A Response to my Censors

The attentive observer will perceive a tone of hysteria and panic in the reaction, in France as in Spain, to the interview in Le Figaro Histoire (summer 2022), published on the occasion of the French translation of Los Mitos de la Guerra civil [Les mythes de la guerre d’Espagne, 1936-1939 (Éditions L’Artilleur)—Myths of the Spanish Civil War]. A reaction of anger and indignation, which is meant to intimidate (“how dare Le Figaro Histoire” give a platform to a “liar,” a “falsifier,” and worse, “a political scoundrel”). But there’s never a trace of rational criticism; or just as often an embarrassed silence.

The reason for this attitude is understandable. If what The Myths of the Spanish Civil War says is true, the dominant discourse in Spain, France and Europe about this war, its meaning and its historical consequences is false—which opens up new hypotheses, and damages many vested interests. The problem for the supporters of the dominant, mainstream discourse, however, should not be complex: it would be enough for them to highlight two or three key points of my book and to demolish them with data and arguments. But nothing like that has happened so far, except, as I say, silence on the part of some and insults and intimidation on the part of others. The impression that emerges is that these “critics” have not even read the book, which, according to them, is “Franco’s propaganda” and “says nothing new,” despite its enormous success in Spain and now in France. So let me give some explanations here.

Between 1999 and 2001, I published the trilogy Los orígenes de la guerra civil [The Origins of the Spanish Civil War], Los personajes de la República vistos por ellos mismos [The Personalities of the Republic as seen by Themselves], and El derrumbe de la República y la guerra [The Collapse of the Republic and the Spanish Civil War]—the result of nine years of work. Since these three books can be very difficult to read for the general public, since they are full of archival notes, bibliographic references, press documents, minutes of the Cortes, etc., I thought that a more “popular” or popularized summary of the three would be useful.

The summary, which constitutes The Myths of the Spanish Civil War, was conceived according to an original method of exposition, in two large parts, which seemed to me the most effective. The first part deals with the political and ideological conceptions of the ten main leaders of the different parties or major personalities. Strange as it may seem, this is not often the case in history books of the Spanish War, which rarely go into the ideological content of the conflict. In the third volume of my trilogy, I devoted a lot of space to such content, without which nothing can be explained in depth; and in The Myths I did it in a more direct and personal way, sticking to the ideas themselves of the various personalities.

In the second part, I examined seventeen very specific issues and events, in order to bring them out of the realm of myth, or rather pseudo-myth, and into that of historiographically verifiable reality. And I did this either on the basis of the documentation of the Left itself, or on the basis of detailed and unquestioned research by various historians. Finally, I added two epilogues, placing the Spanish Civil War in the history of the 20th century and in the history of Spain. Also attached are maps, a chronology, and the regional origins of the people mentioned.

I was surprised by the many comments that were rather favorable to The Myths of the Spanish Civil War and to other books of mine, comments which nevertheless stated that my books lacked originality, except perhaps in the clarity of the exposition. According to such comments, my books don’t discover anything new; everything I say “has already been said by others.” Honestly, if I had just been repeating what is already known, I don’t think I would have bothered to write anything about the Civil War. But if I had really made that mistake, it would still be necessary to explain why my books are the ones that have unleashed the most hatred and fear among so many progressive—but also right-wing—historians and politicians.

In historiography, as in so many other fields, there is the level of concrete data and the level of interpretative analysis, as the historian Stanley Payne recently reminded us in connection with my book, Hegemonía Española (1475-1640) y Comienzo de la Era Europea (1492-1945) [Spanish Hegemony and the Beginning of the European Era]. The accumulation of data is a basic and somewhat laborious necessity; but it is basically simple and easy; while interpretive analysis is much more difficult, as it requires relating the data, comparing it and drawing coherent conclusions. This is the highest level of historiography.

