• Email
  • Print

The Spanish Tragedy’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Spanish Tragedy from the March 26, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

In my essay ” ‘But Today the Struggle’: Spain and the Intellectuals,”1 I had written that for “most Left intellectuals, Spain in the Thirties is a cause to be reaffirmed rather than investigated.” Bernard Knox’s comments on my essay [NYR, March 26] only confirm this assessment. He is content with repeating the old pieties about the meaning of Spain, depicting the struggle as a simple fight between the decent forces of democracy that were opposed to the evil forces of Hitlerite fascism. Mr. Knox’s analysis puts him in the company of those for whom, as Richard Gott writes, Spain “…will always remain a struggle between good and evil.” But, Gott adds, “the closer you get to the Spanish reality, the more blurred becomes the morality.”2 It is precisely this ambiguity that Mr. Knox misses. While he and his comrades may have thought at the time that they were fighting to save a democratic government, or were taking part in the first battle of the coming World War against Nazism, the real reason they were in Spain was that Joseph Stalin desired something different: to give limited aid that would bolster “the resistance of the anti-Franco forces until such time as Britain and France…might be induced to abandon the policy of nonintervention….” 3 Secondly, Stalin’s policy was also meant to secure a Republic that was tightly under Soviet control, which meant that Stalin’s agents in Spain did all they could to crush the actual revolution that had taken place.

Anti-fascism thus forced those who abhorred dictatorship into the hands of Stalin. And those like Stephen Spender, who saw elements of the truth, kept quiet because they too did not want to serve Franco. Spender thus continued to engage in lies, preferring to keep his own harsh judgments the subject of private letters. It is this formulation to which Mr. Knox takes great exception. Yet David Caute long ago pointed out that despite “hideous deceptions” that were obvious, Spender “trailed along, continually mystified by the air of dogmatic certainty which filled the lungs of his communist colleagues. As late as April 1939 he was refuting charges of communist malpractice in Spain.”4 That date, I should point out, is long past the time after which Mr. Knox writes that he cannot see “any cause to reproach Spender in this matter.”

Knox is also clearly disturbed about my estimate of the Lincoln Batallion, whose members he claims I view as “at best, simple-minded dupes of Stalin’s Machiavellian designs.” The actual point I made was best formulated by a scholar of the International Brigades, R. Dan Richardson, who has written that while the Brigade volunteers fought well and were highly motivated, they were above all “a significant political, ideological and propaganda instrument…used by the Comintern for its own purposes,…an integral part of that interlocking directorate which was the Soviet-Comintern apparatus in Spain.”5

It is Mr. Knox’s prerogative to take objection to that conclusion, but he should let readers know that not all Lincoln veterans agree with him. Edward Lending, who fought with the battalion, has pointed in a recent speech to “the Kremlin’s iron iron-fisted control of the International Brigades as well as its rapid seizure of power through the Armed Forces and within key organs of the Government.” Lending stresses “the fact is that it was the Kremlin which inspired, organized, directed and completely dominated the Brigades throughout the war…. It created the Brigades for its own arcane strategic objectives—and got its money’s worth.”6

Rather than face up to the truth that Lending and other veterans such as William Herrick have testified to, that the Communists and NKVD officers were murdering authentic leaders of the Spanish working class, imprisoning militants from other factions, and as Paul Berman writes, “doing it under the cover of a fantastic propaganda barrage about democracy,”7 Mr. Knox prefers to repeat the old propaganda about the Lincoln Vets being ” ‘premature anti-Fascists’… who… were ahead of everybody else in something that had to be done.” But Mr. Knox does not tell us that as soon as the Nazi-Soviet Pact was proclaimed by Stalin, these heroic anti-fascists took the position that England should not be defended, and as Lending put it in a speech he gave in 1939, that “there was no substantive difference between [Britain’s] intolerable imperialism and Germany’s fascism.”8 If Mr. Knox really wishes to “accept with pride” the label he anoints himself and his comrades with—that of a group of premature anti-fascists, he might at least have the courage to admit the limits of their anti-fascism.

Given Mr. Knox’s political amnesia, it is not surprising that he thinks the role of the Russian-directed political police in Spain has been “common knowledge for about twenty years.” What Mr. Knox evidently means is that he learned of their role twenty years ago—in 1967! Actually, such knowledge has existed since 1937, when General Walter Krivitsky, the chief NKVD officer in Spain, defected to the United States and published his memoir about his agency’s role in the Republic. Of course, like other supporters of the Communists, Mr. Knox most likely viewed the Krivitsky memoir as composed of anti-Bolshevik slanders.9

Knox, however, wishes to be viewed as someone who has shed his illusions. His evidence consists of admitting that contrary to his contemporary impression, André Marty was not just the “kindly patron” of his English section of the Brigades, but was indeed the “murderous, incompetent fanatic” portrayed by Hemingway. One should be glad for little favors, but Knox’s explanation that Marty’s behavior can be attributed simply to “war bringing out the worst in some men” is more than ludicrous; it rationalizes the factor that really explains Marty’s behavior: he was carrying out Stalin’s policy in Spain in the manner expected. By his own admission, Marty had murdered some 500 of his own men for the crimes of either “desertion” or for the political heresy of “Trotskyism,” a figure seen as modest by others. Mr. Knox may not in retrospect like Marty’s behavior, but his own words indicate he has not reevaluated the policy that led to those murders.

