Monday, June 26, 2006

Revising History - 2

Antony Beevor's new book has certainly provided the occasion for various people on the Right to put their gloss on events.  The book is called 'The Battle for Spain:  The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939'.  This is a major revision of his 1982 book  (where I give page references below, these are from the Cassell Military Paperbacks edition,  1999).

Let's start with the Times Literary Supplement and Felipe Fernández-Armesto ('My uncle Ramón was a Republican through and through,  but fought on the same side as Franco'),  who writes,  ' “Aren’t we all socialists?”, asked Orwell during the Left’s internecine battles in Barcelona. It was like asking, “Aren’t we all Christians?” at the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.'
foreigners miscast themselves as part of a war in which they were really intruders. For this was not a crisis of democracy. As Beevor points out, the Left started the war with shaky democratic credentials and rapidly forfeited even those.  Beevor imagines what might have happened had a democracy emerged. But there was no chance of such an outcome. A Republican victory after a long war would have turned Spain into a Stalinist satellite [..] A quick Republican victory would have provoked another civil war: not against the Right, [..] but between the warring sects and cults among which the Left was divided.
Similarly, Max Hastings, review in The Sunday Times :  'Beevor notes the significant point that had the Republicans lost the prewar election they, too, would almost certainly have resorted to arms to contest the democratic verdict, and that had they won the war, the communists would probably have seized monopoly power with their usual ruthlessness.'

To a degree this is also foreshadowed by a review Beevor himself wrote in the TLS in March 2005 (see Oliver Kamm, Clash of totalitarianisms):  'Largo Caballero boasted that “the difference between [the Communists] and us is no more than words” ... political violence in the street and workplace came almost entirely from the Left. The Right did not start to retaliate until early 1936'.

First of all,  the Right was retaliating against being,  narrowly,  defeated in the democratic process:  'The first main Falangist attack, had come immediately after the general election results were announced, when they started to shoot at wives and friends hurrying to release the political prisoners.' (Beevor, 1982, P61)

Then,  we should remember the nature of some of the 'violence' on the Left.  In March 1936,  60,000 landless peasants took over unused land in Estremadura and started ploughing.  In another incident at Yeste, 'the civil guard arrested peasants gathering firewood.  When they resisted, the civil guard shot 20 dead and wounded many more.' (Beevor, 1982, P60). 

Regarding Max Hastings' hypothetical scenario,  there had been uprisings on the Left in 1933 and again in 1934  (in Catalonia, Madrid and Asturias). They were put down rapidly  (and in some cases brutally).  A rising against a victory of the Right in the 1936 election would have been just as much of a footnote in history.

As for Largo Caballero's boast,  Beevor tells us in his 1982 book that he was 'intoxicated by rhetoric stronger than his intentions.' (P61)  In the summer of 1936, Largo Caballero and his 'left' socialists favoured a complete amalgamation of the socialist and communist parties. (P65)  The 'right' socialists opposed this,  but ironically it was they, under Prieto and Negrín,  rather than the 'left' socialists, who later were more prepared to go along with the Communists'  ruthless policies towards their opponents on the left.

The passage from Fernández-Armesto's review,  quoted above,  bears careful reading.  While not factually inaccurate,  it is a complete distortion. A civil war on the left could only have happened after a quick Republican victory.  Since the Stalinists had already crushed their opponents on the revolutionary Left,  they would obviously not had to perform that task again in the event of the Republic winning after a long war (increasingly unlikely after 1937).

But this is to miss out huge chunks of the story.  Britain and France provided no help to the Republic. In fact,  in some ways they supported the forces fighting against it.  This left the Republic reliant on the Soviet Union for its war materials.  The Communists, who were numerically much weaker than the socialists and anarchists before the war,  then became increasingly powerful.  If the Republic had been victorious,  the Communists would have faced a struggle with the 'liberal',  or bourgeois,  forces,  that had acquiesced in their purge of the Left - in Orwell's eyes, at the time, the PCE hardly qualified as part of the Left.

I don't know to what extent Antony Beevor has revised the overall impression he gives of the war.  I've not read the new book yet.  Fernández-Armesto criticizes him for not going along with the Right's line on the anti-religious excesses of the Republicans:  'romanticization', he calls it. (I must return to the aspect of religion later.)  Not all the reviews are by right-wing hacks. Jeremy Treglown in the FT,  I've mentioned in Part 1. Paul Preston, in The Times, says that  'Beevor is altogether more balanced' than the 'Cold War historiography, emanating from the US and using Soviet documents, [which] has endeavoured to portray the Republic in sinister terms'. Miranda France's review in the Daily Telegraph is also reasonably fair.

(To be continued)

Update: some earlier posts on Spain: Chomsky's view; Peter Tatchell's remark (I must say that later he was kind enough to reply to my e-mail and apologize).

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