Ángel Viñas’s Masterly Historical Trilogy

March 4, 2011

Angel Viñas, La Soledad de la República; El Escudo de la República;y El Honor de la República. All three books published by Editorial Crítica, Barcelona, 2006-2008.

Editors’ note: This review first appeared in the Revista de Libros, no. 154 (Oct. 2009). The editors thank the Revista for granting permission to publish it in the original English version.

The three books under consideration in the present review constitute, without a doubt, the most detailed and fully documented archival studies of the international diplomatic and military reactions to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War; and also of the efforts of the successive Republican governments to overcome the politico-economic hostility of the major democratic powers—England, France, and the United States—and to counter the massive military aid given from the start by Italy, Germany, and Portugal to the forces led by General Franco. These last efforts in turn obliged the Republic to depend upon the Soviet Union, Mexico, and the International Brigades as the only forces willing and able to help the Republic defend itself.

To provide the potential reader with a more specific idea of the events dealt with in each of the three volumes: Soledad opens with the realization that although the Republic is an internationally recognized, democratically chosen government, it is, for a variety of reasons, not going to receive any help from the democratic powers in defending itself against the military uprising of July 18. On the other hand, within a week of the pronunciamiento, Italy, Germany, and Portugal have pledged their military aid to General Franco, and the Conservative government of Great Britain has indicated to the French that England will not look favorably on any French moves to aid the Republic. Within Spain it quickly seems imperative to replace the timid middle class Republican government of José Giral with a government representing the entire Popular Front, and led by Francisco Largo Caballero, by far the most wellknown and respected leader with a working class following. The Soviet Union joins the Non-Intervention Committee being organized on Franco-British initiative, but when in early September it is already evident that that committee will not make any real effort to stop the flow of Italo-German aid to General Franco, Stalin decides to give limited aid to the Republic. The first Soviet arms, and also food and medical supplies, reach Spain in the second half of October, 1936.

Escudo deals with the months during which Largo Caballero was both Prime Minister and Minister of War, from September 4, 1936 to mid-May of 1937. Largo’s age, and his lifelong experience as a trade union leader, left him really without the ability to function as a military leader, and Viñas concentrates on the efforts of Prieto, who as Minister of the Navy actually functioned as a de facto Minister of Defense, and on Juan Negrín, who as Minister of Hacienda was the principal governmental figure involved in the efforts to buy arms on the international and black markets, and to reorganize the corps of carabineros as a frontier and financial police. Negrín also arranged, with the Soviet economic advisers, and explained to the relevant cabinet members, his plans for the export of the gold reserves of the Bank of Spain to the Soviet Union as the only destination outside Spain where those reserves would be available to finance the defense of the Republic. Viñas’ experience as an economist, diplomat, and student of financial and banking institutions make those chapters absolutely unique in their information and documentation.

Escudo also treats in considerable detail the cabinet conflicts leading to the fall of Largo Caballero, the “hechos de mayo” in Barcelona, the decline of anarchist and POUM political power in Catalonia, the replacement of Largo Caballero by Negrín as Prime Minister, and the kidnapping and assassination of Andreu Nin.

The third volume, El Honor de la República, begins with the loss of the Basque country, deals with the efforts of Prime Minister Negrín, Defense Minister Prieto, and chief of staff Colonel (later General) Vicente Rojo to create a competent, sufficiently armed Republican army. While the combined efforts of loyal Spanish officers, former militia leaders of the emergency defense of Madrid in November-December, 1936, and Soviet military advisers, does indeed produce a competent army, the quantity of Italo-German military aid to General Franco is so much larger than that of the Soviet Union to the Republic, that with the exception of the first few weeks of the Battle of Teruel, and the first few days of the Battle of the Ebro, the Nationalists are constantly victorious. Viñas analyzes both the internal strengths and weaknesses of the Republican forces; also the concerns of the Soviets with the threat of Japan along the borders of Siberia, and the necessary Soviet attention to Hitlerite Germany and to a hostilely conservative England, as being inevitably more important to Stalin than the fate of Republican Spain. For the author, the honor of the Republic is most fully embodied in the resistance policy of Prime Minister Negrín, and in his efforts to govern as a civilian leader, accountable to the Cortes and to the President of the Republic.

