FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: The Spanish Civil War

Wednesday, March 29, 2000

In 1937, thousands of Americans from all walks of life volunteered to fight in a poorly equipped army overseas, with no support from their own government. What was it about the Spanish Civil War that inspired such idealism and courage? And was the fight to defend the Spanish Republic against General Franco and the powers of international fascism as pure and noble as it seemed to these Americans? We examine the role that Soviet aid and influence, under Stalin's direction, played in supporting or undermining the Republican cause.

Recorded on Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge." I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, a group of Spanish generals, led by Francisco Franco, led an uprising against the democratically elected government of Spain. Franco and his forces received aid from Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

Seeing the fight in Spain as a struggle between the forces of democracy, that is, the democratically elected government, and fascism, that is, Franco and his forces, many Americans volunteered to fight in the war themselves. They joined units named, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, and the George Washington Battalion. They used outmoded weapons, and they wore the red beret.

In the end, they lost. After three years Franco and his forces crushed the democratic forces, and for the next 35 years, Francisco Franco ruled Spain as dictator.

But even though they lost, the democratic forces and the Americans who fought with them are seen by many as heroes of the 20th century. Were they? Or were they naive instead? Or worse still, dupes of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union?

With us today two guests: Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the Nation, believes the democratic republican cause was indeed a glorious cause. Ronald Radosh, author of the forthcoming book, Spain Betrayed: the Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War, has his doubts.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Two historians on the Spanish Civil War: Eric Hobsbawm referred to it as, quote, the only political cause which even in retrospect remains as pure and compelling as it did in 1936; Paul Johnson, quote, no episode of the 1930s has been more lied about than this one.

Pure and compelling, or a mountain of lies. Our understanding of the Spanish Civil War. Ron?

Ronald Radosh: I think that the further away you get from the Spanish Civil War, the more complex and the more ambiguity you see. There were sins and crimes on both sides, and I think Hobsbawm was wrong, and Johnson was closer to the truth.

Peter Robinson: Johnson closer to the truth? Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: There's no question that looking back on Spain, especially through the literature of the war, it's easy to see why people were so inspired and moved and willing to be self-sacrificial about it, while knowing that you're looking at it also through a fog of mendacity. I mean both statements can be made congruent with each other, I believe.

Peter Robinson: Ron, you have said, and I quote you: I think it's fine that Franco won. Explain yourself.

Ronald Radosh: Well, actually I was slightly misquoted and out of context conversation. I want to make it quite clear that I actually detest Franco. I think he was an authoritarian butcher. In no way do I like or admire anything Francisco Franco did.

I think history gave strange choices, not the one I would have desired or, dare say, Christopher Hitchens would have desired. It was either a case by late--mid-'36 and definitely by '37, definitely by the end of the war in '38 and '39, it was a case of Franco's victory or Stalin's victory; and a Spain controlled by Stalin.

Under those two horrible choices, neither of which I like, I think it is better than Franco won than Stalin won.

Peter Robinson: Now, better for the Spanish people themselves, or better because of the struggle that would ensue for 50 years?

Ronald Radosh: Better in terms of the international relations at the current time at the end of the Spanish Civil War, and in the long run, better for the Spanish people who had an easier time eventually obtaining a democracy and an end of the Franco dictatorship than they would have had getting rid of a Stalinist man.

Peter Robinson: All right, Christopher, you have written, I quote you now: Even at the time, Orwell and countless others made the point that Stalinism was not the alternative to fascism, but the enabler of it. Explain.

Christopher Hitchens: Stalinism was one of the causes of the defeat of the Spanish republic. I think that's been amply demonstrated by a number of historians, and was understood by a number of the historians of the time. In other words, that's why I'm bold enough to quote an axiom: victory and Stalinism were not possible in Spain. You couldn't have had a Stalinist victory.

So I think your position falls--

Peter Robinson: Hang on, hang on. You--

Christopher Hitchens: Well, the Communist Party in Spain and its Soviet backers who infiltrated a number of the institutions of the Republic, and also the International Brigade, were in a sense working to undermine the revolution. They didn't want any government or movement to succeed that they did not control. They would rather have been defeated. That's consistent by the way across Europe. It was true in Germany, too, and in Italy, and in other countries in important struggles, and in China.

So Stalinism, as well as being in many ways an accomplice of fascism--remember--

Peter Robinson: So Joseph Stalin's decision, sitting in Moscow was, either I, Stalin, take complete control of the republican cause, or I would rather see Franco win?

