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The Critical Significance of the Spanish War

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

Freedom’s Battle. By Julio Alvarez del Vayo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

In the current world chaos and terror of mass barbarity and destruction one looks back and asks at what stage its gradual development might have been stopped. Was it when, in 1931, the Japanese seized Manchuria? Or in 1935, when the Italians attacked Ethiopia? At both crises, other nations, which were involved by obligatory commitments, let the aggressive Japanese and Italians break solemn treaties, ruthlessly assail their almost helpless victims and thereupon become dominant. In Europe similar methods were applied first in Spain. The Italians, to be sure, had had preliminary practice in the Ethiopian campaign, but it was during the Spanish War, from midsummer 1936 to midwinter 1939, that Mussolini and Hitler found their main chance to test the efficacy of new methods of warfare, to prove the feasibility of large-scale lying and deceit.

“Freedom’s Battle,” Alvarez del Vayo’s admirably direct and enlightening account of the tragic events in the struggle for liberty in Spain, is testimony from an inside source. As Foreign Minister of the legitimate government and as an intimate acquaintance of men who played a major role in the defense of the Republic, he had a unique opportunity to know the facts. Furthermore, his extensive experience at various times in various countries as student, diplomat, and international correspondent has given him depth of perspective and understanding manifest in his detailed and careful interpretation of the meaning of the Spanish War.

In his book one finds recorded that as early as 1934 Mussolini definitely promised military aid to representatives of the numerous and powerful and highly privileged officers of the Spanish army, whenever the “critical moment should arrive”; and that Germany also had assured support. One learns that as soon as it became clear, in February 1936, that the progressive groups in the population had won the election, General Franco proposed that the defeated premier assume dictatorial powers and rule the country with the backing of the episcopate, the landed nobility, and the army. One reads of the perfidy and treachery of the generals who, while professing their loyalty to the Republic “on their word of honor,” plotted and engaged in open rebellion. There is evidence that, from the first, Italy and Germany kept their promises with multitudes of heavy guns, planes, and tanks, and with tens of thousands of troops, and brought a preponderance of power to the rebellious general. One notes, furthermore, the early appeasements by England and France in sponsoring the futile and deceptive Non-intervention Committee, which blandly accepted as true the false denials of aid given the Spanish Insurgents by the totalitarian nations, though proof was repeatedly submitted that such aid was continuously and abundantly given.

Just -as in Germany and Italy, when the dictators seized power, so likewise in Spain, the cry was raised that the country was being rescued from Communism. Yet, at the time of the revolt, there was no Communist or Socialist in the Cabinet, and only 15 Communists had been elected among the 473 members of the Cortes. Not until three months after the revolt, when at last the Soviets became convinced of the duplicity of the Non-intervention Committee, did the Republicans of Spain succeed in buying from Russia what, in accord with international law, they should have been allowed to buy promptly from England and France—military supplies for their self-protection. The supplies from Russia were used by the Insurgents as a warrant for shouting “Red” much more loudly. The Spanish Loyalists, of course, were called “Red”; Masons, Protestants, advocates of state schools, readers of foreign newspapers—all were similarly branded. In the province of Seville a man was shot as a “Red” because his modest library included a Spanish translation of Ramsay MacDonald’s “Socialism.”

Other chapters of del Vayo’s graphic story deal with the gradual formation of a people’s army, the heroic defense of Madrid during two and a half years of fighting, the dangers of the “Fifth Column” (thus first named in Spain), the overwhelming defeat of the Italians in the battle of Guadalajara, the bold advance of the Loyalist troops and the tenacious holding of the lines in the battle of the Ebro, and the final collapse of the struggle when Catalonia fell and the commanders in the central zone of Spain ignominiously surrendered to Franco. Quite apart from the epic account of military actions is the record of laudable efforts to mitigate the hard lot of the impoverished peasants, to spread education even among soldiers in the trenches, and to preserve the treasures of Spanish art from destruction.

One of the most important chapters is headed “Did Democracy Fail in Spain?” Sr. del Vayo admits that to some degree it did fail. Not because it was too radical, for in many respects it was more moderate than the New Deal. Its weakness lay in an easy-going tolerance, a permission to advocate open rebellion, a simple trust that democracy means yielding to its enemies full freedom to use violence to destroy it. No doubt the fear of giving the reactionaries an excuse for rising against the Republic was partly responsible for delay in vigorous action against them. After the rebellion started, however, the rising of the people to protect their liberties was magnificent. With woefully inadequate arms, with only a few old planes, with untrained leaders who learned the art of warfare by hard experience, the people’s army withstood the onslaughts of Franco’s Insurgents and his hordes of Moorish, Italian, and German allies for more than thirty months. The spirit of the Loyalists was superb. All they needed for victory was an adequate supply of munitions. And that England and France refused to permit.

Though del Vayo does not clearly report it, the United States followed suit. In spite of a treaty which provided for unlimited commerce between this country and Spain and which was modifiable on one year’s notice, Congress, in two days of January 1937, without warning, placed an embargo on the sale of military equipment to a recognized sister Republic fighting for its existence. Thus the three great democracies, disregarding the internationally recognized right of a government to purchase abroad the means of maintaining itself, allowed the democracy in Spain to die.

The inevitable conflict between the totalitarian and the democratic forms of government had been clearly announced by both Hitler and Mussolini before 1936. During the Spanish War the vital danger to England and France of a German-Italian-Insurgent victory was repeatedly emphasized, but in vain. At a time when Europe was still intact, and the substantial cooperation of other nations, then strong, could have been theirs, England and France betrayed the Republic of Spain. In “the first great battle of the present war” they supported Hitler and Mussolini.


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