Britain Helped Franco Destroy Spanish Democracy

Paul Preston

Eighty-five years ago today, Francisco Franco declared victory in the Spanish Civil War. In an interview, historian Paul Preston tells Jacobin about the decisive role that Franco’s sympathizers in the British government played in crushing Spanish democracy.

Francisco Franco visiting the town of Burgos, Spain, 1936. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin

The Spanish Civil War came to an end on April 1, 1939, just days after Francisco Franco’s Nationalist troops entered Madrid. By the time the capital fell, following a long siege, the war’s body count had reached nearly half a million. About one hundred fifty thousand of those deaths directly owed to the Francoist terror; a further twenty thousand Republican prisoners were executed in the immediate wake of the Nationalists’ victory. Thousands more died in concentration camps across the country or in refugee camps over the border in southern France.

Renowned historian Paul Preston called it the “Spanish Holocaust.” Now, eighty-five years after the defeat of Spain’s democratic Second Republic, Preston’s new book turns the spotlight on Britain’s crucial but often overlooked involvement in the Spanish war. It explains how the British and French governments’ so-called policy of nonintervention — as per a diplomatic agreement with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union — hobbled the Republican war effort. As Preston argues in Perfidious Albion: Britain and the Spanish Civil War, London’s position was not just a policy of abstention, but of siding with the rebels:

Most commentators have placed considerable weight on the logistical assistance given to Franco by Hitler and Mussolini. However, the bald statement that Franco’s military rebels enjoyed a massive advantage thanks to the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy fails to take into account the considerable advantage provided by the barely disguised sympathy of the Conservative government of Great Britain. . . . The democratic powers of Western Europe ignored any considerations of self-interest, let alone of solidarity when they effectively supported the cause of the Spanish military rebels behind the farcical façade of non-intervention

On the anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, Preston sits down with Jacobin’s Eoghan Gilmartin to discuss the betrayal of the Spanish Republic.

British Betrayal

Eoghan Gilmartin

Perfidious Albion looks at the Spanish Civil War through British eyes, with the first three chapters dealing with the Tory government’s policy of nonintervention. You argue that nonintervention was conceived in terms of not only preventing a broader European war breaking out, but that it also had “a further attraction for British right-wingers in that it would facilitate the victory of the military rebels.”

As you insist, behind this ostensible neutrality of nonintervention, the British government “adopted the same actively anti-left-wing stance as virtually every element of the country’s foreign policy since the Russian Revolution of October 1917.” Can you explain the importance of nonintervention in facilitating Franco’s victory and how it fits in within the wider framework of appeasing fascism and anti-communism?

Paul Preston

One of my biggest irritations as a historian of twentieth-century Europe is that almost all the standard texts on the origin of World War II, particularly those dealing with appeasement (and whether it was a prudent or realistic policy based on Britain’s unpreparedness for war), show very little interest in the Spanish Civil War. Yet to my mind you cannot understand why World War II happened if you do not examine how the Spanish war played out and its political consequences.

In January 1937, there was a meeting in Rome between Hermann Göring and Benito Mussolini about whether Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy should continue supporting Franco’s war effort. In the meeting, both men complain what a poor strategist Franco is and that he has no idea about international politics. Crucially, Göring also insists that their arming and military support for Franco [in contravention of the nonintervention pact] would not be able to continue because there is no way the British would let them continue.

At that moment in time, the decision-makers in the Axis powers believed that appeasement could not last, since the British establishment would wake up to the threat they posed to Anglo-French hegemony on the continent. In this respect, while it is very often argued that Nazi Germany’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War was about securing supplies of key strategic materials like tungsten, actually it was primarily a challenge directed at Britain and France.

One of the ethical requirements of being a professional historian is not to engage in counterfactual speculations or “what ifs.” But there is a lot of literature out there doing exactly that, saying it is a good job that the Spanish Republic did not win the Civil War because it would have seen the country become a Communist dictatorship. This is an ahistorical conclusion based on total ignorance, and in fact I would argue it is the other way around. If you are going to speculate about the consequences if the Spanish Republic had won the civil war, you first have to ask what would have had to be different for it to have won the war.  And it could only have won the war if Anglo-French policy had been different.