Christopher Hitchens: He may even have subjectively said that to himself--or objectively. That was certainly what his policy was.

Peter Robinson: Let's examine Stalin's motives and actions in a little more depth.

Better Dead and Red

Are you suggesting, and is it true so far as you can tell as an historical matter, that Stalin either consciously undermined the republican cause, or held back aid that he could have given to the republican cause, in either case, effectively ensuring a Franco victory?

Christopher Hitchens: I think he did both of those things, and he did a third thing, which was an attempt to subvert the internal political mechanisms of the republic in order to take them over. And that's another ground of my disagreement.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead, Christopher.

Christopher Hitchens: Well because, for example, the Stalinists exploited their positions in the police and the judiciary to try and hold a show trial on the model of the one they'd had in Moscow. They weren't able to bring off a show trial. They didn't have the moral or political ability to impose themselves on Spain on the way they had been in the Soviet Union.

Peter Robinson: Thereby demonstrating that as late as '37 or '38, when these trials took place, Stalin was not in fact in total control of the republican--

Christopher Hitchens: No, but were still more interested in mopping up and destroying his left and democratic pseudo allies, or supposed allies, than he was in fact in fascism.

Peter Robinson: Than in defeating Franco.

Ronald Radosh: Well, but actually, see, the key thing they wanted to do, and that they actually did accomplish, the Stalinists tried and did manage to control the entire republican army. They had the commanders of virtually the entire new national republican army that they created was run and controlled by Soviet commanders.

Indeed all of the famed international brigades were actually--

Peter Robinson: Tell us what the international brigades were.

Ronald Radosh: The international brigades were the volunteers from Western Europe, organized by the Comintern, including the United States and Britain, to go fight as volunteers--

Peter Robinson: Including a member of your family?

Ronald Radosh: Right. My uncle died before I had a chance to meet him, fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion.

The international brigades were all commanded by actual Red Army commanders, who were given pseudonyms, Western names, so it would not be known in Spain as well that they were actually Russian commanders.

And we have documentation not only of the extent of control of the republican army, and the telegrams and so forth from the Cominterm from Demitrov, the head of the Cominterm, ordering the arrest and the purge and the execution of certain officers they detested, this was all done and accomplished so that, in essence, you had a Soviet army in Spain by the end of the republic.

And Stalin's hope was that had Franco been defeated, the control of the army would have been the mechanism through which they could gain control of the new people's democracy.

Peter Robinson: But you put something in a way that to my ears sounds strangely passive. Had Franco been defeated. If Stalin--if Soviet officers were running the republican army, why did not Stalin do more in terms of materiel, so forth, to ensure that Franco was in fact defeated?

Ronald Radosh: Well, he followed a contrary policy. He gave enough arms to the republic to keep fighting, but not enough to win at first, because he wanted an international bargaining chip vis-a-vis the Western allies. He didn't want to alienate an international alliance with the West if it could be possible. He was playing his cards very close to the vest, and he was following contradictory policies; it depends on the date and the time.

But in fact, they never did give enough aid, and in fact, the aid they gave was hardly magnanimous. In mean, Stalin screwed the Spanish Republic royally. He took the entire gold reserves of Spain. He double charged, he had double bookkeeping in which he sent--

Peter Robinson: You concur with all of this?

Christopher Hitchens: I'm serious, Stalinism is the cause of the defeat. It therefore couldn't have been the beneficiary of the victory.

Peter Robinson: When and why did the republicans get involved with the Soviets anyway?

Title: No Stallin' with Stalin

Ron has made one finding at least that strikes me as pretty arresting, namely, tell us about the letter from Hidall, was that the prime minister's name, to the Soviet ambassador in France within a week of the outbreak of war?

Ronald Radosh: The first Spanish premier asked for aid from the Soviet Union way earlier--people have tended to think before that Soviet aid was not requested until later in the date, after the nonintervention policy when they couldn't get ours. But in fact they went to the Soviet Union right from the beginning, asking for aid, giving the Russians the opportunity to move right in.

Peter Robinson: Well, is it fair to say that if the republicans were crushed in the Stalinist embrace, it is an embrace they themselves sought?

Ronald Radosh: I think there was a great general naivete. They thought that they were anxious to get arms from whatever source they could, and they very naively and foolishly went to the Russians first, and the Russians began to supply and get the arms ready way before anybody suspected.

