NYT revisionism on Spanish Civil War

The New York Times‘ March 24 review of a new exhibit on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at the Museum of the City of New York is a depressingly sinister and hypocritical piece of propaganda. Entitled “The Spanish Civil War: Black and White in a Murky, Ambiguous World” by Edward Rothstein, the piece pokes smarmy fun at the heroic and paints the critical precursor struggle to World War II with a bogus moral equivalism. Rothstein comes close to a fascism-wasn’t-so-bad-after-all position, which is particularly frightening when so many of its characteristics (aggressive wars, secret prisons) are once again in evidence.

It is about time that the Lincoln Brigade, American volunteers who broke the Neutrality Act to fight against fascism in Spain, got their due. But Rothstein can only see them as commie dupes, and uses the occasion of his review to also take a swipe at the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, which favorably portrays Spanish anti-fascist partisans, as clichéd propaganda. After speaking in patronizing terms about an idealized view of the war “which pitted political virtue against fascistic evil,” Rothstein goes on to portray Francisco Franco as an anti-communist savior of his nation—certainly not in as blatant terms as Pat Buchanan, but the subtext is clear.

He does grudgingly concede (in tellingly jaundiced terms): “The Soviet vision of the war, of course, has the appeal of both simplicity and (partial) accuracy: Franco was indeed a ruthless tyrant whose victory led to wide-scale purges, cruel imprisonments and extensive constraints.” This is a rather euphemistic way to refer to massacres and concentration camps.

But it gets worse fast. “Was Franco’s Spain really an arm of what was called ‘international fascism’?” Not only is Rothstein about to tell us it wasn’t (of course), but note the scare quotes around “international fascism”—implying it didn’t really exist. “Spain was neutral during World War II, and the Führer wasn’t interested in Franco’s late offer of support,” Rothstein writes. Spain was neutral because it was devastated by its own 1936-9 civil war, and had no capacity to extend power beyond its borders. Franco did open Spain’s ports to German submarines, and sent a special brigade to join Hitler’s invasion of Russia. But what was far more significant was German and Italian aid to Franco, of course! Military aid from the fascist powers—including troops and German-piloted Luftwaffe warplanes—was critical to his victory. (Remember Guernica, Rothstein?) Rothstein gets the answers he needs to make his case by asking dramatically wrong questions.

After this glib dismissal of the fascist threat, Rothstein goes on to portray Republican Spain as an arm of international Communism—seemingly blind to his own irony. To illustrate leftist naiveté about Soviet intentions in Spain, Rothstein sets up as an easy straw-man one Paul Preston, author of The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge, who blames “an unholy alliance of anarchists, Trotskyists and cold warriors” for portraying Moscow designs to turn Republican Spain into a puppet state. “The most Stalin wished for the Republic,” Rothstein quotes Preston, “was that there might be a compromise solution acceptable to the Western democracies.”

Yet this is exactly what the anarchists and “Trotskyists” (Moscow’s pejorative for all independent communists) protested! Attempting to woo the Western democracies into his Popular Front against Hitler, Stalin did not want a government in Spain that would be seen as a threat by Britain and France. Therefore, his agents in Spain (including in the Communist Party) made sure the anarchists and independent communists were crushed, and capitalism restored in the areas where they had seized control (chiefly Catalonia). Rothstein even writes (correctly): “Stalin opposed those in Spain who called for revolution; he wanted control.” But he still sees the threat as the Red Menace—certainly not capitalism!

What is most infuriating (if predictable) is that Rothstein invokes the anarchists and George Orwell to make his point. Orwell fought in a “Trotskyist” militia which was crushed in the Moscow-instrumented 1937 purge along with the anarchists—a story he relates vividly in Homage to Catalonia. Rothstein uses a quote from the book in which Orwell dimisses the “newspaper talk about this being a ‘war for democracy'” as “plain eyewash” in light of the world’s betrayal of the Spanish struggle. But Orwell (who received a bullet wound on the front in Aragon) never saw any “ambiguity” in Spain—complexities, betrayals, yes. But never any equivocation on the necessity to resist fascism, in spite of everything.

And when the purge came, Orwell was clear that he and his “Trotskyist” and anarchist comrades were on the side of what he openly called a “workers’ state.” On the street-fighting the purge unleashed in Barcelona, he wrote (in a passage not quoted by Rothstein, of course!): “I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.”

Orwell argued that this counter-revolutionary policy ultimately cost the Republic the war: “For years past the Communists themselves had been teaching the militant workers in all countries that ‘democracy’ was a polite name for capitalism… If, with the huge prestige of Soviet Russia behind them, they had appealed to the workers of the world in the name not of ‘democratic Spain,’ but of ‘revolutionary Spain,’ it is hard to believe that they would not have got a response… The whole tendency of the Communist policy was to reduce the war to an ordinary, non-revolutionary war in which the Government was heavily handicapped.”

Attempting to appropriate this critique to dismiss the anti-fascist struggle as an “ambiguous” pastime of misguided do-gooders is an example of the Orwellian manipulation of Orwell—a phenomenon we have noted before.

There may be a case to be made that the exhibit, entitled “Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War,” dodges the tough questions by not addressing the ’37 purge, and the Communist capitulation following the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Rothstein notes that last week, in the conservative New York Sun, Ronald Radosh, author of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, quoted a speech by Lincoln Brigade veteran Milton Wolff, made in 1941 when the Pact was still in effect. “We fight,” Wolff proclaimed, “against the involvement of our country in an imperialist war.” This is, of course, deeply embarassing.

But having dissed the Spanish anti-fascist struggle, Rothstein has no moral ground from which to criticize Communists who made accomodations with fascism during the Hitler-Stalin Pact period. He also, of course, fails to mention that Lincoln Brigade vets would go on to fight for Uncle Sam in World War II—only to be persecuted in the McCarthy era for having been “prematurely anti-fascist”!

In perhaps the most telling line of the piece, Rothstein smirks: “In a series of video interviews, one veteran argues (presumably in the 1980s) that what happened in Spain was no different from what was happening in Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa; another asserts that the United States in Vietnam was doing just what Hitler and Mussolini did.”

If such comparisons about US behavior seemed frivolous in the ’60s or ’80s, they are assuredly less so today, in the age of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and Bush’s “Big Lie” that justified the Iraq aggression. Maybe this is one reason that this kind of historical revisionism is so much in evidence these days—honoring anti-fascist militants cuts a little too close to home.

See our last posts on the culture wars and the legacy of the Spanish Civil War.