Red Spain

Hugh Thomas

  • The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counter-Revolution by Burnett Bolloten
    Harvester, 1074 pp, £50.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 7450 0763 5

During the Spanish Civil War the Communist Party established a stranglehold over the Republican Government and Army. They were able to do this for many reasons. First, they could present themselves as the collaborators of the Soviet Union, the chief provider of armaments. They acted as agents for the International Brigades. In addition, they adopted a conciliatory domestic policy, suggesting that the Anarchists, Left Socialists and others were all wrong to think of revolution while the war was going on. The consequence was a great increase in Communist Party membership to include thousands of middle-class Spaniards whose ‘Marxism’ merely spelled the need for a refuge from the Anarchists. The novelist Goytisolo recalls that his father, an engineer in a Catalan factory, joined the Communists in order to try and prevent the Anarchists from taking over the plant.

The Communists also insisted that the war could only be won by a conventional army, rather than a spontaneous militia in anarchist style, with discussions and votes as to whether an attack should be mounted. They showed themselves adept at war propaganda. Support for the liberal-left coalition, the Popular Front, both in Spain and beyond, was presented by the Communists as a ‘heroic caravanserai’, in Malraux’s words.

In July 1936 the small Spanish Communist Party, with its few thousand members and 16 out of 475 members of parliament, would have been incapable of organising such a multifaceted performance. They were assisted, inspired and organised to this dazzling pitch by a large number of clever international apparatchiks, mostly provided by the secretariat of the Comintern from the ranks of exiled Central and Eastern European Communists, but there were also recruits from Russia, and the countries of Western Europe. Weeks before Russian military assistance had begun to arrive in Spain, the flower of the international Communist movement of the Thirties were operating in government offices, military units and makeshift interrogation centres in Madrid. Often they had Spanish pseudonyms.

The Italians were specially busy. There was the magnetic leader from Trieste, Vittorio Vidali, the organiser, as Carlos Contreras, of the famous Fifth Regiment. His Diary of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union showed a remarkable capacity for scepticism. Perhaps one day we shall be able to read a complete version. There was the Italian-Argentinian Communist organiser, Codovilla, known in Spain as Medina. Later there would arrive the infinitely experienced Italian Secretary-General, Togliatti, a member of the Comintern executive committee who, as Alfredo, in effect chaired the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party throughout the last eighteen months of the Civil War.

Darker figures also came, many of them Russians from the NKVD, taking over (or inventing) security arrangements or acting as advisers to military commanders. Wilhelm Zaisser, a member of the GRU, and future minister of internal security in East Germany, appeared as General Gomez, the commander of the 13th International Brigade. As these mysterious figures arrived in the zones of power, young Spanish Communists would be found in responsible junior positions in the surviving Republican ministries. Sometimes the person concerned would be nominally a socialist or even a liberal (a left Republican). But the Party would take care to ensure that these individuals were not only generally sympathetic to the Communist cause, but also prepared to turn a blind eye to the Party’s brutalities against George Orwell’s friends in the POUM: that body being, of course, the small party of chiefly Catalan ex-Communists who had either been expelled from the Party or had resigned from it over the previous few years. The Soviet Police in Spain probably wished to secure a confession from the POUM secretary Andres Nin that he had been in touch with the Nazis. When torture failed to achieve that, Nin was murdered, perhaps by Vidali – as now even Communists accept. This Communist penetration was a political achievement of the first importance. As happened in Eastern Europe after 1945, very often the minister would be an impeccable liberal. But his undersecretary and the man who wielded the power would turn out to be a Communist.

It was Burnett Bolloten’s purpose to chronicle this Communist feat. This he did with remorseless attention to detail. He spent nearly fifty years writing this book, and died before this final edition appeared. Whatever one may think of the result, the author’s dedication is awe-inspiring. Bolloten went to Spain during the Civil War as correspondent of the United Press. He began collecting newspapers, propaganda hand-outs, leaflets, booklets. As he admits, he was at that time inclined to support the Communist cause. Subsequently, he entered the Californian property business, but he continued his studies in his spare time. After many years, he published his first findings, which took the matter of Communist penetration up till the middle of 1937, when Negrin, Bolloten’s bête noire, became Republican prime minister. The first edition of his book was finished in 1952, but, after rejection by many publishers, only appeared in 1961, as The Grand Camouflage, under the imprint of the Catholic firm of Hollis and Carter. The title indicated that the idea that the Spanish Republic continued to be a democracy into the Civil War was mere public relations.

