Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War

Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War

by Ronald Radosh

The Spanish Civil War has long been the stuff of legend. Thousands of brave young men from all over the Western world, most of them organized by their local Communist parties, rushed to Spain to support the democratic Republic against right-wing forces led by rebellious generals in the Spanish officer corps. Although the Republic was eventually defeated, some…  See more details below


The Spanish Civil War has long been the stuff of legend. Thousands of brave young men from all over the Western world, most of them organized by their local Communist parties, rushed to Spain to support the democratic Republic against right-wing forces led by rebellious generals in the Spanish officer corps. Although the Republic was eventually defeated, some observers believed that the effort to defend it was a selfless undertaking of the international Communist movement and the Soviet Union -- a noble crusade against Hitler, Mussolini, and their Spanish puppet Franco.

This book presents a very different view of the role of the Soviet Union in this war. Based on previously unavailable Moscow archives, it provides the first full documentation of that country's duplicitous and self-serving activities. Documents in the book reveal that the Soviet Union not only swindled the Spanish Republic out of millions of dollars through arms deals but also sought to take over and run the Spanish economy, government, and armed forces in order to make Spain a Soviet possession, thereby effectively destroying the foundations of authentic Spanish antifascism. The documents also shed light on many other disputed episodes of the war: the timing of the Republican request for assistance from the Soviet Union; the rise and fall of the International Brigades; the internal workings of the Comintern and its influence on Spain; and much more.

Authoritative and startling in the new information it offers, the book is essential reading for anyone interested in Soviet foreign policy or the Spanish Civil War.

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Editorial Reviews

This documentary collection, introduced by summary and interpretation, is truly extraordinary and will be a major resource.
Christopher Hitchens
A fair amount of instant history and sensational disclosure has resulted from the hasty or partial opening of Soviet archives since the implosion of the USSR; it is good to be able to report that this volume, by contrast, is coherent and consistent, and has been prepared by professional scholars in two countries and three languages. The verdict is in: Everything that was ever suspected about the Comintern line in Spain turns out to have been true.
The Wilson Quarterly
David Pryce-Jones
[Spain Betrayed's] information will penetrate slowly but surely, straightening the record and helping to restore respect for intellect and truth.
National Review
Library Journal - Library Journal
Few events in the 20th century have evoked such bitter academic and personal controversy as the role of the Soviet-dominated Communist International(Comintern) in the Spanish civil war. As the introduction to this splendid collection of Comintern documents explains, "the difficulty...has lain in proving the common allegation about Soviet intentions." This rich trove of archival correspondence between Soviet representatives and Moscow provides definitive answers. Perhaps least surprising is the obsessive concern on the part of the Communists with "Trotskyist" and anarchist allies of the Loyalist government. Comintern contempt for the Loyalist government and the "sectarian" Spanish Communist Party confirms Moscow's objective of domination before victory over the fascist rebellion. Indeed, Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov advises that the "guise of defending the Republic" should not be compromised by premature efforts to install a "dictatorship of the proletariat." For historians, this correspondence offers detailed and multiple reports for the duration of the war. Soviet agents such as Dimitrov, Andre Marty, Ernest Gero, and Palmiro Togliatti anticipated Stalinist tactics in postwar Europe. The editors offer commentary that helps explain the complex panorama of the war and the impact of Soviet decisions on its outcome. Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries. [July is the 65th anniversary of the civil war's beginning. Ed.] Zachary T. Irwin, Pennsylvania State Univ., Erie Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Annals of Communism Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.62(d)

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Spain Betrayed

The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08981-3

Chapter One


Moscow and the Comintern Set the Stage

THE FIRST FEW MONTHS of the Spanish Civil War set the stage for all that would follow. From the beginning of the July uprising through December 1936, the battle lines between Nationalists and Republicans were drawn; international actors made their decisions to intervene or not; and the internal dynamics of the Republic, the interplay among the diverse parties, unions, and factions within the "Loyalist" camp, took shape. Perhaps the most vital foundation laid during this first critical period was the response of international Communism to the events in Spain. Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the MASK intercepts, the encrypted telegrams that Comintern and other Soviet authorities in Moscow sent to their subordinates throughout Europe. The very day that the war began, Moscow sent the Spanish Communist party directives for responding to the "alarming situation." Document 1 exemplifies both the tone that the Soviets, and the Comintern, took in dealing with their Spanish comrades and the principal policies that the Communists would adopt in responding to the crisis. Although the telegram described these as "proposals" and advice, the imperative tone taken by Moscow made it clear that there was little room for argument or maneuver by the small and relatively powerless PCE (Communist Party of Spain). As for the content of the "proposals": the word from Moscow was that the party had at all costs to preserve the Popular Front, "as any split there would be utilised by the Fascists in their fight against the people." Unity was vital not only in order to present a unified front to the enemy-it also created the impression that the steps the Comintern desired emanated from the entire Spanish polity rather than just the Communists. Therefore, the PCE was to "endeavour to get all parties of the Popular Front to agree on the most important measures [that is, the measures that the party considered the most important] and to carry them out as measures of the Popular Front." The PCE would do this using all of the means at its disposal-demonstrations, resolutions, and delegations of workers and peasants-to pressure the government into agreeing to Communist strategies for winning the war.

