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 the attacks by right-wing army units in Madrid, Barcelona, and other sites were repulsed. But the Republic was faced with the prospect of a long and hard-fought war that was to last until April 1939. To win that war demanded the creation of a strong government and an efficient army.

This was beyond the capacities of the elected government headed by Professor José Giral, which was composed exclusively of the largely middle-class Republican parties. Francoist propaganda presented the Nationalist military rising against the legal government of Spain, which had taken office after the electoral victory of February 1936, as a patriotic necessity in order to forestall a Communist takeover. Not only were the Communists in no position to stage a potential coup, but Giral’s government included neither Communists nor any representatives of other working-class parties—the Socialists of the PSOE party and their trade union, the UGT, and the anarchist union, the CNT. Nevertheless, proletarian militants had played an important part in the defeat of the military rebellion of July 1936, both in the streets of Madrid and, above all, in Barcelona, where the CNT’s assault on the army’s Atarazanas barracks was hailed by a CNT militant as an event which would resound in history like the fall of the Bastille.

Moreover, the Republican state had ceased to exist; power was in the hands of local ad hoc committees of the parties of the Popular Front. Since the Republican army dissolved itself, the resistance of the working classes supplied the main military force available. That force was made up of militias, loyal not to the Republican state but rather to the political parties that had organized them; they elected their own officers. In the advance on Madrid the Nationalist army of Franco was from the outset commanded by professional officers with troops hardened in the Moroccan wars. In the words of a Nationalist journalist, it cut through the militia units like a knife through butter.

In September 1936, Giral was replaced as prime minister by the labor boss Francisco Largo Caballero, who had built up and bureaucratized the Socialist trade union, the UGT. His cabinet included the Socialists of the PSOE, the Communists of the Communist Party of Spain, and the Republicans. In November the leaders of the anarchist CNT joined the government. After a series of military disasters and the collapse of the economy, Caballero’s task was to restore the power of the central government—which had, in the early confused days of the war, surrendered its power to local committees—in order to create an efficient war industry and, by subjecting the militias to military discipline under the general staff, begin the creation of what was to become the Popular Army. By November 1936 this nascent Popular Army was capable of denying Franco the conquest of Madrid, which, if successful, would have ended the war in a matter of months.

The weakness of the new government was that it was not the government of national unity that the war effort demanded. It was an old-fashioned coalition government cobbled together of factions ranging from bourgeois Republicans to the revolutionary anarchists of the CNT. All had different aims and diverse strategies for winning the war. For the anarchists, it was to be won by the enthusiasm of the working-class masses embodied in the militia; for the Communists, by the iron discipline of their Fifth Regiment, the militia unit they themselves organized.

The CNT leaders had joined Caballero’s government with reluctance, and as Federica Montseny, the minister of health, told me, “with tears.” They had abandoned the central doctrine of anarchism by which the capitalist bourgeois state was the eternal enemy of the working class. Any collaboration was seen as treason by the militants of the movement. But the collapse of the administrative apparatus of the bourgeois state in July allowed the CNT to mount in Catalonia what has been called the most profound social revolution of the twentieth century. At their last conference in Saragossa before the war, they had proclaimed their vision of a Spain of self-governing libertarian communes. In the summer of 1936 factories were collectivized and governed by shop-floor workers’ committees. The agrarian collectives in Aragon became an independent CNT fief in which capitalist money was abolished.

For the Communists, collectivization in the Soviet Union had meant state control, and for them the CNT ideal of a workers’ takeover, which the CNT members saw as the reward for their heroism at the barricades, was nothing more than a collection of utopian fantasies. The CNT, in the Communist view, made impossible the creation of an efficient war industry. It was, the Communists thought, absurd that skilled engineers should be paid the same wages as unskilled hands. Moreover, in the early days, CNT “uncontrollables” had summarily executed supposed Fascists, in nightly paseos, or roundups. They had assassinated priests en masse as “smelling of candle wax” and burned down their churches. They had killed nuns. If the anarchists continued their “pillaging and burning” they would remain a “black spot” on the anti-Fascist movement, Codovilla and José Díaz, the secretary general of the PCE, wrote in a joint dispatch to Moscow. “If they persist in acts of provocation, the revolutionary law will be applied.” Vladimir Gorev, the Soviet military adviser, wrote to his boss, Marshal Voroshilov, “A struggle against the anarchists is absolutely inevitable after victory over the Whites.”