A pirated Spanish edition of Bolloten entitled El Gran Engaño – ‘Deception’ in place of ‘Camouflage’ – was published in Spain with the enthusiastic approval of Franco’s censors. The translation was hasty. A year or two later, annoyed at the reputation he had gained of being a witness for the prosecution, Bolloten secured two further, accurately translated Spanish editions. The first came out in Mexico in 1962, the second in 1964 in Stanford, under the auspices of the Institute of Hispanic American Studies there, then still directed by the high-minded Ronald Hilton. A second English edition, also entitled The Grand Camouflage, appeared in 1968, with an introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper. A third, called The Spanish Revolution, appeared in 1978-79 in English, Spanish and French.

Finally, a newly revised text appeared. This work, over twice as long as the original text, was published by Alianza in Madrid in 1989. The book under review is the meticulously edited English version. Bolloten died before he could finish either the final chapter or the preface: Stanley Payne of Chicago completed the first, another friend the second.

This volume of 743 pages, plus 200 pages of notes, no longer has ‘camouflage’ or ‘deception’ in its title. It is misleadingly called The Spanish Civil War. I do not say this because I have any wish to maintain a proprietary hold on the title, but because Bolloten did not set out to write a general history of the Civil War. There is no military history here, no discussion of what happened on the Nationalist side, little economic or social analysis, and only passing references to the diplomatic background – references which suggest, even when they have to do with the Soviet Union, that the author is not quite at home in that field. Neither Malraux nor Millan Astray, Auden nor Spender, neither Guernica nor General Yague, appear in the index. There is much new material in the new book, some of it deriving from interviews with survivors, most of it from rare publications, from Soviet memoirs or from newspapers and magazines of the time and later. Togliatti’s reports to the Comintern have been published in both Spanish and Italian, and Bolloten quotes from them to good effect. There is also original material: for example, the transcript of telephone conversations between Anarchist ministers and the Socialist minister of the interior during the events of May 1937 in Barcelona. There are the unpublished memoirs of the Communist minister for agriculture, Vicente Uribe. But the final message from Bolloten is the same as it was in 1961, 1964 and 1977: the Communists took over the Spanish Republic. The moral for Bolloten was clear: quoting from Fernando Claudin, the Communist intellectual who remained prominent in the Party till his expulsion with Jorge Semprun in 1964 (see that author’s fascinating The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez), he states that by ‘fulfilling the directives of Moscow to eliminate Largo Caballero [the Socialist Secretary-General] from the premiership and to unleash repression against the POUM, the PCE assumed responsibility for deepening the divisions within the working masses and greatly weakened the Republic’s will to fight.’

These propositions should be carefully examined. First, it is true that once it became obvious that the Russians were the only reliable allies of the Republic, a degree of Russification took over for which there was no precedent. With their great resources for, and attention to, propaganda the Russians made the most of the opportunity. Enormous posters of Marx, Lenin and Stalin were everywhere to be seen. More important, Negrin treated the Russians as indispensable friends.

But the Republicans had no alternative beyond the unacceptable one of making peace. Given Negrin’s need for arms and the refusal of the British and French to supply them on anything like the necessary scale, Negrin’s behaviour was no more reprehensible than, and not very different from, the attitudes of Roosevelt, Churchill and thousands of pro-Russians in Britain and the United States towards the end of the Second World War. If Churchill, as he told Colville, had to ‘sup with the devil’ in the summer of 1941, surely Negrin’s comparable conduct can be understood. Negrin’s complacency over Communist persecution of the POUM has its World War Two equivalent in Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s acceptance of the Soviet position on Katyn and the Communisation of East Europe. I don’t suppose that any more pro-Russian article appeared in the Spanish independent press in the Civil War than that which appeared in Life in March 1943.

