In this episode we will discuss how the Republican zone of control was organized and some of the disagreements between the various factions. As these disagreements will be an essential theme of this entire series of episodes, this will not be the last time we discuss it. We will also end this episode with some discussion of the role of women within the Republic, and how that participation differed from the gender expectations before the war, and also how the Nationalists used that difference as part of their propaganda campaign. A few of the interviews will also focus on this topic, with some excellent individuals who are far more knowledgeable about the subject than I am.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 39 - The Spanish Civil War Part 4 - Disagreements. This week a big thank you goes out to Daniel and Joe for their support on Patreon, where they get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. With the coup turning into a Civil War, the situation in which the Republican leaders found themselves in did not at first appear to be especially dire. They controlled most of the major cities, many of the major mining and industrial areas, most of the navy, two third of the territory. They were also the legitimate government of Spain which gave them access to the nation’s gold reserves and at least theoretically a leg up in international relations. The government also controlled a sizeable number of military forces, even though the army had officially been dissolved, this included not just pre-coup Spanish military formations but also highly motivated militias and foreign volunteers. In this episode we will discuss how the Republican zone of control was organized and some of the disagreements between the various factions. As these disagreements will be an essential theme of this entire series of episodes, this will not be the last time we discuss it. We will also end this episode with some discussion of the role of women within the Republic, and how that participation differed from the gender expectations before the war, and also how the Nationalists used that difference as part of their propaganda campaign. A few of the interviews will also focus on this topic, with some excellent individuals who are far more knowledgeable about the subject than I am.
An essential piece of the Republican political puzzle would be laid down right at the beginning of the coup. When the coup was launched the first people to meet that coup with violence were the leftist groups within Spanish society, primarily trade unions and their associated paramilitary groups. This gave the events the feeling of a revolution, and this would cause many problems for the leadership of the Republic, who were far from revolutionaries. It made it seem like they were facing two attempted challenges, one from a right wing coup led by the military and another from the left, led by socialists and anarchists. This created concern, especially in the larger cities where much of the major governmental infrastructure was located, but also where those revolutionaries were well supported. For example, in Madrid there were strong revolutionary activities from both the socialists and the anarchists, with both the UGT and CNT militias having a strong presence in the city. Even after it was clear that the coup was a failure, there were still many problems trying to actually organize a new and effective government. Many of those that had been critical pieces of government machinery, local politicians, the police, and a whole host of other groups had largely joined the coup and sided with the nationalists. This pushed organizing to other groups, and this task was largely taken up by the local unions, no small number of which were revolutionary in nature. As the economic and political structures collapsed around them these groups began to assert greater control, for example in many places were money became essentially non-existent the unions would issue coupons that could be redeemed for essential goods and services. At first these were only used by union members, but they quickly spread out into the communities as non-union citizens were having many of the same problems. This did not reduce the feeling that the Republic was in a revolutionary stage at all, in fact these actions just made it feel more like a revolution. Speaking generally, in many areas of Spain the immediate effects of the coup were to push people to look towards local community in a far more all encompassing way, which would create resistance from those same local communities as the central Republican government began to try and reassert control.
Nowhere was this autonomy more welcomed, successful, and protected than in the anarchist communities around Spain, which were primarily focused in the north east. The anarchist union, the CNT, had always been independently minded, for example in 1931 when the Second Spanish Republic was founded it advised its members not to collaborate with the government, and to also abstain from voting. Then in late 1933 the CNT released a manifesto claiming that the attempts of others on the left to maintain control by voting and collaborative government with those on the right was destined to fail. Some of this changed in 1936, and the Anarchists would turn out to vote for the Popular front, but the relationship between the CNT and the other groups on the left would always bee complicated, very complicated. When the coup occurred, the CNT and other anarchist groups met it in various ways like other unions around Spain, many also saw something of an opportunity after the coup collapsed in many areas. Along with the failure of the coup many local governments also fell apart, both due to the disturbance of the coup but also because many of its members would join the nationalists, this provided an opportunity for revolutionary change. In The Spanish Civil War A Modern Tragedy, George R. Esenwein has this to say about what happened next: “For the most part this movement was being led by members of the CNT-FAI, who took full advantage of the state of confusion and chaos that reigned throughout the city in the first weeks of fighting by bringing factories, hotels, restaurants, barber shops, public transportation facilities, and other sectors of the economy under workers’ control.” In many of these areas the anarchist groups, and others who joined in revolutionary activity, were remarkably successful in their revolutionary goals, or to quote Leon Trotsky “The Spanish proletariat displayed fighting qualities of the highest order…economically, politically, and culturally, the Spanish workers from the very beginning of the Revolution showed themselves to be no inferior, but superior to the Russian proletariat at the beginning of the October Revolution in 1917.” There were instances of large groups of workers coming together under self-management, in some areas wages were removed and replaced with a system of distribution that was based on the needs of the person or family. However, such radical changes were not always possible in some areas, and in areas where close cooperation with other groups was required, less radical changes were made, like wage equalization. Throughout the Civil War there would be constant problems in creating the revolutionary society that many anarchists were striving for due to the fact that they often had to collaborate with other, and often far less radical, groups. The overriding concern among these groups was still the possibility of a victory for the Nationalists, and the fear of such a victory would motivate much of the cooperation in the Republic, at times this cooperation required the tempering of revolutionary rhetoric.
