Historical notes: Lies and swindles in the Spanish Civil War

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AFTER ALL that has been written during the past 63 years on the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, one might suppose that everything of importance that can be said about it has been said and that every lie has been exposed, illusion shattered and old controversy finally resolved. Not quite, I'm afraid.

Consider, for instance, the disagreements over why the Republicans were defeated. According to them and their supporters, they lost because they lacked armaments. Britain and France had sponsored Non-Intervention ostensibly to prevent the civil war from escalating into a larger war. In practice, the British had worked the embargoes in such a way as to hinder arms from reaching the Republicans while allowing Hitler and Mussolini to send enough to Franco to enable him to win. This explanation was widely accepted until about 30 years ago and was tacitly endorsed even by some in Franco's own entourage.

The official Franco line, however, was that all this was a Red lie, and during the 1960s and 1970s numerous books and articles, complete with figures said to be based on captured Republican documents, appeared in Spain to show that, from the Soviet Union and through arms dealers, the Reds had procured as much material as, or even more material than, Franco had ever received from Germany and Italy combined. Thus the Nationalists won not because they had more and better arms than the Reds but because they were braver. Some of the figures were later revealed as exaggerated and were toned down a bit, but many passed into history and reference books all over the world, where they continue to misinform students.

In Britain at this time, various politicians and historians, anxious to remove the tarnish of appeasement from the Conservative Party, were rehabilitating Chamberlain and the Guilty Men of Munich as clear-headed realists who, by conciliating the dictators while sacrificing Spain, Austria and even Czechoslovakia, bought us time in which to rearm for the world war in September 1939. Spain fitted into this reasoning because, since it was now known that the Republicans had procured plenty of armaments, Non-Intervention could not have contributed to their defeat, so there was no point in waxing indignant over that either.

In a recent book, I have presented sufficient new documentary evidence to show that the figures on which this case stands are untrue, and that the effect of Non- Intervention on the Republicans was devastating and resulted in their obtaining only a small fraction of what they needed even for a defensive, let alone an offensive war.

This forced them to pay huge bribes to ministers of government, military chiefs, politicians and officials at every level in country after country in order to buy, at outrageous prices, arms that, as often as not, were never delivered or were found to be junk.

If the conduct of the Poles, Czechs, Estonians, Romanians and Turks, to mention only a few of the governments involved, at times almost defies belief, it is the Soviets who, far from giving whole-hearted support to the Spanish Republic as they and their apologists have always claimed, turn out to have been the biggest swindlers and thieves of the lot. Obviously, therefore, since this is a matter not of detail but of establishing fundamental historical justice, much that has been written about the Spanish Civil War will simply have to be rewritten.

The Russians could make a helpful start by opening all their Spanish Civil War archives, before someone tries to destroy them, or, as happened several times only a few years ago, offer them for sale on the black market.

Gerald Howson is the author of `Arms for Spain: the untold story of the Spanish Civil War' (John Murray, pounds 25)