1936 and All That
by Stephen Schwartz
Joseph Lieberman, Democratic senator from Connecticut and independent candidate for a new term, shared a remarkable insight in Hartford on August 22. He commented, in an interview with talk radio host Glenn Beck, "Iraq, if you look back at it, is going to be like the Spanish Civil War, which was the harbinger of what was to come."
The Spanish strife of 1936-39 remains, seventy years after it began, one of the central incidents of the century we lately left behind. And it offers numerous precedents for the global war on terror.
Lieberman probably intended to express little more than the standard informed opinion on Spain's war--that the Western democracies made the Second World War in evitable by failing to save the Spanish Republic from rightist dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, who was a proxy for Hitler and Mussolini.
The aptness of the Spain-Iraq parallel has struck others. The same day as Lieberman made his comment, a British paper, the Citizen, editorialized: "[T]he Spanish Civil War, besides presaging the Second World War, had important repercussions. . . . [T]hose who question what has happened today in recent zones of conflict, especially Israel-Lebanon, could do no better than undertake a revisitation of history which could teach all of us some useful lessons about the threats of fascism, totalitarianism and religious extremism." Labour member of the House of Commons Denis MacShane, who happens to be the biographer of former Tory prime minister Edward Heath, recently argued that Britain should have intervened in Spain on the side of the republic and noted that Heath held the same view.
Similarly, on August 18, Heritage Foundation analyst Ariel Cohen, writing in the Washington Times, compared pro-Hezbollah demonstrators in Washington to the "Fifth Column . . . the pro-fascist forces in Republican Madrid during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Today's Fifth Column glorifies the global jihad against the West." And a few days before that, radical Islam expert Daniel Pipes, on the Lou Dobbs show, likened the Hezbollah-Israel war to "the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to World War II."
The argument is a powerful and correct one, although it has its subtleties and flaws. First, Iraq is not now in a state of civil war. Wide-scale, continuous combat between major internal forces has not started in Iraq. And it may not, thanks to the overwhelming demographic weight of the Shia Muslims, a majority of whom are committed to the new Iraqi state.
But the analogy with the Spanish Civil War does not depend on the existence of an unrestrained military struggle between Iraqi factions. The Spain-Iraq parallel contains a deeper lesson for the present. The Spanish Civil War was the first major example of the modern phenomenon of proxy wars, in which local clashes are exploited, and third countries torn apart, in the competition between regional and global alliances. Spain was not a simple war of conquest and pillage, like the contemporaneous Japanese invasion of China and Italian assault on Ethiopia. Rather, Spain represented a confrontation between the politics of the past, represented by Franco, and the politics of the future, embodied in a confused but nonetheless genuine Republic.
Franco was not a true fascist--his system had very few of the sociological or ideological characteristics of Mussolini's and Hitler's party-states. Rather, Franco was a soldier bent on preventing a social revolution by means of a coup. Nevertheless, the Franco cause was profoundly identified with fascism, because Germany lent the Spanish general the best elements of the Nazi air force, and Italy sent thousands of soldiers to fight alongside Franco's troops. But neither was the Spanish Republican cause stainless. It was the victim of subversion by its alleged ally, the Soviet Union, and many of its strongest supporters considered democracy a bourgeois fraud.
Yet the historical dynamics of internal discord and international engagement show a persistent pattern from then to now. Spain, like Iraq, was a country without a firm national identity. In Spain, the Castilian aristocracy controlled the state, most of the tax income, the army, and the Catholic Church--the latter an ideological pillar of the old order. As if cast from an identical historical mold, Iraq long suffered under the corrupt and brutal rule of the Sunni elite, which used its clerical wing to help maintain its power.
Spanish entrepreneurship and economic development were most advanced in the Basque and Catalan regions, whose cultural affiliations with the Madrid monarchy were weakened. In corresponding fashion, the Iraqi Kurds have leaped far ahead in modernization, yet like the Basques and Catalans, they are culturally and linguistically distinct from, and resentful of, the Iraqi Arabs.
Spain in 1936 included a vast and turbulent mass of radical industrial workers and farm laborers whose political culture was mainly anarchist, and whose aspirations were barely perceived, much less understood, in the outside world. Iraq's Shia majority resembles the Spanish anarchists--there are many of them, they are militant, and they often seem to have no friends. So the Iraqi Shias, like the Spanish left, are enticed into a dangerous courtship with a totalitarian suitor: Iran plays the role in Basra that Russian Stalinism had in Barcelona.
Spain at war, like Iraq, became an arena for massacres and militias, hostage-taking and disappearances, assassinations and reprisals. The Franco forces murdered the poet Federico Garcia Lorca; Soviet agents who infiltrated the Republican police killed a dissident Catalan Marxist author, Andreu Nin. The competing ideologies in Spain also included Carlism, an extreme form of monarchism, as well as anarchism, no less volatile than the cruel doctrines of Wahhabism, the inspirer of the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and the Shia extremism of Moktada al-Sadr. And as Germany and Italy helped Franco, so elements in Saudi Arabia finance and recruit Sunni terrorists to kill in Iraq, while Iran supports Iraqi Shia paramilitary expansion.
These correlates are not limited to the Spanish and Iraqi hostilities--they apply to the main historical chapters since Spain. The Spanish war anticipated Communist-run civil wars during the late 1940s, in Greece and in various Asian countries including China, India, Burma, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and, of course, Indochina. The pattern continued through Central America and Africa in the last years of the Soviet empire. The Spanish war had its most dramatic repetition, until now, in the former Yugoslavia. Think of the Serbs as equivalent to Castilians in Spain and Sunnis in Iraq, and the original motif reappears.
But the main points of resemblance between Spain and Iraq--and even Lebanon under the menace of Hezbollah--remain the role of the international powers, the great contention between oppression and liberation, and the threat of a later, wider war. When France, which had a leftist government in the late '30s, and Britain, which should have served as a sentinel against Nazi interference beyond Germany's borders, together accepted an embargo on arms to the Spanish Republic, Hitler was encouraged beyond measure in his plans for the subjugation of all Europe. These days, the pusillanimity of European leaders allows Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, to threaten the complete destruction of the nascent Lebanese democracy while also attacking the citizens of northern Israel.
In Iraq, unlike in Spain, the United States, almost alone but for Britain, has undertaken the heavy task of leading the world's democratic faithful against the acolytes of terror, who are now driven by Islamofascism rather than its antecedents, the antidemocratic ideologies of the 1930s. That is the ultimate lesson of Spain in 1936 and Iraq in 2006: By winning the battle of Iraq, and by fostering real change in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran, the democratic nations may save the world from a later, longer, bloodier, and more terrible war.
In the Spanish Civil War, Albert Camus wrote, he and those like him "learned that one can be right and be beaten." Let us hope that, so many decades later, Sen. Lieberman and those like him are not alone in this understanding: that we are right, and that we will not be beaten.