The books are written simultaneously as scholarly treatises, to expound the truth on the basis of archival documentation, and as phillippics, to repair the injustices done to the intentions and the actions of the Spanish Republican governments during the Civil War. Scornful (but also accurate) footnotes and numerous parenthetical comments within the text itself contain detailed commentaries on works glorifying Franco and his dictatorship; works by both Spaniards and foreigners defending the biases of the Vatican, the Spanish Church, Falangist and Carlist advocates, several varieties of non-Stalinist Marxism, and anarchism. In pursuit of his documentary research the author has traveled to Paris, London, Moscow, and many other specific sites at which relevant archives are located. He has supplied detailed footnotes for all his controversial interpretations. He has listed the acronyms for dozens of archives, provided a massive bibliography, given the reader a long list of dramatis personae, and supplied copies of important documents. In pursuit of his critical, historiographical purpose he has quoted, and refuted, hundreds of strong statements by named persons and institutions.

Taken together, the three volumes provide some 1800 pages of text and footnotes. Viñas’ style is at once narrative, explanatory, and argumentative. He is both a passionate and exigent supporter of the Republican leaders. To obtain the full benefit of these three books the reader must be able to shift his attention frequently between the discussion of events, the footnote references to the various sources underpinning the narrative, and the interpretation or distortion of those events by other writers. But if he/she has the patience to make those shifts of attention, the results will be rich both in factual knowledge and differences of interpretation. Having attempted above to name the subjects covered in each of the three volumes, I will now comment on a few separate chapters.

Chapter 9 of Escudo, pp. 331-368, concentrates on the communications between Stalin, Largo Caballero, and Ambassador Marcelino Pascua; and the light which those communcations can throw on the attitude of the Soviet dictator towards the Spanish Republic. It is based principally on reports of Ambassador Pascua, and on material from the British Foreign Office which is much more detailed than the knowledge of Pascua. Thus in early February, 1937, in Geneva, Pascua had given a memorandum to Foreign Minister Del Vayo in which he stated that Stalin was preoccupied principally with the the internal development of a socialist society in the Soviet Union, and was concerned also with the military movements of Japan in the Far East. In addition, he was determined to build a large navy, the investment in which would inevitably limit, for the near future, improvements in the standard of living of the general population. Foreign Office reports on Soviet military-industrial activity indicated that the Soviets already had the world’s largest submarine fleet, and in many ways confirmed Pascua´s general interpretation while supplying much more specific data .

After informing the reader, with specific evidence, that Stalin very rarely intereviewed foreign diplomats (leaving that task principally to Molotov) the author discussed Pascua’s reports of the several conversations which Stalin granted him in early 1937. Stalin emphasized (repeating earlier written advice to Largo Caballero) the importance of reassuring the middle class and the peasants, that Western Europe, including Spain, was not ready for a socialist revolution, that the readiness of the populations to support the struggle against Fascism depended on the maintenance of free trade, and on the peasants’ feeling that they possessed the land which they were expected to cultivate.

He explained to Pascua that during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 there had been huge spaces to which the Red Army could retreat if necessary; and also that the World War taking place between the main capitalist powers, and exhausting their human  resources, permitted the Soviets to take initiatives which Spain in 1937 could not take, even if an unspecified portion of its population would like to have carried out a new version of the Bolshevik revolution. Referring again mostly to British, and to some French, documents, Viñas notes that the Foreign Office in 1937 saw the Soviet Union as being weakened by the ongoing purges, while the fascist powers were becoming more powerful and aggressive. Both the opinions as to internal devlopments in Spain and the relative military strength of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy of course corresponded fairly closely with the opinions of parliamentary socialists such as Prieto, Negrín, and Pascua.

Stalin did not conceal his reservations about the fighting spirit of the Republic. He found the slogan “no pasarán” too passive, too much on the defensive psychologically. He wondered whether the lack of combat experience in World War I had left the Spaniards without a spirit of combat. Did they really want to win the war? Victory required an active, aggressive spirit, not just “no pasarán”. And by the way, the Republic must strengthen discipline, also “unmask” and “denounce” anarchist “intrigues.” Pascua explained the defensive military posture as due to the terrible experience of almost losing Madrid in the first days of November, 1936, and then of pouring their fullest energies into saving the battered capitral. Stalin agreed that the Republic must retain Madrid, otherwise the Soviets would have to “reconsider” their position.

