The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931-1939
Journey to the Alcarria
The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 and for a period Europe was engulfed in a larger tragedy. In retrospect the Spanish Civil War seemed what one of the Republican Ministers once called it—a paupers’ war. The exiles, like the issues, were forgotten. They were embarrassing relics.
Why should the Spanish Civil War now compel an interest which goes beyond the usual curious concern for the past? Perhaps because of the symbolic overtones that gives Spanish history in general resonance and significance, making it a perpetual demonstration of the truth of Croce’s dictum that all history is contemporary history. The continuing—and still bitter—controversy that rages around Las Casas and his “docile Indians” has a relevance beyond the history of the Spanish Colonial Empire; it was the first debate on the relationships between the developed West and the under-developed world. In the 1830s it seemed that the great European battle between liberal principles and reactionary government was being fought out in the mountains of Navarre and Aragon. Journalists, idealists and soldiers of fortune came to Spain. A hundred years later, in 1936, they came once more; once more Spain seemed part of a universal struggle between the ideologies that divided the Western World: Fascism and Democracy.
The price of symbolic significance and international resonance is distortion. The history of the Second Republic, its collapse and its defeat at the hands of Franco, were seen as an international occasion rather than as a domestic tragedy. No one would deny that the course of the Civil War became involved in, and its issue in a large measure dependent on, international power politics. Yet in its origins it was a Spanish affair, the outcome of secular stresses and the immediate tensions of domestic politics. As Mr.Jackson says, psychologically speaking, Spaniards felt, until the Spring of 1937, “that their fate was being resolved primarily by Spanish forces.” It was only visiting intellectuals or professional propagandists who thought it was all a result of international plots.
The generals acted, not as agents of international Fascism, but in Spanish style, throwbacks to the era of pronunciamientos. They could not be certain of large-scale German and Italian support; indeed they old not think that they would need it. They did not contemplate a Crusade; they gambled on a nineteenth-century military take-over. Italy did not see that support of Franco in a long war would nearly destroy the Italian military machine; Ciano wanted, like Hitler, a useful ally on the cheap. A long war frayed tempers in the Nationalist camp. Germans considered Franco an old-fashioned clerical, a “slow” general unaware of the importance of tanks; Mussolini had doubts about the virility of the Spanish and the Spaniards doubted the utility of Italian ground troops.
The Second Republic committed many errors—a weak agrarian reform coupled with old-fashioned anti-clericalism; Mr. Jackson rightly calls their closing of church schools “a self-defeating sectarian policy.” It rallied the right without strengthening the left. As a democratic concern, it fell because men of the left and of the right refused to accept the implications of democracy: the extreme left in 1934, the extreme right and the Anarchists throughout, and the more cautious army officers and middle’ classes after the victory of the Popular Front in February, 1936.
The men of moderation found the ground they sought to stand on eroded. This was the fate of Gil Robles and his political tight-rope walking and of the “bourgeois” socialist Prieto. Though I would place a heavier responsibility on the Socialist boycott of C.E.D.A. than does Mr. Jackson (the files of El Debate are as revealing as those of El Socialista), his account, here as everywhere else, is fair. He is perhaps correct in his view that Salazar Alonso, as Minister of the Interior in the Spring of 1934, made democracy difficult by regarding strikes, not as economic conflicts, but as steps in the Marxist-Leninist or Anarchist revolution. The Minister’s view was perhaps not without some justification. More important, if Salazar Alonso saw the strikers as revolutionaries, they saw him as an exponent of Fascism. Neither position was true; yet, as a result of such thinking, by the summer of 1936, the number of those who supported “humanist socialism” and democratic processes as conceived in 1931 was diminishing rapidly. The militants were taking over from the moderates; the forces of political life had become polarized at the extremes.
Why did the Republic lose the Civil War? The failure of the West to supply arms was no doubt decisive; Munich destroyed the last of a never very real hope. Yet would the Republic have triumphed had the domestic balance of forces been allowed to take their course? After all, the elections had already shown Spain split into two roughly equal camps.