Mr. Knox also believes that it does not follow from Soviet control of the Republican armies, and civilian control exercised through the secret police, that “a Republican victory would have resulted in a Spain comparable to the present Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe.” The evidence concerning the real aims of the Spanish Communists, and their ability to realize them, has recently been the subject of an important article by Burnett Bolloten. The PCE’s goal in Spain was publicly that of championing creation of a “democratic and parliamentary Republic of a new type.” Bolloten writes:

This was rank deception and dissimulation, for the much-vaunted “democratic and parliamentary republic of a new type” was simply a frontispiece behind which the PCE intended to suppress—thanks to predominance in the army, in the secret and uniformed police, and in the Servicio de Investigacion Militar (SIM),—all vestiges of democracy, all freedom of speech and assembly, all local freedoms and self-government, and all manifestation of the popular revolution, which, in July 1936, had reduced the 1931 Republic to ashes. In sum, the PCE planned to derail that popular revolution into a totalitarian police state.10

Would the Communists have voluntarily given up control of their police system if the war against Franco had been won? And even if the populace desired that this be the case, would it have been able to assert itself effectively? The PCE took steps to prevent such an outcome. The mechanism chosen by them for effective control was that of making the Army into a force beholden to the PCE, rather than to the Spanish people.

What Bolloten shows is that of the twenty-one army corps that comprised the Popular Army, twelve had Communist commanders and the others were under the Party’s ideological influence. Had victory been won by the Republic, it was the Communists’ purpose to use the Army to continue control of the Republic. Enrique Castro, a member of the PCE’s Central Committee, published an excerpt from a speech he made to Communists of the 5th Regiment, when he was its commander-in-chief. Castro said that their goal was to “become another Soviet Republic in an area of great importance to Communism in the entire world.” As he put it, “we are going to become the organizers of that army…that army will be our army—listen carefully—our army. But we alone know this. For everyone else that army will be an army of the Popular Front. We shall direct it, but above all, we must appear to others as combatants of the Popular Front.”11 To the PCE, the Front was a transitory mechanism, meant to advance the interests of the Comintern, and the army was to be used to shape the future of Spain at the appropriate time.

What they already had shaped Spain into was a satellite of the Soviet Union. Countries like Czechoslovakia became after 1945 what Spain already was at the war’s end. Observing these postwar events in Eastern Europe, former POUM militant Julian Gorkin wrote that the Civil War was not only a rehearsal for the World War, but “it was also the first testing ground for ‘popular democracy,’ perfected forms of which we have been obliged to witness in a dozen countries during the postwar period. The men and methods used to convert these countries into Kremlin satellites were tested in Spain.”12 The East European Communists, many of them unpopular, used the Spanish method of seizing power precisely because of their lack of support.

Given this harsh reality, it is not surprising to find that Luis Araquistáin, the intellectual advisor to Largo Caballero and an important left-wing Marxist socialist, could write to his daughter in January 1939, that “whether we win or lose the war, the independent socialists will have to emigrate, because we shall be assassinated [either] by Franco or the Communists.”13 And this sentiment was shared by the right socialist leader Julián Besteiro, who said during a meeting of the socialist executive in November of 1938, “if we should win Spain will become Communist. The whole democratic world will be hostile to us, and we should only be able to count on Russia.”14 These men understood the reality at the time; some fifty years later Bernard Knox still denies it.

Ronald Radosh

New York City

Bernard Knox replies:

I cannot of course speak for the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, for I was not of their number. But the “real reason” I went to Spain in 1936 had nothing at all to do with what “Joseph Stalin desired.” I would have gone to Spain even if the Soviet Union had observed the Non-Intervention Agreement.

I went with John Cornford, who had been fighting that summer on the Aragon front in a POUM column. He had returned to England to recruit volunteers for an “English column” to fight on the same front. But when our small group got to Paris we were directed to Marseilles and ended up at Albacete in what became the Eleventh International Brigade.

Joseph Stalin’s desire, Mr. Radosh tells us, citing Burnett Bolloten’s formulation of it, was “to give limited aid that would bolster ‘the resistance of the anti-Franco forces until such time as Britain and France…might be induced to abandon the policy of nonintervention.’ ” The word “limited” I can only suppose to be a reference to the fact that, unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin did not send troops; the arms he sent, as Hugh Thomas’s appendix on the subject makes clear, were of high quality and, until the Italian navy closed the sea route from Odessa in mid-1937, the shipments were substantial. But with this proviso I can accept this formulation of Stalin’s intention and I can see nothing wrong with it. That was after all what all of us were fighting for—to gain time. Time for the British and French governments to come to their senses, recognize their real enemies, and allow the Republic to buy the arms it needed from suppliers who could provide swift and, above all, regular delivery. For it was obvious from the moment German and Italian intervention began, that unless and until London and Paris came to the aid of the Republic in this way, Franco could not be defeated.

