“Lost Illusions,” by Caleb Crain. The New Yorker, 4/18/2016. A review of the book “Spain in Our Hearts” by Adam Hochschild.
The Spanish Civil War that brought Francisco Franco to power has always been a noticeable gap in my education. I knew almost nothing about it, yet it kept cropping up almost everywhere. The long life of the dictator Franco was a standard joke on the Johnny Carson Show. (His life span was 1892–1975, and 83 doesn’t seem old to me now.) Hemingway was there and wrote about it in For Whom the Bell Tolls. George Orwell was there and his experiences shaped 1984. Picasso’s Guernica shows its horrors. This famous early photograph from the war shows an infantryman falling backward at the instant he is shot.
But now I know at least a little. The root cause was the long decline of the Spanish empire. The autocratic monarchy stood for centuries, but in the mid-1930s, the population felt the need for change, and the monarchy was overthrown by the extremely leftist Republicans. The new Republican government, however, proved to be totally inept at running the country. Soldiers, for example, were free to debate the merits of an order given by an officer.
Soon after taking power, the Republican leftists were challenged by the fascist Nationalists led by the General Francisco Franco in what developed into the Spanish Civil War. The book reviewed in this New Yorker article describes the idealistic 2,800 American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln battalion who traveled to Europe to join the Republican forces. War was still considered a glorious undertaking with the good guys fighting the bad guys, and no doubt the fascists were the bad guys.
Many of the volunteers were young, liberal Jewish men from New York City. Their idealistic expectations were quickly crushed when they were thrown into battle as simple cannon fodder with little training and no hope of gaining any significant objective. Some said they were called the Lincoln battalion because Lincoln, too, was assassinated. One disillusioned American said, “The Republic had to push some meat out there in front, and we were elected.”
The war became a dirty proxy war between the larger powers, and there were many atrocities committed by both sides (one estimate is of 150,000 civilians and prisoners of war executed by the fascist Nationals, and 49,000 by the government Republicans). There were no good guys.
Highlights from the article:
- Russia contributed half-heartedly to the leftist Republican side, mainly outdated WWI weapons. Hitler and Mussolini did much more for the fascist side, even providing airlift for the troops assembled in Morocco. The Spanish Navy was loyal to the government, and airlift was the only way to get the fascist armies into Spain. Once there, they had no way to leave.
- Foreign volunteers in the Republican Army were killed at almost 3x the rate of the regulars.
- While the fascists were united under Franco, the leftists tore themselves apart with internal squabbling and paranoia. The Republican government was suspicious of the workers’ and trade unions’ support. The Communists were mainly concerned about the Trotskyites in their midst, only because of Stalin’s hatred of Trotsky. Stalin later brought back his advisors, then executed many fearing they had picked up radical ideas.
- The Catholic Church was a long supporter of the monarchy and was opposed to the social reform of the Republicans. But this put them on the side of the fascists. When the Republicans took over, they cut government subsidies to the Church and legalized divorce. The Church was even attacked by the peasants.
- The Spanish Civil War is seen as a prelude to WWII where many of their tactics became widespread, such as aerial bombardment of troops and civilians.
- After the war, there was no money for repairs. The Republicans had sent all the gold to Russia for safekeeping. Bad idea, I kid you not.