The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is one of the wars in which the losers are documented much more than the winners.
by Timo Hännikäinen
The ideological spectrum of the socialist Republican side of the war has been explored inside out, but their opponents, General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists are portrayed simplistically as reactionaries, who merely represented the interests of the Church and powerful landowners, and wanted to return Spanish society to feudal times.
This is particularly true of history writing that centres on the foreign volunteers of the Republican International Brigades, which involved 32,000 to 35,000 left-wing and non-political defenders of democracy from different countries. In his 2003 book, Suomalaiset Espanjan sisällissodassa (Finns in the Spanish Civil War), Jyrki Juusela closely follows the steps of the Finnish members of the International Brigades, but only a few dozen pages are dedicated to Finnish fighters on the nationalist side. In leftist mythology the Spanish war was an international crusade on behalf of democracy and egalitarianism, which drew militant idealists from all over the world, including Asia and Latin America.
But, actually, the proportion of foreigners in Franco’s nationalist forces was even greater. Along with 15,000 German and 80,000 Italian professional soldiers who were sent to help Franco, almost 90,000 foreign volunteers fought on the nationalist side.
Republican propaganda claimed that they were “mercenaries,” and this assumption lingers on even today. But, in reality, many foreign volunteers on the nationalist side had no previous military experience or even military training, and because their daily wage was only three pesetas, none of them got rich by waging war in Spain.
British journalist Christopher Othen’s recent book Franco’s International Brigade: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War (2013) is the first comprehensive presentation of these men and their motives. The fates of these right-wing volunteers resemble an adventure story, but, above all, Othen’s work is a political and ideological history; it conveys an elaborate picture of the radical Right of the pre-WW2 period.
Franco’s regime and its ideology is quite commonly referred to as “fascist,” but the term is misleading. Franco and the other generals who rebelled against the Republic represented a traditional, authoritarian conservatism, leaning on monarchy and the Catholic Church, rather than radical and socially reformist fascism.
The only truly fascist movement in the nationalist political scene was the Falange Española, or the “Falangists,” a political party founded by José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The party’s ideology had a lot in common with Italian Fascism, and contained an anti-capitalist strand. Falangists declared that they rejected both capitalism and socialism, and wanted to replace them with a syncretic “third way” economic doctrine, which included the Italian idea of the Corporate State.
The movement adopted some racial doctrines and spoke of the “Hispanic race,” but biological racialism was not particularly important to its ideology. Instead of eugenics, Falangists emphasized Catholic “spiritual rebirth,” which would reunite the nation torn by class disputes.
When Primo de Rivera was executed by the Republicans in the early months of the Civil War, the leadership of the Falange movement was taken by Manuel Hedilla, who emphasized the “proletarian” side of the movement, and whose status was compromised by his political inexperience and being on bad terms with Franco.
Franco was afraid that Hedilla might try to oust him from his post, so he had him arrested and took direct control of the Falange. In 1937, the Falange’s status as an independent political movement came to an end: it was merged with a few other nationalist organizations into one large, more traditional conservative-royalist political party, under the leadership of Franco.
Many foreign fascists distrusted Franco’s nationalist movement. Members of actual fascist parties, such as Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, were not eager to enlist in their ranks. Finnish aristocrat and adventurer Carl von Haartman joined the Falangist militia, but from practical rather than ideological reasons.
Many fascists considered fascism to be a social revolutionary movement, and in their eyes the Spanish nationalists looked like mere minions of the ruling classes. For example, Mosley’s party newspaper Action wrote that the Spanish conflict was no more than “an old 19th Century class war: the rich against the poor.”
Fascist Italian society was polarized by the Spanish intervention. The Abyssinian War that Mussolini had waged before the outbreak of the Spanish War had enjoyed broad support, and even the left-wing and liberal opponents of the Italian government had approved the military expedition, which had after all ended slavery and the feudal system in Abyssinia. But interference in the Spanish situation was met with criticism from many convinced fascists, one of which wrote:
“We talk about the proletarian revolution at the same time as we defend the reactionary generals, landowners and exploiters.”
Mussolini’s decision to participate in the war was probably not influenced so much by ideological factors than by the desire to develop the skills of his own armed forces for future expeditions.
