International Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War Essay

This essay attempts to answer the question as to “whether it is justified to describe the international volunteers who fought for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War as the ‘dupes’ of Moscow.” Proposing an answer is not easy when viewing the events from today’s vantage point some seventy years after the war, thirty years after Franco’s death, and fifteen years after the collapse of the communist government in Moscow.
We need to consider several factors to give an answer that will do justice to our question. What was the nature of the civil war? What do we mean with the term ‘Moscow’? How is ‘Moscow’ linked to the civil war? What and who were the international volunteers and what were their links with ‘Moscow’? And lastly, what did the volunteers fight for and did they know what they were fighting for?

We hope to provide an answer as we attempt to tackle each question.

What was the Spanish Civil War?

There are several views on what the war was about. Rather than expound in such a short paper the wide range of perspectives depending on which side of the political and social spectrum lies each viewer and opinion giver, it may be sufficient for our purposes to identify two of the extremist views about the Spanish civil war.

On one side are people like Beevor (1983) who view the civil war as a military uprising against a legitimate communist government that was carrying out a revolution as part of a Marxist class struggle aimed at reforming the corrupt economic and social structures of the time. Inspired by the success of the 1917 Russian revolution and driven by new ideologies for the liberation of peoples, several agents of change inside and outside Spain saw the Russian model as an applicable and pragmatic solution to social problems. The people (proletariat), therefore, fought back and waged war against a military force that wanted to topple the legitimately elected government.

On the other side you Arrarás (1968) and Carroll (1996) who see the civil war as a crusade fought to preserve Spain’s culture, mainly their religion, and poetically compares it with the country’s long 700-year war against Islam (Artieta 33). Carroll claims (6) that contrary to declarations by the politician who would later on become the President of Spain, Manuel Azaña, who in a major speech in October 1931 stated that “Spain had ceased to be Catholic” (Payne 49), most Spaniards remained devoted to their Catholic religion. For Carroll, therefore, the majority of the people supported the military in the civil war.

Other books on the 1936-1939 Spanish civil war can be situated between these two extremes. Personally, what do I think about the war?

Spain in the 1930s was in turmoil, as were other European nations after the first world war, due to ideological factors too numerous to mention. Compounding the problem was the loss and humiliation of colonies like Cuba and Mexico in the previous thirty years. One thing certain was that the Spanish people were not happy and were clamouring for change, giving rise to interest groups pulling from all directions: anarchists, socialists, communists, rightists, liberals, nationalists, separatists, Carlists, monarchists, traditionalists, falangists, etc.

A nation in turmoil needed only a spark to start a fiery revolution. The changes in governments from 1931-1936 culminating in the victory of the left-wing parties in a coalition with the anarchists and socialists was the match, but the government’s persecution of religion that struck a deep chord in the other side of the social spectrum became the spark.
The side that supported the military, having seen a “clear” motive to react, precipitated the start of the civil war. Or is it, as historians like Preston (1996) claim, the political ambitions of army generals like Franco, Mola, and Sanjurjo; or the ambitions of Stalin and his eventual betrayal of the Loyalists (Koch 2005)?

We may never know with absolute certainty.

Every book about the civil war attempts to justify the dissimilar political positions, with each side claiming it was doing what had to be done as part of its ideological framework, one side (the popular front consisting of communists, socialists, and anarchists) bent on destroying social structures in order to rebuild and the other side (nationalists, traditionalists, falangists, Carlists) justifying its desire of protecting Spain’s culture and history.

By 1939, the war was over with the nationalist forces ending up victors. A short essay is not the right forum for making judgments as to which side was right or wrong, more so as each side was doing what it thought was right. The amount of written material on the civil war reflects the plurality of positions on this issue, a fact that is reflected in the title of Claudio Sanchez Albornoz’s book, España, un enigma histórico: the civil war may be a historical mystery we will never comprehend.

What is Moscow?

The use of the word ‘Moscow’ in this essay refers to the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) with Moscow as its capital. The USSR head of state at the time of the Spanish civil war was Josef Stalin, who took over Nikolai Lenin upon the latter’s death in 1924. Stalin ruled from 1927 (he was then 48 years old) after winning an ideological victory over the Trotskyites until his death in 1958. We can include in the term Moscow the Communist International Bureau, also known as the Comintern, which was established for the purpose of exchanging information and experiences among different Communist Parties in Europe as part of a global strategy to use Marxist-Leninist ideology to carry out political and social reforms in other countries.

