Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Some Reflections on the Spanish Civil War, by Ian Oakley

If the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 is recalled in Britain and in our celebrity obsessed, narcissistic culture, then it is not recalled much; it is mainly for the artistic impressions that have lasted, whether it is Hemmingway, Orwell or Picasso.

The Spanish Civil War still has lessons for the world today.

The first, and most striking, is the involvement of outsiders in the conflict, on both sides.

There were the famous International Brigades on the Republican side. But there were also Italian and German forces on the Nationalist side.

The modern equivalent has to be the Syrian Civil War. The idealistic young Muslims from Birmingham and London going to Syria are echoing the socialist and communist youths of Britain in the 1930s.

On the other side-in both senses-you have Iranian forces dying for Assad just as the Italians and Germans were.

The Germans in particular saw the conflict as a training ground for the future; Britain meanwhile was tying itself in knots over non-intervention.

Although I cannot help but note that Anthony Eden certainly had a more central role in international diplomacy than William Hague does now.

This is in part because Britain was more diplomatically significant, but also Hague’s dreary management consultant approach to foreign affairs seems particularly ineffective, whereas Eden was making his reputation at this point.

The second striking fact is that there was no monopoly on murder and brutality. Summary executions were used on both sides, in huge numbers.

While most decent people wanted the Republic to win, there was no guarantee a democratic, peaceful Spain would have emerged.

Just as in Syria today the only man left who thinks Assad’s defeat will lead to a wonderful, peaceful democratic country is the millionaire Middle Eastern ‘expert’ Tony Blair.

The one feature of the war that does not seem modern is the vast difference of ideologues that were on display in the Republican areas.

There were the official communists, backed by Stalin but with a moderate political programme. There was the POUM, anti-Stalinist communists. There were the socialists, there were the anarcho-syndicalists, and there were the Basque and Catalan nationalists.

In our modern world, where the political debate in the West has been reduced to whether we want a full bloodied form of capitalism with the wealth getting most of the benefits, or a system where they get slightly less, the diversity and energy of these rival idea is striking.

For a brief period, most of the ideas were at least tried, even if only briefly.

The lasting impression is the true horror of Civil War: families divided, the mass of suffering and destruction, only punctuated occasionally by acts of heroism and kindness.

Spain is currently going through huge economic pain.

But just as Spain survived the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, so it will survive its current problems and emerge a stronger nation.


  1. I would not see the "idealistic young Muslims from Birmingham and London" as 21st century versions of the volunteers to the International Brigades because the reactionary, intolerant and vicious visions of Islamic society which inspire their sacrifices is the very antithesis of those that inspired idealistic Anarchists, Marxists and Socialists volunteers who fought and died in Spain in the thirties.

  2. Please post the link to "Ian Oakley's" personal blog. Thanks, Martin Miller.

    1. He doesn't have one.

      And he is a very real person, who can be Googled.

    2. As Mr. Lindsay has just tweeted, Oliver Kamm (for "Martin Miller" is he) obviously does not read the papers.