On both sides, the Spanish Civil War was peculiarly destructive. About half a million people died, out of a population of 24 million. Whole towns and villages were virtually obliterated, like Brunete, west of Madrid, and Belchite, in Saragossa. Families were also destroyed, both by death and by political divisions that sometimes pitted brother against brother, and father against son. The economy, too, was devastated.
Distinctions between life at the front and life behind the lines were often blurred. Nowhere was safe. Both in large cities like Madrid and Barcelona, and small country towns like Guernica and Durango, Nationalist planes brought death and desolation in a way that foreshadowed the much larger-scale bombings of the Second World War. It is not surprising that when Pablo Picasso was asked to paint a picture for the Second Republic's stand at the International Exhibition in Paris in the summer of 1937, he chose to portray the human tragedy of Guernica, destroyed in April 1937 by the Condor Legion, rather than military confrontation in battle. Guernica depicted the shattered lives and bodies of women, children, men at work and animals. This was the new reality of war. Civilians were also strafed from the air as they tried to move to safety. It was as dangerous to flee east from Malaga in February 1937 or west from Vizcaya in June, as it was to be a conscript at the front.
Most bombardment of civilians was done by the Nationalists, though the Republicans bombed cities held by their enemies, including Granada. The Nationalists also shelled and strafed civilians, as they took Republican territory and people fled rather than face retribution. But there was terror on both sides, especially in the early stages of the war, when there was no settled authority and very little restraint. Marxist and Anarchist revolutionaries seized the opportunity to rid the world of priests and the social elites, just as ruthlessly as Falangists, Carlists and army generals purged it of intellectuals, Republican politicians and town councillors, and trade union officials.
To be caught in the wrong place behind the lines in the summer of 1936 was a death warrant without appeal. Violence was widespread, ideologically driven and vicious. Extremists on left and right believed that the world could be reshaped by terror. The poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca was arrested by the Falange on 16 August 1936 in his home city of Granada. He was executed on the morning of 18 August. Garcia Lorca was 38 years old, an outstanding talent even in the glittering array of Spanish experimental writers of the 1920s and 1930s. He was not interested in partisan politics. But his homosexuality and his plays, with their critique of the stifling effects of Catholic, bourgeois conventions, attracted the hatred of the new masters of Granada. His fame proved no protection.
Similarly, many died at Republican hands for what they symbolised rather than for any political actions. In the orgy of anti-clerical violence in the summer of 1936, the thousands of victims included young novices who had not even begun a religious ministry, and individuals like Father José Gafo, a courageous, lifelong campaigner for social justice. They were killed just because of their identification with the Catholic Church. Neither youth nor commitment to social reform saved them.
As the war progressed and governmental authority was asserted in both parts of Spain, uncontrolled actions by zealots became less
frequent. Random arrests, and the dreaded paseos and sacas, in which prisoners were driven to a cemetery, or the verge of a country road, or a quiet spot outside a town, and shot, became less frequent. But the generals who had espoused violence in the first place when rising against the Republic showed few qualms in continuing to exercise it behind the lines as well as at the front. As the Nationalists occupied - or in their vocabulary, liberated - village after village, town after town, they brought with them bread and reprisals, even if the latter increasingly had a veneer of legality as peremptory military tribunals took over from sheer massacre.
On the Republican side, the popular tribunals that were established in September 1936 were an improvement on the frenzied vengeance of the summer, but they were a long way from representing the rule of law.
And even in the last stages of the war, moments of military and political crisis provoked vengeance killings, such as that of Bishop Polanco early in 1939, during the rout of Republican forces in Catalonia.
Republicans increasingly feared hidden enemies. The Spanish Civil War created the term 'fifth column', or at least gave it popular currency, when General Mola famously looked forward - in vain - to taking Madrid early in the war with four columns approaching it from outside while a fifth sprang up within. But a fifth column certainly developed in Madrid, which had to wait until March 1939 before it could declare itself, but which in the meantime engaged in clandestine activities of liaison and sabotage.
Undeclared Francoists existed everywhere on Republican territory, as they were bound to do, including at the front. It was in the nature of this war to trap large numbers of people on the 'wrong' side, in circumstances where they had little choice but to hide their opinions and participate in the war effort of their political enemies. From government and the top of the military command downwards, fear of disloyalty was pervasive.
Rumours of deliberate sabotage greeted every major Republican defeat.
Soviet advisers and Spanish Communist leaders were extremely sceptical about the reliability of Prime Minister Largo Caballero's Under-Secretary for War, General Asensio, and insisted on his removal from office after the fall of Malaga. He was later arrested on suspicion of treason after the fall of Gijon. He was a dramatic example of a widespread phenomenon. This was a war within one society, not between two different countries. Who was to say what identity a man or woman held in their heart? The enemy was not just on the other side. The enemy could be anywhere.
In Republican Spain, however, the enemy within did not have to be a 'fascist'. He or she might be a genuine supporter of the Republic, but out of step with the dominant interpretation of what the Republic should be like. From October 1936, when the Soviet Union came to the aid of the Republic, the influence of the Spanish Communist party, and more particularly of Stalin, the Comintern and the Soviet Union, grew ever stronger. Without Soviet supplies, the Republic could not have withstood the armies of Nationalist Spain, backed up by the Nazis and Fascists.
Communist exasperation with Largo Caballero was a major reason for his downfall as Prime Minister in May 1937, although many non-Communists also wanted him out of office. Similarly, Communist support for Juan Negrin, and his closeness, most of the time, to Soviet priorities in Spain, were essential factors sustaining his premiership from May 1937 until the last days of the war. Those priorities were straightforward. It was the policy of the Soviet Union, the PCE, a large section of the Socialist party and what remained of the
Republican poster appealing to international opinion against the bombing of civilians in Madrid. Spanish and French versions of the poster were also issued. But the Republic's attempts to get the British and French governments to intervene in the Civil War failed. (Author's collection)
left-Republicans to concentrate on the war effort, and to persuade the western democracies that this was a confrontation between a democratic regime and international fascism. Winning the war and drawing Britain and France into an alliance against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were the dual, and closely interrelated, aims.
There was no room in this agenda for the social revolution that Anarchists, the small anti-Stalinist Communist movement (the POUM) and left-Socialists launched in the early days and weeks of the war. George Orwell was exhilarated by his experience of revolutionary Barcelona in 1936, where a new, classless society seemed to be being created. Of course, conservatives, property-owners and Catholics feared the revolution. But so too did Communists and many others on the left who were aghast at what seemed to them irresponsible forgetfulness of the main priority, which was fighting fascism. Communist political commissars, secret police and political prisons set about imposing that priority in ways that earned the Communist movement the hatred and distrust of their rivals. The torture and killing of the POUM leader Andreu Nin while imprisoned by the Communists was a particularly vicious, but not unrepresentative instance of the political purge undertaken behind the Republican lines.
Long after the armed confrontation between the revolutionaries and their opponents in May 1937 in Barcelona, which the former lost, and the subsequent removal from government of Anarchist ministers, Communists continued to harry and repress those who did not accept PCE priorities and discipline. The Anarchist trade union organisation the CNT, which had been so dominant in Catalonia and Aragón in the first weeks of the war, was a much reduced and disaffected force in its later stages, as could be seen in the collapse of the Aragón front after the Ebro campaign, and the inability to defend Barcelona as the Nationalists approached. Ideological conflict weakened the Republic at war, and brought danger and death far behind the Republican lines.
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