The phrase “after victory” is important. During the war, Gorev evidently thought the anarchists must be handled more gently since their historic tradition gave them “almost absolute” power in Catalonia. The Communists distinguished between good and bad anarchists. The “good anarchists” were the leaders who had joined Caballero’s government. In July 1936, the anarchist leader Juan García Oliver was seen by the Communists as a dangerous “fanatic.” By September, as minister of justice in the Catalan government, he had become a responsible statesman, stopping the CNT press from reporting unfavorably on events in the Soviet Union. This healthier element, Gorev and others wrote, must be separated from the lumpen proletariat; they were to understand “the necessity of getting rid of their dark criminal element.”

The Soviet agents never cease to complain in their reports about the deplorable military performance of the anarchists and of their reluctance to accept integration into the more disciplined Popular Army of their militia—seen by the anarchists as the guardians of their revolution—and of the ineptitude of their economic experiments. But the attitudes of the Soviets are more flexible than has been imagined. Anarchists, they said, should be domesticated rather than provoke the risk of their suppression by force. “With these people we must secure a united front, even if we have to make serious concessions,” wrote André Marty in October 1936.

One of the accusations made against the Soviet consul in Barcelona, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, later recalled to Moscow and shot, was that he had spoken harshly to the anarchists. The obsession of the Soviet agents with the anarchists lasted until the divisions among the anarchist groups rendered them impotent. Nor did the Communists, both Soviet and Spanish, ever relent in their belief that the “revolution” must be postponed until victory had been won. To win it the revolutionary conquests of July must not merely be put in cold storage, they must be dismantled. This counterrevolution was the work of Jacobin committeemen with no time for the enragés of the streets. Professor Richard Pipes regards the abolition of private property as the hallmark of communism. Yet by 1937 the Spanish Communists had become, under Soviet advice, the resolute defenders of the private property of peasants and small businessmen.1

The Socialists were the most powerful element in Caballero’s government, but, like the CNT, they had been divided over the issue of collaboration with the bourgeois Republicans. After the formation of the Popular Front government in February 1936, Caballero had rejected cooperation with the Republicans in government in favor of a Socialist takeover of the government by legal means. In what has been called his Bolshevik phase—he was alleged to have read Marx in prison—Caballero used the rhetoric of a proletarian revolution without any intention of staging a Spanish edition of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. A former plasterer, he derived his power from the UGT. His Socialist rival in the Popular Front government, Indalecio Prieto, was a journalist who had close contacts with sympathetic Republicans. His power base was in his party, the PSOE. He regarded Caballero’s “Bolshevikization” as suicidal. Caballero, for his part, blocked Prieto’s appointment as prime minister in a Republican-Socialist government. These ideological and tactical differences turned into personal hatred. By July 1936, Caballero and Prieto were not on speaking terms; the newspapers they controlled engaged in a slanging match. It was their rivalry in the government of September 1936 that allowed the Communists to destroy Caballero.

The right wing of Caballero’s government was made up of the left-wing Republicans of whom Manuel Azaña was the most distinguished representative. He detested the anarchists for having made him “swallow frogs” as president of the Republic, and he distrusted Caballero for flirting with the idea of a government based on the unions rather than on the political parties. Virtually all the Republicans, disgusted by the anarchist paseos in July, were determined to recover the powers of the legitimate government in order to control the “uncontrollables.” They loathed the resurgence of traditional anticlericalism. Lacking wide popular support, they were therefore natural allies of the Communists as men of order. For them the Communists were counterrevolutionaries who would protect private property and dismantle the spontaneous revolution of July. The PCE, as André Marty wrote, was the first party to “seriously pose the question of rapprochement with the Catholics.”