So much has already been written about the Spanish Civil War and about so many aspects of it that it is difficult to discover new facts, or something that has not already been said or mentioned by someone, and often even repeated thousands of times. Nevertheless, I believe I have managed to make some contributions. The first one I will mention here is about the third coup attempt, the one by the Jacobins (liberal-progressives and statists) or the liberal Left of Manuel Azaña (then former minister and president of the council), in the summer of 1934. When the left lost the November 1933 elections, Azaña twice pressured the president of the Republic (a conservative centrist), Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, to cancel the elections and call new ones with the guarantee of a left-wing victory—to no avail. He could do nothing else with the meager means he had at his disposal at the time, but it was a kind of coup attempt. Then, in the following summer, Azaña reached an agreement with the president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Lluís Companys, and his supporters to carry out a more effective coup this time. The attempt failed because it required the collaboration of the Socialist Party (PSOE), which refused because it was preparing a “proletarian” revolution and did not want to collaborate in the perpetuation of a “bourgeois” Republic.

This fact, which I think was previously totally unknown in the historiography of the Left and the Right, is an important contribution; but it merits only an article and not a book. The same is true for other similar facts that I will mention next. That said, what a well-argued and articulate book needs is precisely an interpretative analysis. And in this difficult area, I believe that my book is innovative, and that it will remain so until someone manages to effectively refute its arguments, which to date has not happened.

To stick to the analytical and interpretative level, we can start with the general approach to the Spanish Civil War. I explained in my book The Myths, and I will not repeat it here, why the Popular Front (a coalition of Marxist, Communist and Bolshevik socialist parties, as well as separatist and liberal-Jacobin parties, joined after the uprising by the Trotskyites and anarchists) could not be composed of democratic parties. I am not the only one nor the first to point this out, although I don’t think that the origin of this lie has been correctly detected thus far in Soviet strategy and propaganda; and I believe that I am not wrong.

But there is another essential aspect: the practically generalized acceptance, on the Left as well as on the Right, of the presentation of the Popular Front as the “republican camp,” on the assumption that it would be the continuation of the Second Spanish Republic. Very few, on the Left or the Right, have escaped this radically distorting approach to history. Only Stanley Payne (40 preguntas fundamentals sobre la Guerra civil [40 Fundamental Questions about the Spanish Civil War] La Esfera de los Libros, 2006 /La guerre d’Espagne, Le Cerf, 2010) and perhaps a handful of other historians have emphasized this discontinuity, referring to a kind of Third Republic, which I prefer to call just the Popular Front, because it failed to crystallize into a minimally stable regime, having lost the Civil War. But there is another crucial point. This Popular Front was not only different from the Second Republic, it was precisely the one that destroyed it. This is one of my fundamental theses, which completely changes the understanding of the war.

Another important point is the date at which the Republic of 1931 can be considered to have ended. Those who accept its end usually place this date at the time of the distribution of arms to the unions in July 1936. In my opinion, this destruction of the Republic took place during the electoral process, from February to April of the same year. This conception is doubly important, because it establishes a link between the October 1934 insurrection, in which there was a de facto “popular front,” and the February 1936 elections; it emphasizes that these elections were fraudulent not only because of the falsification of the minutes, but also because of the whole process, from the dissolution of the Cortes to the removal of President Alcalá-Zamora. I believe I am the only one who has expressed this comprehensive conception.

Another element of this thesis is the responsibility of the President of the Republic, Alcalá-Zamora, in the dubious and inherently illegitimate calling of the February 1936 elections, which I believe I am the only one to have pointed out.

Finally, it is important to note that this analysis of the process of the destruction of the Republic completely demolishes most of the current interpretations of the Republic and the Civil War, which is far more important than any contribution of data or details. It partially but fundamentally eliminates many other versions, including the typically Francoist ones. The latter maintain and repeat the essential distortion typical of the “republican camp,” because they are fundamentally anti-republican and are not interested in the fate of this Republic. They therefore see a continuity between it and the Popular Front; a succession of violence and convulsions of a regime that they consider illegitimate and the product of a first coup d’état, due to the municipal elections of 1931. Now, this is another important distortion, because although there was a coup d’état—it was carried out by the monarchists against their own regime and not by their republican opponents. (The municipal elections of 1931 were a crushing victory for the monarchists, but the republicans won in almost all the provincial capitals. The monarchist government of Romanones therefore considered that the urban votes had more weight than the others and that the elections were therefore won by the Republicans). The Republic was therefore legitimate and did not cease to exist, for the reasons mentioned, until five years later, in the electoral process of February 1936.