Not surprisingly, these strategies coincided with Soviet policy. Thus, the directive to push the Republican government to deal as firmly as possible with anyone who aided the Nationalists (internal "enemies of the people," the aristocracy, and even parliamentary leaders) and to marginalize the anarchists fit in with Stalin's aspiration to purge political and class enemies. The political atmosphere in the Soviet Union at the time may have made this aim even more urgent for the Comintern. Just as the war in Spain began, Stalin was embarking on the show trials of his last important opponents, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and eventually Bukharin. Efforts to purge the Spanish military and other institutions of "adventurers, terrorists, conspirators, and Fascist rebels" began at about the same time and continued until the defeat of the Republic. The only changes over the next three years were to the definition of "enemy of the people" and in the lengths to which the party would go to be rid of such enemies.

The attitude toward the anarchists is especially significant. Spanish anarchism had very deep roots in both the peasantry and the growing industrial working classes. Inspired by the Russian founder of modern anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, Spanish anarchists abhorred organized parties of any sort; yet they also formed the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI)-that dominated the largest workers' union, the National Labor Confederation (CNT). Because of their opposition to the state, no matter what its form or composition, the anarchists contested Stalin's vision of the Communist regime. This attitude, combined with their widespread appeal and influence among the poor, meant that the anarchists constituted the largest threat to the PCE and the Comintern in Spain. The Spanish Communists had stormy relations with the anarchists, and the Civil War only exacerbated tensions between the two groups. Throughout the conflict, Soviet and Comintern advisers would decry the "subversive" activities of the anarchists, and particularly their refusal to curtail revolutionary activities or to allow the formation of a regular, disciplined army. Document 1 confirms, however, that their hatred of the anarchists was not inspired solely by the syndicalists' activities. Describing them as little better than pawns of the fascists, it shows that the Communists had determined to destroy the anarchists from the very beginning of the war, before their opponents had articulated, let alone put into effect, their wartime policies.

Linked to this demand, and no less intertwined with Soviet policy, was the order to pursue the unification of the Communist-dominated General Workers' Union (UGT) and the CNT. With the adoption of the Popular Front platform in 1935, Communists worldwide were instructed to work with any leftists except the "Trotskyists" (a code word for all "enemies of the people"). The demand to establish a single union also stemmed from a new understanding of how to construct a socialist state: not through open revolution, but through the absorption of independent unions or parties into a single entity controlled by the Communists. After World War II, a similar strategy would result in the creation of the "People's Democracies" of Eastern Europe. Document 2, sent out just a few days later, also held out the possibility of forming a new government that would include Communists. This too was part of the Popular Front strategy, but one that was less desirable to Moscow and the Comintern in Spanish circumstances. In this telegram it is clear that the PCE was to join the government only if the current regime continued to vacillate in its attitudes toward the rebels and the war. One reason for the hesitation over direct participation was a desire to present Republican Spain to the rest of Western Europe as a democratic bourgeois state rather than a revolutionary Communist regime. Only thus could Spain hope to win support from France or Britain in its struggle to defeat the Nationalists. These three tactics-purges, the unification of Socialists and Communists, and direct participation in a bourgeois government-formed the basis for subsequent policies that the Comintern, the PCE, and the Soviet advisers followed throughout the war in Spain.

Despite the urgency expressed in these telegrams, there was every reason for Spanish Communists to believe that the government would quickly suppress the uprising. Rebel troops had seized only a few cities in the extreme north and south of the country, while Loyalist forces managed to hold the largest urban areas. Without reinforcements from Africa, where the majority of Nationalist soldiers were apparently trapped, the rebellion seemed doomed. The earliest reports by the PCE on the situation in Spain, exemplified by Document 3 and Document 4, reflected their optimism. It also showed what they hoped would come of this attempt to extinguish the Popular Front: a further development of the bourgeois revolution, and "the realisation of the revolutionary democratic programme," which would include the seizure of private property and the application of revolutionary law. They saw too that this was a key opportunity to increase the power and influence of the party and might result in their direct participation in the government. Like the Comintern, they viewed the anarchists, who would have to be dealt with through "revolutionary law"-that is, executions-if they continued their "acts of provocation," as the one black spot. It should be noted that one of the authors of this message was not even Spanish. "Luis" was the code name for Vittorio Codovilla, an Argentinean Communist who had been sent to Spain earlier in the decade as the Comintern representative to the PCE. His signature on this document and others, and his later actions, would show that he was much more than just an observer, however. In time he would virtually run the PCE, treating the Spanish "comrades" as second-class citizens in their own party.