IN general many of these changes, especially the economic variety, took place within collectives. These collectives were strongest and largest in the areas in and around Barcelona, where the influence of the anarchist groups was the strongest. The actions of these collectives in their first days was different based on where they were located, for example in Barcelona one of the early actions of the collectives was to remove many of the highly paid directors from the streetcars. In many areas the fact that many business owners and other upper class individuals had fled the area during and after the coup made it easier for the workers to assert greater control. In The Economics of Revolution Austrin Souchy, Diego Abad de Santillan, and Sam Dolgoff describe how these collectives made some of the larger decisions that were required of them: “the collectives organized during the Spanish Civil War were workers’ economic association without private property. The fact that collective plants were managed by those who worked in them did not mean that these establishment became their private property. The collective had no right to sell or rent all or any part of the collectivized factory or workshop. The rightful custodian was the CNT, the National Confederation of Workers Associations. But not even the CNT had the right to do as it pleased. Everything had to be decided and ratified by the works themselves through conferences and congresses.” As I mentioned earlier, in many of these collectives wages were abolished and instead goods, services, and money was given to families based on their size. There was generally money still circulating, but it was often locally based currency. However, there were many problems focused around money that the collectives would have to solve. The largest was simply how transactions could be completed both between collectives and between collectives and other groups in Spanish society. For example in Barcelona there were workers collectives in the city, but they needed to bring in food from the surrounding rural collectives, these problems resulted in the creation of a bank, which caused some disagreement and was a bit challenging to square with a strict reading of anarchist ideology. One thing I want to make incredibly clear here, is that all of the collectives were different, so it is often challenging to talk about one unifying experience. I have been constantly using words like most, many, and some because each collective was organized differently, they all had different decisions to make and those decisions were driven by different levels of how revolutionary the members of those collectives were. Some abolished money entirely, others had an economy that looked quite a bit more capitalistic in nature although with some alterations. This made working together challenging at times, even before considering all of the external groups that were causing other problems.
This revolutionary collectivism was not limited just to the cities, or just to Barcelona, it was also seen in far more rural areas. Obviously, in these areas the actions taken were different, but their goal was still the same, to reorganize society around anarchist principles, or as they were often referred to, libertarian principles. For example, there was a great emphasis on expanding welfare and distributing goods on a more equitable basis. This was often, but not always, organized by those at the bottom of the economic structures, the peasants. Sometimes collectivization was then forced on those in surrounding areas, but other collectives were fare more accepting of those with different views, for example in some areas individual land owners were allowed to still exist as long as they worked the land themselves and did not have to hire laborers. Part of this was out of a desire to not have to resort to forced coercion, but also out of a belief that many people would want to join in after collectives were up and running and the advantages were clear, especially around the services and benefits provided to members. As you can see in so many cases it all comes back to the relationship between those groups that sought these revolutionary collectivist changes and those that did not. Those within the Republican central government and many members of the Socialist and Communist parties saw these collectives as hugely problematic, to the point that they believed that they would cause them to lose the war. They were convinced that the only way that the Republic could come out of the Civil War victorious was by central control and coordination. The anarchist groups, after having played such an important role in reacting to the coup, and then taking advantage of the resulting instability to make what they saw as tremendous gains, were very resistant to anything that would cause them to give up these changes.
In the early weeks and months no topic was more contentious than the position of military forces within the Republic. The workers’ militias that had met the coup were often unwilling to just accept a more traditional military structure, then then caused issues as the Republican leaders tried to create those structures in the belief that they were the only way that they could win the war. There were huge concerns about the discipline within the militia units, their willingness to follow orders, and their reliability as a military force. In contrast groups like the Communist Party rapidly began to turn their paramilitary groups into units that looked much more like traditional military units. They did not always have a ton of military training, but with a firm emphasis on drilling and marching they certainly looked the part. There would be a similar situation for the International Brigades in later months, and even without much military know how they were able to march correctly, even if it was much more challenging to teach them all of the other things that soldiers needed to do. For existing officers of the Republican military, those that had remained with the Republic, this made it more much palatable to work with the units organized by the Communists rather than the militias. This was exacerbated by the fact that many of the officers who stayed loyal to the Republic were older than those on the Nationalist side, and were not often willing to work with new ideas.
