Spain: Orwell's Mistake
I have been rereading the four volume collection of George Orwell's letters and essays, and a number of points strike me. One of them has to do with his view of British policy during the Spanish Civil War. On moral grounds, of course, Orwell thought Britain should have aided the Republicans against Franco's nationalists—despite his serious reservations about what was happening on the Republican side.
More interesting is his view of the pragmatics of the situation. As he saw it, his government's policy was not merely immoral but suicidal. It was obvious that, sometime in the next few years, England would be at war with Germany, and equally obvious that Franco, having been aided in his civil war by Germany and Italy, would come in on the side of his fellow fascists. By failing to aid the Republic and so letting him win, the British government was providing its enemies with key resources—access to Gibralter, air bases near the straits, Spanish territory in North Africa. The only explanation was conservative stupidity; Tories saw Franco as on their side in the class war while ignoring the certainty that he would be on the other side in the next world war.
Reading what Orwell wrote on the subject from the time of the Spanish Civil War to the early years of WWII, the argument seems entirely convincing. It also, as we now know, was wrong. Franco permitted Spanish volunteers to form a division that fought on the German side on the eastern front, while forbidding them to fight in the west. For a little while, when it looked as though the Axis was winning, he let German ships make use of Spanish ports. But for the most part he maintained Spanish neutrality, even if a neutrality somewhat slanted towards the Axis. He did not attack Gibralter, he did not invite the Germans to move troops through Spain in order to attack Gibralter, he did not provide them with access to Spanish airfields. The Spanish border remained mostly open to Jews fleeing the Nazis, and some estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 of them survived as a result.
An honest politician is defined as one who stays bought. On the evidence, Orwell overestimates Franco's honesty—he willingly accepted German and Italian help during his war but failed to reciprocate during theirs. The conservative politicians whose stupidity he blames for British failure to support the Spanish republicans may have had a more realistic view of the matter.