The Spanish Civil War – Redux

Published: 2005-09-01

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Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, Grigory Sevostianov (eds.), Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2001, 576 pp.

Stanley G. Payne, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2004, 400 pp.

The received legend about the Spanish Civil War tells the story about an embattled democratic republic crushed by reactionary forces at home and the intervention of Fascist forces from Germany and Italy. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of many of its State records, several important revisionist works have appeared in Spanish, French and English that reveal for the first time the full extent of Communist influence and ultimate control of the Spanish Republic. The Yale University series “Annals of Communism” continues to lead the field in revealing the true nature and aspirations of international communism in the 20th Century. The findings of the university’s researchers today differ sharply from the image of the Soviet Union and its activities presented to the American public during the Roosevelt Administration.

Two new works from Yale have now corrected many generally held misconceptions about what actually transpired in Spain in the 1930s. The first book, Spain Betrayed, is a collection of 81 previously unpublished documents from the Russian Military Archives – reports from Soviet agents and advisers in the field during the civil war. Each document is accompanied by a commentary by one of the editors.[1] Two of the more interesting of these documents are report (Doc. 60) by General Emilio Kleber (aka Manfred Stern) and that by Georgy Dimitrov, Bulgarian Communist leader, excerpts of which are given below.

The second book upon which this review is based, is The Spanish Civil War, by Stanley G. Payne. In it the author synthesizes, updates, and draws further conclusions both from the materials obtained from the Russian Federation,[2] as well as from other previously overlooked sources, including Alien Wars: The Soviet Union’s Aggressions against the World,[3] the Spanish volume Queridos camaradas,[4] and the French source The Passing of an Illusion, the Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century.[5]

On the basis of the above-listed references, the Spanish Civil War is best described today as having been a revolutionary-counterrevolutionary civil war. It was revolutionary in the sense that the Spanish government – the Republic, which was loosely composed of social democrats, Bolsheviks, anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, Trotskyites, and other left-wing factions, was gradually taken over and run by Stalinist Bolsheviks under direct orders from Moscow. It was counterrevolutionary in that the conservatives, landowners, the Army, the Church, and the Falangists rallied their forces to successfully retake the government from the Stalinists. Anarchy, bickering, and political assassinations had characterized the Republic in the decade before the actual civil war broke out. In fact, Spain was the only country in the world with a mass movement of anarchists – the disciples of Bakunin. The main weapon used by the left during this period was the general strike; the weapon favored by the right was the pronunciamento– tantamount to mobilization – declared by the military establishment. Moderation and compromise seemed not to be a part of Spanish nature in those turbulent days. The actual civil war on the battlefield broke out in July 1936 and did not end until April 1939 after some 500,000 people had died in battle or by other means and another 400,000 were forced into exile.

The first general election of the Second Republic (there were three, each successive one more Bolshevized than the one that preceded it), gave a majority to a broad coalition of the Republican Left – a middle-class radical party led by Manuel Azaña. In September 1936 Largo Caballero, called the Spanish Lenin, became prime minister of the wartime government, but by May 1937 was removed from office by the Communists who installed Juan Negrín, nominally a Socialist but actually a Stalinist stooge. Moreover, Negrín was known to be married to a Russian woman. On the Nationalist side, Franco, generally called el caudillo (the leader), assumed leadership. Franco had a reputation as a highly professional combat soldier. Commissioned in the army at the age of eighteen, he had volunteered for service in Morocco, where he distinguished himself in battle and won the respect of his subordinates. At the age of thirty-nine, he had become the youngest general in Europe since Napoleon Bonaparte. Perhaps the closest political analog to Franco would be the estimable Antonio Salazar who governed (1932-1968) Portugal concurrently with the Spanish ruler.

General Franco had propagandistically been presented to the English-speaking world as a fascist. In fact, Franco, was a conservative Catholic who rejected the Falangists (a movement founded by José Antonio Primo de Rivera and his father Miguel) and put limits on their power. Franco’s authoritarian rule, called Franquismo, was totally free of the anti-Semitism and racialism that usually accompanied typical fascist movements.[6] Ironically, it was the Republic practiced the only racism displayed in the Spanish War. Posters and pamphlets issued by the Republic depicted Franco’s Moorish troops as “thick-lipped, hideously grinning, powerful turbaned figures attacking defenseless white women and bayoneting white children,” and worse.