Peter Robinson: What about your uncle? Does this make him a Soviet dupe? Did he know what he was doing?

Ronald Radosh: Well, I think the men who fought were idealistic, brave men who believed in their hearts they were fighting to repel the fascist threat that was going to engulf the world.

Unfortunately, as I see it in retrospect, they served as pawns of Stalin, as tools for his agenda. As Hemingway himself showed and a lot of the other literature and novels of the war, the brigades were often set up as sitting ducks in battles that they could not help to win, and in which they were just mowed down and used as pawns.

Peter Robinson: Ron wrote an article entitled "My Uncle Died in Vain." You wrote a piece in the Nation in which you called his description of his uncle's activities "disgraceful." That is the word you used.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes.

Peter Robinson: That sounds heartfelt.

Christopher Hitchens: I think it's a bit much to say your uncle chucked away his life in such a cause. And I think it should be remembered, the international brigade probably did save Madrid in the first--Franco's first drive on the city from falling early.

The moral example of the people who went to fight there I think can be considered and valued and esteemed independently of the political exploitation of them.

There is no one in Spain now, hardly even anyone in the Spanish Communist Party, who has any illusions on what was done on the left and to the left and by some of the left under Stalinism. But there is no one, or no one I've yet met of that cohort, who wishes that Franco had won, or should I say, rather, since he did win, is glad that he did; or would accept this kind of reasoning.

Peter Robinson: Let's press Ronald on his argument in favor of Franco's victory.

Springtime for Hitler

By your reasoning, given the choice between a strong man and Stalin, it is better that the strong man won. Now if you take that argument, shift it forward three years, and east 800-900 miles, you're in Germany. And the choice there is between Communists and Adolph Hitler. Doesn't the dynamic of your argument tend to militate in favor of victory by Hitler?

Ronald Radosh: No, absolutely not. Because first of all, Franco was not Hitler. The historian Stanley Paine has written a definite biography of Franco, points out that in fact Franco the Phalange, the so-called fascist component of Franco's coalition, was a very small part of Franco's alliance.

In fact, I think what conceivably could have happened, given the Nazi-Soviet pact, which by the way the members of the brigade all endorsed since they were all communists, the international brigades, had Stalin won and controlled Spain, he might have well given both submarine base--set of submarine bases in Spain. He might have given the Germans passage through Spain to the entranceway to the Mediterranean, which would have been disastrous in terms of the fight against Britain; and that it might have been advantageous to Hitler.

Peter Robinson: A lot of this argument rests on, how bad was Franco.

Christopher Hitchens: Not--well, I think you're giving up your own question, which I actually don't think--

Peter Robinson: All right, pursue that question further. Go ahead.

Christopher Hitchens: I don't think Professor Radosh perfectly answered. Because you said, isn't it true by the logic that anything is better than Stalinism, and that it would apply in Germany. And there were people who said that while Hitler may be a bit of a Nazi, but he builds autobahns and does this and that.

I mean, if you do think that, then I think the logic of your question does put Professor Radosh in a bizarre position.

But look, imagine it goes the other way. Suppose Franco is defeated--

Peter Robinson: Right. By whom?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, by the forces of the republic, which would immediately, with the military backing of Britain and France in particular, the abandonment of what was called nonintervention. The embargo on Spain.

Peter Robinson: You're saying that if that happened, Franco could have been defeated.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, absolutely, by revolutionary war in Spain itself, and, which would have been harder to get, and it may be asking a lot to have both, but also by the democracies realizing they had a common interest in the defeat of fascism and in stopping its spread.

It means that in its military testing ground, Spain, fascism has had a military reverse, a big one. Hitler and Mussolini had both been shown to be weaker than was thought. I don't think then you'd get the Munich Agreement, or the setup of Czechoslovakia. And the Munich Agreement and the setup of Czechoslovakia is the immediate and necessarily prelude, as Trotsky pointed out, to the Hitler-Stalin pact.

So if fascism had been given a bloody nose and a scorched and singed paw and forced to back out of Spain, then you can't just assume the rest of history is going to be the same.

Peter Robinson: Here's the situation in Spain leading up to the outbreak of the civil war. On the right you had the Phalange. You also had the monarchists. The monarchists in turn are divided between the Alfonso restorationists, and those who wanted to restore the Carlos pretender to the throne.

On the left I counted at least six major parties, and innumerable fragmentary parties. In 1931 the left wins the election. In 1933, the right wins the election. In 1936 the left wins a narrow victory. Throughout the period you have arrests, strikes, political killings. Franco is not an ideologue. He just wants to restore order to this chaotic situation. Fascism, none of this matters. He just wants order.

