Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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.


lelnet said...

It's even plausible to argue that the Allies were better off with Spain being neutral than they'd have been with Spain as an ally. A neutral Spain was enough of an asset to Hitler that he didn't push too hard for the things it didn't give him...like access to conquer Gibraltar. Had Hitler and Franco been on opposite sides, Germany might well have invaded, and ended up able to close the straits to Allied traffic.

Jonathan said...

Given the behaviour of both sides in the Spanish Civil War, there was probably a moral case to be made for staying well out of it.

It's a funny thing with civil wars in general, that there usually seems to be something seriously wrong with both sides.

Giles said...


William B Swift said...

I am only slightly acquainted with the war in Span, but from my general reading about WWII, I didn't think Germany and Italy provided all that much help to Spain. Several of the sources I have read suggested that they used the Spanish war primarily as a testing ground for new tactics, and sent no more forces than necessary to that purpose.

Anonymous said...

so they were like NATO in Libya and less like Americans in Vietnam?

Anonymous said...

Ok so he made a mistake! Next topic. I intend to make at least one before I die anyway.

neil craig said...

I'm not sure the British politicians were so clever. I think they just put a higher priority on being anti-communist than on stopping Hitler.

One could also argue that if the Republicans had won Spain would have joined in the war against Hitler or even that such a defeat for Mussolini would have led to his fall. I would certainly argue that had Britain and France been willing to sign up to an alliance with the USSR, probably easier as part of being on the same side over Spain or but could have been done anyway, Hitler would have been stopped without any general war.

There are endless possibilities and politicians should not be entirely judged by what did happen but at least as much by what they did with the knowledge available at the time.

John B said...

Amazing that some commenters still lament that Britain and France didn't help the communists.

In 1939 Stalin signed a pact with Germany. The most important ignored act of the 20th century. As a result, Russia and Germany invaded Poland; Russia provided Germany with oil and other resources; Russia aided the Nazis in rounding up millions of Jews.

Only when Hitler attacked Russia--then the Russians decided they were our allies. If Hitler never attacked Russia....you wouldn't be reading this.

And that fallacy still continues to this day.

Anonymous said...

A few items:
1. I have read an article saying that a number of clues indicate that Franco was a Secret Jew; this would certainly explain why he was so helpful towards Jews, for a self-proclaimed Fascist.
2. Just because history turns out one way, doesn't mean you were right - you could have just lucked out (The British on Franco not joining the Axis). But if the British had guessed at Franco being a secret Jew, then they were operating off of good intel, not just hoping for the best - we'll never know.
3. Spain's economy was trashed due to the civil war - the last thing he needed was a new one. Given that the Spanish were experienced at fighting, and it would have given Germany a long coastline to defend, I don't think Hitler would have wanted to invade Spain - it would have tied down too many troops - far easier for him to get Vichy France onto his side.
4. Stalin in '39 allied with Hitler, after trying to sign a mutual-defense treaty with France and England earlier in '39. France and England couldn't get themselves to say 'yes' and couldn't get them to say 'no'. So he finally gave up - he knew Hitler was going to attack somebody, and Stalin knew the state of his own army after shooting all his officers. Imagine WW2 if FR+UK+USSR were allied at the start...

So Spain and Communism was a very complicated situation.