As for Prime Minister Largo Caballero, who was more interested in labor union political power than in mostly middle class parliaments, in his letter thanking Stalin for the arms, food and medical supplies, pilots and military advisers, he also wrote, and Viñas quotes him directly (p. 337): “Cualquiera que sea la suerte que lo por venir reserva a la institución parlamentaria, ésta no goza entre nosotros, ni aún entre los republicanos, de defensores entusiastas.”  {NB: “lo por venir” is exactly how the words are printed}.

Later pages of the same chapter contain information, all of it based on diplomatic and military reports, concerning Soviet relations with China and Japan, mutual attitudes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the incredibly naïve effort mounted by Luis Araquistáin to “buy off” Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy with some of the Bank of Spain gold, and some of the inaccurate memories of Largo Caballero, involving differences between his memoirs and archival evidence. There is also some discussion, though in much less detail than in other chapters, of the ways in which the clearly non-revolutionary program of the Soviet Union and of the Spanish Communist Party resembled the parliamentary socialist program of the Prietistas and later of the Negrín government.

Having given a thoroughly admiring summary of the contents of the trilogy, I do think it important to mention a few reservations. To start with I must say two things which may sound contradictory: that I have learned something and been intellectually stimulated by almost every page, and that at times I have had to wonder whether the author was confusing new information with decisively important information. To do justice to both statements I would need forty or fifty pages. In a necessarily brief review, and assuming that the most useful function of a reviewer to his readers is to offer constructive criticism, I will discuss two instances in which the emphases sometimes puzzled me.

On pages 46 to 61 of Soledad the author treats the French decision of August, 1936, not to intervene on behalf of the Republic, but rather to try to establish a policy of Non-Intervention, a policy which hopefully would shorten the war and lead to a mediated settlement. The French government making the decision was the first government of the Popular Front. It consisted of Socialists and Radicals, and was also supported by the Communists, but without their supplying any ministers. The cabinet was divided in its sympathies, not strictly along party lines, since there were Radicals as well as Socialists who favored supplying military aid to the Republic, for reasons of French military security, and in support of a legitimate democratic government attacked by a military junta. But Léon Blum, the Socialist Prime Minister, was at first decidedly in favor of providing arms to the Republic, and the Socialists generally felt emotionally sympathetic to the Republic, whereas most Radicals simply preferred a legitimate and friendly government to a fascist-supported dictatorship.

In Viñas’ narrative, based on French and Spanish diplomatic documents of the time, the cabinet meeting of August 1 showed a majority of the members inclined not to aid the Republic militarily. The Vice-Premier and Minister of Defense, Edouard Daladier, was opposed. He knew that some members of the general staff were in favor of the Insurgents, and he was worried about the advisability of exporting arms which were needed for France´s own rearmament in the face of a hostile Germany. Also he, and many deputies of both parties, were rightly skeptical of any hope that Italy and Germany might agree to cease their aid to the military insurrection.

Ángel Viñas

On that same day, August 1, Foreign Minister Delbos (a Radical) had said in the Chamber of Deputies 1) that the Spanish government was a legitimate government friendly to France, 2) that nevertheless France was not planning to intervene, and 3) that France had interrupted the flow of arms to the Republic. As Viñas comments: “lo que había ocurrido en las bambalinas no se sabe con exactitud”, but a report dated September 20 by Luis Jiménez de Asúa, a member of the Republican arms buying committee in Paris, sheds at least circumstantial light on the problem. Asúa had had a secret meeting on the evening of August 3 with Finance Minister Vincent Auriol, a Socialist who was strongly sympathetic to the Republican cause. Auriol told Asúa that during the cabinet meeting Blum had pressed an unwilling Delbos to supply official permission to sell to Mexico the arms intended for Spain. Delbos thought the plan ridiculous when everybody knew that the arms were intended for Spain.

Delbos left the meeting before it was adjourned. Blum, Auriol, and Daladier continued the discussion, and decided that it would in fact make better sense to deal directly with the Madrid government. They then telephoned Delbos, who, according to the Asúa report, now gave his consent. On August 4-5 the newly arrived Spanish ambassador Alvaro de Albornoz was apprised of what types and quantities of arms were to be sent. He dispatched a confidential agent to the French military authorities in Bordeaux, along with payment in the form of a Spanish government check. But on the next day, August 6, a final export permit from the Quai d’Orsay did not arrive. Jiménez de Asúa now went to Blum´s home, and the latter wept bitter tears as he related that the British ambassador had spoken to Delbos, virtually directing France not to arm Spain, and on the contrary to propose a policy of Non-Intervention to all the major powers. He said that if France failed to do this, and if the war were to spread beyond the borders of Spain, England would not be able to defend France in those circumstances.

