Why the Spanish Civil War Matters

Scholar Nathan Pinkoski, writing in The Claremont Review of Books, considers the take on the Spanish Civil War by Spain’s venerable historian, Stanley Payne. Excerpts:

The Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) experienced one of the most accelerated cases of democratic decline in European history. In 1931, Spain established a liberal, republican, and democratic constitution on a broad base of popular and elite support. Within a few years, the constitution was in shambles and Spain was at war with itself. How did it happen? Too often, Americans are taught a simplistic morality story about this period: Fascists destroyed democracy. But the true story of the troubled republic of Spain is much more interesting and instructive. It shows how democratic regimes can die of self-inflicted wounds.

He’s right about that. People who fear that the United States will descend into civil war should study the Spanish conflict. Stanley Payne is probably the greatest living historian of this event writing in English. According to Pinkoski, Payne found the origin of the Civil War “in the eruption of revolutionary politics”. Continued:

In the 20th century, a new kind of revolutionary civil war broke out in Europe, opposing irreconcilable conceptions of state, society and culture. In these conflicts, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries aimed to establish radically different regimes. Payne likes to quote the saying of Joseph de Maistre: “counter-revolution is not the opposite of a revolution, but an opposite revolution”. Once the revolutionary process has begun, the old regime is over. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries – who are ostensibly interested in restoring the status quo ante – must found a new regime. As Carl Schmitt observes in Ex Captivate Salus (1950), the determination of both sides to establish a new regime is the reason why revolutionary civil wars bring unprecedented levels of violence. The goal is to overthrow the entire legal and political order associated with the enemy, leading to the call for the absolute elimination of the enemy.

According to Pinkoski, you can’t really blame the Spanish Civil War on the usual motivations for radical politics in Europe at the time. Spain had stayed out of World War I and had not been badly damaged by the Great Depression. And Spain had a history of liberal and parliamentary tradition going back to the beginning of the 19th century. No, it is a war that the Spaniards have chosen. Again Pinkoski:

Although various parties helped spark the revolution, Payne argues that the main culprits were the Spanish socialists. Unlike the Bolsheviks, who seek to overthrow liberal constitutionalism by direct means, the Revolutionary Socialists use the constitutional system to cover their plan of dismantling. They don’t overthrow the justice system, they exploit it. Center and right-wing legalists struggle to respond to this tactic. In Spain, their failure was particularly acute. In The collapse of the Spanish Republic1933-1936 (2005) and The Spanish Civil War (2012), Payne describes Spain’s descent into a brutal three-year war following the impudence of the socialist left in the face of the recklessness of the center and the pusillanimity of the right.

Other European socialist movements started with revolutionary ambitions, but mellowed as they grew older and came to respect constitutionalism and parliamentary standards. Over time, the Spanish socialists became radicalized. Spain’s most prominent left-wing leader, Manuel Azaña (Prime Minister from 1931 to 1933 and again in 1936), argued that liberalism had failed because it was too willing to compromise. He viewed the Republican constitution as the beginning of a radical reform project, even calling it a “revolution”. Politicians who did not equate constitutionalism with leftism were ipso facto illegitimate.

I don’t want to quote too much, even if I regret that the article is paid for. Pinkoski says the left could not accept the 1933 election results – won by the right – because they believed history was on their side. So the socialists did their best to undermine it. Supporting the Republic meant that the right could never be legitimately elected.

Second, the centre-left—the faction corresponding to our liberals—would not stand up to the socialists:

In Spain, he excused the violence of young socialists. Centrist authorities have been unable or unwilling to stop attacks on private property, businesses, churches, convents and clergy. Instead, they blamed the victims, arresting not the real perpetrators, but monarchist and conservative scapegoats. As cultural theorist René Girard understood, this scapegoat does not break the cycle of violence, but intensifies it. When revolutionaries attempt to purify a corrupt state and society by scapegoating, those they kill become martyrs, whose sacrifice becomes redemptive for nascent counter-revolutionaries. In Spain, monarchist and conservative scapegoats have converted large swaths of the population from apathy to anger. By leaving murders unpunished and unjustly punishing innocent people, the left created martyrs all over Spain, galvanizing counter-revolution and turning the conflict into a religious war.