In this respect, most standard accounts of the Civil War tend to underestimate the massive help Franco also received from British foreign policy. Nonintervention was arguably aimed at keeping the peace, but it was very odd that at every stage of its implementation, it favored Franco and damaged the Republic, which was the legitimate democratic regime.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress, denounced the nonintervention agreement as “the supreme farce of our time.” It was easily demonstrated that the British establishment knew this to be the case since nothing was done to inhibit the continued supply of military aid from the Axis powers to the rebels, nor to prevent the crucial participation of the crack high-tech German Condor legion with latest aircraft and artillery as well as around eighty thousand Italian troops and high proportions of the Italian navy and air force.

Moreover, everything was done in legal and financial terms [by the British authorities] to facilitate arms procurement by the rebels while obstacles were repeatedly put in the way of the Republic purchasing arms and equipment. The arms embargo was anything but neutral.

Why did the British ruling class make these types of decisions? Well, part of it was down to class prejudice. Decision-makers were letting their thinking be dictated more by their class prejudices than by Britain’s strategic interests. Winston Churchill’s initial response to the Civil War was indicative of this. He said that because aristocrats were being murdered, and as he himself was an aristocrat, his natural sympathy was with the military rebels. But unusually among senior Tories, during the war, he changed his mind. Given that his overriding concern was the survival of the British Empire, he realized that its strategic interests required support for the Republican government of Juan Negrín. Needless to say, as he often complained, he was a voice crying in the wilderness.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Another clear example you give of how Britain’s ostensible neutrality favored Franco’s rebels is the passivity of the Tory government before the blockade of Bilbao in 1937. This has a certain contemporary echo, in terms of the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

As with Gaza, you had the unwillingness of a great power to intervene to protect the transportation of vital supplies in the face of an illegal blockade. Indeed, the Tory government’s initial response to threats from Nationalist rebels was to back down and to inform British merchant shipping that their safety could not be guaranteed by the Royal Navy.

Paul Preston

Yes, there was an extraordinary contradiction here between the rhetoric of how “great” Britain was — Britannia rules the waves — with the cowardly abdication of the role of the Royal Navy. Not that there was complete unanimity in the Conservative parliamentary party or the cabinet. MPs demanded reprisals [the following year] when you had British merchant shipping being bombed in Barcelona by German and Italian aircraft flying under Spanish rebel colors.

Yet Neville Chamberlain’s response was to say that that would not be appropriate. Instead, he wanted the government to send Franco a message insisting that “if he must bomb the Spanish government’s ports, he must use discretion.” To this day, I am flabbergasted by this. He was basically conniving in the starvation of Barcelona, as he had done the previous year with the population of Bilbao. But I have to say that the level of debate in the House of Commons around the blockade of Bilbao — the interventions from Labour and Clement Attlee — were quite extraordinary. They skewered the Tories and exposed their hypocrisy.

Eoghan Gilmartin

You also analyze how at the end of the war in Valencia and Alicante, when there were tens of thousands of Republican soldiers and government officials desperately trying to escape before the arrival of Franco’s troops, that the British and French navies had the capacity to evacuate thousands but they only evacuated hundreds. As you write, “the British betrayal of the Spanish Republic lasted until the very final days of war.”

Paul Preston

I wrote in great detail in my book, The Spanish Holocaust, about the fate of those Republican refugees denied evacuation, the bulk of whom were innocent of political crimes.  Tellingly, some of the most notorious perpetrators of atrocities were amongst the very few Republicans granted asylum in Britain. For those unable to escape, there awaited only arrest, trial, execution, or imprisonment. Summary courts martial were held on an industrial scale in order to facilitate what the Francoists saw as the essential work of social cleansing. Lasting only a few minutes, these trials would gather as many as twenty-five defendants accused of different crimes, all denied legal representation, a high proportion of who were sentenced to death.

In terms of Britain’s involvement here, a significant issue was the choice of those to be evacuated. By the end of the war, the Republic was led by Colonel Segismundo Casado after his coup against Negrín’s government in early March 1939. By dint of his own later distortion of his motives, Casado has come to be seen as a someone trying to avoid more unnecessary bloodshed. But in The Last Days of the Spanish Republic, I actually show in some detail his links with Franco’s Fifth Column and his complicity in condemning hundreds of thousands of defeated Republicans to major suffering. And yes, of course, he is one of the very few Spanish Republican refugees welcomed into the UK, and he was given an important job with the BBC.

