National Review, July 23, 2001 v53 i14 pNA

Experiment in Terror. Review by David Pryce-Jones.

COPYRIGHT 2001 National Review, Inc.

Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov (Yale, 537 pp., $35)

To contemporaries, the Spanish Civil War seemed an epic, even biblical, struggle between Communism and Fascism, in other words between good and evil. And to most contemporaries, the outcome was appalling: The Fascist victory meant that there was no chance to put Communism into practice in western Europe, and no chance either to stop Hitler in his tracks. Communists and their supporters have argued ever since that they alone made any serious attempt to head off the coming world war. Whatever bad things Communists may have done elsewhere, in Spain their cause was pure to the point of being romantic. As a result of a good many histories and memoirs, that remains today the generally accepted opinion.

Spain Betrayed is a formidable demolition of this myth. It consists of a collection of 81 previously unpublished documents from the Russian State Military Archives, all of them reports from Soviet agents and advisers in the field during the civil war. The material is specialized, to be sure, an account of day-to-day political and military events, sometimes in the most minute detail, but the editors place everything in context with brief and helpful introductory commentaries. One of them, Ronald Radosh, is a former Communist whose uncle fought in Spain. In recent writings, including an autobiography, Radosh has been coming to terms with his previous disastrous misjudgments, and this book is another step in that process. The two other editors are academics: Mary R. Habeck of Yale and Grigory Sevostianov of Moscow's Institute of Universal History.

One way or another, these documents all went through the Comintern, the bureau in Moscow that ran Soviet operations abroad for Stalin. The Comintern could call on the services of its own operatives; the secret police, later called the KGB; military intelligence or the GRU; and the European Communist parties. Taken together, these documents show that Stalin aimed to transform Spain into a Soviet satellite. In that case, he would have extended the Communist reach, and encircled both Germany and France.

Poor and backward, Spain in the early 20th century was a failed monarchy with a history of coups and ineffective parliamentary regimes. In the Thirties, the conservative Right faced a strangely assorted Left of Communists, socialists, and anarchists, generally categorized as Republicans, unable to agree among themselves but each promoting with rising intolerance their particular brand of revolution. Spain was the only country in the world with a mass movement of anarchists-the disciples of Bakunin, Marx's bitter enemy. Improbable as it was, the Left formed a coalition under Francisco Largo Caballero, a veteran socialist trade-union leader known as the Spanish Lenin. Early in 1936, the Popular Front came to power legitimately through elections. That summer, the murder of the conservative leader Jose Calvo Sotelo coincided with a military uprising of self-styled Nationalists under Francisco Franco, an obscure general in command of Spanish and Moroccan troops, the latter particularly ferocious. Atrocities committed by both sides inflamed passions to the point that there could be no compromise.

Reluctant to support either side, Britain and France did not intervene. This decision was right, but taken for the wrong reasons, as part of the wider policy of appeasing dictators that was already creating a political vacuum in Europe. Aware of their own weaknesses, both sides in Spain appealed to the dictators for help: the Republicans to Stalin, the Nationalists to Hitler and Mussolini. Responding favorably, the dictators were each probing in the political vacuum for influence and power. The civil war therefore assumed the international character of a struggle between rival ideologies.

The mustering of forces brought to a head the collective delusion of so many intellectuals of the Thirties, among whom Communism had taken hold with the fervor of messianic religion. All manner of celebrities, Nobel-prize scientists and writers and philosophers, united in praise of Stalin and his Soviet Union. Well-intentioned people were naturally prone to believe that so many prominent thinkers and artists must be right, and that Communism represented progress. Intellectuals flocked to Spain to usher in salvation by means of ecstatic eyewitness accounts and reports, news bulletins, novels, and films. The humbler sort drove ambulances and served as nurses. Some 50,000 men from a score of countries volunteered to fight in the International Brigade. Here was nothing less than a crusade.

Revolution, and its images of waving flags and disheveled men brandishing weapons in the back of trucks, seemed to radiate invisible powers. The battles of Madrid and Brunete and Teruel, the fall of Malaga, appeared as stations of a via dolorosa. Legendary icons included Picasso's Guernica, the century's most celebrated painting, and Robert Capa's photograph (the authenticity of which has been called seriously into question) of a soldier in the very moment of falling for the cause, arms extended as in crucifixion.

One of the most furious and effective pamphlets ever published was "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War," in which 127 leading intellectuals declared themselves pro-Communist. Sixteen were neutral (including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and H. G. Wells), while only five dissented (one of them Evelyn Waugh). In one of the century's most celebrated poems, W. H. Auden wrote, "Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but today the struggle." In another stanza of that poem, the line, "The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder," perfectly illustrates the moral sink into which delusion about Communism could lead an otherwise gifted man. George Orwell was to retort that it could only have been written by someone who was elsewhere when the trigger was pulled.

By 1936, in somber fact, Stalin was presiding over a campaign of mass murder. Hitler was evidently another dangerous and ambitious criminal. The supposition that Communism alone could successfully confront Nazism was central to the simplification of the Spanish Civil War as an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil. But the equation was false. Far from being at opposite poles of the political spectrum, the dictators were two of a kind, equal in inhumanity.

