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Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - vol 23 4 dec 2001 (Page 8)

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Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - vol 23 4 dec 2001
8 THE VOLUNTEER, December 2001
foreign policy was to fend off Nazi
Many of the specific details in the
editors' commentary are puzzling.
The editors claim that the volun-
teers "had the prescience to
understand what the rest of the
West came to understand only after
American entry into World War
II." (p.xvi) Are we then to assume
that Britain, Poland, France,
Holland, Belgium, and Norway
had been involved in a life and
death struggle since September
1939 without realizing that they
were actually fighting fascism?
The work of Gerald Howson,
Arms for Spain, is used to remind us
that that Stalin swindled the
Republic and obliged it to pay prices
far higher than the market value of
the arms sent. However, the editors
do not mention that the Republic was
forced into its relationship with the
Soviet Union because of the Western
powers' policy of non-intervention,
which denied Spain its rights in inter-
national law. Moreover, the claim that
the Soviets swindled $50 million dol-
lars on just two aircraft undermines
faith in the editors' scholarship, since
Howson's book claims that $50 mil-
lion was the total swindled over all
the weapons sold to the Republic. This
minor piece of sloppiness detracts
from the fact that the swindling on
any scale is shocking.
In another context, the commen-
tary tends to assume that accusations
of incompetence made by Comintern
agents against Largo Caballero as war
leader are somehow sinister, when in
fact they were a reflection of a real
frustration with his performance as
prime minister that was shared by
both Azaña and Prieto and many
other non-Communists.
It is a real weakness of the editori-
al commentary that it neither makes
use of the latest Spanish historiogra-
phy nor fully places the plight of the
Republic in the context of the barely
masked hostility it faced from the
Western powers as well as the active
belligerence of Germany and Italy. At
times, it appears as if the editors
believe that Stalin, rather than Hitler,
Mussolini, Franco, Chamberlain and
Blum, bore principal responsibility for
the defeat of the Spanish Republic.
That implies that the crushing of the
revolution determined Republican
defeat. While it is important to be
aware of the brutality of Soviet agents
in the destruction of the POUM, these
documents also show that the princi-
pal objective of Soviet advisers was to
win the war against fascism, and that
is reflected in the extent to which they
were appalled by evidence of
Republican disorganization and anar-
chist indiscipline. The Communist
anxiety to stop anti-clerical atrocities
was shared by moderate Republicans
and socialists. There is nothing, other
than wishful thinking, to sustain the
argument that, if the Soviets had not
crushed the revolution, the Republic
would have won the war on a wave of
popular enthusiasm.
Volume valuable, but document
selection problematic
Despite the disputable editorial
commentary, this volume is of enor-
mous value to historians. However,
even there, there is a substantial prob-
lem in relation to the selection of
There are significant areas of the
war about which there is nothing,
although it would be reasonable to
assume that there are relevant and
interesting reports in Soviet archives.
There is little, for instance, on the day-
to-day operations during the siege of
Madrid or, indeed, on most of the cru-
cial military encounters. On one
occasion, a document is actually a cov-
ering letter by Dimitrov to Voroshilov
promising 4 reports, of which only
one, by Togliatti, is actually printed,
and that is already well-known to his-
torians, having been published in Italy
in 1979. It requires considerable ferret-
ing around in the book to discover
that many of the documents derive
from the RGVA, the Russian State
Military Archive.
What the editors do not explain is
how the chosen documents relate to
those that were not chosen. In other
words, we are told nothing about the
criteria for selection.
In all, 80 documents are presented,
with a commentary implying that they
all sustain the gloss put upon
them­that Soviet determination to
establish a popular democracy under-
mined popular enthusiasm and so
ensured Republican defeat. In fact, the
stance, and sometimes the veracity, of
the documents often vary significantly.
Overall, the documents tell us
much more about the reality on the
ground in Spain--whether it be about
the difficulties facing the International
Brigades or the shambolic state of
Republican military units, than they
do about Soviet policy, which is large-
ly why, despite the problems, this
volume is so immensely valuable .
Paul Preston, author of many books
about the Spanish Civil War, teaches his-
tory at the London School of Economics.
Spain Betrayed?
Continued from page 7
There can be no doubt that the International Brigades were
better organized than they might otherwise have been
because the Comintern provided a vital structure and leader-
ship, but the fact remains that they were still based on
volunteers and were still fighting fascism.

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