All this reflects the hypocrisy of British foreign policy. Another factor was that senior commanders and ship captains in the Royal Navy had a lot of sympathy for the military rebels, particularly after Spanish naval officers were slaughtered by their crew during the 1936 coup. This dictated what the Royal Navy’s attitude would be at the end of the Civil War when it came to evacuating Spanish Republicans.

Orwell’s Anti-Communism

Eoghan Gilmartin

One of the interesting chapters later in your book concerns George Orwell. If there is one book an English-language audience has likely read on the Spanish Civil War, it is Homage to Catalonia. It was certainly the first book I read. Your chapter lays out how Orwell’s own views on the war evolved after his book was published in 1938, not least, as you explain, because of the conversations he had with Negrín when the latter was in exile in England during World War II.

In this respect, you quote his 1942 essay “Looking Back on the Spanish Conflict”: “The outcome of the Spanish war was settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin — at any rate not in Spain. . . . The Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false.” The latter is quite a distinct position from that of his earlier book or Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom — which both explain the war in terms of such revolutionary betrayal. In both you get a somewhat parochial view of the war, largely focusing on one secondary front with the wider national and international context absent.

Paul Preston

The noxious and erroneous influence of Homage to Catalonia had an effect on me. It was also one of the first books I read. The parts that are eye-witness reporting are excellent, but it does not offer in any way a reliable analysis of the wider politics of the war. In a later letter, Orwell even admits that in the book he gave a more sympathetic account of the pro-Trotskyist POUM’s [Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista] position — i.e., that [Joseph] Stalin was responsible for the defeat of the Republic — than he actually believed himself. He justified this by saying he felt they had not received a fair hearing in the press.

When I read that letter, I felt this is not right. Orwell is held up as some sort of saint, the exemplar of honesty and objectivity, but there are quite a few examples of him being dishonest in Homage to Catalonia. For example, he writes about conversations he had, implying that they took place in Spanish or Catalan, when he clearly did not speak either language.

On Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, I remember going to the Spanish première. Like most of the audience, I was incredibly moved and was in tears. Cinematically, it is a truly great movie but as history, it is a mess. There is so much to love in that film. For example, the film’s framing in terms of the brigadier fallen on hard times is such a devastating critique of Thatcherite Britain. Or the debates on collectivization, with local smallholder farmers actually hired to play roles in the scene. It’s just extraordinary, so real. But as with Homage to Catalonia, I feel very uncomfortable around its simplified thesis that it was the crushing of the revolution that was behind the defeat of the Republic.

Eoghan Gilmartin

If the demands of waging the war required that the Republic prioritize a policy of militarization over and against a social revolution, some historians have criticized the Republican tactics here, which were being pushed by Soviet military advisors.

For example, in his book, Blood of Spain, Ronald Fraser lays out critiques put forward by even Spanish Communist cadre retrospectively that the Republic was too focused “on engaging in conventional offensives, normally implemented for ‘propaganda purposes,’ against a better-armed and trained army.” If the objective was for the Republic to survive until a general European war began, did it make sense to be trying to go on these large-scale offensives that resulted in such heavy losses?

Paul Preston

One of the clichés about the Spanish Civil War is to acknowledge the military genius of the Republican general Vicente Rojo. But as a football obsessive, I tend to think that if you are going to play Manchester City, you might think about having a more defensive strategy, if you want any chance of getting a nil-all draw rather than getting hammered six-zero. There is no doubt that the Battle of the Ebro [the Republic’s last major offensive from July to November 1938] was heroic and one of the great military epics of the war, but it was also a disaster and the scale of the losses finished off the Republic.

Though again, the international context is very important here as the offensive was also undermined by Britain and France’s signing of the Munich Agreement in September 1938.

The Spanish Holocaust

Eoghan Gilmartin

Your 2011 book The Spanish Holocaust is one of the most exhaustive studies on the violence and repression both during the Civil War and in its aftermath. In the context of a shifting consensus in Spain over the last twenty years, with the emergence of the historical-memory movement and a questioning of the democratic transition’s “pact of silence,” what was the book’s impact in Spain?