While the Viñas account decidedly adds new information to our knowledge of France´s decision not to sell arms to the Republic, and instead to propose the establishment of a Non-Intervention Committee, it does not add to our fundamental knowledge of the events described. As of July 24, when Léon Blum had been in London, he had been clearly warned by the British not to become involved on the side of the Republic. The major French, British, and American newspapers had carried the story within a few days. The British warning, and Blum’s feeling that he must at all costs not offend the British, was included in the Toynbee Survey of International Affairs for 1936, and in such early studies of the international aspects of the Civil as P.A.M Van der Esch, Prelude to War,

published in 1951, and Dante Puzzo, Spain and the Geat Powers, 1936-1941,published in 1962.

To move to a second subject, on pages 275 to 285 Viñas offers detailed new information about the decision of Stalin to intervene in the Civil War. He starts with an eleven line paragraph of doubts. In September, 1936, “parece ser” that Ambassador Rosenberg suggested that the Comintern send a military force armed with the latest weapons. “De ser cierto” this plan would have resulted from his analysis of the situation within Spain itself as of early August, when a change of government in Madrid was clearly foreseen. And, “si existió”, the Rosenberg plan would have been discussed while Moscow was evaluating all the available data which led to the Comintern decisions of September 16-19.(p. 275)

Also important were the visit of Maurice Thorez, General Secretary of the French Communist Party, to confer with Republican officials and Soviet Embassy personnel in Madrid; plus the arrivals in Spain in early September of André Marty, a founding member of the French Communist Party, and Manfred Stern, Soviet adviser to the newly formed Fifth regiment and to the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party. At the same time, between 11 September and 10 October, some 180 volunteers crossed the border at Cerbère, obliging the Soviets to think about their own image as self-appointed leaders of the world Marxist Left. The above facts were of course also important in feeding the hopes of the Republic that the Soviet Union might come to its aid militarily.

Following these facts, Viñas notes that food, clothing, and other humanitarian aid arrived in Soviet ships in late September, but that nothing official was being said about arms. He does refer to one source stating that 33 aircraft mechanics had arrived in September, to which he appends the one word comment: “sorprendente”. His main conclusions from the relatively sparse documentary evidence are that the Republic saw strong hints that the Soviet Union might intervene, and that for Stalin the themes of anti-fascist solidarity, and of Comintern world leadership, became increasingly important as a factor in Soviet considerations.

The author begins his direct disscussion of the decison to intervene by stating several other conclusions that his research has led him to: that the decision followed a “gradual acceleration” but that within the dynamic of acceleration Stalin always maintained the possibility of retreat. To the rhetorical question why such a retreat did not occur, Viñas’ reply is that the Soviet Union had to seek simultaneously to achieve collective security with the democratic powers and fulfill its role as the leader of a World Left that was becoming increasingly involved in the Spanish Civil War. In addition, Viñas is concerned to refute the anti-Communist historiography of the Civil War –that of the anarchists, Trotskyites, and POUMistas which claims that Stalin was determined to suppress the revolution which had broken out in the summer of 1936; and that of conservatives and Cold Warriors, which claims that Stalin was determined to establish in Spain a “popular democracy” of the type which he established in Eastern Europe after World War II.

After these general considerations he introduces important new evidence of genuine, and freely expressed, differences of opinion within the Soviet leadership. Foreign Minister Litvinov and the commissariat which he headed at first advocated not intervening in Spain. They were much more concerned to extend the Franco-Soviet and Franco-Czechoslovak defensive pacts into a general alliance for military security against Hitler, an alliance which would include not only England but also Rumania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and of course the Soviet Union. In Viñas´s opinion Litvinov, who was married to an English woman, was quite anglophile, and never understood the extent of British governmental hostility to Soviet Russia. He quotes a letter of the Foreign Minister to the Soviet Ambassador in England , Ivan Maisky, dated June 25, 1937: “Si hubieramos permanecido al margen de la guerra civil, el resultado de esta postura hubiese sido un reforzamiento de nuestros vínculos con Gran Bretaña y Francia.” (p. 279)