Professional historians by and large used to maintain that Stalin was sincerely anti-Fascist, but cautiously engaged in a balancing act, sending enough aid to the Popular Front to ensure that it would not lose, but not so much that it would win and thereby provoke Hitler into an all-out confrontation. Destroying this benign theory, recent historians have shown that, all the while, Stalin was secretly sounding out Hitler, with a view to agreeing on spheres of influence between them, as was shortly achieved in the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. It has further emerged that Stalin took the Spanish government's gold reserve for safekeeping, but helped himself to it in payment for the arms he supplied. By imposing an exchange value more than twice the official rate, he swindled his supposed allies and clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Comintern at first employed an Argentinian Communist named Vittorio Codovilla as its leading representative in Spain. In mid 1937, he was replaced by Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian Communist Party secretary, whose reports are particularly subtle. Another Comintern representative with special responsibility for the International Brigade was the Frenchman Andre Marty, known as "the butcher of Albacete" and commemorated by Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls for his indiscriminate use of terror against friend and foe alike. Also reporting to the Comintern was a range of Soviet ambassadors and consuls, commissars, and military experts, all of whom had to operate within the context of Stalin's Great Terror. Many were recalled to Moscow and summarily shot.

One of the most fascinating documents in the collection is a report dated December 1937. It is over seventy pages long and written by Manfred Stern, a capable and loyal brigade commander who was well known by the pseudonym General Emilio Kleber. Indeed, he was idolized. Stern/Kleber depicts uninterrupted bickering, intrigues, and jealousies among his Soviet colleagues, the Spanish Communist forces, and the International Brigades, which doomed their performance in the field. Trying to justify himself in elaborate and sometimes fictitious detail, he was in fact pleading for his life. Shortly denounced by one of his seniors as an enemy of the people, Stern too then vanished.

These men were for the most part highly qualified, and some had real political talents. They seem to have understood quite early on that the Communists were unlikely to win, but they had to dress up such a message to Stalin in guarded and suitably Marxist language. To eavesdrop now on their private traffic is to be overwhelmed by the servility with which they presented or twisted the facts so that Stalin would learn what he wanted to learn, and by the incredible discrepancy between what Stalin was actually doing and what the pro-Communist crusaders imagined.

Stalin soon realized that Largo Caballero was no Spanish Lenin. A stubborn and obstructive man, Caballero would have to go. It was bad enough that he proved an ineffective war leader, but worse that he could not control the anarchists. Their objective was revolution, which they held to be the indispensable condition for winning the war. But anarchist revolution risked openly embroiling Stalin with Hitler. Stalin needed a pretext to suppress them, and in documents included here dating from the first part of 1937, his advisers duly furnished one. To be a Trotskyite, as Trotsky and Stalin's other rivals had already learned, was a guaranteed death sentence. The advisers trumped up the absurd charge that anarchists and Trotskyites were one and the same.

These documents also show how deftly Comintern agents manipulated Largo Caballero out of office in May 1937, to replace him with Juan Negrin, a dim professor of physiology, and an outright Stalinist stooge. The most horrible sequence of events in the civil war could then occur, starting that very May in Barcelona, where the Communists turned on the anarchists and bloodily suppressed them. The Communists have always blamed the anarchists for this, but the documents of that month, above all Document 44, a report from the front by an agent named Goratsy states that the Communists "had terrible hatred towards the anarchists- greater than towards the fascists" and favored "a final reckoning" with them. The editors give this document great importance.

The anarchist leader Andres Nin was murdered, and the crime made to look like the deed of German agents. Andre Marty kept the firing squads busy and members of the International Brigade were among his victims. George Orwell had served in the front line with anarchists, where he received a Nationalist bullet through the throat. Recuperating in Barcelona, he escaped the Communist massacre by sheer luck, and in Homage to Catalonia he described how Communism had here shown itself the same in practice as Nazism. As a result, he almost failed to find a publisher, and in literary circles became an unperson-a word he invented for any free spirit who told the truth. After the Barcelona bloodshed, Negrin and the Soviets ran a police state along KGB lines, complete with denunciation, torture, and more bullets in the neck for all who stepped out of line.

Betraying the Left and putting down the anarchists, Stalin frustrated revolution in Spain. In that paradoxical sense, the Communists had a conservative effect. No less paradoxical, Franco's victory may well have saved Britain in 1940. After the fall of France, Hitler planned to send troops to seize Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. Denied Middle Eastern oil, Britain could not have held out. As it was, Franco refused to grant passage to the German army, and Hitler could do nothing about it. But he need have had no scruples about launching a blitzkrieg against a Communist Spain, especially at a time when he had tied Stalin's hands with a pact.

For the Soviets, Spain was a laboratory in which to experiment with the imperialism they were later to refine in eastern Europe, and afterwards as far afield as Chile, Nicaragua, and Ethiopia. In terms of strategy, they learned that the presence of the Red Army was the decisive factor in taking over countries against their will. In terms of tactics, they learned to exile or kill opponents rapidly, and then to co-opt into a temporary coalition leftists of the stamp of Negrin, pliable or corrupt nonentities who afforded a facade of democratic legitimacy. Spain was the prototype for a "people's democracy," as installed in satellites throughout the post-1945 Soviet empire.

Franco remained a political pariah to the end of his life. His regime, unpleasant but rather mild by the standard of authoritarian regimes, was considered on a par with Hitler's. Happy to visit Moscow, liberals made a point of boycotting Spain. Perpetuating the myth of Communism derived from the Spanish Civil War, they extended it to other countries and other times. Whenever Soviet or local Communists took over somewhere new, there were invariably throngs of intellectuals to approve, continuing to assert that assault and murder were actually progressive. Flattered by the abiding vision of themselves as salvationist crusaders, these people were their own willing dupes, and the status of intellectuals as a whole has still not recovered. The phenomenon is hallucinating.

Spain Betrayed adds greatly to the body of knowledge about contemporary history. Its information will penetrate slowly but surely, straightening the record and helping to restore respect for intellect and truth. It ought to be impossible for anyone again to argue that Communism in Spain was a noble cause, but that may be too much to expect.