Non Fiction

The Revolution and War are Inseparable: Interpreting the Spanish Civil War

George Orwell joined a militia linked to the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist party that would be labeled “Trotskyist” by the Communists and subsequently persecuted.

The Spanish Civil War has been swept under the rug as an insignificant footnote in history because of misunderstandings and oversimplifications made by scholars misled by Soviet propaganda as to why the fragmented factions of the Spanish Republic were defeated by “Nationalist” rebels led by General Francisco Franco. Reports from the international media at that time led liberals and sympathizers of democracy to believe that the war against the Spanish Fascists (Franco’s forces were given equipment and even troops by Hitler and Mussolini) was sabotaged by traitorous Anarchists. Throughout Europe, people were interested in the events, but were only exposed to news about the Spanish Civil War that was manipulated by the Soviet Union. This included Pablo Picasso, who was living in France, but originally from Barcelona, and based his renowned mural Guernica off of reports from Parisian Communist papers such as Ce soir and Figaro (Red City, Blue Period, 177). George Orwell often attested to Communist media domination in his memoir, Homage to Catalonia, “Unlike the Communists they [the other political parties] had no footing in any press outside their own country, and inside Spain they were at an immense disadvantage because the press censorship was mainly under Communist control…”(63). Meanwhile, Socialist (POUM/UGT) and Anarchist (CNT/FAI) trade unions and parties in the loosely united Popular Front government became increasingly marginalized as Soviet influence and aid grew. Historians such as Temma Kaplan, attempt to briefly summarize the political situation in Spain at the time, and often unknowingly accept Communist propaganda as historical fact, thus characterizing the Socialists, and more often the Anarchists specifically as the weak links that sabotaged the war against Franco. However, the Spanish Anarchists, who were dominant in regions such as Catalonia where they had quickly collectivized farms and factories, stood as the only substantial bulwark against Franco in the early July fighting of 1936 when the Spanish Republic barely had a standing army left to defend cities from the fast advancing Fascists.

Scholars such as Temma Kaplan have come to accept the Soviet explanation of events as truth by inadvertently repeating oversimplified Communist propaganda without digging deeper into the more complex political reality in the Spanish Republic at the time. For example, in her book on Barcelona entitled Red City, Blue Period, Kaplan stated that “republicans, Communists, and Socialists all blamed the CNT for concentrating on making a revolution in Barcelona rather than on winning the war against the fascists in Spain”(178). This broad statement did not recognize that the Communists in Madrid were not focused on winning the war as much as they were intent on curtailing already accomplished working class revolutionary goals. Such a generalization also failed to delve into the POUM and CNT reasoning on why the revolution and the war were inseparable. If, however, the Anarchists were responsible for losing the war, then why was it that the Communists first sought to accuse and persecute the POUM, a Socialist party, for supposedly aiding the Fascists by diverting war efforts, instead of the CNT? This was because the Communists, directed by Stalin, labeled the POUM as a Trotskyist organization (a prioritized enemy for Stalinists); only because one of its leaders, Nin, was formerly affiliated but then later broke with Trotsky years before. A more salient example of Kaplan’s analytical shortcomings could be seen in two passages, one which claimed that Anarchist collectives “frequently remained under the management of the old owners; it was, after all, in everyone’s interest for the factories to run smoothly”(178), a statement that was largely inaccurate, as Sam Dolgoff’s The Anarchist Collectives and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia approximated that almost three fourths of Catalonia’s factories and farms had been fully collectivized within a few months and were completely under the management of the workers.

Another passage from Red City, Blue Period bordered on inaccurate when the author not only understated the recent swelling of Communist power, but also used the misleading verb retake when describing the government seizure of a building which was run by CNT workers since the beginning of the revolution: “the ‘May Days’ were triggered when the city government, supported and perhaps instigated by the small but influential Communist party, attempted to retake the telephone and telegraph exchange from the CNT militias”(180). Regarding the “small but influential” Communists, it was apparent by May of 1937 that the Spanish Communist party was nowhere near small, due to “a vast increase in membership partly by appealing to the middle classes against the revolutionaries”(Homage to Catalonia, 63). Kaplan’s wording, whether intentional or not, implied political insinuations that belittle the power of the Spanish Communists under direct control of the Soviets, and thus under the influence of Stalin’s intentions. Such insinuations also belittle the accomplishments and efforts of the Spanish working class militias, represented by CNT, that by all accounts had unquestioningly saved the Republic from annihilation in the first few months of hostilities starting in July of 1936, regardless of their organizational efficiency afterward, “During the first two months of the war it was the Anarchists more than anyone else who had saved the situation, and much later than this the Anarchist militia, in spite of their indiscipline, were notoriously the best fighters among the purely Spanish forces”(Homage to Catalonia, 62).

The influential Soviet controlled Communist Party grew more powerful in the government as it became more apparent that the Soviet Union was the only country that would give aid to the Spanish Republic. By the time foreign journalists such as George Orwell arrived in Spain en masse they saw the practicality in the communist agenda. Lionel Trilling elaborated on Orwell’s initial Communist leanings in his introduction to Homage to Catalonia, explaining that the inclination to the Communist response was natural since “It proposed to fight the war without any reference to any particular political idea beyond a defense of democracy from a fascist enemy. Then, when the war was won, the political and social problems would be solved, but until the war should be won, any dissension over these problems could only weaken the united front against Franco” (XX). However, unlike his contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Orwell took part in the fighting directly by joining the militia because “at that time and in that atmosphere in seemed the only conceivable thing to do” (4). Orwell’s militia was an arm of the POUM, which was a relatively minor Socialist party that would later be pejoratively labeled as “Trotskyist” by the Communists. Orwell had succumb to the revolutionary fervor still emanating in Barcelona, a city that in December of 1936 was still controlled by Anarchists, and the revolution had already been implemented resulting in tangible economic and social equality throughout Catalonia. In the first few pages of Orwell’s book, he explained how all of the shops, farms and factories had been collectivized, resulting in equal pay, the elimination of classes, and a lack of ranking in the militia.

