I’ve recently been reading The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor, a fantastically detailed book on the Spanish Civil War. Something that has attracted my interest so far is the attitude of the British government to the war. They were officially neutral, with the position that to intervene would not help : “The British Foreign Office feared that the conflict might escalate and warned the French government that helping the Republic would only encourage Hitler and Mussolini to aid the nationalists.” This policy was shown to be ridiculous as the Germans and Italians helped the nationalists significantly anyway.
The book describes the farcical non-Intervention Committee, in denial about evidence of German and Italian aid to the Nationalists. Beevor quotes Claude Bowers, American ambassador to Spain, as saying “Each movement of the Non-Intervention Committee has been made to serve the cause of the rebellion… This Committee was the most cynical and lamentably dishonest group that history has known.” The French were actually more willing to support the Republicans but did not want to go against the British, so were also neutral.
Parts of the British establishment were pro-Nationalist (partly because they were fearful of Marxism) in particular some conservatives and the Royal Navy. In practise the stance of the government helped the Nationalists, as while the French and British did not give help to either side, big business (for example the Texas Oil Company and Standard Oil of New Jersey) the Germans and the Italians helped the Nationalists. The British Royal as well subtly helped the nationalists: their actions “were astonishing for a non-interventionist power.”
Essentially, the British government, although officially neutral, in effect helped the authoritarian Nationalists. This made me first firstly about how this seems to be an episode swept under the carpet. The British Establishment turned against fascism a few years later, and extreme right views have been rejected ever since. Whilst at the time, a rebel force standing up for the Church, traditional values and against the big fear of communism was appealing to the Right, no-one could seriously suggest the political views of those rebelling can be condoned by modern standards.
It would be to naïve to think, as I did briefly, that if the government acted similarly by not standing up to vicious regimes in the world today, there would be an outcry. During the Arab Spring in Bahrain we failed to support the rebels, and this is just the latest example of the West being hypocritical. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of global affairs over the last century knows, from Pinochet to Gaddafi the West is not perfect at standing up for democracy.
However, this doesn’t make the government’s position in the 1930’s acceptable. Britain should be held accountable for supporting a brutal military regime (although the Republican side was also repressive at times) and, in hindsight, helping Hitler and starving the Spanish people of democracy for about 40 years. You may think this is such a long time ago it is not worth thinking about. However, the Spanish Civil war took place just before the outbreak of World War II, which is etched in the collective memory of British conservatives, from the tabloids to MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Our failure to stand up to Spanish fascism (which, of course, did not directly threaten us) should be recognised as well.