I believe that no one else has sustained these insights with the precision, documentation, and clarity that I have applied in my books, and they essentially refocus an entire historical process. If my theses are correct, there has been monumental confusion for half a century. And because of this confusion, and the resulting attitudes, they have met with truly fanatical resistance and opposition, contrary to any rational debate.

Much of the historiography and essays on the Spanish Civil War are characterized by a derisory and maudlin mystification about “Spanish Cainism,” “fratricidal war,” “ancestral civil war,” and other such nonsense, with which many authors vainly attempt to display their ethical sensitivity, which would finally be exceptional in a people they believe to be ever so beastly and bloodthirsty. The height of this interpretation was reached by authors like Eslava Galán and Pérez Reverte, and was made canonical by authors close to the Popular Party, such as García de Cortázar, Pedro J, Pedro Corral and some others. The war was waged by groups of murderous madmen on both sides, who dragged along the others, poor people, who “were just living their lives.”

But apart from this display of simplistic stupidity, nowhere, as far as I know, was the precise conclusion of the fundamental character of the Popular Front as an alliance of Soviets and separatists adequately emphasized, namely that both national unity and Spanish, European and Christian culture were very seriously threatened (for the Soviet system was a total culture, beyond its directly political implications). And it is enough to take these elements into account to understand the nature of the war and its stakes. This is a point that, even in Franco’s historiography, remains somewhat nebulous or unclear, or lost in many details. However, it is enough to seriously observe the character of the Popular Front to understand that the Mola-Franco rebellion was an in extremis reaction to a historical danger. A rebellion that saved the country from disintegration and Sovietization; a salvation that the PP paradoxically condemned, a fact that itself confirms what the historian Florentino Portero said: “This Right is condemned to feed on the intellectual debris of the Left, due to its lack of historical and ideological culture.”

I modestly believe that my books, and in particular The Myths of the Spanish Civil War, clarify this key issue in a much more precise way than any I can remember at the moment. And I believe that this clarification has direct political consequences and repercussions that extend to the present day.

This article appears through the kind courtesy of Causeur, and Arnaud Imatz.

History As Antidote To Propaganda: A Conversation With Pío Moa

A former militant of the reconstituted Spanish Communist Party (PCEr), a founding member of GRAPO, a Maoist movement, a resistance fighter and a terrorist, during the last years of Franco’s dictatorship, who retired from all political activity, as a democrat and liberal more than forty years ago, Pío Moa has become one of the most famous authors of his country. Ignored in France, he is at the center of all controversies and is a cultural phenomenon in Spain, where his books are bestsellers. His honest and disinterested effort to reinterpret the history of the Second Spanish Republic, the origins, developments and consequences of the Spanish Civil War, particularly from the archives of the Pablo Iglesias Socialist Foundation, is the most successful of the last twenty years.

His remarkable work of synthesis, Los Mitos de la Guerra civil (The Myths of the Spanish War 1936-1939), sold more than 300,000 copies, in Spain and in Spanish-speaking countries, and which he has just republished in an updated and completed version with Editions L’Artilleur (March 2022). We interviewed the author, Pío Moa, on the occasion of the French publication of this book-event, with historian Arnaud Imatz.

Arnaud Imatz (A.I.): The Spanish Civil War (SCW) or the Spanish War, as it is called in France, is one of the privileged places of lies. It has been repeated ad nauseam that it was the consequence of Franco’s harmful action; or, to put it more “cleverly,” the result of the aggression of the Army, the Catholic Church and the Bank against the People, Democracy and the Republic. In your work and research, you demonstrate that it was, on the contrary, the revolutionary movement and the collapse of the State and democracy that led to the July 1936 uprising. How did you come to this conclusion when you were an anti-Franco activist in your youth, a militant of the Marxist extreme left?

