My current study of history during the years 1936-1938 has revealed an alarming similarity between the Spanish Civil War of that era and the present civil war in Syria today.
During the 1930s, the nation of Spain was dragging itself out of its deep, dark past, into the perilous, polarizing politics of 20th-century Europe. But the two main ideological forces of that era were not content to let Spain work its own bloody identity crisis out.
International Communists, propelled by Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia, and led by Josef Stalin, were strategizing for control of Europe; their struggle was directed primarily against the Fascist/Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy.
Neither of these two ideological poles were content to let Spain work out its own destiny. Rather, both the Communists and the Fascist/Nazis strove to manipulate and control Spanish political/cultural factions.
In 1936, as General Franco’s armies mounted rightist insurrections against the leftist Popular Front government, Mussolini, the Italian dictator, began providing serious military support for Franco and the Spanish fascists. This provoked Stalin and the Moscow communists to bolster the Spanish government in Madrid with armaments to resist Franco’s military campaigns.
As military capabilities and clashes became bloodier and more atrocious in Spain, the mercantile-minded democratic nations found themselves having to make unpleasantly complicated decisions about how to neutralize the two warring sides of Spanish bloodletting.
So Britain, United States, and France found themselves, inconveniently having to take a stand one way or the other.
The solution they arrived at, in August of 1936, was a non-intervention pact, designed to prevent further transferral of armaments into bloody Spain.
This did not work, because Hitler and Mussolini violated the non-intervention agreement by continuing to supply weapons, and even soldiers, to the fascists in Spain. Consequently, Largo Caballero, Prime Minister and leader of the Popular Front government of Spain, was required to cultivate more radical leftist, specifically Russian Communist, support in order to sustain the Spanish government against General Franco’s fascist insurgency.
In the midst of all this contention, both political and military, neither side was merciful. Slaughters and atrocities were happening at various hot skirmish points across the countryside and cities of Spain.
Douglas Little, in his 1985 book, Malevolent Neutrality, (Cornell University Press), wrote on page 248:
“Ironically, the British and American arms embargoes had ensured the very thing they were designed to prevent: the expansion of Soviet influence in Spain.”
Business and political leaders in Britain and U.S., noticing the leftward drift of Caballero’s Madrid government, unwittingly facilitated the surreptitious Fascist/Nazi domination of Franco’s militarism in Spain. The Spanish Civil War, as it subsequently erupted during autumn of 1936 and onward, became a training ground for Mussolini’s fascisti ground troops, and Hitler’s luftwaffe air force.
As it turns out then, history demonstrates that military neutrality can prove disastrous in the convoluted treacheries of world politics.
In Syria today, rebels are storming the gates of Damascus and Aleppo, fighting to overthrow the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad.
But the insurrection boot is, this time, on the other foot. We democratic nations want to believe that the rebels represent possibilities for future democracy and popular government. But do we know this?
We don’t know. We don’t know for sure. Meanwhile, the two principal bully-states (bullies toward their own citizens) of the civilized world, Russian and China, refuse to permit international support for the Syrian rebels against the al-Assad regine, itself an oppressive bully-state.
It could be that this armed struggle in Syria is, as I heard a caller say recently on a radio talk show, “the Spanish Civil War of our age,” in which the political/military forces, striving to align themselves, establish a deadly framework for larger eruptions of militarism yet to come.
If it is true that ignorance of history dooms us to repeating history’s mistakes, then we may be stumbling toward another vicious tarbaby of world war. On the other hand, maybe the supposed awareness of strategic options that arise from history’s lessons is nothing more than a naive fallacy.
I don’t know whether historical intelligence can be truly beneficial for mankind or not, but then I, like most folks, am not in a position to do much about it anyway.
However, I am writing a novel, Smoke, that pertains to these issues as they existed in our world in 1937. And I hope that history does not repeat itself.