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Andy Walker

Student Question

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A student from my College asks:

"Why was it left to individuals to go and fight Fascism in Spain, why didn't the British government get involved?"

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In 1936 the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government.

Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.

Baldwin and Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. In September 1936 a Non-Intervention Agreement was drawn-up and signed by 27 countries including Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Italy.

Benito Mussolini continued to give aid to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces and during the first three months of the Nonintervention Agreement sent 90 Italian aircraft and refitted the cruiser Canaris, the largest ship in the Nationalists' fleet.

On 28th November the Italian government signed a secret treaty with the Spanish Nationalists. In return for military aid, the Nationalist agreed to allow Italy to establish bases in Spain in the case of a conflict with France. Over the next three months Mussolini sent to Spain 130 aircraft, 2,500 tons of bombs, 500 cannons, 700 mortars, 12,000 machine-guns, 50 whippet tanks and 3,800 motor vehicles.

Adolf Hitler also continued to give aid to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces but attempted to disguise this by sending the men, planes, tanks, and munitions via Portugal. He also gave permission for the formation of the Condor Legion. The initial force consisted a Bomber Group of three squadrons of Ju-52 bombers; a Fighter Group with three squadrons of He-51 fighters; a Reconnaissance Group with two squadrons of He-99 and He-70 reconnaissance bombers; and a Seaplane Squadron of He-59 and He-60 floatplanes.

The Condor Legion, under the command of General Hugo Sperrle, was an autonomous unit responsible only to Franco. The legion would eventually total nearly 12,000 men. Sperrle demanded higher performance aircraft from Germany and he eventually received the Heinkel He111, Junkers Stuka and the Messerschmitt Bf109. It participated in all the major engagements including Brunete, Teruel, Aragon and Ebro.

The Labour Party originally supported the government's non-intervention policy. However, when it became clear that Hitler and Mussolini were determined to help the Nationalists win the war, Labour leaders began to call for Britain to supply the Popular Front with military aid. Some members of the party joined the International Brigades and fought for the Republicans in Spain.

The first British volunteer to be killed was Felicia Browne who died in Aragón on 25th August 1936, during an attempt to blow up a rebel munition train. Of the 2,000 British citizens who served with the Republican Army, the majority were members of the Communist Party. Although some notable literary figures volunteered (W. H. Auden, George Orwell, John Cornford, Stephen Spender, Christopher Caudwell), most of the men who went to Spain were from the working-class, including a large number of unemployed miners.

To stop volunteers fighting for the Republicans, the British government announced on 9th January, 1937, that it intended to invoke the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870. It also passed the Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Munitions to Spain) Act.

When Neville Chamberlain replaced Stanley Baldwin as prime minister he continued the policy of nonintervention At the end of 1937 he took the controversial decision to send Sir Robert Hodgson to Burgos to be the British government's link with the Nationalist government.

On 13th March 1938 Leon Blum returned to office in France. When he began to argue for an end to the country's nonintervention policy, Chamberlain and the Foreign Office joined with the right-wing press in France and political figures such as Henri-Philippe Petain and Maurice Gamelin to bring him down. On 10th April 1938, Blum was replaced by Edouard Daladier, a politician who agreed not only with Chamberlain's Spanish strategy but his appeasement policy.

It has been claimed that the British secret service was involved in the military rebellion in Madrid by Segismundo Casado. Soon afterwards, on 27th February 1939, the British government recognized General Francisco Franco as the new ruler of Spain.

The British government was unwilling to fight against fascism in the 1930s. If Neville Chamberlain had his way, he would not have fought against it in 1939. It was only because of a rebellion by Tory MPs (with the support of the Labour Party) that war was declared against Germany. This left Hitler in shock. Chamberlain had always given him the impression that he would never go to war. It was this attitude that convinced Hitler to make his demands of those countries around him.

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This is a question that does not only cover Great Britain but all of the European countries. Thanks to the non-intervention policy no government was willing to send help to the legally elected Republican government of Spain.

Already July 19th 1936 a request of help came from the government in Spain to France. The new Spanish Prime Minister, José Giral, sent a telegram directly to the French Prime Minister Léon Blum. When Blum agreed to let Spain buy airplanes, weapons and ammunition the British government contacted the French ambassador in London and expressed their worries about the French reaction on the development in Spain. The British Conservative government under Baldwin suggested a meeting between the French, Belgian and British foreign ministers in London, the 23rd-24th of July. They wanted to discuss the possibility of an agreement between these countries and Italy and Germany concerning collective security. The British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden also advised Blum and France to be careful. Eden’s warning and French domestic critique made France reconsider the earlier agreement. On July 25 the French government proclaimed they would refuse the Spanish government’s request to buy weapons. There was no hinder though against a certain amount of private trade as long as there were no weapons involved. After this France took the initiative to get the rest of the world to agree on a non-intervening policy towards Spain.

Meanwhile the Spanish nationalists negotiated with both Italy and Germany and received positive answers to their request of substantial support. Several countries were now involved in the Spanish Civil War (besides Germany and Italy, Soviet and Portugal also committed themselves to support different groups in Spain. The Soviet Union supported the Government (Republicans) while Portugal supported the Nationalists). In the beginning of August, France asked Britain and Italy about the possibility to create a non-intervention pact. The British welcomed the idea and suggested a meeting in England. In the beginning of August, France and Britain decided to keep their countries out of the civil war and that no more equipment should be sent to Spain. The meeting in London would give suggestion for future policy...

