Very few events in modern European history have stirred popular imagination more than the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). To this very day, an average person perceives the conflict as a struggle between “democracy” and “fascism.” However, Arthur Koestler exposed this false dichotomy over forty years ago. This famous defector from Communism admitted that Soviet agents had supervised an intricate propaganda scam to endow with respectability the side supported by Stalin. The enterprise succeeded because many famous intellectuals of the era fell for it and became its most effective mouthpieces and ambassadors. A list of the duped or conscious participants in the scam reads like the literary “Who’s Who” of the day. It includes Ernest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, Edmund Wilson, Sinclair Lewis, Romain Rolland, Henri Barbuse, Andre Gide, Samuel Beckett, Aldous Huxley, W. H. Auden, and many others.
Among the very few intellectuals who did not become ensnared in Stalin’s web were T. S. Eliot, George Bernanos, Elenor Smith, Paul Claudel, Roy Campbell, and Edmund Blunden. Evelyn Waugh perhaps spoke for all of them when he averred: “I know Spain only as a tourist and a reader of the newspapers. I am no more impressed by the ‘legality’ of the Valencia [Republican] government than are English Communists by the legality of the Crown, Lords, and Commons. I believe it was a bad government, rapidly deteriorating. If I were a Spaniard I should be fighting for General Franco. As an Englishman I am not in the predicament of choosing between two evils. I am not a Fascist nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism.”
Many of the intellectual supporters of the “Republic” had only the foggiest notion of the roots of the conflict and its actors. With their electoral victory of 1931, the Spanish liberals and socialists abolished the monarchy and proclaimed a republic. Aside from promoting statism, the ruling leftist coalition was vociferously anti-religious. Since its anti-Christian measures predictably failed to alleviate the social and economic crises draining Spain, the unified center-right won the elections in 1934. However, the corruption of the new government caused it to lose the vote in 1936. The Left was ascendant once more. Between January and July 1936, under leftist rule, a wave of revolutionary violence engulfed Spain. A socialist deputy in the parliament proclaimed: “We want a revolution but it is not the Russian revolution which can serve us as a model, since we must have huge flames which can be seen all over the world and waves of blood which turn the seas red.” According to official sources, 160 churches were burned, 330 persons killed, and 1,511 wounded. There were 213 failed assassination attempts and 113 general strikes.
The socialist-liberal government did very little to deal with the waxing revolution. To quell the anarchy, the army under General Francisco Franco staged a coup d’etat. The Left responded with an outright revolution. Private property was confiscated, land collectivized, and factories and other businesses seized by “revolutionary committees.” Women were admonished to “liberate” themselves from family bonds and to bear children for the revolutionary cause. Censorship was imposed and all non-revolutionary parties and associations banned. The Soviet-style secret police ruled the realm. People were arrested for the “bourgeois” and “reactionary” custom of wearing crosses or coats and ties. Political prisoners were massacred. To stem the revolution, the failed military coup became an insurgency. In light of these events, it is more correct to speak of revolutionaries and insurgents than “democrats” and “fascists.”
The revolutionaries admitted their hostility towards “the bourgeois parliamentary democracy” but, for propaganda purposes, they claimed to be defending “the Republic.” Others joined them in the enterprise. The “republican coalition” consisted of revolutionaries (Stalinists, Trotskyites, left-socialists, and anarchists), nationalists (Basques and Catalans), and democrats (liberals and right-socialists).
The insurgent coalition which rallied behind Franco was equally eclectic. It consisted of monarchists, Christian democrats, libertarians (Adam Smith liberals), conservatives, and the avowedly fascist national syndicalists (Falange). Perhaps the most exotic members of the Francoist coalition were the Carlists. Their attitude was somewhat akin to that of mid-Western farmers, West Virginia mountaineers, Nevada frontiersmen, nostalgic Southrons, and Texas separatists. The Carlists just wanted to be left alone in their ways and their Catholic faith. When both were threatened by radical secularism and encroached upon by the ubiquitous state, they fought back. For them the Civil War was a crusade against “the forces of evil: Communism, liberalism, and atheism.” Staunch royalists, the Carlists hoped to bring about the restoration of the Pretender, Don Carlos, to the throne of Spain. They supported a highly decentralized Catholic monarchy which would engender the rejuvenation of local rights and regionalism. The Carlists were the fiercest of fighters on the insurgent side. They advanced into battle with a firm conviction that “every dead Red means one year less in the Purgatory” and with their ancient anthem: “For God, Country, and the King.”
Franco received assistance from Italy and Germany but never allowed these foreign powers to take control of his government. The Republican side received some aid from the socialist rulers of France and leftist circles in the West. However, their main support came from Soviet Russia and therefore Stalin was able to take control of the affairs of the Republican Spain. By 1938, most of its high military commanders and troops had become members of the Communist party.
Stalin sent his troops and experts to Spain and so did Hitler and Mussolini. Moreover, the Kremlin dispatched a number of volunteers for the so-called International Brigades to fight against Franco. Most of these fighters opposed parliamentary democracy on principle. For instance, recently declassified Soviet documents show that 79.3% of the American volunteers were Communists.
The Spanish Civil War was very bloody. At least 300,000 people died in the fighting and, additionally, 170,000 perished of hunger and disease. Both sides committed atrocities. During the war the insurgents shot over 32,000 people, and after the victory a further 22,000, whom they considered guilty of revolutionary crimes. However, the revolutionaries surpassed their enemies. Only between 1936 and 1939, the “Republicans” executed about 72,000 people, including 4,000 women, several hundred children, and 6,832 priests and nuns: “the greatest clerical bloodletting in the entire history of the Christian Church.” Additionally, the revolutionaries destroyed nearly 20,000 churches in Spain. As the Catholic historian Warren H. Carroll put it, “these appalling facts and statistics, not now questioned by any serious historian of the Spanish Civil War, are the enduring and irrefutable proof that the Spanish crusade of 1936 was justified and that the dominant elements in the Spanish Republic were as profound, thoroughgoing, and vicious enemies as the Christian Faith has ever met anywhere in all its history.”
For the next 40 years after the defeat of the revolution, the Spaniards lived under a military dictatorship, which became progressively less oppressive. From the beginning, the freedom of religion was safeguarded, and so was private property. The free market reemerged in Spain in the mid-1950s. Censorship was largely discontinued in the 1960s. Political democracy returned in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Spain was spared the terrible Communist fate of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Armenia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland, East Germany, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgizia, Turkmenistan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, Cuba, and a dozen African countries. To win freedom from Communism, it was well worth fighting the Spanish Crusade.
Warren H. Carroll, The Last Crusade. Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1996.