What were the aims of the Soviets and their agents? How did they respond to the confused and chaotic situation in Spain? From first to last their policies were dictated by the Soviet Union’s interests as a great power. Concerned with the rise of Hitler, the Comintern had advocated the creation of broadly based Popular Fronts, ranging from bourgeois democrats and progressives to the proletarian parties, which should start a process of fusion that would be encouraged by the Communists. Only if these fronts were presented as part of an international defense of democracy could the Western powers be attracted as allies against the fascist powers. Thus the immediate Communist response to the outbreak of the war was prudent and cautious, avoiding any appearance that the Popular Front government was a Communist or revolutionary organization. Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian head of the Comintern, wrote on July 23, “We should not, at the present stage, assign the task of creating soviets and try to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain. That would be a fatal mistake.” Nor, he wrote, should the PCE enter the government unless it was necessary to defeat the military insurrection. Once they had joined the government on December 21, 1936, Stalin advised Caballero to secure the support of the Republican leader Manuel Azaña and the bourgeois middle class. “This,” Stalin wrote, “is necessary in order to prevent the enemies of Spain from regarding it as a communist republic.”2

Up to September 1936, Soviet aid to the Republic was confined to fraternal advice and food shipments. The Republic, however, needed not butter but guns and airplanes. In September a group called the Non-Intervention Committee started work in London to prevent those needs from being met. Its professed aim was to prevent a European conflict by a series of voluntary, unilateral agreements between the powers to deny the supply of arms to either side in Spain. In practice the committee denied the legal government of Spain the right to receive supplies of arms from the Western democracies while allowing Germany and Italy to pour arms into Spain on credit. Sometime in late September Stalin decided that, if the Republic was to survive, he must send “the modern armaments in sufficient quantities” which President Giral had demanded as early as July 25.

What was presented to the public as a generous gift to the embattled Republic and greeted, according to Louis Fischer, then a servile Stalinist, with “vivo Russo [sic]” on the streets “and portraits of Stalin everywhere” turned out to be a profitable venture for the USSR. Through manipulation of the accounts and the exchange rate, the Spaniards had to pay for arms at scandalously exorbitant prices, using the gold reserves of the Republic deposited in Moscow.3 Weapons began to arrive in October accompanied by some seven hundred military advisers, the “preachers,” who doubled as agents of the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence. This development was to change the entire nature of Soviet intervention in Spain. Naturally enough Marshal Voroshilov was concerned that the “preachers” should see to it that the arms were used efficiently. But very soon the Soviets saw that to control the army was to control Spain. On July 30, 1937, Dimitrov wrote to Voroshilov:

The People’s Army, headed by commanders who come from among the people [i.e. the loyal party members],…represents a huge revolutionary force and, as a result of this, will play a decisive role in determining the economic and social life, the political system of a future Spain.

That system, he wrote, would be something “beyond the limits of a classical bourgeois-democratic republic”; it was a “republic of a new type.” But did Stalin demand, as the editors of Spain Betrayed maintain, “the transformation of the Republic into a prototype for the so-called People’s Democracies of postwar Eastern and Central Europe”? For Stalin, Spain was always a pawn in the diplomatic game of bringing France and Britain into an anti-fascist, anti-German bloc. Did he really want to take the responsibility of supporting a Soviet satellite at the other end of Europe, given the perils nearer home?

What is clear is that, in order to control the army, the Communists decided to destroy Caballero; and in this demolition operation they could count on the collaboration both of Prieto’s Socialists and the Republicans, above all of Manuel Azaña as president of the Republic. They had once built up Caballero as the “Spanish Lenin.” As late as January 6 he had favored the fusion, “for Marxist unity,” of the Socialists and Communists, a policy consistently advocated by the CPE until the end of the war. But by February he had become the Communists’ bête noire because of his resistance to their control of the army. He was, the Communists said, “hypnotized” by General José Asensio, his chief military adviser, and the general staff of professional officers who blocked the promotion of young, loyal, and enthusiastic commanders and the appointment of Communist commissars who were to be attached, on the Red Army pattern, as political advisers to every unit.

