A Desperate Democracy Disregarded
In the early nineteen thirties, a fledgling republic emerged in the country of Spain. While most of Europe and the other western nations had had a republican form of government for several centuries, this was Spain's first real attempt at democracy. Spain had always been a monarchy since before medieval times. It was the last monarchy in a major European nation. In 1936, the Spanish Army, stationed in Morocco under the leadership of fascist General Francisco Franco, finally rebelled against the new republic (Fraser 588). The republic, for a variety of reasons, eventually lost the war after three years of bloody fighting. The main reason, though, that the Spanish Republic lost the civil war of 1936-1939 was because the United States, Great Britain, and France remained neutral while Germany and Italy sent massive aid to the fascist rebellion.
The United States refrained from aiding the Spanish Republic for several reasons. Beginning after World War I, American foreign policy had consisted of isolationism; the government wanted to focus on domestic problems and not meddle in the affairs of other nations especially a European one (Werstein 138). During the thirties, the United States was mired in the Great Depression and most Americans did not want to get involved in another European war. The majority of Americans prescribed to the slogan "America First!," which echoed the policy of isolationism (Werstein 153).
Many American companies owned interests in Spain. In fact most of the industry in Spain was controlled by foreign investors. The largest American interest in Spain was the Spanish national telephone service which was completely owned by an American company (Werstein 136). If the republic, with a strong communist influence, won the war, thought the U.S., France, and Britain, possibly all of the foreign businesses would be nationalized. A fascist regime under Franco would protect the corporations. International businessmen feared the prospect of losing all of their investments.
When Italy, under Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the U.S. Congress passed the Neutrality Act (Werstein 138). The Neutrality Act "forbade Americans to sell or transport arms out of the country once a stated of war existed elsewhere in the world" (Werstein 138). Although the Neutrality Act did not apply to civil wars, the U.S. Government did apply it to the Spanish Civil War.
The Neutrality Act prevented all Americans from selling any weapons of war to the Spanish Republic. The Neutrality Act did not apply to other materials such as food or oil. Instead of sending such supplies to the republic, massive quantities of oil were actually sent to the fascist rebels by American oil companies such as Texas Oil Company (Fraser 127, 278). The act did not forbid the importation of goods from nations involved in a war. The United States imported four million dollars worth of olives from nationalist, or fascist Spain which further financed Franco's war effort (Fraser 279). The United States even sold arms to Germany and Italy which in turn were shipped to the Spanish fascists (Werstein 19). The capitalists and the government in America were more afraid of a communist take over in Spain than a fascist dictatorship.
Despite the popular stance of opposition to involvement in the war, several supporters of the Spanish Republic existed within the U.S. government. These included Claude Bowers, U.S. Ambassador to Spain; Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury; Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture; Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior; and Sumner Wells, Assistant Secretary of State (Werstein 138). The main opposition to the war came from Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State. Hull greatly influenced President Franklin Roosevelt's decisions on foreign policy. Roosevelt often followed Hull's advice despite having contrasting opinions as was the case with the Spanish Civil War. Roosevelt chose to represent the opinion of the majority of America and stayed neutral throughout the duration of the war (Werstein 139).
Great Britain remained neutral for many of the same reasons as the United States. Britain, too, was in the midst of an economic crisis under conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and therefore most of the British people wanted to focus on the problems of their own nation (Werstein 137). Several British companies owned interests in Spain. The British Rio Tinto Company owned vast copper deposits in Spain which could be jeopardized in the event of a communist takeover (Werstein 136).
World War I was scarcely twenty years old and most Britons wanted to avoid another war. To achieve this, Britain signed the Non-Intervention Pact on August 2, 1936. Introduced by France, it was signed by the five major European Nations of Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Italy (Werstein 152). The purpose of the pact was to contain the war within Spain by prohibiting the member nations from supplying materials of war to either side of the conflict (Werstein 152). Since Britain was the only country to abide by the agreement, the Non-Intervention Pact was completely ineffective. It would eventually harm the republic drastically because Britain and France, for the most part, followed the agreement while Germany and Italy completely ignored it.