Something is wrong, however, with Mr. Radosh’s reading of Joseph Stalin’s mind, since the Russian dictator’s second desire—“to secure a Republic that was tightly under Soviet control”—is in flagrant contradiction with his first. An end to nonintervention would have trumped the Communist party’s ace—its prestige accruing from the role of the Soviet Union as the Republic’s only friend—and the tacit cooperation of London and Paris with the Republic would have encouraged and strengthened those elements in the anti-Franco coalition that suspected Communist motives and feared their long-term projects.

Given this basic fact, that a Republican victory was attainable only through the benevolent neutrality of London and Paris, it is not likely that the Spanish Communists could ever have realized their intentions, however dark and sinister they may have been. Such victory would have fatally weakened their hold on the police apparatus and especially on the Army. This hold was in any case more apparent than real. If it is true that “of the twenty-one army corps that comprised the Popular Army, twelve had Communist commanders and the others were under the Party’s ideological influence,” why was it so easy for Colonel Casado to assume command of the Madrid front in March 1939 and, against the armed resistance of Communist divisions, surrender the whole Republican army to Franco? And how, if the Communist party had a firm grip on the police apparatus, can we explain the participation in Casado’s coup d’état of Pedrero, the Madrid chief of the dreaded secret police, the SIM?

But all this speculation about what might have happened is really beside the point. We know what did happen: Franco won. He proceeded to carry out what even Hugh Thomas, who obviously has a certain admiration for him, calls his “odious policy of limpieza, the ‘cleaning up’ of Spain from the doctrines which he considered evil.” In 1944 an unidentified official of the Ministry of Justice told an American reporter that the overall figure for executions since 1939 was about 193,000. Thomas is inclined to doubt this figure, but in view of Franco’s statement, made to an American correspondent during the last days of the war, that he had a list of a million persons on the Republican side who were guilty of crimes, this skepticism may be unjustified. Apart from what everyone admits were extensive executions (Ciano on a visit to Spain in July 1939 reported that there were between 200 and 250 shootings a day in Madrid alone) there were, according to the calculations of the secretary-general of the UGT, the socialist trade-union organization, two million persons who had passed through the prisons and the concentration camps by 1942. The early years of the Franco regime were, to use Thomas’s phrase, a “terrible proscription.”

As for the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, I stand by what I said. Whatever the subsequent politics of their leaders may have been, they were still the first Americans to fight—heroically, against formidable odds and with heavy casualties—against those Fascist powers that the United States had to fight not many years later. And in the matter of Stephen Spender, my point was simply a critique of Mr. Radosh’s method; it seemed to me, and it still does, that the particular example he used to brand Spender as a liar proved nothing of the kind.

One last remark. I don’t understand why Mr. Radosh finds my comments on André Marty’s murderous activities ludicrous. The Thucydidean passage that I quoted in the sentences to which he objects comes from the historian’s famous account of the horrors of the civil war on the island of Corcyra. This analysis of the “calamities which occurred and always will occur so long as human nature remains the same” is still the most trenchant analysis of what can happen to men’s characters in war, especially in civil war.

  1. 1

    The New Criterion (October 1986), pp. 5–15.

  2. 2

    Richard Gott, “The Spanish Tragedy,” Manchester Guardian Weekly (July 27, 1986).

  3. 3

    Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Revolution: The Left and the Struggle for Power During the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 1979), p. 112.

  4. 4

    David Caute, The Fellow Travellers (Macmillan, 1973), p. 174.

  5. 5

    R. Dan Richardson, Comintern Army: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (University Press of Kentucky, 1982), pp. 1–2.

  6. 6

    Edward I. Lending, speech at Florida Atlantic University, October 22, 1986.

  7. 7

    Paul Berman, “Spanish Betrayals: A Lincoln Vet Remembers,” The Village Voice (July 22, 1986).

  8. 8

    Edward I. Lending, speech at Florida Atlantic University, October 22, 1986.

  9. 9

    Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Revolution: The Left and the Struggle for Power During the Civil War, p. 110. In this volume, the culmination of years of research, Burnett Bolloten pointed out the “Krivitsky’s revelations have proved to be amazingly accurate,” particularly in regard to Russian intervention in that conflict.

  10. 10

    Burnett Bolloten, “Hegemony and the PCE,” Survey (Autumn, 1985), p. 66.

  11. 11

    Enrique Castro, cited in Burnett Bolloten, “Hegemony and the PCE,” Survey (Autumn, 1985), p. 71.

  12. 12

    Julian Gorkin, in Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, ed., The Strategy of Deception (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963), p. 196.

  13. 13

    Luis Araquistáin, letter of January 1939, in Luis Araquistáin, Sobre La Guerra Civil y Emigración, p. 55, note 46, Estudio Preliminar by Javier Tucell (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1983).

  14. 14

    Julíán Besteiro, cited in the official Spanish Communist Party history of the Civil War, Guerra y Revolución en España: 1936–1939, Vol. IV (Moscow: Spanish Communist Party Archives), p. 166.

  • Email
  • Print