General Asensio was portrayed by the Communists as a traitor responsible for the fall of Málaga—one of the professional “old soldiers” who were “agents of Franco.” “The treason,” André Marty wrote, “operates at the very heart of the general staff.” Yet Caballero stubbornly resisted appeals “to support a radical removal of the higher command.” As always, the Communists presented their demands as the will of the “masses”; at meetings organized by the CPE, the onslaught on Caballero became widely publicized. He was said to be dragging his feet over the creation of a conscript army; as a senile autocrat he could not provide the firm government that “the masses” demanded.

The opportunity to get rid of Cabellero came in May when fighting broke out in Barcelona between the forces of the local government and dissident leftists. This central episode was to have important social, economic, and political consequences, and must be examined in some detail.4 It was the result of two factors. In the early revolutionary atmosphere of July, Luis Companys, president of the Generalitat, the autonomous government of Catalonia, had been forced to accept the demands of the anarchist CNT. He was now determined to recover the powers of the Generalitat. At the same time, in the great Moscow show trials, Nikolai Bukharin and the old Bolsheviks were being executed as Trotskyites and spies. The same charges were leveled against the Spanish POUM, a relatively small revolutionary party which called itself Marxist-Leninist. Its leader, Andrés Nin, had been Trotsky’s secretary, and so, for the Communists, the POUM had to be similarly liquidated. The POUM had attacked Stalinism as repressive in its newspaper La Batalla and attacked the Popular Front government as “insufficiently Marxist.”

These tensions erupted on May 3, when Rodríguez Salas, chief of the Generalitat security forces, attempted to occupy the Barcelona telephone exchange, which was manned by members of the CNT. The militants of the POUM and the “bad anarchists”—i.e., those estranged from the anarchist leaders in the government coalition—took to the streets to defend the conquests of the revolution and to prevent the recovery of the powers of the bourgeois state. As Andrés Nin put it, although the POUM Executive Committee did not provoke this reaction, once it had occurred “it viewed it with favor and believed that the party ought to support what was a spontaneous reaction of the working class.”5

While the Communists never hid their determination to destroy the POUM, did they, as the editors of Spain Betrayed maintain, deliberately provoke a putsch in order to discredit the POUM in public opinion and destroy it? The evidence of the documents in this book does not convincingly sustain this thesis. When a Comintern agent argues that the Party should not “wait passively for a ‘natural’ unleashing of the hidden government crisis, but…hasten it and, if necessary, provoke it,” he is surely talking about the earlier crisis of Caballero’s government in May 1937 when he was ousted for his alleged inadequacy in prosecuting the war. My own view is that no one foresaw the consequences of the Generalitat’s determination to recover control of Barcelona by attacking the telephone exchange. George Orwell, who had joined the POUM militia and who reported the May events in his Homage to Catalonia, considered that a “dust up” between the Generalitat police and the anarchist militants had developed “into a spasmodic, incoherent revolution of barricades.”

The liquidation of the POUM was followed by the destruction of the anarchist agrarian collectives of Aragon by the troops of General Sebastián Pozas, one of the few regular officers who had joined the CPE, and the continued dismantling of the anarchist collectives in Catalonia. Utopia was disappearing at the hands of the Communist bureaucrats. The CNT was deeply divided and could offer little resistance. It had ministers in the government who were prepared to have the army act against the working class in Barcelona. Did the Communists’ insistence that “the revolution” must be postponed until victory had been achieved weaken the war effort by destroying the working-class enthusiasm that had initially sustained it?

For the leftist novelist and critic Arturo Barea, who was subjected in Barcelona in the summer of 1937 to the petty persecution of the Communist-dominated police, the war had “gone cold.” He accepted that the organization demanded by the Communists was essential for victory; but, he wrote, the Communist zeal for efficiency and organization had ruined the “urge for freedom, the blundering efforts to build social life anew.” This was Orwell’s verdict, as well. In the summer of 1936 he had felt that he was witnessing an era of equality and freedom in a new society where waiters were not tipped and where officers were not saluted. The assassination of Andrés Nin by Communist agents, clumsily presented as the work of the Gestapo, and the disappearance in mysterious circumstances of other prominent POUMistas sent shock waves of indignation through the non-Communist left of Europe.

