Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not propaganda by any chance?

One of my great uncles fought in the Spanish Civil War, in some part of the International Brigade. For various reasons to do with the image the Soviet Union tried to present to the world at the time, there was a pretence that those who had gone to fight there had gone of their own accord because they felt so strongly. In actual fact, the USSR sent highly organized contingents from the Red Army and equally highly organized contingents from the NKVD and the GRU, the two security organizations (but more of that later). All of them went under noms de guerre, to preserve that pretence of individual effort.

The old boy (now deceased) had fought in just about every war he could get to in the first half of the twentieth century but the Spanish Civil War was, for some reason, dear to his heart and he often regaled younger members of the family with stories about it and showed photographs.

So it is, that I have found the subject of some interest as I grew up and heard alternative versions, reading George Orwell’s accounts, Arthur Koestler’s late admissions of the truth of his behaviour and, more recently, “Spain Betrayed” by Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov. There have been other books on the real story of the war but none of this seems to have seeped through to our cultural masters.

This is what Yale University Press says about the myth and reality:
The Spanish Civil War has long been the stuff of legend. Thousands of brave young men from all over the Western world, most of them organized by their local Communist parties, rushed to Spain to support the democratic Republic against right-wing forces led by rebellious generals in the Spanish officer corps. Although the Republic was eventually defeated, some observers believed that the effort to defend it was a selfless undertaking of the international Communist movement and the Soviet Union--a noble crusade against Hitler, Mussolini, and their Spanish puppet Franco.

This book presents a very different view of the role of the Soviet Union in this war. Based on previously unavailable Moscow archives, it provides the first full documentation of that country’s duplicitous and self-serving activities. Documents in the book reveal that the Soviet Union not only swindled the Spanish Republic out of millions of dollars through arms deals but also sought to take over and run the Spanish economy, government, and armed forces in order to make Spain a Soviet possession, thereby effectively destroying the foundations of authentic Spanish antifascism. The documents also shed light on many other disputed episodes of the war: the timing of the Republican request for assistance from the Soviet Union; the rise and fall of the International Brigades; the internal workings of the Comintern and its influence on Spain; and much more.
Now, let us look at the season of films about the Spanish Civil War that the National Film Theatre will be running in June [not yet on the site but I have received the programme]. They vary from early left-wing American propaganda to Soviet films on the subject running the whole gamut to Ken Loach’s film of “characteristic commitment”, “Land and Freedom”. Realistic and multi-sided this programme is not, though there are a few post-Franco Spanish films that show a little bit of nuance.

There seems to be no film that has dared to tackle the role of the Communists in the fight, the role of the NKVD that came with orders to extend Stalin’s purge to the Spanish front, the tragedy of Republicans who found themselves facing the guns and torture instruments of those they had thought of as their comrades; nothing about the fate of the “Spanish children” carted off to Moscow and arrested in the second purge when they had grown up; nothing about the Spanish gold that disappeared to Moscow, never to be given back; nothing about the fate of the Anarchists, so strong in Barcelona at the start of the war and so very dead by the end of it, at the hands of the Communists.

There is nothing about the calumny that people, less well known than Orwell but just as honourable, were subjected to when they came back and told the truth of what had really been going on in the Republican ranks.

I dare not even contemplate the idea of a film from the point of view of the Nationalists who claimed (with some justification) that they had saved Spain both from anarchy and Communist totalitarianism. (And let us not forget, as some historians would like us to, that Franco refused to let the German army march through his country. If he had not done so, Gibraltar would have fallen into German hands and the Mediterranean would have been lost. Would a pro-Soviet Communist government have behaved that way in 1940 or early 1941?)

I have always thought the story of POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), formed by Andrés Nin and Joaquín Maurín, to be of great tragic interest. When the Communist controlled Republican government made POUM illegal, many of its members were arrested. Nin was tortured and murdered by NKVD officers; Maurín managed to escape, making his way eventually to the United States and then Mexico. He, too, was subjected to vituperous attacks by the “consensus opinion”, so helpfully co-ordinated by the Communists.

There is a great deal of first-hand information in Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” about the fate of POUM, with which he had fought. Orwell barely managed to escape the Communist massacres with his life.

Would the story not make an excellent film? Mind you, it would add more nuance to the tale of the Spanish Civil War than our culture commissars would like.

If I had asked my great uncle about the fate of non-Communist Republicans he, I suspect, would have shrugged his shoulders. They were the enemy and had to be destroyed. In a way, I would prefer it if our own culture commissars were that honest and straightforward.


  1. Yes, something close to that sentiment was behind my ...not admiration, exactly...say, respect for Victor Serge.

    I wonder why cheap agit-melodramas like Pan's Labyrinth receive all possible awards, but there is no documentalist to tell the story of non-Communist Republicans, let alone Nationalists. I always considered the Spanish brave people. Is it so dangerous now in Spain to be of independent opinion?

    Гренада, Гренада моя.

  2. Funnily enough, from what I can see the Spanish films (not that boring Pan's Labyrinth stuff) seem to be slightly more flexible than the ones produced in other Western countries. The subject of non-Communist Republicans remains taboo and nobody must say anything good about the Nationalists. At least one Spanish film will show that people joined sides often on the basis of who happened to call in the village first, which is probably true.

    I have heard that all positive mention of Franco is disallowed in Spain (but then, where is it allowed?) and all memorials are being removed. Don't know if it is true but if so, trouble is being laid up for the future.

  3. Surprise! It is not over. The Feb. 27 "TLS" contains, on page 27, "Trams to the front" by Ronald Fraser, a review of Paul Preston's "We saw Spain die: Foreign correspondents in the Spanish Civil War." In the review as, apparently in the book, the pinkos come out way ahead. This review was followed by some nasty slagging in the letters columns of subsequent issues.

  4. Glad to hear there was nasty slagging.

  5. Peter Kemp's "The Thorns of Memory" recounts his time serving on the Franco side of the SCW. There is also a novel by the same author set in the SCW, whose title escapes, me which adds to the picture of the landscape well.

  6. A great post. My grandparents were Stalinists who wished they'd fought in Spain. While changing their minds on many things, they never forgave Orwell his anti-Stalinism. My grandmother was dead when Loach's film came out, but my grandfather refused to even see it.