Propaganda War

The support of foreign powers was critical to success for both Nationalists and Republicans. The Spanish Civil War was one of the most politically charged wars in modern times, a clash of ideologies, and so its hardly surprising that while the soldiers were battling on the ground, the politicians, diplomats and media were fighting a war of words every bit as fierce as the war being waged with tanks and bullets.

The Nationalists argued that they represented the cause of Christianity, order, and Western Civilisation against 'Asiatic Communism'. They claimed 500,000 foreign communists were fighting for the Republic. They declared the election results of 1936 invalid, even though the right wing had accepted the result at the time. They exaggerated the degree of disorder in the spring of 1936 as further justification for the rebellion. They presented life in the Republican zone as a perpetual massacre of priests, nuns and innocents, accompanied by a frenzied destruction of churches and works of art.

The basis of the Republican government's case was that it had been legally elected in 1936 and then attacked by reactionary generals aided by the Axis dictatorships. Thus, the Republic represented the cause of freedom, democracy and enlightenment against fascism. Republican propaganda emphasised that the Republic was the only legal and democratic government in Spain. This was true when put against the illegality and authoritarianism of their opponents, but the Republicans had hardly respected their own constitution at times, and the rising in 1934, in which many prominent Republican politicians had participated, undermined their case. Nor was the Republican argument helped when the Cortes was reduced to a symbolic body with no control over the government.

The Spanish workers and peasants believed, with innocent earnestness, that if the situation was explained abroad, Western governments would come to their aid against the Axis dictatorships. Foreign visitors were asked how it was possible that a democracy like the United States, where the majority of the population supported the Republic, refused to sell the Republic arms for self defence. Republican leaders were much more aware of the reasons for the inaction of Western governments, but even they were wrong in believing that the French and British governments would accept that their interests lay in a strong anti-Axis policy, before it was too late.

The battle lines of the war in Spain were rapidly taken up in France, Britain and the United States. The practice of a newspaper sending a reporter to the side it favoured became commonplace. The Republicans had a disadvantage in that the Spanish working class generally could not speak English and so reporters had a harder time getting their story, while the better educated Nationalists were more eloquent and cultured and more to the taste of the journalists. Also, there were plenty of reporters in Republican territory at the start of the rebellion, on hand to report Republican atrocities in the initial revolutionary days, while (greater) atrocities in Nationalist territory went unreported. But the Republic mobilised intellectuals on a scale never before seen. The conflict had the fascination of an epic drama involving the basic forces of humanity. Yet they did not adopt the role of dispassionate observers. The slaughter of the Great War had undermined the moral basis of art's detachment from politics and made art for arts sake seem a privileged impertinence. Socialist realism took this to its extreme by subordinating all forms of expression to the cause of the proletariat. The support given to the Republic by intellectuals was usually moral rather than practical, but a few writers of repute spent varying amounts time in Spain as volunteers.

Some of those volunteers were to have their idealism seriously undermined by the events they witnessed. Simone Weil, an anarchist, was distressed upon seeing a 15 year old Falangist prisoner shot after Durruti spent an hour with the boy trying to persuade h im to change his politics and giving him till the next day to decide. Stephen Spender, who was shaken by the executions in the International Brigades, left the Communist Party soon afterwards.

All this time the Republic remained dependent on Soviet supplies, which confirmed the fears and prejudices to whom Nationalist propaganda was directed. Appeasement and the non intervention of the West greatly strengthened the power of the Comintern over the Republic, and the growing mass self deception in the Republican zone proved to simply be a sedative prescribed by leaders who cannot face the reality themselves.

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