Paul Preston

I’ve had a lot of moving testimonies, including perhaps most memorably from the director of a psychiatric hospital. She wrote and thanked me for the positive impact that the reading of the book had had on many of her patients in terms of helping them understand where their traumas came from. But it’s still a two-way street. In Spain on the Left, my work is regarded as pretty important but, on the Right, and in particular the far right, I’m considered a liar and charlatan. With The Spanish Holocaust, there was also a whole controversy around whether I should be using the word “holocaust” in Spanish context and I had to explain its origins in ancient Greek and why it was the most appropriate word for the title.

The book makes a very serious effort to look at the victims on both sides and to acknowledge there were innocent civilians who were killed in both zones. Yet there were also very serious differences — which were both quantitative and qualitative. Most of the victims in the Republican zone were murdered not by the Republican government but during the period when the apparatus of the state had collapsed in the wake of the military uprising.

It is possible to know the names of these victims, not least because there were comprehensive investigations undertaken by the Francoist authorities. Immediately after taking over an area, the Francoist rebels would investigate and come up with a list of right-wing victims — Catholic priests who were killed, etc. But in the case of the victims of Francoism, it is much more difficult, and I was having to draw on massive research done by local historians in towns and villages across Spain. We can identify the names of about 132,000 of Franco’s victims.

This is not an exhaustive tally — and in certain areas of Spain there have been obstacles to carrying out research.

It is expensive to conduct excavations of mass graves and DNA testing. There is, however, an accepted estimate of a minimum of 150,000 who were murdered — three times the number of victims in the Republican zone. Furthermore, in the early postwar years, there were also nearly one million political prisoners who faced abuse treatment and malnutrition in overcrowded and unhygienic camps. Treatment for female prisoners frequently involved rape and the theft of their children.

Then there are the qualitative differences. Terror was an instrument of policy in the rebel zone whereas that was not true of the Republican government.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Unlike in the wake of the military dictatorships in the Southern Cone of Latin America, there were no trials of leading figures of the regime or a truth and reconciliation process in Spain. But in the last fifteen years, the progressive governments of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Pedro Sánchez have passed two historical memory laws, which have sought to grapple with Franco-era crimes and has seen the state take responsibility for the exhumation of the country’s disappeared. How do you view this legislation?

Paul Preston

The Franco regime was not only a regime of pillage and terror but also a regime that imposed decades of national brainwashing. Unlike in Italy and Germany, his dictatorship was not defeated by an external military intervention and so there was no formal process of denazification in Spain. You still have, for example, an important, and until recently state-subsidized, organization called the Francisco Franco Foundation. It is inconceivable that an Adolf Hitler Stiftung would exist in Germany.

The consequences of this indoctrination was that the regime built up popular support among certain sectors of society and pro-Franco rhetoric and ideas continue to circulate to this day on the Spanish right. There are openly avowed pro-Francoist parties like Vox and other parties that refuse to condemn the Franco regime [such as the mainstream conservative Popular Party].

This has meant the historical memory policy has been difficult and fractious to implement. The two historical memory laws have tended to be too little, too late. A lot of good things have been implemented as a result, but the legislation tends to be defined more by good intentions than substantive redress. There are also important civil society organizations that are doing incredible work to recover and identify the remains of victims. I only have admiration for their tireless activism.

Eoghan Gilmartin

The other chapters in Perfidious Albion contrast official British policy with the sacrifices made by medical and humanitarian volunteers from Britain during the Civil War. They represent the other side of British participation in Spain.

Paul Preston

Yes, absolutely. I started to get interested in the medical contribution of British volunteers in recent years. It was said, at the time, that the treatment that the wounded got in field hospitals during the Spanish Civil War was better than what you could get in the top teaching hospitals in London. Some of the people who went to Spain as medical volunteers were truly amazing. The standards of the British doctors and nurses in Republican medical services were remarkably high. And obviously, while I do not write about them much in the current book, you also have the contribution of the fighting volunteers. Let us not forget that the humanitarian values and international solidarity shown by these volunteers also forms part of British history.