Britain and the Spanish Civil War: What I learned tonight

Paris Exposition

If I’m completely honest, the Spanish Civil War is not a conflict, or indeed a period of history, that I know very much about, it not being covered on the school curriculum (I’m not sure reading ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ counts). So, I was interested to see that Islington Museum was holding a talk about the War – and Britain’s role in it – to support the Museum’s new ‘Banners for Spain’ exhibition, and duly signed up to attend.

The talk, given by Professor Tom Buchanan, Director of Studies in History and Politics at the University of Oxford, who has written extensively on this conflict, turned out to be excellent – not just compelling listening but highly educational, too. Read on to find out more…

During the nineteenth century and the early part of the 20th century, Spain went through some turbulent times. The creation of a second Spanish Republic marked the end of the Bourbon monarchy and a turning point in Spanish history. Democracy, modernity, women’s rights and new deals for the working man were in the ascendancy, with power moving away from the powerful elites in the church, army and big business.

Within five years, however, the Republic gave rise to much polarisation. Many in Spain did not accept the kinds of changes that were taking place. In February 1936, Spain’s centre left populist block won an important election victory. In July of the same year, the army rebelled and attempted to create an unspecified but authoritarian rule. Resistance by workers led to an outbreak of civil war.

At this time, the Republic controlled Spain’s major cities, with the Rebels controlling the more rural areas, reflecting a geographical division which gradually changed over time, but also a war between two coalitions which desperately wanted to control each other.

From the very beginning of the war, both sides appealed to the outside world for assistance: the Rebels to Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy (indeed, 80,000 Italian soldiers fought for the Rebels), with the Republic receiving most of its external support from the Soviet Union. Both the British and the French governments responded with a policy of non-intervention. Officially, 28 states – including Germany and the Soviet Union – signed a non-intervention agreement; this was widely dishonoured, however.

Given their country’s policy of non-intervention why, then, were so many Britons interested in the events occurring in Spain? After all, World War I had concluded fewer than 20 years previously and had wiped out an entire generation of men; you would think that the thought of entering into another conflict would fill people with dread. Yet, around 2,500 volunteers (many of whom had family commitments) went to Spain to fight, with approximately 500 of them losing their lives.

Professor Buchanan argues that the history of Spain since the Napoleonic Wars had been out of step with the rest of Europe – evidenced by the fact that, unlike many European countries, it had remained neutral during WWI. To Britons, however, Spain retained a certain exoticism which both helped and hindered it; the country was admired for its cultural achievements and elegant society. Does that explain why so many British volunteers went to fight in Spain, though? According to Professor Buchanan, the empathy felt by these volunteers towards their Spanish comrades-in arms was important, but the location of Spain was key. We need to place the War in the context of the world of the 1930s and a number of world events, such as the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, which had a tremendous impact upon Britain. The Spanish Civil War came to represent a struggle between civilisation and barbarism; it was also perceived by some as a foreign invasion (as already noted, 80,000 Italian soldiers fought for Franco).

A number of historians have argued previously that the British people, on the whole, were not particularly interested in the War taking place in Spain and had no strong feelings about which side they wanted to win. Professor Buchanan disagrees with that view, countering it with a number of pieces of evidence:

(1) Opinion polls taken during the 1930s broadly and consistently showed that the weight of public sentiment was with the Republic. HOWEVER, we should take these polls with a pinch of salt as polling was in its infancy and these were the first polls ever to be carried out in the UK. Other polls showed conflicting views, for example supporting appeasement;

(2) The Writers’ Poll, which attracted 127 votes in favour of the Republic, 16 neutral votes and 5 for the Rebels. Again, though, mixed messages were in play – “Up the Republic!” from Samuel Beckett and “Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish” from George Orwell (who actually fought with the Republic in Spain, as we will see later). Again, you could argue that this evidence is not particularly scientific; the majority of the writers who voted had similar, left-leaning views – although there were some prominent names in the 16 neutrals, including TS Eliot. Also, quite a few writers were sympathetic to different groups within the Republic, i.e. they didn’t necessarily support the same factions;

(3) The Francoist repression, with its many extra-judicial killings, played a big part in the shift in British thinking from neutrality to wanting the Republic to survive. The execution of the Spanish poet/playwright Lorca sent shockwaves across Europe;

(4) The ever-increasing bombardment of Republic-controlled cities (to this day, the bombings of Madrid, Guernica and Barcelona are remembered with horror) and the growing involvement of Nazi Germany and Italy.

