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November 21, 2016


With taxes, trade wars and anti-trust blogs in my wake, it’s time that I take a vacation from economics at its intersection with government and write about a piece of history many have forgotten, the Spanish Civil War. It was a war which was, unusually, not one fought on primarily economic grounds. Those who participated in the Spanish Civil War were for the most part motivated to fight for an idea, and many Americans fought and died there for a country that was not their own. Americans left the comforts of homes, schools, families and against the opposition of the American government to enlist on the side of the Republic in the war, joining more than 40,000 other foreign volunteers from some fifty countries. These Americans suffered a higher rate of combat deaths – more than one in four – than the U.S. military in any of its wars.

The war began with a military coup led by Francisco Franco on July 17, 1936, only five years after Spain became a constitutional republic, in the midst of an international depression. The report from which I am garnering these numbers of the dead show conclusively that terror was the instrument of the military coup leaders. Thus politicians and trade unionists were bayoneted or shot. Women were subjected to gang rape. Executions often were carried out for the thinnest of reasons, such as in Huesca, where some one hundred Freemasons were executed. Some five thousand were executed in Granada alone. Bodies were left to lie as warnings in plazas and streets, and altogether some one hundred and fifty thousand people were murdered by Franco’s Nationalists.

It was not just the Nationalists under Franco who committed such massive atrocities; the Republican  government did its share as well. Since the Spanish church tilted hard to the right and favored Franco, Republican troops and presumably volunteers from America and elsewhere executed nearly seven thousand Catholic clergy during the two-year siege of Madrid and some two thousand five hundred suspected “fifth columnists” (the phrase “fifth columnist” was originated by Franco Nationalists).

Franco appealed to the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini for help against the leftist government and they responded with massive help, especially with air power. Hitler provided air power to Franco as he tested weapons, honed tactics, and seasoned his personnel for the coming WW II war (beginning with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939). He was able to test his Messerschmitt 109s and the Stuka dive bombers, a then new and terrifying weapon of war. The Republicans, already leftist, appealed to Russia to help them fight Franco and his fascist forces and the Russians responded so that what happened was a proxy war between fascists and communists fought on Spanish soil.

Accordingly, many idealists in our country and others as well were recruited by Russia to go to Spain and fight the fascists. The American contingent was known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was composed largely of American communists almost half of whom were Jewish. One of the Jewish survivors of the Spanish Civil War said that the fight was never against Franco but rather against Hitler, and I can certainly relate to that what with Hitler’s march of scapegoat Jews into the gas chambers to cover his murderous and dictatorial instincts.

FDR, who later admitted he was wrong, embarked a program of refusing to arm either side in a “pox on both your houses” which, along with German air power, eventually gave Franco a dictatorship until he died in 1975. I am not so sure the choice was between communism and fascism, a bad choice in any event. Instead it could have been seen as an opportunity to thwart the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini irrespective of American communists who were fighting fascism on different grounds. After all, when you accept help from others to help fight fascism and the likes of Hitler, it matters not just what their political and religious views may be. We can argue that after we destroy the common enemy, as we have seen in our alliance with communist Russia during WW II followed by the Cold War.

Of course not everyone was Jewish or communist who played out their idealism by participating in the Spanish Civil War. Thus celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway and Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) also participated in that war. Hemingway wrote from his experiences in that war by writing “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in which he renamed the martyred leader of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as Robert Jordan and wrote a book for the ages, along with his “Old Man and the Sea” and other great literature. George Orwell, an Englishman, who authored “1984” (which I have read several times) was a socialist and not a communist and was a lukewarm socialist at that. Martha Gellhorn, the glamorous lady who also participated in the war and who was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and the third wife of Ernest Hemingway, was also on the scene, so there was celebrity as well as blood and lice and death and other horrors that described the efforts of those who came to Spain to fight for an idea.

In October of 1938 when the Spaniards in Barcelona held a farewell parade for the international volunteers as they were leaving the country in the hope that the Nationalists would reciprocate by withdrawing their German and Italian helpers, some 300,000 Spaniards wept, cheered and waved with notes of thanks and confetti for the volunteers to go home knowing “they had made history, that they were legend and that they were heroic examples of democracy’s solidarity and universality.”

Not everyone agreed with the lesson learned. Indeed Albert Camus (a participant) noted that “Men of my generation have had Spain in their hearts” where they have learned “that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.” Orwell, also a participant, likewise saw the results differently; he blamed the loss of democracy (such as it was) to Franco on the liberal intelligentsia on its uncomfortable remove from unpleasant necessities, noting further in a 1943 essay that “We have become too civilized to grasp the obvious, for the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil.”

So take your pick. Why did many Americans both men and women go to Spain to fight for an idea and not for oil and money? I think there were mixed motivations ranging from political views to Nazi murders in the gas chambers to some sense of idealism against a background of the then raging Great Depression that accounted for their decisions to go to Spain and fight fascism. It didn’t work since Franco ruled as a despot until 1975, but I think it was still the right thing to do since as Orwell noted “to survive you often have to dirty yourself,” and I write this as a certified peacenik.      GERALD       E


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