The main British support for the republic came from Clement Attlee, leader and spokesman of the Labour Party (Werstein 137). He was joined by British liberals, leftists, trade unions, and labourites (Werstein 137). The main opposition came from Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Minister. Backed by the British majority, Eden wanted to do nothing to upset the peace in Europe. Eden was joined by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin was succeeded by Neville Chamberlain who also prescribed to complete neutrality (Werstein 137).
Great Britain actually supported the fascists in several ways. At the outbreak of the war, most of Franco's troops were stationed in Morocco. The republic set up a naval blockade to prevent Franco from transporting his troops to the Iberian peninsula. The British greatly hindered the blockade's effectiveness by not allowing republican ships to refuel in Gibralter, an island midway between Spain and Morocco (Fraser 108). Franco succeeded in transporting his entire army to Spain after the blockade was broken. Britain imported several products from nationalist Spain including 9.8 million dollars worth of sherry (Fraser 279) and 8.3 million dollars worth of coal per year (Fraser 410). Franco used such funds for the war effort. Britain did not protest when Franco shipped large amounts of British owned metal ore to Nazi Germany at artificially low exchange rates (Fraser 278). Germany in turn manufactured weapons with the raw materials and shipped them to the fascists. Britain even supplied intelligence to the fascists; an officer in the British Admiralty leaked information about ships carrying arms to the republic to the Duke of Alba, Franco's unofficial agent in London (Fraser 470). Britain's final blow to the republic came in February of 1939 when it officially recognized Franco's regime (Fraser 489).
The neutrality of France was controlled mainly by the unstable politics of the nation during the war. At the outbreak of the war, France was governed by Premier Leon Blum, leader of the French Popular Front, a leftist party in control of France. Blum was faced with a serious dilemma. He did not want to alienate the British and split the Popular Front while on the other hand, he feared that Spain would become a fascist ally to Germany and Italy on France's southern border if France did not intervene (Fraser 127). Blum chose to support the republic in the beginning by sending seventy planes, pilots, and technicians. However, on August 8, 1936, France closed its border with Spain to materials of war and thus deprived the Spanish Republic to its right under international law to purchase arms for self-defense (Fraser 127). Blum lost and regained power several times during the war. French support ebbed and flowed depending on whether Blum was in power. For the most part, France remained neutral (McKendrick 201). France signed the Non-Intervention Pact which it broke albeit infrequently (Werstein 152). Another reason for neutrality was that the bourgeoisie capitalists feared a communist revolution. A French company owned several silver mines in Spain which could be lost to communism (Werstein 136). Despite the arms ban, a trickle of French weapons reached the republic through countries not included in the Non-Intervention Pact such as Belgium and the Netherlands (Werstein 152).
France harmed the republic in several ways. France damaged the republic's cause the most by closing its border to all weapons from any country. Russia sent the most aid to the republic but most of it was confiscated by the French at the border. Train loads of war supplies, airplane parts, artillery, and ammunition, mostly Russian, bound for the republic, were held up at the French border (Fraser 482). Near the end of the war, France allowed several train loads to pass through but it was too late. Most of the supplies were either destroyed or sent back lest they fall into enemy hands(Fraser 483). When the fascists captured Catalonia, a northwest province of Spain, in January of 1939, 500,000 republican soldiers and civilians fled to France. The refugees were confined in concentration camps and were subjected to horrible conditions (Fraser 482). France finally recognized Franco's regime in February of 1939 (Fraser 489).
Germany supported fascist Spain for several reasons. Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany, feared the spread of communism with the statement, "There is a danger of the Reds taking power in Spain. It is not my intention to let this happen" (Werstein 137). Germany was on the brink of starting World War II and an ally in Spain would be very valuable to their goal of world conquest. Germany used the Spanish Civil War as a training ground for its new weapons and tactics in preparation for World War II (McKendrick 201). The most gruesome example of Germany's use of Spain for training was the bombing of Guernica. Guernica was a small town in northern Spain with fewer than seven thousand residents. It served no strategic purpose and was harmless to Germany. On April 26, 1937, German bombers dropped incendiary(fire-starting) bombs on Guernica for several hours completely decimating the town (McKendrick 210). In 1946, Herman Goring, head of the German Luftwaffe(airforce), admitted that Germany used Guernica strictly for training purposes(McKendrick 210). Artist Pablo Picasso witnessed the horrors of Guernica and recorded them in the aptly named painting "Guernica" (McKendrick 210).