The POUM members were not the political innocents and naive egalitarians of Ken Loach’s moving film Land and Freedom. But to brutally suppress them was to do the work of Stalin in Spain. This Caballero, to his eternal credit, was unwilling to undertake. His “passivity” was his undoing. The Communists and their allies, the bourgeois Republicans and Prieto’s followers, moved in for the kill. Caballero was forced to resign; he remained in sullen opposition to those who had destroyed him.

After Caballero’s fall, Manuel Azaña appointed Juan Negrín prime minister, with Prieto as minister of defense. Negrín was a professor of physiology, a typical representative of the middle-class professionals who had joined the PSOE in the 1930s. To the Communists he was a relief after Caballero. “He seems an honest person and honestly, sincerely, and with conviction he is seeking the closest collaboration with our party,” Dimitrov reported to Voroshilov. His aims were those of the Communists: the consolidation of the powers of the central government and the creation of an efficient war industry by the reversal of the revolutionary conquests of July. He was fully aware that, without Soviet arms support, the Republic was doomed.

True, Negrín was prepared to swallow the fabrication that Nin’s assassination was the work of Gestapo agents. Does this patent hypocrisy make him little more than a Communist stooge? It is hard to find evidence in these documents to support that conclusion. But he could be brought into line. “You know how we work,” Jesús Hernández, one of the Communist ministers in Caballero’s government had bluntly declared. “We always put questions before you openly, and if you don’t listen to us, we appeal to the masses.”

For the Communists, the villain in the government was not Negrín but Prieto, their tactical ally in the offensive against Caballero but someone whom they had never trusted. Once more it was the control of the army that was at stake. Prieto continued Caballero’s hostility to the appointment of Communist military commissars. His decree of June 28, 1937, against “proselytization” in the army, (i.e., forcible Communist political indoctrination) horrified the Communists. When Prieto’s friend Julián Zugazagoitia resisted the liquidation of the POUM, he was accused of being “a disguised Trotskyite” and his deputy was said to be “rotten to the core.” Prieto and Zugazagoitia secured the dismissal of the Communist director of general security, a fanatic where the POUM was concerned. In a tit-for-tat game, the Communists won the next round by securing, over Prieto’s head, the disbanding of the POUM 29th Division and the dismissal of its commander, José Rovira.

The fatal consequence of these factional feuds was their effect on the army. The Popular Army had been forged in the hard-fought battles for Madrid in November 1936 organized by General Vicente Rojo. Professional soldiers have always resisted the influence of politicians—seen as armchair strategists—and tend to blame their own failures on the politicians. Rojo regarded Negrín’s appointment of him as chief of the general staff as a recognition of his professional qualities. He blamed the collapse of his ambitious plan to hold the city of Teruel in the winter of 1937 and the subsequent breakthrough of Franco’s army to the Mediterranean, which cut the Republic off from Catalonia, on

the intervention of politics on the military commands destroying their prestige, at times destroying their plans…by ignorance of their functions on the part of commissars, who through intolerable intervention, even annul the orders of the command.

The result, he said, was that politicized units refused to obey his orders on the battlefield. He offered to resign since he could no longer act as a neutral professional. Catholic and conservative as he was, he seems to have contemplated joining the Communist Party in order to get reliable political backing.6

While the documents cast some light on the effect of politics on the war effort, the editors, apart from general observations on the activities of the “preachers,” rarely provide any close examination of the military consequences of Soviet advice. In August 1938 “General Walter”—the name used by the Polish-born Korol Sverchevsky, a colonel of the Red Army and an International Brigade commander—reported that while “the sum total of the advisers’ work is admitted by almost all the Spanish, without exception, to be very significant and positive,” yet some advisers regarded their function as “to conscientiously record events and not actively interfere in situations”; others were “uncultured” in their relations with Spanish officers. Thus their actual influence on the battlefield remains somewhat obscure. In conversations with Rojo during his internal exile in Madrid, it seemed to me that he regarded the “preachers” as necessary nuisances: they had to be listened to because he was dependent on Soviet army supplies. He resolutely denied that they had influenced his battle orders for the defense of Madrid and he intensely resented the prominence given to the International Brigade commander Emilio Kléber as the hero of the defense of Madrid.

