The Dishonest Decade

It was in Spain that (my generation) learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many, the world over, feel the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy”

camus bresson

The decade of the 1930s marked a seminal change in world history, when as a result economic collapse, the hopes that followed the First World War gave way to a dark valley of depression followed by the rise and consolidation of totalitarian regimes. On the eve of the Second World War, the poet WH Auden summed up the futile efforts of the liberal democracies to appease the dictators as a “low, dishonest decade.”

“On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade”

The Spanish Civil War ( 1936-39 ) was a direct consequence of the fear and inability to act of those same democracies: it was a war that tore Spain apart; a country that was not poor but blighted through avarice and corruption with unspeakable excesses of poverty and illiteracy. From the very beginning, the insurrection by disgruntled army officers was determined to terrorize its way to victory, starting in July 1936 with mass killings in the streets of Seville followed by the massacre of prisoners in the bullring at Badajoz that August. An eye-witness to the killings, German Condor Legion officer Hans Von Frunk, one of the few high ranking Germans present, later advised against the deployment of German troops in Spain because he claimed he was “a soldier used to combat, who fought in France during the World War but had never seen such brutality and ferocity as that with which the African Expeditionary Force carried out their operations.” Faced with such savagery, he feared the German mercenaries would become demoralised.

SCW Condor Legion 2Condor Legion passing-out parade, Hamburg 1939

Colonel Juan Yagüe, commander of the Foreign Legion and the man personally responsible for the Badajoz massacre, replied when interviewed by reporter Robert Whitaker, “Of course we shot them. What do you expect? Was I supposed to take 4,000 reds with me as my column advanced, racing against time? Was I expected to turn them loose in my rear and let them make Badajoz red again?”

In all, it was a merciless conflict in which over 300,000 people lost their lives, more than 120,000 of them civilians, and a further 200,000 in reprisals that continued up to 1943.  The last fugitive, an anarchist, was garrotted in Barcelona in 1963. It should therefore come as no surprise that tensions have remained acute between Spaniards to this day: the Civil War is not a subject many wish to revisit.

spanish holocaustProf. Paul Preston chronicles the extent of reprisals in Nationalist Spain

Yet in spite of the cruelty, pride and passion ran high on both sides. Many volunteers who fought with the International Brigades claimed after service in WWII that fighting with the Brigades in Spain meant more to them than liberating Europe from the Nazis.

SCW wolff el-autografo-del-loboMajor Milton Wolff and Lincoln Battalion International Brigaders on the Ebro, 1938 / Courtesy Despues del

There were volunteers on the Nationalist side too. For the 700 Irish – far more than from any other nation – the war in Spain was a crusade against Communism. Indeed, it was a time when many on both sides saw the war as a cataclysm that would decide the fate of the world. Massive logistical and military intervention by Germany and Italy on the side of the insurgents and Soviet support for the Republic underlined this belief, though in reality the vast majority of so-called “Reds” would have little knowledge of the works of Karl Marx, while the Nationalists’ deep mistrust  and resentment for their allies prevented them from having more than a perfunctory camaraderie with Hitler and Mussolini’s mercenaries.

O'Duffy's General StaffFranco’s Irish: General Eoin O’Duffy is seated fourth from the right

On July 18th, 1936, Army officers sympathetic to the insurgents proceeded to take over key installations throughout Spain, and confidently expected to secure control of the country in a matter of days. In some cities, such as Seville and Burgos, they were immediately successful. But what happened afterwards gave rise to a conflict that would last the best part of three years: in Barcelona, they were driven from their strongholds by a popular uprising; in Madrid, armed civilians led by NCOs, police and lower ranks loyal to the Republic converged on the Montaña army barracks, where a massacre took place after confusion over a false attempt to surrender. Those lucky to survive were jailed in the nearby Modelo prison ( now the Air Ministry ), and the world’s press seized on the gruesome pictures of the massacre.

SCW montaña officer arrestInsurgents surrendering to armed militia at the Montaña barracks in Madrid, July 1936

The capital of Spain was to hold out for another 1,000 days, and surrendered only when the Republic laid down its arms in March 1939, barely six months short of the outbreak of the Second World War. The city of Madrid was never captured, and this then, is the story of its proud and difficult resistance to Fascism. It is also the story of the rebel armies’ attempts to invest the city, and when they couldn’t, of their (failed) attempts to starve and bomb their own people into submission.

metro madridSheltering from aerial bombardment in the Madrid Metro, November 1936

It is also the story of the International Brigades, who came from every corner of the world to fight for the Spanish people and a cause they believed to be just, whose surgeons developed revolutionary practices in blood transfusion and the treatment of wounds. It is the story of the heroic struggle of German anti-fascists in Madrid’s University City, who stopped the city being overrun.

norman bethuneDr. Norman Bethune of Canada (centre ) and his mobile transfusion crew

It is also the story of writers and journalists who believed Madrid was the only place to be, in spite of the bombs.

SCW gellhorn and hwErnest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn at the Stork Club, New York, 1938
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