What was the extent of the Communist Party’s presence in Spain prior to the civil war?

In proportion to the total population of Spain, the Communist Party in Spain at the beginning of 1936 was larger than the Bolshevik Party in Russia at the beginning of 1917, the year in which it took power (Payne 107). Thomas (1986) added to this the anarchist union CNT, which claimed a membership of 600,000 in 1931 (70 note), and the socialists with over a million members by 1932 (122).

Moscow and the Civil War

Several references point to Moscow’s hand in the civil war, maybe not as instigator, but certainly a supporter, through the Spanish communist party.

The turning point was the infiltration by the communist party of the Socialist Party after the 1933 elections (De Madariaga 344-345), when Carlos Lamoneda and Alvarez del Vayo, both “secret” communists, became respectively the secretary of the socialist party and the primary ideological guide of the ex-secretary-general of the socialist labour union UGT Francisco Largo Caballero. Santiago Carillo, a future leader of the communist party, also became the secretary of the socialist youth organisation.

In July 1935, the Comintern in a major speech by Georgi Dimitrov, adopted a “popular front” strategy, calling upon communists to join with other left-wing parties to gain power, a tactic rejected by Lenin but favoured by Stalin. The popular front was a coalition of communists, socialists, and anarchists for the purpose of amassing numbers that will back the revolution. In a speech on 12 January 1936, Largo Caballero stated that the popular front’s “duty is to bring about…Marxist socialism…revolutionary socialism…” and that its “aspiration is the conquest of political power” using any method (praxis) they are able to use (Robinson 246).

On 31 January, Largo Caballero admitted, “I am a Marxian socialist. Communism is the natural evolution of socialism, its last and definitive stage” (Pattee 177 citing El Socialista 1 Feb 36) and on 9 February, he said that they are “determined to do in Spain what was done in Russia. The plan of Spanish socialism and of Russian communism is the same” (Arraras 37). On 11 February, communist party head Jose Diaz praised comrade Largo Caballero (Cattell 219).

In March 1936, the socialist and communist youth organizations merged under the guidance of Alvarez del Vayo, Comintern agent Vittorio Codovila, and youth leader Santiago Carrillo (Beevor 46). Soon after, the Madrid socialists came out with a Preamble for a new program that was a complete endorsement of communist-style ultimate revolution, the destruction of existing society down to its roots (Cortada 228).
The turn of events shocked even the staunchest socialists like the moderate Gabriel Mario de Coca, who wrote of the “Bolshevist victory in every sector of the Spanish Socialist party…the Bolshevist centipede dominates the proletariat’s horizon and Marxist analysis indicates that it is on its way to another of its resounding victories (Redondo and Zabala 307).

On 17 July, after some months of planning, Franco left Tenerife for Melilla, took command of the Spanish army in Morocco on 19 July, and challenged the government of Spain, headed by Prime Minister Cesar Quiroga. The civil war had begun.

During the war, Moscow sent advisers, soldiers, and arms, in exchange for Spain’s gold reserves (Thomas 450), proving that Moscow was following closely the events in Spain and, at the same time, putting into question their ulterior motives (was it ideology that made them help, or was it the gold, or both?).

Moscow and the International Volunteers

On 26 July 1936, a Comintern meeting presided by the French Communist railway union leader Gaston Monmousseau in Prague agreed to provide massive aid for the revolutionary Republic of Spain. One billion French francs was allocated, administered and distributed by a committee including Spanish Communist Party leader Jose Diaz and chief propagandist Dolores Ibarruri (Pasionaria), Largo Caballero, etc.
Comintern leaders organised the fund-raising in Europe and America and moved immediately to tighten their control over the leadership and organization of the Spanish Communist Party (Carroll 91). They expected the civil war to be over quickly.

Moscow, which continued its involvement (Colodny 27-28, Broue and Temime 112, Knoblaugh 167-168, Cattell 40) throughout the war, agreed on 18 September 1936 that the state that would emerge from a Republican victory in the civil war would not be a democratic republic but a “special state with genuine people’s democracy supported by substantial elements on the Left, …a special form of democratic dictatorship of the working class and the peasantry” (Carr 20-21).