The non-intervention Committee met the first time in London, September 9th 1936. The European nations, represented by their ambassadors, participated in this meeting. The second meeting was held September 14th. At that point Sweden got involved in a committee that was supposed to deal with the ”every day” aspect of non-intervention.

During the next coming months Italy, Germany and Portugal continued to support the Nationalists and some help reached the Republican government from the Soviet Union. By the end of January 1937, Germany suddenly agreed on some border control of Spain to hinder war material reaching the country. The plan for border control was established March 8th 1937. Britain would control the Portuguese-Spanish border. 130 observers under the Danish Colonel Lunn would be stationed at the French border and 550 observers would be stationed in the Spanish harbors to control all incoming cargo. At sea, Britain would control the northern border into Portuguese territory, France would control the rest of the Portuguese territory and the south coast between Spain and Morocco plus Ibiza and Mallorca. The rest of the southern and eastern coast was controlled by Germany and Italy.

In Sweden we even got some laws against any participation in the Spanish Civil War;

On February 22nd 1937, a new law proposal was presented in Sweden, proposition 125 1937 - ”law about actions to prevent volunteer participation in the Spanish Civil War etc...”. It included nine paragraphs:

§1. If one tries through gifts, payment or promises of reimbursement or any similar way, or through threat or abuse of higher rank to make anyone enlist for wa rservice in Spain, sentencing, where it will not be sentenced according to common law, to prison up to 6 months or a fine.

§2. If a Swedish Citizen enrolls for war service in Spain, punishment with prison up to 6 months or a fine.

§3. Tickets whose purpose is to travel to or through Spain can only be sold to the one who has received special permit to travel to Spain through his Majesty or through an Office which has been authorized by his Majesty, or to foreign citizens, who belong to his Majesty’s stated country, who has been authorized by an authorization Office in this country to travel to Spain. If anyone breaks what has been decided, punishment with prison up to 6 months or a fine.

§4. About Swedish ships destined to Spain: it is the Commander’s duty to: see to it that the ship does not take any passenger destined to Spain who does not have the permit mentioned in §3 or without hinderance under §51, second section in the Seaman’s law and §10 in the law of Seamen’s working hours; prohibit the crew from disembarking in Spain, unless service demands; and to see to it that any other person travelling along does not embark in Spain, unless he has the permit mentioned in §3. If the Commander neglects this paragraph, punishment will be by fine.

§5. About Swedish ships destined to Spain his Majesty has the authority to demand that the ship should embark from a certain port to let a special authorized Controlling Officer embark or board, and that above-mentioned Controlling Officer should be allowed to go along with the ship and, as regulated in detail, control the cargo and the passengers, and the Commander is obliged to allow war ships belonging to a country stated by his Majesty to be investigated, if the Controlling Officer is on board. If the Commander neglects this paragraph, punishment will be by fine.

§6. What in this law regards Spain also relates to the Spanish possessions and the Spanish zone of Morocco

§7. If violation of §2 has been committed outside Sweden independent of what is stated in Chapter 1, §1 in the penal code, the violation may be prosecuted here in Sweden. The prosecution should in a case like this be carried out at the municipal court in Stockholm. Legal court cases of violation of §4 and §5 as stated in the Seaman’s law §89 should have the same applicability. Other violations of this law than the one now mentioned should be prosecuted in the common court. The prosecution is executed by the common prosecutor.

§8. The fines imposed according to this law should fall to the Crown. If means to pay the fines are missing, they should be converted according to common law.

§9. His Majesty should inform necessary stipulations about the application of this law.

Both Swedish houses (First and Second Chamber) approved the new law a few days later (March 5th 1937). In the First Chamber it was approved by all votes against one. In the Second Chamber it was approved with 182 to 6.

Several cases against the new law came up during the next year. During Spring 1938 three Swedish volunteers contacted the Swedish Consulate in Paris. They needed money for the trip home to Sweden. The Swedish Foreign Minister Rickard Sandler then contacted a fellow Social Democrat involved in the aid to Republican Spain. He asked, unofficially, if any of the help organizations could pay for the men at the Consulate. If the Consulate paid there would automatically be a formal investigation of when these men went to Spain and if there were any violations of the law against Swedish volunteers in Spain... This is one of several cases where the Swedish government managed to get past their own law. In September 1938 Spain declared at a meeting of the League of Nations that all foreign volunteers should be evacuated. Suddenly more than 150 Swedes would be sent home. The Swedish government adjusted to the new situation by suspending the law. According to a circular from the government all men who had enlisted before October 21st 1938 would be free from prosecution when returning to Sweden. When the International Brigades were dissolved, the law against Swedish volunteers was no longer necessary. The Spanish Support Foundation wrote a formal request to the Swedish government where they asked them to pay for the transport home of the Swedish volunteers. The Swedish government’s response was positive and they also gave foreign refugees entry permits if they had been in Sweden before they enlisted in Spain. Finally they agreed to try to get those Swedish prisoners held by the Nationalists exchanged. In other words - no one had to pay any fines or serve any time in prison for participating in the Spanish Civil War even though Sweden had created a law against it.

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George Orwell is, of course, a partisan observer, but I find this passage from The Lion and The Unicorn interesting:

" [The British ruling class] could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns - by ignoring it. After years of aggression and massacres, they had grasped only one fact, that Hitler and Mussolini were hostile to Communism. therefore, it was argued they *must* be friendly to the British dividend-drawer … At the time of the Spanish Civil War, anyone with as much political knowledge as can be acquired from a sixpenny pamphlet on Socialism knew that, if Franco won, the result would be strategically disastrous for England; and yet generals and admirals who had given their lives to the study of war were unable to grasp this fact."

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