Bolloten spends some time taking me to task (together with several others such as Juan Marichal and Angel Viñas) for accepting Negrin at his own valuation. Negrin was a rightwing socialist physiologist who had been responsible for planning the new university outside Madrid. Before the war he was a deputy of no significance. His personal habits have not helped his reputation: he would eat and drink as much as four ordinary people, according to Indalecio Prieto, and was a prodigious consumer of aspirin. I have always seen him as a tragic statesman of immense importance. His aim was to win the war: he was prepared to make every compromise to do so (Bolloten admits there is a case to be made for him in this respect), and stooped to some most dubious actions. By the time that Negrin assumed the premiership the Communists were already in place.

Bolloten’s book has some other weaknesses. The characters of the Communists are one-dimensional. We are given no impression of the personality of José Diaz, the Sevillano Secretary-General of the Spanish Communist Party. Bolloten knew Vidali, but he does not say what he was like. There is not much exploration of the reasons why individuals or groups (the Socialist Youth, the Catalan Socialists) became Communists, or changed from being Anarchist to Communist when they did. The regional issue, in relation both to Communism – for example, the curious behaviour of the Basque Communists – and to politics in general, are ignored. Almost the only reference to La Pasionaria’s oratory, which played such an important part in the early part of the Civil War, is to the effect that her speeches were sometimes written by Togliatti. But he could only have suggested ideas, since she spoke without notes.

At the end of the Civil War the anti-Communist forces within the Republican Army mounted a coup d’état in Madrid against the Communists. Many people were killed, and a ‘civil war within a civil war’ lasted for a week. Republican officers revealed themselves as having been no more than fair-weather Communists. Bolloten’s account of this episode is vivid, and is one of the best new parts of his book. He criticises Negrin and others for opposing this rising. But the coup could only have been justified had it led to a compromise peace. Instead, as the leaders of the coup must or should have foreseen, Franco showed no disposition to negotiate with them. For him, they were as ‘red’ as Negrin. Indeed they appeared more reprehensible to the Nationalists, because they were mostly regular army officers who should have known better than to side with the ‘riffraff’.

Bolloten and Claudin were right to say that divisions within the Republican side were one of the reasons for the defeat. The need to adapt to Communist attitudes transformed the illusion lyrique (a chapter heading of L’Espoir): but the conduct of the Anarchist élite, the FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica), in the first weeks of the Civil War was atrocious. Pent-up emotions lead to violence, but the FAI pursued a cult of murder, the ‘propaganda of the deed’, which was no less unpardonable for being open to romantic treatment (though not by Baroja and Sender, two Spanish writers who dealt with Anarchism – the first ended up supporting Franco, the second became more or less a Communist). Bolloten devotes two pages to the terrible killings behind the lines on the Republican side at the beginning of the war, but he does not attribute the blame for most of this to the FAI.

The famous Anarchist-inspired communes, to which Bolloten devotes some intelligent paragraphs, were interesting political manifestations, but they scarcely fitted in with the war effort. Produce was often consumed en place, rather than delivered to the towns or the Army. Bolloten rightly says that the reason why these collectives were so easily established in Aragon was that the militias there at the beginning of the war were mostly Anarchist in inspiration. He is also right to point out that the opposition by small proprietors to collectivisation was vehement. This took many of them, like Goytisolo’s father, into the Communist Party. There is a case for thinking that on this occasion the Communists were able to articulate popular feeling. It was not only the torture chambers of the Communist-dominated security service which caused division. A sometime leader of the Anarchist Youth, Jacinto Toryho, wrote a memoir in the Seventies entitled No eramos tan malos: ‘we were not so bad.’ True, but not so good either.

Bolloten’s book still strikes me as it did when I read the first version of it in 1961: as that of a hard-working man with a powerful mind, overwhelmed by a vast amount of often fascinating material, yet unable to see the problem which obsessed him in all its dimensions.