Spain and the Communists

Does Spain Betrayed, a collection of documents from the Soviet archives, as Robert Conquest claims in a comment on the jacket, “finally and totally” destroy long-held myths about the extent and influence of the Soviet role in the Spanish Civil War? Well aware that two generations of scholars have been engaged in dissecting Soviet influence in Spain, the editors of this book make a more modest claim:

The most important aspect of the archival evidence is…not startling new revelations, but rather the more complete understanding of Soviet and Comintern [the Soviet body responsible for relations with the Communist parties outside Russia] participation in the war and the politics of the Spanish Republic that the documents provide.

It is the story from the inside as revealed by the reports of Soviet agents in Spain anxious to prove their loyalty to the “village” (Moscow) at the time of the great purges of the old Bolsheviks and the army high command. To save their skins in this paranoid atmosphere, where Stalin saw everything as a possible conspiracy, they blamed all reverses on the inadequacies of rival agents. General Emilio Kléber, the commander of the first International Brigade to parade in the streets of the besieged Madrid, defends himself by accusing André Marty, the French Comintern organizer of the Brigades, of incompetence. Others are accused of neglecting the interests of the “firm,” i.e., acting independently of the “village.” Some are dismissed as drunken incompetents and womanizers, living like lords in well-appointed villas. Vittorio Codovilla, the Argentinian Comintern agent who controlled the Spanish Communist Party, is accused of treating the CPE “as his own property…. This kind of behavior is intolerable.”

The editors of Spain Betrayed correctly conclude that “in the end, the documents suggest that the Soviets achieved so much in Spain not because of their overwhelming efficiency, but rather because they were more competent and united than their hapless opponents,” i.e., their opponents in the Republican governments. This Republican disunity, which was the obsessive concern of the reports of the Soviet agents in Spain, did more than benefit the political ambitions of the Communists. It was a fatal weakness of the Republic at war. To examine these problems and the Soviets’ response to them, it is necessary to explain the situation at the time of the outbreak of the war on July 18, 1936, and how it developed until late 1938, when the flood of documents exchanged between Communists in Spain and in Moscow becomes a trickle.

In February 1936 the victory of the Popular Front, an alliance of Socialists, Communists, and Republicans, in the elections of that year denied the conservative right any prospect of gaining power by legal, constitutional means. The leaders of the right turned to the army, they said, to save society from the left. But the military conspirators who rose against the Republic on July 18, 1936, failed to achieve their hope for a short, sharp seizure of power following a classic pronunciamento. Some of …

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