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The betrayal of Madrid and the triumph of fascism in Spain

A coup against the Republic led to the fascists marching on Madrid unopposed - and by refusing to correct his most famous work, Orwell knowingly misleads his readers to this day, writes TOM SIBLEY

NEXT week we mark the eightieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War (SCW). After nearly three years of heroic resistance the republican forces succumbed, facing as they did the combined might of Franco’s army supported with copious supplies of armed and trained soldiery provided by nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Until the end of February 1939 Prime Minister Juan Negrin and his only reliable allies, the Communists, were determined to fight on despite a series of crushing military defeats in Catalonia. The Republic still controlled a large area of central Spain and had over 500,000 men under arms. It was Negrin’s belief that if the Republican side could hold on for a few more months, it was just possible that the gathering war clouds over Europe would force the Western powers to take military and diplomatic action against Franco.

The alternative, an outright victory for Franco was unthinkable given Franco’s track record of vengeful violence and his total disregard for human rights, civil liberties and international law. The following months and years were to prove that Negrin’s forebodings were well justified.

In early March under the leadership of Colonel Casado, appointed commander of the Republican Army of the Centre the previous year, a group of renegade Republican military and political leaders, including well known socialists and anarchists, formed the Consejo National de Defensa (CND) with the intention of deposing Negrin and the elected Popular Front Government.

The renegades’ actions were informed by virulent anti-communism. They justified their treachery by claiming that the Communist Party, backed by Negrin and the Soviet Union, was about “to take control of all levers of power in the republican zone” and “that Spain was about to fall under a Stalinist dictatorship.” Given that Franco’s victory was by that time inevitable these claims were absurd.

The CNT began arresting Madrid Communists and their supporters. When these actions were forcibly resisted a civil war within the Civil War broke out. For the first few days Communists held the initiative and were on the verge of defeating Casado coalition troops. But with a nod and a wink from Franco, the 14th Division of the Republic’s Popular Army, controlled by the anarchists and under the direction of General Mera, left an active front in the war against Franco to march on Madrid in order to confront the Republican loyalists.

Faced with insurmountable odds the Communists were forced to leave their strongholds and retreat. Over a thousand Communists and supporters were killed in their last ditch and failed attempt to save the Spanish Republic.

Some two weeks later Franco’s army marched unopposed into Madrid – all attempts to negotiate favourable peace terms came to nothing as Franco ruthlessly pressed home his military advantage.

At the time many saw Casado’s coup as a cowardly betrayal. George Orwell, author of Homage to Catalonia, easly the most popular account of the war, took a contrary view. In a review of Casado’s memoirs published in January 1940 Orwell wrote in his usual omniscient style, “Considering the actual military situation it is difficult not to feel that Casado was right.”

Yet those on the spot, or at least those who remained loyal to the Republic and saw the dangers inherent in a fascist victory, thought otherwise. Even Orwell came to recognise the error of welcoming Franco’s victory. Less than a year after his original review he declared that Franco’s victory was a disaster for the Spanish people.

In the early 1940s, probably influenced by discussions with Negrin who was at the time in exile in Britain, Orwell had second thoughts on other matters too, contrary to Homage to Catalonia. He conceded that the war was not lost because of divisions on the left and the suppression of the Poum by the Popular Unity Government. By 1943, writing in Looking back on the Spanish Civil War, he had come to the view that “the Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false. The fascists won because they were stronger [militarily]. No political strategy could offset that.”

But Orwell made little, if any, attempt that future editions of his famous book reflected his true views on the Poum and the real reasons for the Republic’s defeat.

He and his publishers preferred to retain the anti-communist and anti-Soviet views expressed in the book knowing that these were in line with the Cold War positions which found favour in the late 1940s with the political establishment of both Britain and the United States.

Although the Republican side was defeated, the stand taken by democratic Spain showed that it was possible to confront the growing threat of expansionist fascism. Notwithstanding the adverse balance of military forces, the example of the Spanish Republican Army aided by the International Brigades and supported by the Soviet Union, was to inspire the resistance movement throughout nazi-occupied Europe.

In many respects the war was the first battle in the struggle to defeat nazism. That the second world war was won owes much to the stance taken by the Spanish people and the International Brigades who showed that it was necessary and possible to stand up to the fascist war machine thus showing up the futility of the appeasement strategy of the Western powers before 1939. But the fruits of this victory were not passed on to the Spanish people. Over the next 35 years many thousands were to die in Franco’s prisons while the Western democracies stood aside, seeing Franco as an important ally in the Cold War against the spread of socialism and national liberation.

For the truth, i recommend Spain’s “Left” Critics by Daily Worker editor JR Campbell – a demolition of the ultra-left delusions which infected a section of the British left at the time and a refreshingly partisan and contemporary account of the struggle to organise solidarity with the Spanish Republic. Many years later Bill Alexander, who was commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, wrote George Orwell and Spain to counteract the damage that George Orwell’s mendacious and highly unreliable Homage to Catalonia did to historical truth.

My introduction to the new edition of Spain’s “Left” Critics provides a valuable context to the period and discusses George Orwell’s political views and the revelations that he ended his life as an  informer to the British government who denounced his literary and political contemporaries to the British secret police.

Spain’s “Left” Critics £4 per copy plus £2 p+p Bulk orders over 20 copies post free from It is being launched at the Marx Memorial Library with Tom Sibley and IBMT chair Marlene Sidaway speaking and Meirian Jump in the chair at 7pm, Wednesday March 27.


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