Some observers still consider the Spanish Civil War to have been the first battle of World War II. Rather it seems now, with these new studies, to have been yet another incident of revolutionary-counterrevolutionary civil war in the post-WWI and inter-war period instigated by Communist attempts to subvert and overthrow the legitimate governments of Europe. The civil war in Russia, in which the revolutionaries emerged victorious, was the prime example and the only such civil war in which the revolutionaries prevailed. Similar revolutionary attempts were made in Finland, Bavaria, and Hungary, but were thwarted by counterrevolutionary patriots in each of those countries. Moreover, further factors that separate the Spanish experience from World War II were that during the Spanish Civil War, Great Britain and France both maintained non-interventionist foreign policies, while the United States was still in a state of shock having fallen from the frenzied heights of the “Flapper Age” to the depths of the Great Depression. Also, Spain remained neutral during World War II. And, finally, the weaponry and tactics used in the Spanish Civil War more resembled those of WWI than those of WWII. The Second World War only began when Britain and France – in the firm expectation that the US and the USSR would soon join them – declared war on Germany over a border dispute in Eastern Europe resulting from the terms of the Versailles Treaty.

Five days after the fighting began, Georgy Dimitrov, secretary of the Comintern, spelt out the basic Comintern and Soviet policy in the Spanish Civil War:

“We should not, at the present stage, assign the task of creating Soviets and try to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain. That would be a fatal mistake. Therefore we must say: act in the guise of defending the Republic. When our positions have been strengthened, then we can go further. […] The war cannot end successfully if the Communist Party does not take power in its own hands.”

Part of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, of course, was the fact that many honorable and decent men in the Republic’s government – socialists, liberals, and the like – were gradually swallowed up by the extreme Communist left. For example, the Spanish Socialist Minister of the Navy and Air Force, Indalecio Prieto (Doc. 45), described a Communist as, “not a human being – he’s a party; he’s a line, a person with an unseen committee behind his back.” About the only glue holding the left together was their common anti-fascism, and even that was specious. The Republic was not only at war with the Nationalists, it was at war with itself.

To add to the general chaos, concurrently as Stalin and the USSR was aiding the Republic, the Soviet tyrant and his Bolsheviks was plotting and warring against the Trotskyites and other political enemies at home and in Spain, where they were still quite influential.

Because Spain in the 1930s was a very poor and troubled country whose limited resources were sorely depleted by a succession of Moorish Wars and The Great Depression, both warring parties invited and welcomed foreign intervention. Although Spain remained neutral in both world wars, the Spanish Army was constantly engaged from 1909-1926 against Abd al Krim’s Riff Berbers in Morocco. The Soviet Union came to the aid of the Republic while Italy and Germany responded by helping the counterrevolution. As in Europe generally after World War I, Fascist parties promoting extreme nationalism were formed as a reaction to Communist takeovers or to thwart attempted Communist takeovers. With regard to Spain, the USSR was the only foreign power to intervene politically in Spain before the Civil War. Historian Payne states explicitly: “The USSR was the only power that had been intervening systematically in Spanish affairs before the beginning of the Civil War, operating its own political party within the country and at long last achieving some success.”

The first official Marxist Party in Spain was the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) established in 1879; the [Stalinist] Communist Party of Spain (PCE) was formed in 1920 by amalgamating several of the smaller left-wing parties. An anti-Stalinist Trotskyite Workers Unification Party (POUM) was hastily assembled in 1935. As early as January 1919, with Lenin still alive and ruling, the first Comintern agent, Mikhail Borodin (aka Mikhail Gruzenberg), arrived in Madrid accompanied by his assistant Jesús Ramírez (aka Charles Phillips, an American socialist) to organize the many splintered left-wing groups.

Under Stalin, Soviet personnel assigned to Spain were chosen with care, although many of them could not rightly not yet be called Stalinists. The Great Terror and purge of Trotskyites was just getting underway in the mid-1930s and would be reflected in the fate of some of Stalin’s appointments in Spain. (Those that were not able to defect to the West were executed when they returned to the USSR). Stalin appointed Marcel Rosenberg, who had been a delegate to the League of Nations, as ambassador to Spain. General Jan Berzin (aka Peteris Kjusis) headed the military staff dispatched to Spain. Berzin, who was the head of the GRU from 1924 to 1938, Soviet Military Intelligence, arrived in Madrid in 1936 and became commander of Soviet Forces in the Spanish Civil War. Major General Walter Krivitsky (aka Samuel Ginzberg) as NKVD rezident in the Netherlands was responsible for Soviet military intelligence throughout Europe.

Aleksandr Orlov (aka Leiba Feldbin) filled the most important post of NKVD intelligence chief and security control. As NKVD rezident in Spain, Orlov was charged with both intelligence collection and counterintelligence. Orlov established the Servicio de Investigación Militar in which he trained agents for the Soviet Union. The American spy Morris Cohen was one of his students.

Stalin, who always prized the importance of writers and filmmakers in shaping public opinion (he called them ‘engineers of the mind’), assigned his personal friend, Mikhail Koltsov, as the Pravda correspondent in Spain. Ilya Ehrenburg, another agitprop star, moved between Paris and Madrid. Much of the propaganda coverage issued from Moscow was picked up and echoed by Western journalists who either sympathized with the Communists or were blind to what was going on. Thus, the propaganda, echoed and reechoed in the world press, soon became the myths and legends of today. And were it not for a small group of revisionist scholars, the myths and legends would have become history.

