July – November 1936 in Spain

By Max Nettlau
Spain and the World, 12th December 1936

”Spain 1936-1936: Social Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Selections from the anarchist fortnightly Spain & the World”, Freedom Press, London 1990.

As things are now – four months after the treacherous rising of the Spanish generals (July 17th) – not a few unbiased persons in the Western neutral countries may begin to see to what extent they underrated, and misunderstood, the situation in the early months of July and August, when with a little good will, helpfulness and fearlessness their countries might have contributed to a fair solution of a problem which now assumes ugly aspects and uncontrollable proportions.

The situation in July was simply this: a radical government, the result of a popular electoral victory in February last, was suddenly confronted by the outburst of a most carefully prepared conspirracy by almost all the officers of the army and a portion of the Navy, both closely allied to fascist organisations, the militant elements, many monarchists, both Alfonsists and Carlists, and influential people in industry and finance. The conspiracy had included in the first place relations with powerful fascists abroad, whether officially or otherwise, and had prepared plans for the imposition of military dictatorship, the crushing of constitutional life and personal liberties to the greatest extent. The real fighting force of the conspirators was the African army, which was, and is, entirely alien to the Spanish people. This army consists of enlisted Moroccan native moros and of nondescript Spanish and foreign elements, and the hired Spanish foreign legion (Tercio). From this began the meeting of uly the 17th and the 18th, practically unknown to the population of Spain, who were confronted on July 19th, by an attack on the part of the local garrisons against all the governmental, municipal and working class districts, entering into a most intense battle with all who offered resistance, end enforcing their militaristic will upon all towns, especially by surprise attacks and cruelty, and seizing the latter on July 19th and on following days.

Only in about half the Spanish Territories was this terrific onslaught checked by immense popular effort. Malaga, Cartagena, Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid and Bilbao, and other great centres still hold out. Others like Saragossa, Cordoba, Granada and Oviedo, were, or are besieged by the government forces. Only Irun, San Sebastian, Toledo were lost to the enemy, whhilst Pamplona, the Carlist centre, Burgos, Valladolid, Seville and the Western towns from the neighbourhood of Gibraltar to the north of Galicia remained in the hands of the enemy who crushed the initial Andalusian and Galician resistance, ruthlessly destroyed Bajadoz and also hold the Balearic and Canary Islands. It is remarkable that one hears very little of the old Spanish army, whilst all the fighting seems to be done by the African troops – Moros and Tercio. These could only be brought over to Europe, when by means of bombing aircraft sent from the foreign fascist countries, the Spanish warships guarding the Straits had been scattered. Then they were used against Malaga, Estremadura (Badajoz), Irun and San Sebastian, Toledo and Madrid. Thus it is clear that the rrebels have acted all along as if they were foreign invaders, being armed with fforeign supplies, fighting with an army, of Moors and hirelings and imposing their will wherever they can, by military terror.

Consequently they have been looked upon from the first hourr as traitors and not a few officers who had been arrested sttood on trial as traitors and were shot as traitors. They had really nothing to say to justify their conduct during these elaborate trials held in public court, from the trials of Goded and Fanjul in Barcelona and Madrid in August to that of the son of Primo de Rivera held in Alicante in November. They had wished to impose their will on the people of Spain, but the latter refused to give up their freedom and bravely defended themselves.

The question stands thus, and in all this there is not a jot of communism, Russia and so on. It was and is a fascist raid, which met with no popular response, but took most dangerous proportions owing to the irresponsible foreign elements engaged in it, with incalculable foreign forces behind them, and to the most cruel and desperate attitude of the conspirators, who saw before them on one side the spoils of a whole country and unlimited vengeance, and on the other side shame and a traitor’s death. This is not a ‘civil war’, which presupposes honourable differences of opinion. It is not even a fascist ascent of seizure of power, as even such regrettable usurpations are based upon the action of large bodies and individuals brought together, organised and fanatized by persistent agitation. This stage was never reached by the Spanish fascists, who thrived but in hole and corner associations of gilded youth, and could not show their faces without police protection. There was much malignity shown by many, but they were not a political factor of real consequence. No, all the strength of the enemy rested in the generals and their officers, who expected, owing to their quasi unanimity, to have a walk-over, the easiest of victories, and then a long enjoyment of power on the ruins of all the liberal and social aspirations of the Spanish people. Theirs was a bid for power like that of the burglar who risks life and limb for a big haul. Maybe some oof them had guarantees for safety and were only tools of a greater conspiracy; most of them blundered into the ugly affair from sheer military cussedness, others from clerical fanaticism and bourgeois and aristocratic pride. hey are a poor lot in any case, and it would be folly to take them as representing any political wisdom or ideas: they brought about the most horrible mess and made things infinitely worse from the very beginning by indulging in dastard cruelty.

The great western countries have made a big mistake by not taking these traitors at their real value. They represented nothing but themselves and their pride and covetousness, and everyone in Spain who was not an adept of extremely reactionary opinions, or personally interested in the brutal reprression and enslavement of a whole nation, was up against them in spirit, and wherever possible in arms. But it was palpably known to the casual observer, and so much more to governments disposing of instant information from many sources, that the mutiny of nearly the whole army and part of the navy left the government and the people in the tragic plight of being almost unarmed and unable to procure new weapons on a large scale of home fabrication, when every hour is precious and the mechanised army of the enemy, disposing of ample sorts of everything, advance rapidly and before all, entrench tthemselves in many important places, crushing all local resistance. It was possible for the heroic masses to check the advance, but they could not, with riifles and bare fists, dislodge the enemy from walled towns, fortresses and citadels. Such operations, which had the entire support of the then existing government and many of their regular armed forces, obviously required a quuick supply of war material from the recognised producers in other countries in the uusual way of goods quuickly supplied for cash to authorised customers, which friendly governments always are – and Spain has not been involved in any of the European wars since the time of Napoleon. Spain has been invaded at the order of the Holy Alliance (Russia, Prussia and Austria) in the eighteen-twenties by a French army which crushed the then Liberal Government and re-established absolutism, laying the foundations of so much of the coming trouble. Surely this black spot on nineteenth century history need not be a precedent for the renewed crushing of progressive hopes in the unhappy country by foreign powers. Why then was the Spanish Government hindered in rearming when confronted by one treacherous military mutiny? Without this interference the mutiny would have been put down within a few weeks, and general progressive work in a peaceful country would now be well under way.

