Background Narrative

From the start of the military insurrection until Franco's declaration that the Civil War had ended, the governments of Republican Spain were led by five Popular Front premiers: Casares Quiroga (mid-May-18 July 1936), Martinez Barrio (1819 July 1936), Giral (19 July-4 September 1936), Largo Caballero (4 September 1936-15 May 1937) and Negrin (15 May 1937- finally departed Spain 7 March 1939).

During the Giral period, political power became decentralized and radicalized. Where the Nationalist coup failed, the opportunity was grasped to establish revolutionary committees. In Barcelona, an Anti-Fascist Militias Committee representing a broad section of left-wing groups had the greater share in a 'dual power' with the Generalitat. In Aragon, an autonomous Defence Council, led by the CNT, was set up to coordinate the extensive collectivization in that region. This localism led to what Hugh Thomas has called an 'agglomeration of republics' and it was, ironically, a key feature in the revolution that Franco and Mola had risen up to prevent.1 So was collectivization, of not only land and factories, but consumer enterprises, including cinemas and restaurants. The upheaval in industry and banking was not as widespread in Madrid, but even here a de facto authority was wielded by the UGT, CNT and PCE.

This period of idealism and local democracy had its grim counter-point, however, in an orgy of blood by anarchist 'uncontrollables'. To establish an orderly legal system for punishing 'enemies of the new Spain', Popular Front tribunals came into force by the end of August 1936. Military indiscipline had already contributed to failure at the Guadarrama Passes north of Madrid and in Aragón, where the Durruti Column had failed to recapture Zaragoza. The message that discipline was integral to military success was being preached by the new 'Fifth Regiment', which had attached to it Soviet-style political commissars.

The Soviet connection with the Republic was significantly extended in August: Russian oil shipments began to arrive, together with the Soviet Ambassador Marcel Rosenberg and Senior Military Counsellor General Berzin. In September Alexander Orlov arrived, with orders to construct an NKVD apparatus to combat elements such as the POUM, which was accused of Trotskyism by its Stalinist enemies. As already suggested, however, this sense of a 'new order' was not only expressed externally. In early September Largo Caballero formed the first true Popular Front government with the PSOE, PCE, Left Republicans and PNV (Basque Nationalist Party). Largo, who had until recently refused to be in government, was now determined to take the political initiative after the spontaneous and somewhat debilitating period of revolution. War must be waged rather than improvised. That the USSR and the Comintern would be part of this process was to make for an uneasy liaison. However, thanks partly to Soviet advice, Republican forces were reorganized into a People's Army with 'mixed brigades'. The International Brigades, coordinated by the Comintern, at last arrived in mid-October along with Soviet arms shipments. The IBs would in the next twelve months fight fascism in the raw -in the battles for Madrid, the Jarama River, Guadalajara, Brunete and in Aragón.

In Barcelona in September 1936 the Generalitat, in a move to the right, dissolved the Anti-Fascist Militias Committee. It also limited collectivization to concerns with more than 100 workers: thus small private enterprises would also prosper. Although the prestige of Largo Caballero's central government was undermined when, on 6 November, it hurriedly relocated from Madrid to Valencia, the new Madrid 'Defence Junta'

coordinated the capital's resistance against the impending Nationalist attack, with the PCE holding the pivotal public order, militia and supplies portfolios. (By the end of 1936 there had been thirty-three arms deliveries from the USSR, thus grafting more influence on to the PCE's already proven organizational skills.)

How embracing and durable would the Popular Front prove to be? Conflict on the Republican side reflected a significant contrast. Largo Caballero dissolved the Madrid 'Defence Junta' in April 1937 because of what he saw as excessive Stalinist influence. In Barcelona, however, it was the anti-Stalinist groupings, most prominently the POUM, that were purged. Carr has described the 'May Days' and their aftermath as 'the watershed in the political life of the Republic' and Esenwein and Shubert hailed them '[as marking] the beginning of communist hegemony in the republican camp' -though by mid-1937 the USSR's interest in the Republic's future was beginning to fade.2 Having refused to outlaw the POUM, and isolated from his hard-line colleagues, Largo Caballero resigned in May 1937. The government of his successor, fellow-Socialist Negrín, banned the POUM, dissolved the Defence Council of Aragón, and set an agenda for national economic planning. Again, central authority must be recaptured if the war was to be won, and a liberal democratic system confidently sustained in peace.

But could the war be won? Negrín's minister of national defence, Prieto, was not at all convinced that it could, and had made peace overtures to the Nationalists. Negrín accepted his resignation in early April 1938 and himself took over Prieto's portfolio. Now the Aragón front collapsed and the forces of Falangist General Yagüe reached the sea, cutting the Republic in two. Negrín's own subsequent 'Thirteen Points' failed to convince Franco to end the war. Added to this, the Republicans' Ebro Valley Offensive, which began impressively in July 1938, proved a triple disaster - in lives, matériel and morale. Political confidence was shaken to its roots by the Munich Agreement in September: if Chamberlain and Daladier would work with Hitler against Czechoslovakia, why should they work against him in Spain?

Now the Republic collapsed. In December Franco mounted his offensive against Catalonia which fell in early February 1939: the last instalment of Soviet aid had failed to arrive in time. Britain and France then ended Republican hopes by recognizing Franco as head of the Spanish state. In early March a new 'civil war within the civil war' erupted when the Republican Colonel Casado, determined to sue for peace with the Nationalists, launched a military-civilian coup against Negrin, the PCE and what little remained of the Soviet presence. But General Franco would not accept the terms put forward by Casado's National Defence Council: they had to accept Franco's. So ended the Spanish Civil War. Albacete, site of the International Brigades' Comintern HQ, and Cartagena, where the first Soviet arms had landed in October 1936, were among the last towns to be occupied by the Nationalists.

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