The Point
Last updated: 11 December 2017.

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Downfall of the Spanish Republic – the civil war within the civil war

In the second of his articles on the Spanish Civil War, Conor Cheyne looks at the bitter legacy of division and totalitarian control that crippled the Republican side from within.

 

There have been many discussions and opinions on what caused the Spanish Republican loss in 1939. Some put it down to the lack of professional soldiers, others have argued they had no great tactical mind. The most interesting argument, though is the one in which the Republicans were defeated from the inside, by those thought to be their own.

 

From the onset of the war – unlike many civil wars – it was the Republican government, not the Fascist army rebels, who consisted of a wide range of political groupings, everything from socialists and Stalinists to Trotskyists and anarchists. Many would point to this and suggest that these groups “working together” for a common goal, at this specific point in time, were doomed to fail before it even began and that it was a miracle they held out against the rebels for so long, let alone holding out against themselves.

The struggle for power within the Republican movement first began in late 1936. The Spanish Government had asked the Soviets for help, in return, they sent advisers. These advisers were to help in all areas of governing which also included organising the ragtag army into something that resembled a fighting force. Although Stalin was careful about what the advisers roles would be (He feared the Republicans being seen by the world as Communists and was seeking to reassure Western leaders), they were to have influence over the government.

The battle for control was under-way. The NKVD seized control of the secret police in late 1936 and used them to their advantage by antagonising and harassing anti-Stalinist groups such as anarchist CNT and Trotskyist POUM. The police also became Stalin-ised after the communists set up a police academy in which anyone who renounced communism would not pass out. Fixed trials took place against militia men and civilians in what became a vendetta against all those not considered loyal communists. This purge - though not on the same levels as of the one overseen by Stalin during the same period in the Soviet Union – had devastating effects on moral. In 1945, George Orwell made comment on what these events meant to him and how that affected his views further on in life:

“Since the 1930's I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class...Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism, and for democratic Socialism”

It was soon discovered by the CNT that communists in control of the prison system had been getting away with murder, leaving opposition militia in cells to die. Not to mention the summary executions. Men and woman from across Republican held Spain were being thrown into packed prison cells simply on the basis of them being anti-Stalinist. Immediately, CNT wanted answers and when none were forthcoming, fights broke out in the streets of Madrid between CNT militia and NKVD trained police. When word broke of the fight, head of the government, Largo Caballero tried to use it to reign power back into his hands, unfortunately for him though, the real power had been slipping away from him for too long and by Spring 1937, most of the Republican government was under heavy Stalinist influence.

The first task of the new advisers was to assemble a working and efficient army. This however proved more difficult that first expected. Caballero was hard to deal with. He was not pleased with the Communist take over of the government. After much discussion, Stalin was convinced that Caballero should only remain as head of state, a figure-head as such and that power should really be controlled by loyal communists. Immediately there was a backlash. Anarchist troops rejected the idea and had previously stated no anti-anarchist would control them. By early 1937, majority of key posts in the army were held by those considered loyal communists and so splits were already beginning to appear within the Republican camp. The more Caballero stood against Stalinist control, the more they fought back. Eventually he was being named an enemy of the people by Soviet propaganda after taking control of the advisers in Spain personally. Soviet propaganda became a real problem for other parts of the government. Continually bombarded, many socialists particularly fell in line. You can see below, Soviet propaganda poster praising help from the USSR.

POUM and CNT found themselves to be particular targets of the Stalinist oppression. POUM - a Trotsky group that were in fact at loggerheads with the man himself - were of significant importance to the Soviets. To them, eliminating POUM would not only be a victory for security but an ideological one too. The anarchists were more than happy to let POUM and PSUC fight out their dispute as it was seen as communist in-house squabbling, though POUM soon got the message across to the anarchists that it is not wise to let the Stalinists pick each group off one by one. They stressed that the only way to stop this is to launch an attack on “the counter-revolution”. At this point though, they didn't have full understanding of the purge started by the Stalinists.

The centre of the struggle that was to follow was Barcelona. The Catalan capital was seen by many as the core for the Republican side. Here, the streets were awash with Red. The city was vibrant and the atmosphere was like nothing seen before. Orwell again sums up the mood and the feeling in the city with imagery most others never could -

“It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags.....Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal”

It is strange that this society formed, one where each knew no superior or underling, while chaos raged. Possibly it was a temporary enlightenment in the backdrop of war or really, a system had finally been found during this dark time in which every man woman and child could live as equals. Though, either way, it was not to last.

