Given that Herrick’s novel is virtually the only critical account of the Civil War experience from the inside, an excerpt from it would have strengthened both of the new anthologies immeasurably. And another, younger novelist, David Evanier, continues the tradition with his forthcoming novel of the Old Left; a recently published excerpt pertaining to the International Brigades traces one veteran’s destruction as part of his experience with the Soviet tank corps.31
Reading the committed partisans of the Left so many years later cannot but leave one with a bitter taste. How weak seem the partisans, and how prescient seem those who had doubts and expressed them. Indeed, one is struck by the intellectual courage it took to give anything but the expected answer, particularly when the question was framed, as it was in 1937 in a declaration “To the Writers and Poets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales” by Auden, Spender, Neruda, and Aragon: “Are you for or against . . . the People of Republican Spain? . . . it is impossible any longer to take no side.” Those who answered by insisting that no side be taken must be given high marks for intellectual fortitude, and for refusing to ride with the herd.
Aldous Huxley spoke a simple truth when he replied, to those who demanded he side with the Reds, that dictatorial Communism would produce “results with which history has made us only too sickeningly familiar.” T. S. Eliot replied that, while he was sympathetic to the Republicans, “it is best that at least a few men of letters should remain isolated.” Condemned as a fascist for these sentiments, Eliot at least was able to stay aloof from the foolish chorus of Stalinist hosannas in which the rest of the intellectuals joined. Was he not correct, then, to claim that, were the Left to win, it would “be the victory of the worst rather than of the best features . . . a travesty of the humanitarian ideals which have led so many people” to work for the Republic?32 Eliot was wrong, I think, to have opposed lifting the embargo on arms. Despite the tragedy of the conflict—and the evils of Communism—the main threat to the world in the Thirties was that of the menace of aggressive Hitlerism. But Eliot was right, after all, on the moral issue involved, that democracy had little to do with supporting either “Berlin or Moscow.”
Those who argued that the Fascists killed Lorca—and therefore all writers must stand with the Republic—would be hard pressed to refute the argument of Salvador Dali that Lorca’s “death was exploited for propaganda purposes,” and that personally the poet was “the most a-political person on earth.”33
Undoubtedly, some did side with the Republic because of a valid opposition to Fascism, and because the Republic had the support of the populace. But who can question the accuracy of Vita Sackville-West, who addressed the hypocrisy of the call to support “the legal Government of Spain"? “Is this because it is the legal Government,” she asked, “or because it is a Communist Government?”34 (One is reminded of the pro-Sandinista writers today who ask that we not oppose the “legal” government of Nicaragua—something they did not hesitate to do when Somoza represented its legitimacy.) Noting that, if legality were the issue, these writers would have to support the existing regimes in Italy and Germany if rebellion broke out against them, Sackville-West identified the real issue: “. . . you want to see Communism established in Spain as well as in Russia, and you do not care a snap of the fingers whether a Government is ‘legal’ or not.” Demanding frankness, Sackville-West challenged what she called the “subterranean forms of propaganda.”
It was apparent that defenders of the Republic would use almost any argument to gather support. Virtually all honest observers knew about the brutal assassinations ordered by the Comintern for socialists, anarchists, and POUM revolutionaries after 1937. Yet Ernst Toller, whose propagandist appeal to Americans started the campaign on behalf of Spain in the United States, emphasized the humanity of the Republic’s troops toward its worst enemies. He had seen with his own eyes, Toller wrote, “the humane treatment of war prisoners, of Nazi pilots and Italian Fascist flyers who have killed dozens of children, dozens of women.”35 How false was the picture painted by Toller, of a free society in which Syndicalist, Communist, and parliamentary liberal were totally free and cooperated in word and deed for one aim—the destruction of the armed rebellion. It was Toller who orchestrated the false defense of Spain, and assured the worried liberals in the United States that “it is a lie that the fight is going on between Communism and Fascism.” After all, he assured American liberals, Negrin had said that “private property is protected in Spain,” and was simply trying to do “the same things that President Roosevelt strives to do: free the country from the power of economic Royalists.” It was precisely these directives, forced upon Negrin by the Comintern, as Bolloten writes, that antagonized “other parties of the left and eventually” undermined the war effort “and the will to fight.”36 Having lost its reason and inspiration to fight, the Republic found itself with low morale among its would-be defenders and dependent upon the most treacherous of allies, Joseph Stalin and the Comintern apparatus.
How appropriate, then, that Cunningham ends his collection with “Crusade in Spain” by Jason Gurney,37 who speaks the clear truth when he writes that “nobody, from either side, came out of it with clean hands.” A member of the British section of the International Brigades, Gurney noted that he and his comrades “had wilfully deluded ourselves into the belief that we were fighting a noble Crusade because we needed a crusade—the opportunity to fight against the manifest evils of Fascism . . . which seemed then as if it would overwhelm every value of Western civilization.”