In addition to the above, a number of events in this country propelled the War into the British public’s consciousness and turned it into something that could not be ignored:

• Impassioned speeches by Spanish delegates at October 1936’s Labour Party Conference, which had a tremendous impact upon all those present and were widely reported;
• Attacks on British ships, trading with the Republic, by Italian planes in the summer of 1938;
• The arrival of 400 Basque children seeking shelter in May 1940, following the bombing of Guernica.

All of the above greatly impacted upon the British public and its attitude towards the Spanish Civil War. Furthermore, states Professor Buchanan, the visual image had a strong role to play in creating sympathies and loyalties; this had become an age of propaganda. Posters, such as the ones in Islington Museum’s exhibition that I mentioned earlier, appealed to people’s emotions as well as to their political sympathies. The Republic desperately needed help, so their posters needed to serve a purpose and win over their target audience.

The photography of Robert Copa and Gerda Taro is another excellent example of the powerful role of imagery during the Spanish Civil War – Copa’s iconic 1936 photo, below, remains one of the most famous images of war.

The Falling Soldier by Robert Copa (1936)
‘The Falling Soldier’ by Frank Copa (1936)


In Britain, the groups supporting the Republic, broadly speaking, were the liberals, some (but not all) members of the Labour party, those people who wanted to uphold international law & order, the anti-fascists and intellectuals such as John Lehman and Stephen Spencer. Also, and perhaps surprisingly, imperialists – some of whom believed that the British Empire might be dismantled should Franco win through.

The pro-Franco groups in Britain tended to include Catholics (some of whom were Labour party members, leading to internal conflict), right-wing Conservatives and the British Union of Fascists, although the latter was not particularly interested in Francoism, more in the policies of Hitler and Mussolini.

The politics of 1930s Britain were unusual because of the tremendous amount of political upheaval of 1931, which saw a National Government created. Parliament was lop-sided; the Labour party had been all but annihilated, losing most of its MPs and its leaders. It therefore spend much of the 1930s trying to claw its way back and also trying to build a consensus around re-armament, which the party opposed until 1937 when the threat of Nazi Germany became apparent. Clement Attlee held passionate views about the Spanish Civil War from its very beginnings, but was criticised both by Tory MPs and members of his own party for promoting British involvement.

Why? At that time, there was a majority view that non-intervention would favour the Republic; also, that unfettered sale of arms to Spain could generate a war between the two countries. Furthermore, most members of the Labour party felt it necessary to show solidarity with the French socialist government, whose policy was non-intervention. The fact that various factions within the Labour party (remember, many of its Catholic members supported Franco) also made achieving consensus difficult.

For Britain’s Communist party, on the other hand, the conflict in Spain came at exactly the right time. The 1930s saw a rapid increase in membership for the party and a tremendous emotional investment in the Spanish Civil War, with many members travelling to Spain to fight. The party’s leader at that time was Harry Pollitt and he felt hugely responsible for the growing number of British casualties.

The Independent Labour Party (ILP), in its turn, became strongly associated with the POUM militia, which was suppressed in 1937 when its leader was executed. The ILP had its own unit in Spain; 30 British volunteers joined it, including George Orwell (note to self: must read ‘Homage to Catalonia’.

What of the role of the British press in all of this? The majority of left wing newspapers, so we learned, expressed strong support for the Republic, with the likes of The Times and The Telegraph broadly in favour of non-intervention. The Catholic press, however, tended to support Franco. Interestingly, there was much more emphasis in the 1930s than you would expect now on picking a side to support.

Professor Buchanan concluded this riveting talk by stating that the level of engagement by the British people in the Spanish Civil War was far stronger than any other parallel conflict in the 20th century. The War’s impact upon this country was very complex: various different factions here supported various different factions in Spain; in the meantime, a whole range of agendas, perceptions and political programmes were in play. Putting aside all of the various politics, however, it is important to remember not just the individuals who went over to Spain to fight, but also those who tried, in whatever way they could, to do the right thing. It was not unknown for people to donate their entire monthly pay packet to charities providing humanitarian aid.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I will be returning to Islington Museum to view its ‘Banners for Spain’ exhibition. I’m glad that I went to this talk first, though – I learned so much from it that will help put the exhibition into context. It has also well and truly whetted my appetite to learn more about this period of history; I’m now signed up for an event taking place on 1 June at the Marx Memorial Library which will look at the role of the volunteers who fought in Spain – tickets are still available if you fancy joining me.

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