From first to last, the war was presented by the Soviets as part of an international crusade against fascism; they vainly hoped that they might thus gain the sympathy of France and Britain. Their most publicized contribution to the “war to save Europe from fascism” was the organization by the Comintern of the International Brigades. But by late 1937 the Bri-gades had suffered heavy casualties as shock troops in the battles of Guadalajara and Teruel, and at Jarama, where they fought with great heroism. Those who remained, having enlisted, as they thought, for a short, victorious war, were war-weary and had become, according to General Walter, commander of the 35th Brigade, “some sort of half-demoralized rabble.” The consequence was that, by the end of the war, some 80 percent of the Brigades’ strength was composed of Spanish conscripts.

This raised a problem that is described at length in the documents. The Brigades were still overwhelmingly under the command of foreign officers sent by the Comintern. The Bulgarian commander, Petrov, Kléber wrote, was a good officer but he had “one important defect, as he could express himself with the brigade personnel only in the Russian language.” Worse still, “uncultured” internationalist commanders treated the Spanish with contempt as “cowards.” “All of the major commands and political positions,” Kléber wrote, “are firmly occupied and held onto by the internationalist minority and the entry to the command Olympus is attended by such difficulties for the Spanish that only a few of them have been favoured with the right and honour to lead their own compatriots.” Sverchevsky was deeply troubled by the “stubborn domination of our clinging to positions, a good portion of which ought to be handed over to the Spanish.”

All this reveals a fundamental cleavage. The Spaniards were willing to accept the Communist presentation of the war as an international struggle against fascism; they saw this as useful propaganda for the cause. But Jaume Miravitlles, a member of the Catalan government in October 1936, raised with the Soviet consul in Barcelona, Antonov-Ovseenko, “a very delicate question,” suggesting to him that “in Catalonia there is no fascism.” He said that “here the war is with Spanish militarists and clericalism.” That is how the war is remembered by Spaniards today. Two generations have suffered the consequences of the victory of these traditional enemies of liberal democracy. Only after the death of Franco in November 1975, their most characteristic and prominent representative, could Spaniards recover the liberties they had lost with his victory in April 1939.

By 1938 Rojo and Azaña believed that the war could not be won and that there must be a negotiated settlement; the Communists, for their part, believed that if their advice were taken there would still be a chance of victory. The war was not lost because opportunist apparatchiks had imposed on Spain the policies that suited Soviet interests. Their policies, the creation of an efficient army and war industry, and of a single working-class party, were, in the jargon of the time, “objectively correct.” But they did not always succeed. Thus the Soviets’ consistent demand for a unified workers’ party ran up against the historic traditions of the Spanish parties whose independence was threatened and would vanish with the entry of a Communist Trojan Horse.

The Communists were more successful in their efforts to control the army, but, as the documents suggest, their control was less than complete up to 1938. Many officers, who remained loyal to the republic, welcomed the party’s insistence on replacing the volunteerism of the militias with the discipline of a regular army, just as Negri shared the convictions of the Communists on the necessity of reconstructing the state. The Communists failed because of their sectarian intentions, as was displayed in their feud with General Asensio, whom they saw as Caballero’s poodle, and because of the sheer brutality by which their policies were carried out.

Defeat was inevitable because the Western democracies, France and Great Britain, both committed to appeasement and nonintervention, failed to supply the Republic with arms as well as to stop Hitler and Mussolini from supplying the Nationalists. In these conditions it is an astonishing achievement that the Popular Army could mount ambitious surprise offensives at Brunete and Teruel, and in the last hard-fought battle of the Ebro. But the territory thus gained was lost when Franco brought up his reserves.

Important as was the superior armament of the Nationalist army, the Republic itself failed to create the political and military conditions for victory. Rojo believed that the establishment of a single command, a mando úncio, was a necessary condition of victory, but the Republican army never achieved this. By contrast, the Nationalist generals, as professional soldiers aware of the impediments of a divided command, had on September 21, 1936, granted Franco his mando úncio as generalissimo. While in May 1936 the Republican factions were fighting with one another in the streets of Barcelona, Franco had created in April a single party under his control. He had in his hands, as the Republic did not, the essential tools of victory. Rojo put it to me in a single word. Franco, he said, had won the war “politically” and therefore militarily.7