The American media and “intellectuals,” with few exceptions, were openly sympathetic to the Republic, and succeeded in misleading many Americans into sharing their sympathies. They were and remain heartbroken when the Communist revolution in Spain was squelched. To this day, General Francisco Franco receives only negative commentary in America. Famous journalists like Walter Duranty (N.Y. Times, Herbert Matthews (N.Y. Times), and Louis Fischer (The Nation), who were better propagandists than journalists, were very influential in disarming American opinion about the threat of Communism. In literature and the motion picture industry, the reality is, Payne notes, that if the Louis Jordan of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls had ever existed, he would have been working for the NKVD. “Mountains of mendacity,” was Paul Johnson’s phrase describing the pro-Soviet lies that circulated about the Spanish Civil War. “No episode in the 1930s has been more lied about than this one.” Fortunately, better minds in the U.S. Defense Department recognized the true value of Spain and Franco to the defense of the West and hastened to include Spain in NATO in the 1950s.

Much has been written about the International Brigades, totaling about 40,000 men recruited by the Communist Parties in the West. In the early 1930’s Stalin had not yet removed Trotskyites and other undesirables from his government. The Comintern was still very active and Stalin, under its influence, supported the Popular Front movement in Europe and the Americas. Communist Parties were asked to recruit volunteers to support the Republic and demonstrate Communist solidarity. General Emilio Kleber, a Soviet Commissar, acted as liaison between the Spanish Minister of Defense and the French Communist Andre Marty, who was in charge of recruiting the International Brigades in Albacete.

In the United States, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was at first made quite popular in the press as aiding the Republic. Some of its members, after having experienced reality in Spain, returned home disillusioned and later honestly reported what was actually happening. One such was the novelist William Herrick, who wrote quite frankly: “Yes, we went to Spain to fight Fascism, but democracy was not our aim.” During the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade further disgraced themselves by following Communist Party orders to oppose United States’ entry into the war. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Brigade again raised the Red Banner. Shortly after WWII, the Lincoln Brigade was put on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. From Britain the renowned George Orwell and other notables learned about Communism the hard way in Spain.

What lessons did the major interventionist powers draw from the Spanish Civil War? Surprisingly, the authors tell us, the Soviet Union devoted an extraordinary amount of time in reviewing the lessons learned there with respect to weaponry, tactics, and strategy, assuming the Spanish experience would be the model for future revolutionary wars. The Soviet Ministry of Defense published numerous books, training manuals, and articles for the Red Army on their experience. On the other hand, the German command concluded that the Spanish conflict was a special kind of war from which it would be a mistake to draw any major new conclusions or lessons. In the reviewer’s opinion, it would be wrong to conclude that the USSR placed that much importance on the Spanish experience. Perhaps, the Trotskyites did consider Spain important, expecting similar revolutions in other Western countries, but Stalin and the Soviet Armed Forces under Marshal Zhukov were already employing large-scale, deep penetration and encirclement tactics, such as would be used in WWII, in the late 1930s in Manchuria against the Japanese.

The Spanish Civil War, historian Payne asserts in conclusion, was fought between extreme rightist and leftist forces, neither of which wanted to create a modern liberal state. “The left lost the military struggle but more often than not won the propaganda war.” Through the successful propaganda war in which for many decades the Republic was depicted as representing democratic government, Communists and Soviet intelligence agents were able to operate almost without suspicion, especially in Britain and the United States.

The veteran Stalinist NKVD official Pavel Sudoplatov explained:

“Stalin in the Soviet Union and Trotsky in exile each hoped to be the savior and the sponsor of the Republicans and thereby the vanguard for the world Communist revolution. We sent our young inexperienced intelligence operatives as well as our experienced instructors. Spain proved to be a kindergarten for our future intelligence operations. Our subsequent initiatives all stemmed from contacts that we made and lessons that we learned in Spain. The Spanish Republic lost, but Stalin’s men and women won.”

Author Payne confirms this assessment:

“The Soviet institution that most benefited from involvement in the Spanish war was the NKVD, which used the war for deep penetration into the military and the political structures of the Republic. They created cells, which they planned to expand significantly in order to increase secret operations in other European countries and the United States.”

By way of providing a consensus of opinions based on a close review of all these recent investigations and access to Soviet sources, historian Payne lists some of the main conclusions of individual researchers:

The Soviet documents, Spanish historians, and Payne all agree that Stalin – proceeding in his usual cautious manner – intended by his intervention in Spain to convert that tortured nation into the first Western “Peoples Republic,” a forerunner of the Peoples Republics he later established in Eastern Europe. At times Western analysts have mistaken Stalin’s innate cautiousness for a change in Soviet policy. In reality, he rarely deviated from his ultimate intention even if it meant, “One step backwards, two steps forward.”