The reasons are twofold: one is the generally alleged great care for peace – a peace which is bought by permitting anti-social dark forces to lay hands on Germany in 1933, on Austria in July, 1934, and Ethiopia since the autumn of 1935, on Spain in July, 1936, not to speak of what happens in the Far East, where bit after bit of territory is fleeced from China, and what is fomenting day by day in France herself, in Belgium and other countries. When such open plunder at last meets with fiery resistance, the remaining not-enslaved countries do not welcome this, but do all to strangle this resistance, to hhelp to deliever up a practically unarmed people to an African invasion of Moors and nondescript hirelings. What is prompting this counsel? – iis it what one may politely call timidity, modesty, bashfulness, the wish to shirk painful diplomatic discussions, to evade hurting the feelings or some irascible tyrants, who thus get everything they wish to have? Or is it the other fatal reason, namely, that all these ‘neutral’ powers are glad and anxious to see freedom crushed in Spain? Were these the main reasons or were men really, placed in responsible positions, so uninformed as to be swept away by the infamous press campaigns of organised journalistic slander, such as just now made a victim much nearer to home, Roger Sallengro, in the very centre of French politics?

War is not averted by politics of timidity; on the contrary it is being provoked by them. To speak quite plainly, if a country wishes to wage war, she also wishes to make it at her own hour and under constellations favourable and, if possible, pre-arranged. ‘Incidents’ are used as pretexts, when everything else is ready – otherwise they only serve as bluff. All important matters, tearing to pieces parts of the treaty of Versailles, are taken in hand since last spring, and no war arises from it, nor from anything which Japan may do in the Far East, nor from Ethiopian, Egyptian, Palestine, Irak and other oriental affairs. Why then should just some war materials legitimately sold to Spain be given as a vital matter for world peace? This was and is simply preposterouus. The international situation was quite harmless in August, and the foreign fascist help was given to the generals at first in such a disguised way as to show the bad conscience of the fascist powers. Then the papers puffed it up and by this, eventually, the ‘prestige’ of these powers was at stake, and then the masks were lifted. Then only, and not before, Russia began to help and now the Spanish problem, which was so very simple in July and August, is being tied up, carelessly and recklessly, with the whole Russian problem. This also, in our opinion, by no means implies war, but it gives to the ‘neutrals’ a further pretext to be severe to the Spanish government, whom they connsider the weaker side, and bow before the generals. More victims, greater ruin and destruction are the rresult, but never mind – some appearance of working day and night for peace is kept up, and that alone seems tto count with statesmen nowadays.

Peace is impossible id tthe generals win, as it would imply that Spain and Portugal, the Baleares, Spanish Morocco, Tangier, the Canaries and Azores – all under the control of Germany and Italy; that means France open to aerial invasion from the Aragon plain and the Mediterranean, and the Cape routes blocked for England.

Peace is unlikely if Russia wins, as the Spanish people are adverse to her unfree social system and would always be in a state of revolt, and as Russian military power in the Peninsula would stimulate the Islamic and whole Oriental coming revolts, and would be considered intolerable by several great powers.

The only peaceful solution is the one which this very mutiny of July 17th, and the circumstances under which it partially succeeded, have made a matter of actuality to all progressive elements in Spain – namely Federalism, political and social, fairly and fully realised in Spain, and eventually in Portugal, a country which for ten years is unable to speak up, smarting under a dictatorship.

The Catalan, the Aragon, the Basque, the Valencian, the Madrid autonomies exist or are shaping during the hard struggles, when the best men learn to know each other and how to co-operate, developing the local resources. Under the heel of the generals none the less work is going on which will unfold as the Andalusian, Extremenos, Galician, Astturian, and other autonomies – territories self-governing and federating like the Swiss cantons and the North American States. Local conditions – territorial structure, land tenure, industries, traditional and newly acquired social mentality – differentiate tthese territories, and to this will correspond new social arrangements, generous and broad-minded. This ensemble will form a new Progressive Spain, another happy, peaceful Switzerland. There are dark corners in Switzerland, where reactionists reside unheeded, and so those of Spain might gather undisturbed in the valleys of old Navare, the Carlist region of Pamplona. Anarchists, socialists, communists, republicans, all would live in friendly emulation, increasing their ranks according to their efficiency.

To help bring this about, and to help its present protagonists, the valiant men, women and children of Spain, to protect them against the treacherous invasion – what else can be the task of self-respecting progressive men at this hour?

For some time yet the States of this planet will be divided thus: normal nineteenth century countries – victims of Fascism – States where well-meant, but unfree social methods prevail (Russia, Mexico – the only countries which openly help Spain) – and Spain, where, in parts at least, the freest methods are now in an experimental stage. The world’s future is being fought for here, as the old world ended for this country in treason and bloodshed unheard of. Let everyone help the best of all good causes.

Barcelona, 1st December 1936

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