Although it signed the Non-Intervention Pact, Germany sent extensive aid to nationalist Spain. This included hundreds of airplanes (Werstein 164), 16,000 soldiers (Werstein 177), and 570 million dollars combined with Italy(Fraser 278). Germany sent twenty-five Junker 52 transport planes to aid in the Moroccan airlift of July and August of 1936 (Fraser 108). Without these planes, it would have taken Franco nine months instead of two to ferry 14,000 troops, eleven field batteries, and five-hundred tons of war material from Africa to Spain in what was the first major airlift in history(Fraser 108). The most famous aid from Germany came in the form of the Condor Legion. Commanded by General Hugo Von Sperrle, it consisted of forty-eight Heinkel 51 bombers, forty-eight Messerschmidt 109 fighters, an anti-aircraft battery, an anti-tank battery, and 6500 troops (Werstein 164). Hitler recognized Franco's regime at the start of the uprising in November of 1936 (Fraser 270).
Italy supported fascist Spain for the same reasons as Germany. Italy, a fascist state under dictator Benito Mussolini, wanted to ensure that Spain became a fascist ally (McKendrick 201). Mussolini, like Hitler, also feared the spread of communism. Italy, like Germany, used Spain as a training ground for its new weaponry in preparation for World War II.
Although it signed the Non-Intervention Pact, Italy provided massive support to the fascist rebellion. In 1934, Antonio Goicoechea and Pedro Sainz Rodriguez, Spanish fascist emissaries, lobbied Italy for aid in case of a future uprising (Fraser 127). Mussolini pledged 1.5 million pesetas, two-hundred machine guns, and 20,000 grenades of Italian support in the event of a fascist rebellion (Werstein 74). When war broke out in 1936, Mussolini delivered the promised goods and much more. Italy provided hundreds of planes including Fiat fighters (Tinker Jr. 944), tanks, 50,000 troops (Werstein 177), and 570 million dollars combined with Germany (Fraser 279). Italy recognized Franco's regime at the upstart of the rebellion in November of 1936 (Fraser 270).
The effects of the neutrality of the United States, Britain, and France combined with the fascist support of Germany and Italy proved disastrous to the Spanish Republic. "And for all their spirit, for all their courage, it was foreign help that decided the outcome. That supplied by Germany and Italy was more powerful, and the nationalists accordingly won the war..." (McKendrick 201). The Non-Intervention Committee was a sham, "Not a man on the committee was unaware that Germany, Italy and, later, the Soviet Union were consistently violating the agreement. Since Nazi and Fascist contributions to the Rebels outweighed those of the Soviet Union to the Loyalists, the Nonintervention Committee succeeded only in assuring the death of the Spanish Republic" (Werstein 154). Republican soldier Timoteo Ruiz, after crossing the border into France and witnessing the train loads of held up supplies, commented, "If we had realized from the start that we were alone-even opposed to the bourgeois democracies which were boycotting us- it would have become a popular, revolutionary war..." (Fraser 328).
In a three year epic struggle that cost over one million lives, the Spanish Republic lost the Civil War and Spain was deprived of freedom for several decades afterwards. It is difficult to predict what might have happened had the republic won the war but it is likely that Spain would have become a much more advanced civilization instead of being one of Europe's poorest nations today. The cost of the loss to the United States, Great Britain, and France was not great but the cost to the Spanish people was gargantuan.
Fraser, Ronald. Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Pantheon, 1979.
McKendrick, Melveena. The Horizon Concise History of Spain. New York: American Heritage, 1972.
Tinker, Jr., F. G. "The Italian Debacle at Guadalajara." Men at War. Ed. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Bramhall House, 1979.
Werstein, Irving. The Cruel Years: the Story of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Julian Messner, 1969.