The editors of Spain Betrayed (Radosh, Habeck, and Sevostianov) conclude:

“As some historians have long suspected, the documents prove that advisers from Moscow were indeed attempting to ‘Sovietize’ Spain and turn it into what would have been one of the first ‘Peoples Republics,’ with a Stalinist-style economy, army, and political structure.”

Antonio Elorza and Marta Bizcarrondo, ending their careful study of Comintern policy, write, “the process is well-known and was clearly outlined in the Spain of 1937. Thus, without complete institutional similarity, it can be said that the policy of the Comintern in Spain pointed, without doubt, to the model of the ‘Peoples Democracy’.”

François Furet writes of the Spanish Civil War:

“I do not consider it accurate to write, as Hugh Thomas does,[7] that after the anarchist defeat of May 1937 and the formation of the Negrín government, “two-counterrevolutions “ faced each other: that of Franco and that led by the Spanish Communist Party, in the shadow of the new prime minister. This definition suits Franco, but not the other side. It is true that the Communists suffocated a revolution in Barcelona, but only to substitute one of their own. They suffocated the popular revolution, annihilated the POUM, subjugated Catalan separatism, regimented anarchism, split the left and right of the Socialist Party – that is, Caballero and Prieto, respectively, obliged Azaña and Negrín to follow them. But with that the Spanish Republic had lost its spark. […] What was being tested in Spain was the political technique of ‘Peoples Democracy’, as it would be practiced in Central and Eastern Europe after 1945.”

Stalin’s favorite Spanish Communist, Dolores Ibárruri (aka La Pasionaria) wrote in her autobiography years later that in the Republican zone:

“The democratic, bourgeois Republic was transformed into a Peoples Republic, the first in the history of contemporary democratic revolutions.”

Senior Russian Army officers and military historians, Sarin and Dvoretsky, conclude:

“Judging from numerous papers that we have examined, Stalin began to see the Spanish government as some kind of branch of the Soviet government obedient to dictates from Moscow. […] In this unnecessary war, many hundred of young Soviet men suffered and died for no good purpose. Stalin and his team pursued an unrealistic goal: to turn Spain into a Communist country beholden to the Soviet Union as the first step to creating Communist governments in other countries of the western world.”

The Communist Party explained its defeat in Spain in terms of standard Stalinist shturmovshchina (policy of correcting mistakes made in planning and organization based on the belief that Stalinist Communism was infallible and any failure in policy had to be the result of human error or treachery), namely, that the PCE had been defeated by its own errors and failing to act with sufficient audacity. Among the many Stalin had executed for their failure were Ambassador Rosenberg, the Russian Military Attaché, Gorev, General Berzin, General Kleber, and countless unknown others considered “enemies of the [Stalinist] State.”

Other factors were considered to explain the Soviet intervention. Geopolitically speaking, a Communist victory in Spain would have militarily outflanked Germany and seriously weaken its position in Europe. Diplomatically, Stalin patiently renewed his attempts to enlist Britain and France in a triple alliance against Germany. Apparently, Britain at that time was not yet ready to conclude such an alliance, so Stalin entered into the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact which provided an additional two years for Stalin to put all his chips in order.

The Yale University “Annals of Communism” series with its Russian-American collaboration has provided the best insight into actual Communist plans and intrigues in the 20th Century. In the case of Spain, it appears that Germany and Italy were quite right to have intervened and upset Stalin’s plans.


[1]Radosh was a former Communist whose uncle fought on the side of the Republic; Habeck is an assistant professor of history and coordinator of the Russian Military Archive Project at Yale; Sevostianov is senior researcher at the Institute of Universal History in Moscow.
[2]Payne is Hilldale-Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of fourteen books, mostly on aspects of Spanish history.
[3]O. L. Sarin and L. S. Dvoretsky. Alien Wars: the Soviet Union’s Aggressions against the World. Presidio, Novato, California, 244 pp.
[4]Antonio Elorza and Marta Bizcarrondo. Queridos camaradas: la Internacional Comunista y España, 1919-1939, Planeta, Barcelona, Spain, 1999, 532 pp.
[5]François Furet. The Passing of an Illusion: the Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, 596 pp.
[6]Roger Griffin. Fascism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1995, p. 186.
[7]Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War. Modern Library (revised edition). New York, 2001, 1096 pp.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Daniel W. Michaels
Title: The Spanish Civil War – Redux, Reviews
Sources: The Revisionist 3(1) (2005), pp. 105-109
Published: 2005-09-01
First posted on CODOH: July 24, 2012, 7 p.m.
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