With so many concerns about the lack of centralization, the Republican government would have a change right at the top in September 1936. Giral, who had been put into the position just days after the coup, was forced to resign, and Largo Caballero was brought in as Prime Minister. Caballero had been a vocal revolutionary socialist in the years before the coup, and because of this he was seen as one of the few leaders who would be trusted by the various revolutionary groups in the Republican coalition. the government that he would help create would call itself the ‘government of Victory’ and it was to be a coalition government made up of three of the major political groupings within the Republic. First there was Caballero and three of his left-Socialist supporters, and then Prieto with two Social Democrats, and then there would also be 2 Communists, which would be the first time that a government in Western Europe would contain Communist representation. The creation of the government meant that Caballero and his left-Socialist supporters, along with the Communists, had recognized that the best path to victory in the war was cooperation. However, there were no anarchists within the government. Part of this was because they were not welcome, the goal of the new government was to solidify central control, and also to reduce the possibility of any kind of Socialist or communist revolution. Inviting the Anarchists ran the risk of tipping the scale towards further revolution instead of what many Social Democrats and centrists wanted, which was simply a return to the pre-coup Popular Front. There were also disagreements on the Anarchist side about whether or not they should attempt to join such a government. This comes back to the all important collaborationist versus abstentionist split within Spanish Anarchism. The collaborationists believed that it was critical to work with the government to ensure victory over the Nationalists, but also as a way of trying to secure whatever revolutionary changes had already been made. Caballero seemed like the best person to try and work with to make this a reality. Abstentionists, or anti-collaborationists, would counter these claims by pointing out that such collaboration recognized the authority of the central government, which already forfeited many of the gains made by the revolution. Eventually some leaders would collaborate and join the government, and it would create a rift within the Anarchist groups that would never be healed. This rift then just further eroded the position of the anarchists within the new Spanish society, which would cause problems for them as they were faced with the continual efforts of the central government to…centralize. As the war continued, and as it transitioned into a long struggle, these opposing views of centralization on one side and the unwillingness of the collectives to forfeit their gains would never be resolved, even after it would cause violence during May 1937.
One of the interesting topics surrounding the Civil War, the various groups and their different world views, and one of the major differences between the Nationalists and some revolutionary Republicans was their beliefs around the role of women within society. Along with all of the other changes that the coup and the resulting revolution and civil war brought was a real destruction of many of the gender barriers that were present in Spanish society in 1936. There were already many women who were pushing for changes before the war started, women like the anarchist Federica Montseny and the communist Dolores Ibárruri, were already politically active and advocating for greater rights for women. Then when the coup started in some areas women would join men in the militias, and then some would stay with those militias when they marched off to fight against Nationalist forces around Spain. While this was certainly seen as the most radical manifestation of the changing role of women, there were also countless other far more subtle changes. More women were able, or forced, into new and unfamiliar roles within society, both in the political and economic arenas. These changes caused some confusion and hesitation among Republican leaders, many of the men who were leading the Republican government were either conflicted about, or simply did not support, such changes. It is also certainly worth mentioning that many women disagreed on what should happen. There were huge divided between how middle-class women and the organizations that they created viewed gender roles when compared with working class women and their organizations. Even those groups that publicly claimed to be strongly against the patriarchal nature of Spanish society did not always put in place the changes necessary to remove the advantages enjoyed by men. For example, in many CNT collectives there was still a pay disparity between women and men, even though the CNT and many anarchists would have supported the idea that everyone was equal. These differing views within the Republican coalition was best exemplified in the reaction to the women who had joined the militias and who were fighting on the front lines during the war, the milicianas as they were called. They were initially supported, and they were seen and trumpeted as heroes and used as such in Republican propaganda. However, as with everything related to the militias, as the Republican army wanted to try and mold those militias into a more traditional military force, the presence of women was seen as a huge barrier to that transition. If there was anything unifying many of the Republican political groups, it was that women should not be in the military. This prompted women to be at first encouraged, and then forced, to leave the militias with the statement that they were needed on the home front to play a different role in the war effort. On the home front thousands of women would join the workforce, which also caused some consternation among the unions, who had been made up entirely of men. The one root to all of these concerns and resistance to women coming into these various areas of society was the very traditional Catholic influences on Spanish culture. These Catholic influences were vent felt in some of the most revolutionary areas, and it was often hard for men to rationalize their ideas of revolutionary equality and their personal views on women. On the Nationalist side, the propagandists had a field day with the fact that Republican women were fighting in the front lines and were taking on a larger role within society. The Nationalists were highly traditional in their gender views, thanks partly to the large support provided by members of the Catholic church. This caused them to use the shifts in gender relations within the Republic as an example of how the Republic was going to destroy traditional Spanish society. In a few weeks I will be joined by Jessica McIvor and then Charlotte Walmsley, two PhD researchers who are able to provide a more detailed discussion on these topics, I hope you enjoy those conversations. I also hope you will join me next episode as we jump into our first military focused episode as the Nationalist forces put their eyes on the biggest prize, Madrid.