He also quotes, as “un documento fundamental” a Litvinov telegram to Ambassador Rosenberg on September 4, 1936, reprimanding the latter for interfering in Spanish politics, and saying that since Rosenberg had been in Spain there had been many conversations in Moscow, the general conclusion of which was that it would be impossible to send arms to Spain. In Viñas’ opinion, Litvinov as of September 4 still hoped that the recently formed Non-Intervention Committee would in fact oblige the fascist powers to cease their support of the military junta. And his letter also reminds Rosenberg that newspaper reports are not final proofs. Viñas then proceeds to mention “valoraciones que, por desgracia, todavía no he visto documentados. Según tal fuente, Stalin se inclinaba hacia una política de completa neutralidad, Molotov se oponía y Vorochilov le apoyaba” (pp. 281-2) .

Thus Stalin, as of September 4, had not taken a decision. But the meeting of the Non-Intervention Committee on September 9, which completely rejected the ample evidence of Italo-German intervention, virtually destroyed any Soviet hope that international pressure would be put on the fascist powers to cease their evident, indeed boastful, intervention. According to Viñas, Molotov now asked for immediate aid to the Largo Caballero government. “Que había pasado? Lo que había pasado es que Stalin, desde Sochi (his summer residence on the Black Sea) había empezado a dar comienzo a su propio giro, que Molotov se plegaba rápidamente, y que las solemnes declaraciones de no intervención se revelaban como un auténtico fracaso.” (p. 282) I find the verb “plegaba” puzzling, since Molotov has just been characterized as opposing a policy of complete neutrality, but the important point is that different advisers thought differently and dared to express their thoughts in the midst of the purges gathering momentum after the trial and executions of the “Old Bolsheviks” Zinoviev and Kamenev.

According to Viñas, Stalin, while vacationing at Sochi, must have realized that the Republic was not necessarily facing defeat, and also that eventual victory would require military aid substantially equivalent to that being given by the fascist powers to Franco. This strategic element (Viñas’s adjective) dominated Stalin´s thinking, but it was accompanied by a determination to give battle without quarter to the “facción zinovievista-trotskista.”. After which the author devotes four full pages to the complex relationships of various Comintern officials, NKVD officers, and Politbureau members, and to the “reasoning” and progress of the purges. One of the main purposes of these pages, in the author’s own words, is to show that “Este es un escenario algo más complejo que el que consiste en hipertrofiar la noción de que lo que Stalin persiguió desde el primer momento era establecer una base que apoyara la constitución en España de un remedo de república popular avant la lettre”. (p. 288, author’s italics)

Personally I have no doubt that Stalin was obsessed with the many forms of  opposition (real and delusional) which he was determined to kill off, but he could have sent NKVD agents to Spain without deciding to send either food and medicines (without payment), or arms (with eventual high payment). So that the author’s detailed discussion of the purges at this point strikes me as responding more to his preoccupations with the claims of anti-Republican scholars than with Stalin’s decision in late September, 1936 to intervene militarily in the Civil War.

In the above paragraphs I have tried to indicate what seem to me occasional emphases which distract from the main task, and which have occupied a lot of space because I wished the reader to see the author`s judgments rather than just the reviewer´s assertions of those judgments. But this is in no sense meant as a negative evaluation. No one has combed the archives more thoroughly than Viñas. No one has been more ready to share information, or more eager to compare interpretations with colleagues. When reading these volumes I was reminded of a conversation we had had about forty years ago while Angel was driving me to the airport in Madrid. He had remarked on how important to Spaniards had been the contribution of foreign scholars to the study of the Civil War. I had said that we, the foreign scholars, had had the great good fortune to read sources that were off limits for Spaniards because of the dictatorship. We had benefitted directly from the desire of that same dictatorship to convince us that there was complete liberty of investigation (with the exception of the military archives) in Spain of the 1960’s. I was confident that one day soon the Spaniards would have the opportunity freely to write their own history. I hoped that one of the first to do so would be Angel Viñas. This trilogy will stand as a uniquely rich combination of archive-based history and deliberately challenging debate in the struggle for an objective understanding of the Spanish Civil War.

Gabriel Jackson has written many books about the Spanish Republic, most recently a biography of Juan Negrín. Read an interview with Jackson here.


3 Responses to “ Ángel Viñas’s Masterly Historical Trilogy ”

  1. Stephen Siciliano on June 1, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Where are these books available in the U.S.?

  2. Sebastiaan Faber on June 10, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    You can actually find them on Amazon.com and bookdepository.com

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