By Eugene W. Plawiuk
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. Unlike the world wide celebrations last year marking the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, and the end of World War II, don't expect there to be much recognition of this forgotten war. In most history books it receives little if any mention. Usually only a passing comment on how Spain between 1936-1939 was the staging ground for Hitler's Blitzkrieg giving General Franco victory over the Republican government.
The Spanish Civil War, was not only a battle against fascism, but a social revolution. It involved all of Europe and the political forces of the left and the right, in the struggle to defend socialism and democracy from the forces of reaction.
In 1931 Spain had held its first ever democratic elections, after King Alfonso abdicated, which a united front of socialists, and liberals won. The government declared Spain a Republic bringing an end 300 years of feudalistic rule by the aristocracy and the Catholic church. The republic declared itself in favour of land reform, breaking up the big haciendas and for union recognition for workers. The anarchists, socialists and some communists saw this as the beginning of a workers revolution. The liberal and moderate Republicans were terrified that change was happening too fast. In particular they were afraid of the power of the church, the old families, and the military which was under the control of extreme right wing elements.
In 1936 with the support of Hitler, Mussolini and the Catholic Church the right wing in Spain led a counter revolution against the Republican government. They used the army under General Franco to attack the government. Civil War was declared, and the call: NO PASARAN! (they shall not pass), went out around the world for workers to defend the Republic. The response to that call was the creation of the International Brigades, a volunteer army of workers, artists and intellectuals who went Spain to fight on behalf of the Republican cause.
Franco's forces were held back in Catalonia, Barcelona and the northern Basque provinces. Here anarchist-syndicalists took over the factories and peasants formed anarchist communes on the land recently liberated from the old families. Direct democracy was instituted not only in the factories but in the cities. Police were replaced with civilian self defense forces made up of armed workers prepared to defend the revolution from Franco's forces. A new social revolution was being created in the midst of a civil war.
By 1937 The Spanish Civil War had become front page news in the Edmonton Journal and Bulletin. The anarchist orator Emma Goldman traveled across Canada raising support and funds for the Spanish revolutionaries, and bringing attention to the plight of the Republic.
Edmonton city councilor Margret Crang, joined Dr. Norman Bethune, Claire Culhane (the prison reform advocate) and 1300 other Canadians in going to Spain with the International Brigades. Crang and Culhane worked with Bethune to set up the first ever mobile field hospital , a MASH, bringing first aid to the republican forces at the front.
Other Canadian workers and intellectuals joined the XVth English Speaking Unit of the International Brigades, The Lincoln Brigade. The Canadian Battalion was named the Mac-Paps after Mackenzie Papineau, the two leaders of the 1837 Rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada. The Mac-Paps were lead by two trade union activists; Edward Cecil Smith from Toronto and Saul Wellman from New York. Wellman was also the Communist Party political commissar for the battalion.
The Mac-Paps fought in five major campaigns, defending the Republic, and finally withdrew in 1938. Only 35 Canadians had survived in the battalion of over 500. When they returned to Canada they were welcomed by the trade union movement and the political parties of the left, but received no official recognition from the government. The Canadian government had banned participation in the International Brigades under the Foreign Enlistment Act of April 1937, and the Customs Act which forbade export of arms to foreign countries. To this day the Canadian government has not recognized the men and women who fought in Spain in the International Brigades. In Toronto the supporters and survivors of the International Brigades are currently raising funds to erect a memorial to these brave men and women. Last year the Spanish Government recognized all the members of the International Brigades and their endeavors to defend the Republic. The government declared them honorary citizens of Spain.
Like the Balkan wars today, England and France refused to supply the Republican side, though they knew that Franco was getting all out support from Germany and Italy. Rather they blockaded Spain's ports. This in turn forced the Republican Government in Madrid to turn to Stalin and Russia for support.
Stalin's support gave more power to the Communist Party of Spain which was smaller and weaker than either the Independent Marxist Party (POUM) or the Anarchists. It was this intervention by Moscow that led the Communists to the tragic mistake of believing they could compromise with Franco. The anarchists and members of POUM saw the Civil War as a chance at creating a social revolution. The war was seen as a defense of the communes and factory occupations that were going on in Northern Spain. In Madrid the communists and the Republican government saw this as a war in defense of parliamentary democracy against the forces of fascism and reaction. The world powers, saw this as a possible prelude to World War and were terrified of confronting Germany and Italy over the issue.
The Communists and the Republican Government believed that they could negotiate with Franco if they quelled the anarchist revolution in Catalonia and Barcelona. It was this tragic policy that led to a civil war within the civil war. Communist party commissars and military advisors from Moscow, seized control of the army and attacked the anarchists and POUMists. The most pitched battles in the last days of the civil war were in the cities controlled by the Anarchists laid siege to by the Republican army under communist control.
In the end Spain fell to Franco, but by then the world was looking at Germany's expansion into Poland and shuddering at the possibility of a World War. It is believed that had Europe intervened in defense of Republican Spain, Germany and Italy would have been roundly defeated, and the second world war could have been avoided. Instead Hitler got a chance to practice his blitzkrieg tactics on Spain in preparation for his expansion into Europe. The famous Piccaso painting of the German bombing of Spanish civilians at Guernica would foreshadow the horrors awaiting a Europe that had turned it's back on Spain.
Originally published in the Princess Theatre Guide, May/June 1996
Spain 1936, The Forgotten War, Remembered is the work and sole property of Eugene W. Plawiuk.
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