Sounds familiar. We know very well that the liberals who run most American institutions will not stand up to the radical left. So don’t be surprised if the left goes too far and creates martyrs of the right – and then, if a leader comes along who can galvanize people on the right who are fed up with double standards, it’s all over.

Pinkoski, reading Payne, points to a third factor, one of which I was unaware of: “centrist endorsement of unconstitutional action in the name of safeguarding the so-called liberal consensus – what French political theorist Pierre Manent has called ‘The Fanaticism of the Center.’ He says the then Spanish president engaged in unconstitutional maneuvers to ensure the centrists remained in power. Soon, neither the left nor the right came to believe that the constitution was meaningless, and no matter how many votes they got, they would never be allowed to take power.

In the 1936 elections, Payne says (via Pinkoski), the left won, but “the revolutionary left used violent coercion, especially in the second ballot. The center-left has also made last-minute, ex post facto changes to electoral laws to give its camp disproportionate influence.

The solution was taken. When the next parliament took its seats, the left removed centre-left President Zamora and installed a hard-left president who proposed “massive confiscation of property, seizure of churches and schools, reparations to sanctioned leftists and the court”. packaging.”

I bet many of you don’t know this: the spark that ignited the Spanish Civil War was the arrest and murder of a Member of Parliament, the leader of the Monarchist Party, by Socialist members of the police. How did the government react to this outrage? By oppressing the right. Pinkoski:

However, the impartiality of the state was fatally compromised; he was now seen as openly aiding and abetting partisan murder. The constitution was broken. At that time, Payne writes, not rebelling seemed more dangerous to many than rebelling.

The deputy’s murder prompted General Francisco Franco to join the rebellion against the government. And it would have failed without the idiocy of the left-wing republican government. More from Pinkoski:

There was no coup. The rebels knew that the political elites and most active army commanders would remain loyal to the republic. What they hoped for was a revolt by the captains. They bet on a general military uprising throughout the country that would take the capital within a month. But they lost that bet. By the end of the first week, all major cities were firmly in Republican, that is, leftist, hands. Most of the navy and air force, as well as half of the army, remained with the republic. The Republicans controlled the arms and ammunition depots, the main industrial areas and all of Spain’s gold reserves.

But instead of using existing security forces to restore stability, the Republican government has armed popular militias. This sparked an orgy of violence and destruction – mass murders of nuns, priests and others became the order of the day in the nearly two-thirds of Spain the Republicans controlled. These horrors swung Catholic and middle-class sympathies toward the rebels, giving them a broad base of support. The rebellion was saved.

Pinkoski explains that Franco’s coalition included factions completely opposed to each other. The Falangists were real fascists who hated the royalists, who returned the compliment. The fascists wanted an anti-clerical, anti-traditionalist right-wing revolution. Franco ended up siding with the Catholic traditionalists, although he managed to keep the entire right united during the war years. He says that Franco ruled in an authoritarian fashion during the post-war decades, with people “deprived of many public liberties” but retaining private liberties (this is the classic difference between an authoritarian regime and a totalitarian regime). Arguably, only a strong authoritarian government could have prevented the return of the savage civil war. Payne believes that Franco’s success in bringing peace and relative prosperity to postwar Spain laid the foundation for the collapse of Francoism after his death in 1975.

Pinkoski concludes that Stanley Payne’s book on Spain is worth reading because it shows how a liberal democracy can turn into a revolution from within. As hard as it is to imagine how a civil war could play out in the United States today, seeing the cycle of radicalization happening left and right, and the growing mistrust of democracy, and especially seeing how the center-left, which controls most of America’s institutions, sees no enemies of the left, thereby alienating the right from democratic institutions – well, that’s not as hard to imagine as it should be. to be. The emerging reality that leftist forces are empowering the state to prey on our children – in schools, in popular culture and in the law – is, for me, a time when “all bets are on open”. I hope and pray that this cancer of gender ideology does not metastasize.

Read the whole thing, if you can (it’s behind a paywall).

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