Gurney felt, writing in the mid-1970s, that “[W]e were wrong, we deceived ourselves and were deceived by others.” But he argues as well that their fight was not in vain, and he does not regret his own part in that fight. “The situation,” he says, “is not to be judged by what we now know of it, but only as it appeared in the context of the period.” But much was known then, and suppressed by those who knew. Gurney would have it both ways. History has taught him the truth about Communism. But he still insists that because “others took advantage of our idealism in order to destroy it does not in any way invalidate the decision which we made.” And this man who claims to understand history gives his last word to the blabbering of “La Pasionaria,” Dolores Ibarruri. This famous Communist deputy, who sang the praises of the departing brigidistas as they were suffering the consequences of her betrayal, went immediately thereafter to Moscow, where she remained in exile until Franco’s death. Those brave men who gave their lives had allowed themselves to be part of an ideological and propaganda instrument forged by the Comintern for its own purposes. Had they looked closer, they could have discerned the truth at the time. In 1986, those who still respond to the Spanish Civil War as simply “our cause” have no excuse.
- Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War, edited by Valentine Cunningham, Oxford University Press, 388 pages, $7.95; and Voices Against Tyranny: Writing of the Spanish Civil War, edited by John Miller, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 227 pages, $7.95. Go back to the text.
- Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties. Harper & Row, 1983, pages 321-340. Other citations from Paul Johnson are from these pages. Go back to the text.
- Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times, August 18, 1986, page C18. Go back to the text.
- Christopher Hitchens, “Re-Bunking,” Grand Street, Summer 1986, pages 228-231. Go back to the text.
- Alfred Kazin, “The Wound That Will Not Heal,” The New Republic, August 25, 1986, pages 39-41. Go back to the text.
- Murray Kempton, Part of Our Time. Dell, 1955, page 317. Go back to the text.
- Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War. Eyer and Spottiswood, 1961, page 263; revised edition, Penguin, 1965, page 337. A third edition was published by Harper & Row last month. Go back to the text.
- Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Revolution, page 173. Go back to the text.
- Walter G. Krivitsky, In Stalin’s Secret Service. Harper, 1939, pages 102-107, 291. Go back to the text.
- E. H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War. Pantheon, 1984, page 44; page 31. Go back to the text.
- Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War. Orbis Publishing, 1982, pages 211-212. Go back to the text.
- Beevor, page 281. Go back to the text.
- The anarchist militant is Abad de Santillan, quoted in Beevor, page 194. Go back to the text.
- Stanley G. Payne, The Spanish Revolution. Norton, 1970, page 313. Go back to the text.
- Jorge Semprun, The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez and the Communist Underground in Spain. Karz, 1979, page 133. Go back to the text.
- Cited in Payne, page 374. Go back to the text.
- George Orwell, from Time & Tide, July 31, 1937; reprinted in Cunningham, pages 316-317. Go back to the text.
- W.H. Auden, “Spain,” from The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, reprinted in Miller, page 211. Go back to the text.
- Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing. Macmillan, 1954, page 327. Go back to the text.
- Stephen Spender, “I Join the Communist Party,” London Daily Worker, February 19, 1937, in Cunningham, pages 7-9. Go back to the text.
- Stephen Spender, “Spain Invites the World’s Writers,” from Notes on the International Congress, Summer 1937 from New Writing, Autumn 1937, in Cunningham, pages 85-91. Gide’s book, Retour de l’U.R.S.S., was published in 1936. Go back to the text.
- Jef Last, from The Spanish Tragedy. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939; in Cunningham, pages 94-100. Go back to the text.
- Stephen Spender to Virginia Woolf, April 2, 1937, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tuden Foundations, in Cunningham, pages 307-309. Go back to the text.
- Review of John Cornford: A Memoir; New Statesman & Nation, November 12, 1938, in Cunningham, pages 328-330. Go back to the text.
- Richard Gott, “The Spanish Tragedy,” Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 27, 1986, page 22. Go back to the text.
- Georges Bernanos, A Diary of My Times. The Bodley Head, 1938; in Cunningham, pages 145-152. Go back to the text.
- Simone Weil, “Lettre à Georges Bernanos,” Écrits Historiques et Politiques. Editions Gallimard, 1960, in Cunningham, pages 253-257. Go back to the text.
- Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Oxford University Press, 1981. Go back to the text.
- George Orwell, review of John Sommerfield’s Volunteer in Spain, from Time & Tide, July 31, 1937, in Cunningham, page 19. Go back to the text.
- William Herrick, Hermanos! Second Chance Press, 1983. Go back to the text.
- David Evanier, “How Sammy Klarfeld Became a Vacillating Element in Spain,” The Journal of Contemporary Studies, Summer/Fall 1985, pages 89-106. Go back to the text.
- Quotations from Aidous Huxley and T. S. Eliot are from Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, 1937. Lawrence and Wishart Ltd., 1937, in Cunningham, pages 51-57. Go back to the text.
- Salvador Dali, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Dasa Ediciones, 1942, in Miller, pages 203-210. Go back to the text.
- Vita Sackville-West’s comment is also from Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, in Cunningham, page 229 Go back to the text.
- Ernst Toller, “Transcript of Broadcast to the USA,” New Statesman & Nation, October 8, 1938, in Cunningham, pages 72-75. Go back to the text.
- Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Revolution, page 173. Go back to the text.
- Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain. Faber and Faber Ltd., 1974, in Cunningham, pages 379-380. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 2, on page 5
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