Arms for Spain

Arms for Spain: The Untold Story of the Spanish Civil War

By Gerald Howson, John Murray, 1998, 25hbk.

Reviewed by Dave Murray in Socialism Today, No. 38, May 1999

YOU COULD build a pretty substantial barricade with the existing body of literature about the Spanish civil war, so it is quite brave for a historian to claim that he has the untold story. Up to a point Gerald Howson makes good his claim.

Firstly, though, this book is not a general history of the war. For that try Hugh Thomas's book, if you can pick it up, or Felix Morrow's Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, for a more concise and politically clued-up account. Howson's book is the exhaustively researched story of the republican government's attempts to arm itself. The author has clearly read almost everything that has been written about the conflict, and has also turned up much valuable new evidence, particularly documentary evidence relating to the purchase and attempted purchase of arms for the Spanish republic. It is with this new material that he scores, challenging some commonly accepted notions about the civil war.

The biggest myth to bite the dust, is that the Soviet Union under Stalin materially aided the republican side. He has tracked down documentary proof that the vast bulk of military material supplied to the republicans by Stalin was of poor quality, that the republic was charged at or above market price and that by falsifying the currency exchange rates employed in these deals, the Soviet Union defrauded the republic of at least $51m (at 1936 prices). Helpfully, Stalin arranged for the Spanish government to ship its gold reserves (in 1936 the fifth largest in the world at $518m) to the Soviet Union and, guess what, by the end of the civil war most of it had been transferred to the Soviet government as payment for arms procurement or in return for credits at the Soviet Bank in Paris. That Stalin was one of the executioners of the Spanish revolution is no surprise to us Trots, but Howson has done us a favour in furnishing us with cold hard facts.

The other myth he takes a shot at is the myth that the major powers' policy of 'non-intervention' (that is, an arms embargo) was equally harmful to both sides. He traces the origin of non intervention to a combination of the spinelessness of the newly elected 'socialist' prime minister of France, Leon Blum, and the machinations of a British government who mainly wanted to halt the spread of Bolshevism. Thus the committee that was supposed to enforce non-intervention was not allowed to take evidence from either Franco's side or the republicans. This was so that the Italians and Germans wouldn't walk out if someone were to point out that they were engaged in substantial military support for Franco up to and including direct intervention of fighting troops and air forces. The author takes up the right-wing view that non-intervention and later the appeasement of Hitler were necessary to give Britain time to get its act together to defeat Hitler. He takes it up and trashes it, showing that the British ruling class didn't begin preparing for war with Germany until after the Spanish civil war was over, and that in any case, one single arms wholesaler, based in Britain (where else) could have easily supplied the majority of the republic's fighting forces with rifles, machine guns, artillery and plentiful ammunition from stock. Instead, the republic and its various armed forces had to deal on the shady side of the shadiest business in the world, the international arms trade. The author provides a fascinating account of the maddening process by which their efforts were frustrated and betrayed, and the many ways in which they were cheated.

The problem with the book is, of course, political. Although the title of this book is a workers' slogan of the time, the workers and their movement, both in Spain and the rest of the world, are not major players in Howson's story. Because the author is so meticulous, however, they are fleetingly present. The May events of 1937 in Barcelona (brilliantly portrayed in Ken Loach's film, Land and Freedom) are mentioned in passing. References are made to French workers in their tens of thousands calling on Blum to arm the Spanish workers, and to dockers at Bordeaux working unpaid round the clock to load ships for Spain before the implementation of non-intervention. In New York dockers gave a republican supply ship exemption from strike action and provided voluntary labour to get it out of the harbour before Congress could pass a law to make its cargo of aircraft illegal. These are glimpses of how the working class attempted to overcome the difficulties that the republican government found itself in.

Gerald Howson concludes that historians still have a lot to get right about the Spanish civil war and that 'until they do we cannot consider properly why the Republicans lost'. This is a cop out. Clearly the republican side was paralysed by its fear of the working class. The author makes this point in relation to the arming of the workers in Madrid. While Franco fought the government to destroy the revolution, the republic (assisted enthusiastically in this by Stalin and his agents) destroyed the revolution to fight the fascists. It didn't work. All in all 200,000 people were executed by Franco in the mass murder campaign unleashed by the victorious fascists, which did not end until 1943. This chilling figure does not include casualties of war. Thus you can't but feel a shiver of anger when you read of Azanza and Negrin, key figures in the defeated government, fleeing the country. They witness refugees moving off the road to allow safe passage to the art treasures of the Prado. One says to the other that all the 'notions' of monarchy and republic were not worth a single painting by Velasquez. In a life or death struggle maybe it's best to have your enemies in front of you.

For a history of Irish invovlement in the SCW see this article, from Socialist View Summer 2003.