Politically the problem of the Republic was to concentrate in an effective war government the spontaneous, social revolution and the euphoria of July, 1936—the era so familiar in the photographs of militia men, marked trucks, and clenched fists. This task it achieved by taking the “Bohemian revolution” into the government with Largo Caballero’s ministry. Even the Anarchist C.N.T., after denouncing all government as a bourgeois trick, jettisoned its principles and joined the Ministry because the leaders saw (“with tears” as Frederien Montseny once said) that there was no alternative. Yet by May 1937 political infighting and communist tactics had destroyed the revolutionary coalition. The Republican government lost its all embracing cohesion; on the other side built-in loyalties and the army imposed unity on Nationalist dissidents. A feuding government was fighting a political monolith.
Nor did the Republic solve its military problem. The militias, through which the African Army had cut like a knife through butter until halted at Madrid, must be “militarized.” The disorganized enthusiasm of the militia, presented as a great upsurge of the human spirit, was a nightmare to those planning a war with scarce resources. Yet, on a long and struggling front, the planning of the Republican general staff astonishingly enough twice achieved the strategical initiative: at Teruel and the Ebro. But without fully trained armies. It proved one thing to break a weakly held front, another to follow up the breakthrough. All Republican offensives degenerated into a stubborn defense of two or three-day gains. This made Franco the Haig of the Civil War: the enemy could be bled to death.
Let me repeat that the arms issue was decisive: it was not so much that the Germans and Italians gave more, as that they gave continuously, while the Russians gave fitfully and in the end could, or would, give nothing at all. France and England failed altogether. My contention is only that the Republic failed to subordinate political intrigue to military necessity. One has only to read General Rojo’s account of conditions on the Catalan front in order to realize how far the rot had gone.
Mr. Jackson’s account of these events is altogether excellent. His book has balance and humanity. It paints fully in depth issues that have been hitherto brushed but lightly: the Republic’s economic and financial policies; what he calls the “limits on suffering and destruction” In the war itself. It is a highly readable book which is at the same time a scholarly description of a great and grim historic tragedy.
The Spain that came out of this terrible conflict was a nineteenth-century concern: economic autarchy. (in part enforced by the European war, in part a deliberate choice) was supported by intellectual isolation. In the Forties the world of Ferdinand and Isabella seemed more relevant than the world of modern totalitarianism. It was in this archaic ambiance that Camilo José Cela became a writer; no one will forget the shock in 1942 of his Pascual Duarte in a world so soaked in the banalities of official propaganda that creativity seemed inconceivable within it.
Journey to the Alcarria, written it 1948, describes Cela’s travels on foot through a harsh countryside a few hours from Madrid: a region of poverty, bad roads, and small towns. A moral autobiography and a travel book at the same time, it veers from the picaresque to a Butor-like realism, from the style of a superior Baedeker to that of the poets of ‘98, from symbolism to flat topographical description reminiscent of the more prosaic eighteenth-century travelers.
The moral vision is there in the description of children and beggars, in the vignettes of violence: the rachitic boy, pinned to his chair, observing a verse-peddler “with an expression of envy, stupid and animal-like”; the bleeding idiot abused by a passing woman. Parallel to this generalized concern runs that search into the nature of Spain and Spanishness which obsesses and has perhaps rendered sterile so many Spanish writers. In Pastrana, the ruined palace of the Princess of Eboli, one room used by the Wheat Board and with its tiles in the process of destruction by peasants waiting to present their crop declarations, the dusty conventional museum with its collection of Philippine fauna, show an indifference to improvement and supply a “key to something that happens in Spain more frequently than is necessary.” Past splendor overwhelms and in the end exhausts the peoples’ will; golden memories retreat until they become a “benevolent and useless cultural residue.”
The impact made by Journey to Alcarria on this reviewer is a curious contrast to the stronger impression made when it appeared in 1948. This is no fault of the translation, which is excellent. Images perhaps have become tarnished, its attitudes almost traditional, and the melancholy a little out of date. Thus according to the Guide Bleu the tapestries, whose absence in Madrid inspires a paragraph on the inhuman anti-order of great city museums, are back in Pastrana. But seven years after the Civil War, for the intelligent man, melancholy was the only retreat in a Spain that seemed hopelessly run-down.
Even so, Journey to Alcarria still exercises the magic of talented travel writing: one’s next trip to Spain will include the Alcarria. In the modern age of car tourism such is the penalty inflicted on unspoilt regions by their poets.