The next three pieces of evidence show that the Comintern (or ECCI) was not so sanguine about the future of the conflict. Comintern members saw, more clearly than their Spanish comrades, that the uprising might not be easily crushed and that a prolongation of the conflict would radically affect PCE behavior during the crisis. On 23 July, a meeting of the ECCI was held at which the secretariat discussed how Communists should react to events in Spain. There has been much speculation about the timing of this Comintern response to the war. Hugh Thomas used Nationalist sources with Communist confirmation to suggest a joint gathering of the secretariats of the Comintern and Profintern on 21 July and another on the 26th. But he knew no more than anyone else what was discussed and decided in these meetings. E. H. Carr thought that the ECCI secretariat had not assembled until mid-September to define its approach toward the Spanish events. In fact, only after this meeting on 23 July would the secretariat issue its first substantive directives for the PCE. Document 5, Dimitrov's report at the meeting, reveals the reasoning behind Comintern and Soviet policies and the concrete measures they wanted taken. His most important conclusion was that Spain was not yet ready for a true revolution. The party should not act precipitately, as if the war were already won, he stressed, and therefore "we should not assign the task, at the present stage, of creating soviets and seeking to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in Spain" [emphasis added]. The Communists had to strengthen the democratic republic "at the present stage" by destroying the fascists; once "our positions have been strengthened, then we can go further" [emphasis added]. The Spanish comrades had to resist the temptation to "rush ahead and get carried away" and instead should work on tasks suited to "the present moment" and the current strength of the Communists. Then, even more clearly, Dimitrov argued that if the army had managed to seize the Madrid garrison, conditions would have been ripe for a true seizure of power. The Communists could have "overthrown the Azana government early in the morning, issued a manifest from the new government, a real republican democratic government." Because the Popular Front had managed to hold on to power, though, the Communists had to work with them, not against them. The very careful use of these terms, as well as the injunction to "act under the semblance of defending the republic," supports the contention of some scholars that the Communists purposely disguised their true objective, social revolution. They would do this in the first place by pretending that their ultimate goal was merely a bourgeois democratic regime and in the second by concentrating on winning the war with the Nationalists first. Afterward, anything was possible.

The result of this meeting was Document 6, a telegram instructing the PCE on the proper course to take in the developing war. The secretariat once again stressed that the party should not get carried away with schemes that could be realized after victory. The document then repeated most of the instructions given in Document 1 and discussed at the Comintern gathering. The two major additions (given as Points 5 and 6) are striking and deserve special attention. At the end of his report, Dimitrov had hesitated over whether the Spanish Communists should support a regular army or a people's militia. Although it was obvious that the Spanish people needed an armed force of some sort, it is unclear from his discussion which type of force he thought would best serve the Republic. He ended his report by mentioning that he would ask "the comrade secretary" (that is, Stalin) if he had any comments on these points. The telegram, sent the next day, apparently reflected Dimitrov's remarks as amended by Stalin. Point 6 endorsed the use of a regular army, along with the militia, as the proper response to the rebellion and to enemies "from without and within." This endorsement paved the way for the creation of the People's Army, a force that the Communist party would come to dominate. Perhaps even more important is Point 5, which shows that the Comintern, and Stalin, still viewed the PCE's potential inclusion in the Republican government with extreme caution. As earlier, the party was told not to participate simply in order "to preserve the unity of the Popular Front." Much stricter conditions were also laid down for direct participation, which could occur only if it was "urgent and absolutely necessary" to win the war. As we shall see, this point would become significant when the new Largo Caballero government was formed in early September.

Still, the Comintern and Moscow realized that they could not allow the PCE to advocate openly the policies outlined by these documents. The next piece of evidence, Document 7, adds to our understanding of why the Communists in Spain, after their first enthusiastic involvement in the heady revolutionary days of July and August, suddenly declared their support for a bourgeois democracy and portrayed themselves throughout the war as moderates. A few scholars, such as Pierre Broue and Emile Temime, have believed the party line that the Communists were in truth the "champions of moderation and loyalty to the Republican regime." Victor Alba, too, concluded that the slogans were reality; the Communists wanted first to suppress and then to appropriate the revolution. Most others have thought that the primary reason for this change of course, whether real or only apparent, was a desire to win over the Western democracies by calming their fears about the nature of the Spanish government. This document confirms that, in addition to the desire to defeat the rebellion first and then worry about further developing the revolution, the Comintern advocated this tactic as the only way to obtain help from Britain, France, and the United States. They correctly assumed that none of the Western nations, including the usually sympathetic France, would give aid to a government that they even suspected of being Communist. It is interesting to note that both Document 1 and Dimitrov's report of 23 July directly contradicted Points 2 and 3 of this telegram: the PCE had, in fact, been ordered to support the confiscation of the land belonging to the Church and to the large landowners "directly or indirectly" involved in the rebellion. Later events were also to prove that only one part of Point 1, the struggle against "anarchy," was the literal truth.


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