Othen claims that the majority of Franco’s international volunteers were actually different types of conservatives, rather than fascists. Many were motivated especially by religion. In the areas controlled by the Republican Government churches were systematically destroyed and priests and nuns killed, which sparked outrage especially in Catholic countries.
Franco was considered to be fighting for the Christian faith against atheistic Communism. Many Catholic “crusaders” joined up with the Spanish Carlist movement. Carlism was a distinct monarchist movement with broad popular support among the small farmers of northern Spain. The movement had started during the succession crisis of the 1830s, when the Carlists had wanted to raise the lineage of the Infante Carlos, Count of Molina, to the throne of Spain. Its supporters used the red beret as their emblem.
In the Civil War Carlists had a reputation as particularly fearless fighters, who attacked the enemy with their heads held high and shouted their battle cry “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”) As a social movement Carlism promoted independent small farmers – in some respects a Spanish version of Jefferesonianism. It was merged with the Falange under Franco in 1937.
There were a couple of noteworthy exceptions in the general attitudes of the European fascist movements. In Portugal, which was under the authoritarian control of the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, there was a fascist opposition, the “national syndicalists” who wanted to replace Salazar’s agrarian conservative regime with a fascist state based on trade unions and the redistribution of land. Salazar expelled the head of the movement Rolão Francisco Preto to Spain after a failed coup attempt.
In Spain Preto developed good relations with the generals planning the rebellion against the Republic, and when Salazar equipped an 8,000-strong volunteer force to help Franco, it included a lot of old national syndicalist supporters. They found ideological allies in the Falangists, whose party program also spoke of “national syndicalism” as a third way between capitalism and socialism.
In Ireland volunteer troops were gathered by General Eoin O’Duffy, a veteran of the Irish War of Independence and the leader of the Mussolini-inspired National Corporate Party. Nevertheless he was more driven by pursuit of personal power than ideological belief and compassion for the Spanish nationalists.
By the 1930’s O’Duffy, who was earlier considered a national hero, was a political corpse, and his alcoholism and homosexuality were openly ridiculed. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, brutal anti-religious atrocities committed by the Republicans provoked widespread sympathy for Franco in Catholic Ireland, and O’Duffy saw an opportunity to improve his image. Raising and organizing a volunteer corps brought him some new popularity, and he believed it could work as a springboard to power.
Franco did not take O’Duffy’s offers of help seriously. When an approximately 700-strong Irish unit was finally sent to Spain, it performed poorly in battle, and its lack of discipline infuriated nationalist officers. Eventually, Franco dissolved the Irish unit and merged it with Spanish Foreign Legion. With that O’Duffy’s dreams of becoming the Irish Il Duce withered.
Franco’s attitude towards European volunteer units, of which the quality varied widely, was one of skepticism. He saw their main value as helping to build friendly relations with European governments. Typically foreign volunteers were directed to the Spanish Foreign Legion. Only the Irish and the French were allowed to form their own separate brigades.
Franco placed much greater reliance on the Moroccan soldiers who formed by far the largest number of volunteers, a total of about 78,000 men. The Nationalist uprising had begun in the garrisons of Spanish Morocco, and in the early stages of the rebellion the generals managed to recruit the Moroccans to their side. In 1936 Morocco was divided into Spanish and French protectorates. The Nationalists appealed to the Moroccans by implying that their country would be granted independence after the Republican government was overthrown, but there was little intention of keeping such promises. The Moroccans swallowed the bait and enlisted in large numbers to Franco’s army.
The Moroccans played a vita role in the initial phase of the war: the Nationalists would have been unable to continue their attack in Spain without Moroccans troops flown over from the protectorate. The motives of the volunteers were manifold: some were attracted by the soldier’s pay, some hated Communism, some believed in the promises of independence, and more skeptical ones thought that they would receive some combat experience for a future war of independence. Others wanted only a chance to kill Spaniards, no matter what political stance these represented.