Readers of Spain Betrayed will, I think, come to the same conclusion and they will be supplied with abundant, often fascinating, evidence to support it. But with its documents of political infighting and of the rivalries of agents who saw the struggles of the factions as conspiracies hatched by traitors, the book makes depressing reading. A sense of disillusion was to deepen with the passage of time. After its entry into the world war against Hitler, the Soviet Union was treated as an honorary ally of the free nations and the members of the Lincoln Brigade were hailed as heroes of the first war against fascism. In the 1943 film Casablanca Humphrey Bogart is cast as a veteran soldier of the Republic. But with the cold war, members of the Lincoln Brigade became suspect and the director of Casablanca found himself on the Hollywood blacklist. Repentant Spanish Communists were welcomed by the cold warriors of the Congress of Cultural Freedom for their exposés of the iniquities of the Soviet agents in Spain. But the Spaniards were engaged in a different war, the struggle against Franco and the militarists and clericals. In this conflict, however much their ultimate intentions and their conversion to Eurocommunism were open to suspicion, the Communists were the front-line troops.

  1. 1

    Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (Modern Library, 2001), p. 148.

  2. 2

    This letter is printed in E.H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (Pantheon, 1984), pp. 86–87. Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, told Anthony Eden on November 3 that “the Soviet government’s admitted sympathy with the Government in Spain was not due to their desire to set up a Communist régime in that country…. The Soviet government’s purpose in attempting to assist the Spanish Government was far more immediate than that.” Franco’s victory would encourage (German) active aggression in Central or Eastern Europe, which the Soviet government wished “at all costs to avoid.” See Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939, edited by W.N. Medlicott and Douglas Dakin (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office), Vol. 17, Doc. 348, pp. 495–496.

  3. 3

    Gerald Howson’s meticulously researched book Arms for Spain (London: John Murray, 1998) exposes these transactions as morally repulsive, belying “everything [the Soviets] professed to stand for.”

  4. 4

    The best recent analysis of the confused May events is condensed in Helen Graham’s “‘Against the State’: A Genealogy of the Barcelona May Days (1937),” in European History Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4 (October 1999), pp. 485–542.

  5. 5

    The Communist case against the POUM is revealed in the trial of the POUM leaders between June and October 1937. They are printed in El Proceso del POUM (Barcelona: Editorial Lerna, 1989), an essential source. The main charge was that the POUM was infiltrated by doubtful foreigners including George Orwell, who was subject to an investigation, and Francoist agents. They were alleged to have provoked a putsch and to have planned to bring back from the front units of the POUM 29th Division from the Aragon front to aid them.

    The report to Voroshilov (May 18, 1937) does not bear this out. “I must note, as a positive phenomenon, that the front did not take part in the uprising with the exception of two or three individual companies from the Ascaso Division and a small intelligence group from the Durutti Division.” It adds, “The uprising was undoubtedly completely unexpected by our people. There were no plans to oppose the uprising militarily, although it was known to our comrades that there were preparations for an incident such as the one that occurred.” For the May events seen by a POUMista, see Victor Alba, El marxisme a Catalunya, Vol. 2 (Barcelona: Editorial Pòrtic, 1974). It is written in Catalan, the POUM having strong connections with Catalan nationalists, which made it suspect to Communists.

  6. 6

    For Rojo’s general pessimism see Los Papeles del general Vicente Rojo, edited by Jesús I. Martínez Paricio et al. (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1989), pp. 98–101. Some evidence of this is contained in Ramon Salas Larrazábal’s Historia del ejercito popular de la Republica (Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1973), Vol. 2. Rojo’s orders were disobeyed at Teruel, according to Kleber, “with the loss of three wonderful batteries, the pride of our division forever.”

  7. 7

    Rojo’s åÁAlerta los pueblos! (Buenos Aires: A. Lopez, 1939), written shortly after the collapse of resistance in Catalonia after the Ebro battle, is a terrifying description of the conditions of the rearguard and the front. Rojo was a disciple of Clausewitz, who maintained that moral factors were an essential ingredient for victory. Rojo believed the collapse of morale went back to Teruel; restored on the Ebro, it finally plummeted in Catalonia.