Christopher Hitchens: Franco cut his teeth, as it were, shooting down striking coal miners in the Astoria region, and bullying the colonial subjects of Spain in Morocco. He was always a brute and a bastard and a killer. And by no means a neutral general in love with his country and in love with law and order.

He solicited the military support of Mussolini and Hitler in order to massacre his own people--

Peter Robinson: Only after the Republicans had the support of Stalin.

Christopher Hitchens: No, because Hitler and Mussolini were behind Franco's originally military landing from Morocco; his original declaration of war on the republic, which his people had elected. So he's a fascist from the get-go, as we colloquially use the term. You're right to say he wasn't a member of--he wasn't a friend of the Phalange Party, but he was the spearhead militarily of this sort of European fascism at that time, in general, because he was Hitler and Mussolini military--

Peter Robinson: You can grant that Spain in about 1961 or 1962, right in the middle of the Franco was a better place to live--

Christopher Hitchens: On the second half of your point I'd make more concessions. It's true that after the war, he's not allowed into the European Common Market, or into NATO, because they remained military allies of Hitler throughout the war. So they were weren't allowed to join the UN for a long time even.

He has two things come to his rescue. One, the United States needs Spanish bases in the Cold War, so they cut Franco a lot of slack. And international corporations can go there. This is a lot of cheap labor, and that leads to a certain amount of international development.

Politics was not frozen then. It's repression. In the Basque country, in Catalonia, among the working class, it's police rule.

Ronald Radosh: And it still does not compare one iota to what had existed in any of the Eastern European countries controlled by Stalin. If I can quote the famous Polish dissident philosopher who wrote in the 1980s, way after he left Poland, Leze Kalikofsky, who wrote that if we transpose Spain in the mid-1980s and put it anywhere in Eastern Europe, Kalikofsky said we would look at that country and say, this is a country freer in economic growth and the rights of the working class and its civil liberties and political liberties, and the entire West would flock to that country and say, this proves the triumph of socialism, Marxism, that they could create such a great democratic civil society.

Peter Robinson: What would have happened if the republicans had won without the Stalinists?

A Farewell to Farms

George Orwell, writing in 1943, looking back on the war: When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war, there is always the temptation to say, one side is as bad as the other; I am neutral. Neither of you is guilty of that. In practice, however, one cannot be neutral. The Spanish Civil War was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened.

By "if it had been won," he means, had it been won by the anarchists, the syndicalists, without the Stalinist influence. The cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened.

Knowing what we know today, even Orwell is wrong, isn't he? Because they engaged in all kinds of collectivization. We now know that the rule of the law is essential; property rights are essential. Even if this dream of Orwell's of the pure left, the pre-Stalin left, even if they had won, things would have been a horrible mess.

I put that to you, Hitchens?

Christopher Hitchens: Property rights and legal rights and so on were, in Spain, before the uprising that greeted Franco's military coup and Nazi-backed aggression, feudal and clerical and monarchic. There was no such concept as those rights. The collectivizations and improvisations of property that took place were just--occurred in entirely a different context. Like describing what life would be like after a nuclear war.

Ronald Radosh: Even at the time, Simone Weil went there and said, my god. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, during the pure period you mentioned that Orwell liked, she said, look at the atrocities and the murders and the crimes committed by the side I have come to help, the anarchists. They are not only burning churches and killing priests, they are killing their own people. And there has to be relations between the ends and means, and they're not creating a good society either.

The fact is, it was a civil war, and there were sins and murders on each side.

Peter Robinson: I now give you an open space. Tell us what, spin it out, if Stalin had not infiltrated and crushed this--let's call it the pure left, the pure and compelling left, to use Hobsbawm's phrase, how would things have happened had they won? What would Spain have looked like?

Christopher Hitchens: I have no idea. I don't think anyone does.

Peter Robinson: But how can you be so firm in their defense if you don't know what they wanted to do?

Christopher Hitchens: I can tell you what the left opposition was saying should happen. The first was that independence should be given to the Spanish colonies. Spain was still an imperial power at that stage.

Peter Robinson: Spanish Sahara, Morocco, the Canary Islands.

Christopher Hitchens: Morocco. Of course that would have compromised their republic's relations with Britain and France, both of who were North African colonial powers at the time, and wouldn't have wanted the republic to do that. So one is calling for something on principle, namely, colonial independence, that probably would not have been a war-winning move.