Pío Moa (P.M.): Paradoxical as it may seem, Franco was the last to rebel against the republic. Before him, socialists, anarchists, left-wing republicans (starting with the president of the council of ministers, Manuel Azaña), Catalan and Basque separatists, and the right-wing soldier José Sanjurjo had done so. The president of the republic Alcalá-Zamora, a moderate right-wing politician, also sabotaged right-wing politics because of his inferiority complex. Nothing is more false than the refrain “the people against the Church, etc.” The people voted massively to the right in November 1933. And it was then that the left decided to launch an armed insurrection. When I was young, I was a Marxist. I considered the errors and crimes that were being displayed before everyone’s eyes as temporary consequences of a great historical ordeal, which could not be perfect, and which would be overcome. Studying the contradictions of Marxism, especially from the theory of the fall of the rate of profit, I concluded that from fundamental errors in the theoretical conception one could only lead to errors and criminal practices, and that these were not accidental or the product of inexperience.

Pío Moa.

A.I.: Why do you give so much importance to the attempted socialist revolution of 1934 in the origins and direct history of the SCW?

P.M.: The Socialist and Catalan separatist revolution of October 1934 was openly and explicitly presented as a civil war aimed at destroying the “bourgeois” republic, imposing a communist republic and, if necessary, the secession of Catalonia. This is absolutely documented, which is why there has been an enormous effort to conceal it on the part of a generalized propagandist historiography, but without any rigor or serious value.

A.I.: Was there a fascist danger in Spain in the 1930s?

P.M.: There was no fascist danger. The leaders of the PSOE, Largo Caballero and his intellectual mentor Luis Araquistáin, said so themselves. They said it outside Spain. Inside, they insisted on its danger to mobilize people. This was part of their preparation for the Civil War.

A.I.: How did Republican legality and democratic coexistence definitively collapse in 1936?

P.M.: The left could have been moderate after learning the lessons of their failure in the 1934 insurrection. But the opposite happened. They approached the February 1936 elections by openly announcing that they would not recognize a victory for the right. These elections could not therefore be normal. And they were falsified, as recent very concrete studies have shown. This falsification was a real coup d’état that opened a period of complete rupture of republican legality.

A.I.: In your opinion, who are the main political figures responsible for the Civil War?

P.M.: Paradoxically, the main person responsible was the president of the republic, Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, a man of the right. In 1933 the left-wing parties and the separatists were defeated at the ballot box, and in 1934 they were defeated again in their armed rebellion. The PSOE and the separatists should then have been outlawed until they had learned their lesson. Alcalá-Zamora tried, on the one hand, to block any effective action and, on the other, to bring down those who won the elections and defeated the insurrection. Why did he do this? Mainly because of the typical complex of the right-wing politician who wants to pass for a “progressive” and thus curry favor with the left. After him, the main culprits were the socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero and the Catalan separatist Lluís Companys.

A.I.: Did the great political formations of the Popular Front accept liberal democracy and reformism, or did they rather seek to establish a form of “popular democracy,” a collectivist system or even a “dictatorship of the proletariat?” And were there really democrats in the Spain of 1935-1936?

P.M.: The radical party of Alejandro Lerroux was democratic, although corrupt. The CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights) was not, but it accepted republican legality. The left-wing parties saw the republic as a means of imposing a “proletarian” dictatorship, i.e., their own; and the separatists saw it as a means of achieving secession. That is why, when they lost the elections in 1933, they turned to open rebellion.

A.I.: In France, the International Brigades are always more or less described as a movement of volunteers who went to defend democracy in Spain. Jacques Chirac said this in 2002, during a tribute to Colonel Rol-Tanguy, ex-brigadist and communist militant. Can you explain to us what the International Brigades were? Why is their image, often idyllic in the West, generally sinister and repulsive in Eastern countries?

P.M.: The International Brigades were a parallel army mobilized by the Comintern. They are obviously very well regarded by those who have a communist or similar mindset. Of course, the people of Eastern Europe know very well where the so-called communist romanticism leads; they are not fooled, like our “progressives.”

A.I.: Why was the Popular Front defeated?