Re-shuffles within the government and action against POUM put them under real pressure. They were once again joined by CNT in protest against moves to replace their militia on the front lines with Stalinists. With unease and tension rising, the Stalinists ordered troops into Barcelona to try wrangle control away from the militias. The telephone centre was taken by force from the CNT using Assault Guards. This was of great importance to the Stalinists as whoever controlled the telephone centre had the ability to listen in to all communication to and from the city. Within hours the city was on a knife edge, all while the Rebel Army was many miles away and posed no immediate threat. Barricades were built and battle lines drawn. The Stalinists on one side, a militia coalition of anarchists, communists, socialists and anti-fascists on the other. There were small skirmishes stop-starting all around the city. Every building of importance was occupied by one side or the other. Assault Guards frequently probed “enemy” positions but to no avail.

The skirmishes continued, usually consisting of shots fired from rooftop-to-rooftop. The five days of small scale fighting proved to be among the most important of the whole war. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell describes what it was like to be shooting at the men that he was supposed to be fighting beside. It was in these days and the coming months that followed which shaped his hate of Stalinist Totalitarianism which of course led to the writings of his books such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four.

You have to ask yourself, how could this be? Were the Stalinists really that willing to risk everything in a battle for power before the real enemy were defeated?

The chaos was on the verge of spilling over to all out civil war within the Republican camp. CNT leaders continued to press for an end to hostilities and the removal of anti-anarchist commanders from the government and important military positions. But, this was to prove futile. With some civilians in Barcelona beginning to desire order once more, the central government tried to intervene. This intervention was rejected by the anarchists who strictly stated the only way this situation would be resolved was by accepting their terms or disarming them “By force”. Assault Guard reinforcements were taken off the Jarama front and ordered to Barcelona though they could still not match the strength of the Militias that controlled almost 90% of Barcelona. In fact, the militia coalition could have forced the Assault Guard completely out of the Catalan capital though they understood this could have implications that may have affected the whole war effort.

The arrival of further Assault Guards and a deal struck between the CNT and the government led to the barricades finally being taken down, along with any influence CNT and POUM had. Though most of the communist papers turned the heat up by proclaiming that “Trotsky forces were attempting to destroy the revolution” in Barcelona. Some even went as far as accusing POUM of working alongside the Gestapo to bring down the Republican government! Franco was pleased, the Republican camp was destroying itself from the inside and all he had to do was take advantage of the situation. While the Nationalists began pushing harder against Republican lines, the Stalinist vendetta was yet to end.

NKVD officers in Barcelona reported exactly what the newspapers had said, “Trotskyist involvement with Fascists”. In my opinion, this all but spelled the end for the Spanish Republic one way or another. It gave Stalinists the means to do what they saw fit. Those who were believed to be responsible for the trouble in Barcelona were locked up. The Purge that was under way back in the USSR was now in full swing in Spain. With splits forming in the government time and time again, coupled with much pressure from the Soviets, Largo Caballero stood down as head. He could not get the support he needed and nor would he accept the Stalin-proposed move of handing total control of the war ministry over to Soviets. With this, Stalinists took almost indisputable control by placing their puppet, Juan Negrin as prime minister.

Within days of Negrin’s appointment, he agreed to POUM being made illegal - with all their assets seized – for the sake of continued supply of arms from the USSR. The POUM leaders were arrested at once and, according to Anthony Beevor’s “The Battle for Spain”, those leaders who could not be found, their wives were taken instead. Andreu Nin, highly respected leader of POUM was taken and continuously tortured. After refusing to sign confessions admitting he was a traitor he was then killed by NKVD agents. Many members of POUM were either tried for treason, killed or just thrown in prison cells and left to rot. With POUM defeated and the anarchists losing all influence they had in government, the battle was over. The Stalinist machine had won.

“Franco’s Nationalists, Stalins Communists... After Barcelona whatever side won the war, it would have ended the same”

In conclusion, while it may be a bit much to suggest that the Stalinist take-over of the Republican Camp was the sole reason for the defeat of the Republican side, it certainly did contribute. Due to the in-fighting and the purge taking place, the solidarity and unity that was felt amongst supporters of the Republic began to waver and fall. This same solidarity and unity was also one of the Republics best assets in its fight against the Nationalists as it gave hope of what type of society could be carved out of the wreckage should the Republicans win the war. Though once this had been stripped away, the fight was all but lost.

After the May Day fighting and the change of leadership, the Republicans never really recovered. The first major engagement after these events was The Battle of Brunete in which the Republicans suffered a terrible defeat, losing many of their best troops. Some have put this down to a lack of co-ordination and solidarity amongst the senior ranks. After this battle, the Republicans went into free fall and except a small victory at the Battle of Teruel, never looked like making a significant change enough to win the war. The link between the May Day fighting etc. and the beginning of the end for the Republicans is an argument that really does back itself up. Looking back, it is easy to criticise many within the Spanish government for giving the Soviets a foot hold in the country in the first place,but without their support, it is debatable whether or not the Republicans could have held out for as long as they did.

The Stalinists, however, craved power beyond all else and put their own interests above that of the Spanish people, at the expense of the war effort. They purged in Spain just as they did back home, with the same disastrous consequences.

External links:

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