The U.S.S.R. was the only country that had supplied arms to the Republican government, because the Western democracies hoped an arms embargo would shorten the conflict: the result was the opposite. Since the Soviets had supplied arms to the Republic it was politically inconceivable for the Communists to distribute them to their rivals, the “Trotskyist” POUM and the Anarchists, for fear of having the weapons turned against them when the war was done. And so the war effort was ruined by political wrangling initiated by the Communists because entire lines of the front were neglected simply because they were under control of Socialist and Anarchist militia units. Thus, the Communist party, formerly minuscule in Spanish politics, gained a huge amount of influence in the Republican government due to the involvement of the Soviets, who were in the middle of instituting Stalin’s Great Terror against mostly imagined political enemies. The Communist growth in political power culminated in the Barcelona street-fighting in May of 1937 which was made to look in retrospect by the Communists like a failed Fascist plot in order to divert the Republic’s energy and resources away from the front, “Evidently the official version of the Barcelona fighting was already fixed upon: it was to be represented as a ‘fifth column’ Fascist rising engineered solely by the POUM” (145).

The Communists made it known to the world via papers such as The Worker, that the ‘May Days” were not the result of a Communist attack on the CNT occupied telephone exchange, but a Fascist engineered plot executed by the POUM. Yet the world was not concerned with the street-fighting in Barcelona, but rather, the Fascist bombing of the militarily unimportant Basque city of Guernica. Kaplan stated that “The world was shocked” as the Luftwaffe itself massacred the town filled with refugees by “bombing and machine-gunning civilians until some 1,600 people lay dead, with more than 800 wounded” (177). Picasso immediately reacted to the news by sketching several drawings of distorted horses, bulls and women holding dead babies in preparation for his famous masterpiece that would simply be titled after the name of the immolated town. One of these drawings features a mounted picador spearing a bull while the bull gores the horse in retaliation. Picasso could have symbolically meant for the bullfighter to represent the Republic taunting the bull, which represented the Fascists, which in turn gored the innocent horse: meaning the massacre of the innocent townspeople of Guernica. However, one could also interpret Picasso’s symbolism to apply to the fighting in Barcelona by switching symbolic roles. The picador may be seen as Franco attacking the Republic (the bull), which in turn being under control of the Communists retaliated by goring the innocent working class revolutionaries i.e. the horse (which was relatively defenseless in comparison to the armed picador). Regardless of what Picasso intended symbolically, the finished mural became a masterpiece because it captured the destruction and horror that mechanized modern warfare inflicted upon civilians.

The Spanish Civil War and Guernica in particular reaffirmed that modern warfare’s mechanic efficiency caused the kind of massive wholesale destruction that had already been seen in World War One. George Orwell lamented at the pervading apathetic attitude of Europeans in the aftermath of the First World War because it resulted in a lack of support for the Spanish Republic in the civil war, which was categorized as a fight for democracy. This was because World War One had also been a war in the name of democracy, and Orwell believed that if the Great War had not tarnished the appeal of such a fight, that hundreds of thousands of Europeans would have rose up in their own countries in support of the Spanish Republic instead of the just tens of thousands that came to fight. This disillusionment was made even worse by the Communist propaganda and libel that fragmented the Republic and ultimately caused the fight for democracy in Spain to be in vain. Too often, people looking back at that time period take the international news reports as fact, when all of the news coming out of Spain was filtered through the Communist propaganda machine. The POUM and CNT were not under pay of the Fascists, George Orwell (who was shot through the neck by a fascist sniper on the frontlines) and the tens of thousands of Socialists and Anarchists who were casualties in the war, or, worse yet, the countless disappeared in Communist and fascist secret prisons, are proof of that.

Historians such as Temma Kaplan, although citing George Orwell as a primary source, neglect the point he emphasized in his memoir that the Communist’s position in Spain was only gained because of Soviet aid, and thus Soviet manufactured opinions did not reflect the general attitude of the Republic or the populace, but rather that the Communists allied with the middle class in order to cement power and influence. Orwell reversed his opinion that the Communists were right in postponing revolution out of practicality because Communist political persecution led him to believe, as Trilling stated, “…that the war was revolutionary or nothing, and that the people of Spain would not fight and die for a democracy which was admittedly a bourgeois democracy” (XX). Whether analyzing Orwell or Picasso, it is apparent that the Spanish Civil War was a travesty entailing widely accepted political lies and an appalling amount of human lives lost. The travesty continues to this day, as historians fail to analyze primary documents that reveal the reality of the Spanish War, and instead rely on international media accounts that had been manipulated by Communist propaganda.

Picasso's final piece on Guernica, featuring the horse and bull that was in his sketches at the time but omitting the picador.
Picasso’s final piece on Guernica, featuring the horse and bull that was in his sketches at the time but omitting the picador.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952. Print.

Kaplan, Temma. Red City, Blue Period: Social Movements in Picasso’s Barcelona. Berkeley: University of California, 1992. Print.

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