Background Narrative

Not long after the abortive Nationalist coup in mid-July 1936 it became evident that the Spanish Civil War - despite its origins in indigenous conflicts - would be more than a domestic Spanish affair. Such things were not new: in Russia between 1918 and 1921 'interventions' had sought to change the government, without success. But in Spain two decades later, intervention (and non-intervention) by foreign powers, whether deliberately or by default, saw to it that the government did change.

To see the Spanish Civil War in its full international perspective, its impact on the intervening and 'neutral' powers (and relations between them) needs to be considered. For example, the war further weakened Italy's economy and was instrumental in forging the Rome-Berlin Axis. It led to splits in the French and British cabinets and eventually to Anthony Eden's resignation as Foreign Secretary. In the United States it helped undermine the isolationist consensus. (The significance of Russian intervention and of the International Brigades is considered in detail in the next chapter.)

On several levels, 1936 set the pattern for future developments. Having decided to assist the insurgents, Hitler and Mussolini supplied Junkers and Savoia-Marchetti aircraft to transport the Spanish Foreign Legion and Moorish regulares from Morocco. Heinkel biplane fighters were landed at Cádiz by early August 1936 and, though towards the end of the month Germany and Italy 'agreed in principle' to nonintervention, up to October 1936 freighters regularly left German ports loaded with combat aircraft, artillery and light tanks. From August, too, Italian fighter planes flew missions in Spain. The first bombing raids on Madrid took place on 28 August. Portugal had also pledged assistance to the Nationalists. American Texaco oil helped fuel the latter's war effort from the first weeks of the conflict; American motor companies such as Ford supplied Franco's forces with trucks.

In France the question of whether to support the Spanish Republican government divided the Popular Front cabinet of Léon Blum. In fact, nearly fifty French biplanes (Neuport-Delage 52s) built in Spain were already in use by government forces in July 1936; by mid-October a further ninety-four French aircraft had been delivered to Spain. However, nonintervention became the official stance, as the best means of 'quarantining' the conflict.

In early August Britain and France produced a draft policy proposal, though when the Non-Intervention Committee held its first meeting in London in early September interventionist powers were, ironically, at least as conspicuous by their presence as Britain, France and the Soviet Union. (Until mid-October, Russian aid to the Republic consisted mainly of food.) Not surprisingly, Republican Spain's efforts to present its case to the Non-Intervention Committee, and the League of Nations, many of whose members were pro-Franco, yielded nothing positive.

October 1936 proved a crucial month. Responding to the Republicans' deteriorating position, Soviet Russia began some deliveries of military aid. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy therefore decided to intensify their own assistance to the Nationalist side, whose credit on Texaco oil was also guaranteed at this time. Portugal had already formalized its direct military aid to Franco by creating the Portuguese Legion. The German Condor Legion arrived by sea in November; German advisers were already in Madrid to assist the Nationalist commander General Varela. By early December, Italy had supplied over 100 aircraft, as well as small tanks, artillery and machine-guns; before Christmas the port of Cádiz welcomed the first Italian 'volunteers', nearly 50,000 of whom were to land by February, in time to suffer ignominious defeat at the Battle of Guadalajara. Germany's and Italy's diplomatic recognition of Franco as Spanish Head of State in November 1936 had given them spurious grounds for arguing that they were now merely helping the government.

Meanwhile, Britain and France adhered officially to nonintervention, except for the occasional reopening of the French border when the state of French politics permitted. They appeared to take a stronger line against arms imports to Spain through the British Merchant Shipping Act (December 1936) and Non-intervention Committee sea patrols (April 1937). However, the September 1937 Nyon Agreement to sink 'pirate', that is, Italian, submarines only came into effect after Italian submarine attacks had ended. Having initially sought to prevent the passage of arms to Spain, in February 1937 the Non-Intervention Committee extended the ban, with no more success, to foreign volunteers. Despite morale-boosting temporary gains, for example, at Teruel in southern Aragon and in the Ebro Valley (in early and mid-1938, respectively), over 2 million dollars' worth of arms from Mexico, and international outrage at the destruction of Guernica in April 1937, the Republic continued to lose territory - notably in the south and north in 1937 and then in 1938 (faced with yet more German and Italian aid to Franco) in the east. A new American Neutrality Act in May 1937 indirectly strengthened Franco's position and his eventual victory in the Ebro Valley (November 1938) was, in military terms, decisive.

How might a compromise peace between Republican and Nationalist forces - a dwindling hope of Negrin's Republican government - be achieved? By the withdrawal of all foreign volunteers? Whatever the case, international attention was switching to central Europe. Wider diplomatic considerations were already intervening in April 1938 when a reference to 'substantial withdrawal' of Italian troops from Spain formed part of the 'Anglo-Italian Agreement'. In the months after the German Anschluss, the Czech crisis reached boiling point. The Munich Agreement of 29 September, in which Britain and France yielded to Hitler's demand for the Sudetenland, 'was a death blow to the diplomatic hopes of the Spanish Republic'.1 Stalin now realized that he might have to 'deal' with a dangerously aggrandizing Nazi Reich. A price for this would -

ironically - be appeasement, namely withdrawing from Spain the anti-fascist International Brigades, whose farewell parades took place at the end of October 1938. However, the Condor Legion and troops from the Italian CTV remained in Spain until May 1939, several weeks after Franco's victory. The extent of Franco's own non-interventionism in the Second World War was yet to be revealed.

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