Moroccan troops, “los moros,” quickly got a bad reputation. It was said that they systematically raped Republican women and tortured prisoners of war. In battle they used to castrate their fallen enemies, and when pictures of mutilated corpses spread to foreign newspapers, the nationalist Colonel Juan Yagüe officially banned the habit among his Moroccan troops.
Republican propaganda made the most of the real and imaginary atrocities of “the Moors.” In propaganda posters Moroccans were depicted as grinning, thick-lipped turbanheads, who harassed white women and pierced children with their bayonets. Republican journalists and authors wrote of “brutal Africans with knives in their teeth,” and accused Franco of bringing “African savages to a European civil war.” The Left of the 1930’s clearly didn’t embrace the current type of political correctness.
One of the most interesting observations in Othen’s book is the fact that in the Spanish Civil War both parties thought they were defending European civilization against barbarism. For the nationalists, barbarism was the anti-religious Communism. For the Republicans it was the reactionary military regime with their Arab allies. One party sought to protect religion and tradition, the other democracy and progress. Foreign interventions and international corps turned the Spanish conflict into a pan-European civil war. In World War II, this ideological civil war was extended throughout the continent.
Both parties had their reasons to see the other party as barbaric. The Civil War was an unusually cruel confrontation, with brutal treatment of prisoners of war and military operations against civilians. Especially in the early stages of the war, radical left-wing groups killed multitudes of church workers, land-owning farmers, and supporters of the right-wing parties, while the weak Republican government turned a blind eye to such terror.
Nationalists paid in kind, and mass executions of left-wingers became common practice in Nationalist-held areas. German air units sent to support Franco bombed Republican cities without distinguishing between military targets and the civilian population.
Some of the foreigners involved in the conflict were disappointed when idealism encountered the darker side of the war. Many radical leftists had a rude awakening when Communists gained increasing power on the Republican side and started to liquidate Trotskyists, anarchists, and other “heretical” elements. Georges Bernanos, a French writer known for his novel The Diary of a Country Priest (1936), had established contacts with the Falangists and supported Franco when the war began, but after witnessing summary executions and other terrors on the nationalist-held island of Majorca, he began to write of the Franco regime with a sharp critical eye.
Othen brings the unscrupulousness of the civil war to life, without demonizing or apologising for either party. His account shows that both Republican and Nationalist volunteers were largely pawns in a game played by bigger powers, who hardly cared about Spain and its culture. For them, the land of Cervantes, Murillo, and Goya was mainly an exotic battlefield on which to promote their own political goals.
The Spanish Civil War saw both a loss of leftist and rightist idealism, but from a coldly pragmatic point of view its end-result can be considered positive. The Communists gained more and more power in the Republican government during the war. Through control of Spain the Soviet Union would have been able to threaten Western Europe. This was prevented by Franco’s victory.
On the other hand, Nationalist Spain remained neutral in the Second World War, which was a powerful brake on Hitler’s world domination plans. Franco’s objectives were national: he wanted to crush the Socialist Republic and Basque and Catalan separatism; the extension of the conflict throughout Europe did not interest him. In achieving his goals, he used the help of Christian Crusaders, right-wing radicals, and Moorish fighters – so much and so long as they were useful.
Although Franco’s Spain kept out of from the “European Civil War” 1939-45, many of his foreign volunteers took part in it. The Continent’s political complexity is illustrated by the fact that not all of them participated on the same side. Franco’s Air Force fighter pilot, Count Rodolphe de Hemricourt de Grunne, a Belgian aristocrat, joined the British air force when the Germans invaded his country. He may well have been in dogfights with the German pilots, who, a little earlier, had fought on Franco’s side as part of the Condor Legion.
After their service in the Spanish Civil War, the British Fascist Peter Keen and the Norwegian National Socialist Per Imerslund went as volunteers to the Finnish Winter War to fight against the Soviet Union. After returning home, Keen served in the intelligence division of the British parachute regiment, while Imerslund supported the pro-Nazi government in occupied Norway. Frenchmen from the Jeanne d’Arc volunteer unit later fought in both the French SS and the French resistance movement. History had entered into a new phase, where old loyalties were no longer relevant.
Timo Hännikäinen is a Finnish author, translator, and the editor-in-chief of Sarastus online magazine. He lives in Helsinki.