P.M.: The only serious force within the Popular Front (which was essentially an alliance of pro-soviets and separatists), was the communists. They had a real strategy and the direct support of Stalin. They quickly realized that a regular, disciplined army was needed, not a more or less “folk militia.” The truth is that the rest of the Popular Front was composed of disparate and motley groups, very prone, especially in the case of the socialists, to theft and rearguard chekas. (For those who do not know, the chekas, named after the Soviet Cheka, were the torture centers—more than 400—organized by the various left-wing parties in all major cities). The Communists had to face the stupidity of their allies, and the crimes they committed raised great resentment among them. In fact, these allies, such as Azaña, sabotaged the communists’ actions as much as they could.

A.I.: The Marxist historian Manuel Tuñon de Lara was for a long time the admired and respected icon of French Hispanists, while at the same time one of the greatest international specialists. The American historian Stanley Payne was the victim of an incredible omerta of more than forty years in France (an omerta that was only broken in 2010 with the publication of La guerre d’Espagne. L’histoire face à la confusion mémorielle (Éditions du Cerf). Why is the perception of the Spanish War still so overwhelmingly favorable to the Popular Front in French academic and journalistic circles?

P.M.: Tuñón de Lara was clearly a Stalinist historian. The sympathy for the Communists in France is explicable. First, the Resistance had been largely Communist and their imposing propaganda made it possible to believe that they had been almost the only ones to resist. Secondly, it was the USSR that really defeated Nazism, at an immense cost. Finally, the French were lucky enough not to experience the delights of communism. That is why many can still afford the luxury of admiring Stalinist communism, of which Tuñón is a model.

A.I.: The greatest massacre of the Civil War was carried out for essentially religious reasons. 20% of the clergy, almost 7000 religious men and women were murdered. Between 1987 and 2020, various popes beatified no less than 1916 martyrs of the faith and even canonized 11 of them. But during the SCW, authors who claimed to be Christian humanists, such as Bernanos, Mauriac, Maritain or Mounier, severely criticized the exactions committed in the national camp and more or less directly supported the Popular Front camp.. How do you explain this?

P.M.: Within the Church, there was a current of sympathy towards communism, which culminated in the Second Vatican Council, with certain “dialogues between Christians and Marxists” that were very harmful to the Church. I think there was also a French nationalist sentiment, during the Spanish War. Franco was helped by Germany and Italy, and many believed that Spain would become one of their satellites, which did not happen. On the other hand, the Popular Front was indeed a satellite of Stalin.

A.I.: In Spain, the arrival of a new generation of historians and journalists at the turn of the 21st century has been accompanied by a terrible resurgence of hatred and sectarianism. You yourself have been insulted, mocked, slandered, pilloried, but also, and at the same time, applauded and praised by many readers and a host of scholars. Why this new political and cultural tension?

P.M.: After the Spanish people accepted democracy and the passage of “law to law” in a referendum, that is, respect for the historical legitimacy of Franco’s regime, the opposition, which was still that of the separatist leftists, embarked on a campaign to falsify history. Their vision seemed to prevail at the end of the 20th century, because it was accepted by an intellectually very poor right. But suddenly, it was documented and decisively refuted, and the socialist and extremist lefts reacted as usual—to the point of taking refuge in a typically totalitarian “historical memory law” that threatens the freedoms of research, expression and teaching. In so doing, their political leaders clearly show what kind of democrats they are and, incidentally, how weak and fragile their history is.

A.I.: The Spanish authorities seem obsessed with passing and strengthening these memorial laws, which only stir up division, unrest, resentment and hatred. Is it so difficult to accept the idea of a collective fault without discrimination between “good and bad” as a necessary condition for an authentic reconciliation?

P. M.: Yes! These laws feed resentment and division because they are based on enormous lies. To defend them, there are certain parties, most of them corrupt, and an extraordinarily uneducated and almost childish journalism in its manipulations. The historical reality is that Franco defeated a very serious Soviet and separatist threat, maintaining national unity and Hispanic culture. He overcame a murderous international isolation that sought to starve the Spanish people, and he left a prosperous, moderate and reconciled country. If it is true that “the truth will set us free,” it must be defended above all else.

Featured image: Poster for the International Brigades, ca. 1936.