But it might have been, because it might have meant also that the enthusiasm of the inhabitants of North Africa would have overborne Franco's rearguard. You can't tell. That's just too many "ifs."

But I think that's what should have been done on principle, and I think the left is right to call for it.

Ronald Radosh: The problem was that the anarchists wanted to create a revolution based on self-governing autonomous local communities. And that did include a lot of extreme revolutionary measures, collectivization and so forth, that can be debated today.

But on the other hand, there was such a feudal monarchy and it was such a backwards society, that this was an authentic indigenous popular revolution from below.

Peter Robinson: Let me give you a third choice. Not Franco--but I'll give you a third choice. Franco wins; that's one choice. Stalin wins; that's choice two. But this pure and compelling left, we'll call it, wins; that's choice three. That's the choice you'd go for?

Ronald Radosh: I think there had to be some compromises with the middle class within civil society, that there could have been, I think, and I would have liked to see a democratic moderate left republic created that might have sustained itself, and avoided the horrible Franco period--

Peter Robinson: You see, I've made up between the two of you.

What drew so many intellectuals to the fight against Franco?

The Importance of Being Ernest.

Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Andre Malraux, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, all rallied to the republican cause. Why did they so care?

Ronald Radosh: The was the one pure cause, the testing ground for the struggle of fascism. And it seemed to be--

Peter Robinson: You don't believe that, you're saying the way they saw it?

Ronald Radosh: No, I think that they ignored--see, the role Stalin played in Spain enabled the republic to be defeated. Because under the guise of victory it was destroying any chance for a democratic development in Spain.

Peter Robinson: They were all mistaken.

Ronald Radosh: And therefore I think that now the depth of the Soviet involvement and control, and the material we have in our forthcoming book, based on Moscow archives--

Peter Robinson: The name of the book is?

Ronald Radosh: Spain Betrayed: the Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War.

Peter Robinson: To be published in the fall of?

Ronald Radosh: 2001, by Yale University Press.

Peter Robinson: Thank you. Christopher. So they were all mistaken. They saw it in naive black-and-white terms, the intellectuals?

Christopher Hitchens: There was a tendency to do so, but it wasn't shared by all, by any means. Auden's wonderful poem, it's hard to get now, is one of the best word pictures, says, imagine the Iberian peninsula in your mind. On that arid square, nipped off from hot Africa, and sold it so crudely to inventive Europe, on that tableland scored by rivers, our thoughts have bodies, and the men seeing shapes of our fever are precise and alive. And that's what a lot of people felt, whether they were Communist Party members or not, was that this was the test not just of Marxism or Freudianism, because there is a strong element of that in what Auden says, but of liberty itself, the survival of liberty.

It was like Byron going to Greece. He went because he thought Greece represented the cause of liberty in Europe at that point. And he was right.

Peter Robinson: Last question: 1996, 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, our mutual friend Robert Conquest mused, who would have thought, six decades ago, that in 1996 there would be a Bourbon king on the throne of Spain with a socialist prime minister.

Wasn't it all about nothing in retrospect? Wasn't it just a particularly ideological struggle in a century strangely caught up with ideology? How do you tell a sophomore walking around on the Stanford campus that this conflict mattered?

Ronald Radosh: Well, if that conflict didn't matter, then of course any conflict doesn't matter. The 20th century is a catalog of the horrors of humanity: Nazism, communism, totalitarianism, marred the great hopes at the beginning of the 20th century for what might develop.

And one, I think, has to learn from history, and be very careful in seeking alliances and deciding what policies a country should follow. You can learn a lot about that from looking at the Spanish Civil War.

Peter Robinson: We give you the last word, and I hope you make something of it.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I'm wanting to be more upbeat about it. I think people look back on that moment as one of those episodes where though the odds are against you, you have to show that humans connect, that they mean what they say, act on principle, and act for others, as if all that mattered. And then however sordid the defeat may turn out to be, or however banal in the end human existence turns out to be, we will have other examples to show sophomores on their campuses.

Peter Robinson: Christopher Hitchens, Ronald Radosh, thank you very much.

Ronald Radosh's uncle: he fought in a unit dominated by Stalinists, yet he fought out of personal conviction. Radosh himself believes his uncle died in vain. Christopher Hitchens says he fought the good fight.

And so the Spanish Civil War, and the moral conundrum it presents, lives on. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.