This view of Spain as a “genuine people’s democracy” captured the collective imaginations of freedom-loving peoples the world over and paved the way for the next step. On 22 September, French communist party leader Maurice Thorez flew to Moscow to make a personal appeal for the greatest possible amount of Soviet aid for the Spanish Republic and the formal organization of training units of Communist military volunteers under the authority of the Comintern.

His proposal was quickly accepted, leading to the establishment of the famous International Brigades the following month (Carroll 152). On 16 October 1936, Stalin wrote Diaz: “The liberation of Spain from the yoke of the fascist reactionaries is not the private concern of Spaniards alone, but the common cause of all progressive humanity.” The Comintern established the headquarters of the Communist 5th regiment in Albacete in early October 1936, just in time for the defence of Madrid.

The first communist international volunteers intended to make up the new Brigades arrived at the Republican port of Alicante on 13 October and reached Albacete by train the following day. They consisted of 500 men, mostly Frenchmen. There was nothing yet to show how quickly international communism could move in such an undertaking, and this small group still seemed insignificant compared to the 20,000 men, mostly trained veterans, now being deployed by the nationalists before Madrid (Carroll 176). The number of international volunteers reached 35,000 to 40,000 coming from 53 nations (Martinez Bande).

Did they know or were they duped?

We now go to our main question: is it justified to say that the volunteers were dupes, or fools, of Moscow? My answer is in the negative: No, the volunteers were not fools.

Every volunteer believed in the cause he or she was fighting for. Remember that just nineteen years before, in 1917, a quick revolution successfully took place in Russia. Now, with hindsight, we know some of the horrible events that happened in Russia and how well they managed their publicity machinery to show the world that their revolution was a success. It is therefore justified for us to say that during the Spanish civil war, every communist, even those in Moscow, believed that a revolution was the only solution that would eventually lead to social and economic reform. Every communist in power was feeling their way through, ample evidences of corruption and political incompetence notwithstanding, making similar-minded idealists like the volunteers think that the civil war was a cause worth dying for.

Although many saw Stalin as a ruthless man who ruled his nation by fear in contradiction to their idealist aspirations, it is possible that most of the volunteers saw him as an exception to the rule. The image of a classless society is a very attractive one, and one ruthless dictator ruling for less than a decade does not negate the probability that such an ideal state could be attained. In fact, right after the collapse of Russian communism in 1990, several Marxists attributed the failure to a poor and mistaken application of the principles. Many volunteers may not like Stalin, but they liked the idea of fighting for a cause, so they decided to join the army of the popular front in Spain.

Carroll (179) explained that volunteers were encouraged in the misperception of the war and its issues because the Republic was not openly communist and Largo Caballero, a socialist with a communist heart (a fact not widely known outside Spain), was not a member of the Spanish communist party. Leftists, and even those in the political centre, believed that the Popular Front governed Spain. Carroll wrote that “many were not willing to fight with Stalin, but they believed in the rightness of the cause of the Spanish Republic as so many, including contemporary historians, still do.”

If Stalin and Spain’s communist party purposely hid the fact that Moscow was playing a very active and important role in forming the International Brigades, they probably justified it as part of revolutionary pragmatism: they can do anything to ensure the success of the revolution. Since the volunteers are either ideological Marxists who believed in the same principles or romantic idealists for whom the end (the preservation of an egalitarian, classless, and democratic society) justified the means (revolution as a defence against fascist elements led by Franco and the military), we can say that the volunteers were not ‘dupes’.
Lastly, in view of the willingness of the International Brigades to fight well (the civil war would have been over by the end of 1936 without them) and die for their cause, no one can be justified in saying that they were fools who died for a useless cause. Though we cannot avoid that some may have been moved by pure idealism or were ‘misguided’ in their judgment of Spain as a real democracy that needed help, we have to admit that living in a different era and having the advantage of viewing past events with the benefit of hindsight can never give us the excuse to judge the international volunteers and those who fought for the Republicans by calling them ‘dupes of Moscow’.

If there is a lesson we can learn from the Spanish civil war, it is that the search for freedom can be so compellingly and physically powerful but at the same time fragile, easily twisted by those who seek power to further their own political ends. In the end, we can say that it is these people who twist the deepest yearnings of men and women who are the real fools, because by doing so they dehumanise themselves and act contrary to their nature.

Works Cited

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