The Popular Army

During the winter of 1936-1937, the Republic began to work to replace the haphazard militia system that arose during the revolutionary period of the war into a Popular Army under centralised command. This did not go smoothly. Those anarchists, POUMistas and left socialists who defended the militia system on the basis of principle often refused to see that it did not answer the needs of the situation. The improvisation of the militias had been a revolutionary necessity but was not a military virtue, and as a force to resist a relatively sophisticated enemy they were hopelessly inadequate.

There were too many anarchists who allowed morale to serve as a substitute for practicality, who did not replace the discipline they rejected with self discipline. But over the winter anarchists began to realise that they were in a war of survival and began to accept that they needed to compromise their beliefs, despite their great fear of the increase of communist power that centralisation of the army would mean.

There were two main stumbling blocks. The first was the principle of unified command, which worried the anarchists and the POUM because they feared the communists, even though they recognised its necessity in conventional war. The anarchists beliefs made them reluctant to accept any form of command, which made them vulnerable in a centralised hierarchy, as communists had no such scruples - this was not new, Trotsky in 1917 became head of the Petrograd soviet when the anarchist Voline refused the position on the grounds of anarchist principle.

The other was the imposition of traditional military discipline. The POUM wanted soldiers councils, an idea which horrified the communists, while the anarchists were undecided. One militia representative declared that 'if the success of the war depends on there being a man armed with a pistol behind every seven or eight comrades we have already lost.'. Others did not object to discipline of itself: 'We accept an iron discipline, we'll shoot those who leave the front, but we don't accept that someone sitting behind a table will command us while avoiding the danger.".

The conflicts between anarchists and the military were solved by a series of compromises. Saluting and formal terms of address were rejected by the anarchists. The problems over pay differentials were solved by anarchist officers contributing all they earned above a militiamans wage to the CNT war fund. The end result was 'not militarization, but a military type of structure' and a more or less effective Popular Army which was ready by 1937.

It was inevitable that many people were forced to alter their attitudes as the war wore on. In less than six months an attempted coup d'etat had turned first into a full scale civil war, and then into a world war by proxy. On 31st December 1936, Nationalist artillery opposite Madrid rang in the new year by dropping 12 shells into the Puerta del Sol on the stroke of midnight. Franco was said to be angered by this unprofessional levity, nevertheless even such a career minded man as the Caudillo could not have liked the words of Captain von Goss of the Condor Legion - "No longer in the spring of 1937 could one talk merely of a Spanish war. It had become a real war."

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