War of ideas
The Spanish civil war united a generation of young writers, poets and artists in political fervour. The wrong side may have won, but in creating the world's memory of the conflict, the pen, the brush and the camera have had the more lasting triumph, argues Eric Hobsbawm
Saturday February 17, 2007 The Guardian
The film Casablanca (1942) has become a permanent icon of a certain kind of educated culture, at least among older generations. The cast will still be familiar, I hope: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio, Conrad Veidt, Claude Rains. Its phrases have become part of our discourse, such as the endlessly misquoted "Play it again, Sam" or "Round up the usual suspects". If we leave aside the basic love affair, this is a film about the relations of the Spanish civil war and the wider politics of that strange but decisive period in 20th-century history, the era of Adolf Hitler. Rick, the hero, has fought for the republicans in the Spanish civil war. He emerges from it defeated and cynical in his Moroccan café, and the film ends with him returning to the struggle in the second world war. In short, Casablanca is about the mobilisation of anti-fascism in the 1930s. And those who mobilised against fascism before most others, and most passionately, were western intellectuals.
Today it is possible to see the civil war, Spain's contribution to the tragic history of that most brutal of centuries, the 20th, in its historical context. It was not, as the neoliberal François Furet argued it should have been, a war against both the ultra-right and the Comintern - a view shared, from a Trotskyist sectarian angle, by Ken Loach's powerful film Land and Freedom (1995). The only choice was between two sides, and liberal-democratic opinion overwhelmingly chose anti-fascism. Hence, asked in early 1939 who they wanted to win in a war between Russia and Germany, 83 per cent of Americans wanted a Russian victory. Spain was a war against Franco - that is to say, against the forces of fascism with which Franco was aligned - and 87 per cent of Americans favoured the republic. Alas, unlike in the second world war, the wrong side won. But it is largely due to the intellectuals, the artists and writers who mobilised so overwhelmingly in favour of the republic, that in this instance history has not been written by the victors.
The Spanish civil war was both at the centre and on the margin of the era of anti-fascism. It was central, since it was immediately seen as a European war between fascism and anti-fascism, almost as the first battle in the coming world war, some of the characteristic aspects of which - for example, air raids against civilian populations - it anticipated. But Spain took no part in the second world war. Franco's victory was to have no bearing on the collapse of France in 1940, and the experience of the republican armed forces was not relevant to the subsequent wartime resistance movements, even though in France these were largely composed of refugee Spanish republicans, and former international brigaders played a major role in those of other countries.
To situate the Spanish civil war within the general framework of the anti-fascist era, we have to bear in mind both the failure to resist fascism and the disproportionate success of anti-fascist mobilisation among Europe's intellectuals. I am referring not only to the success of fascist expansionism and the failure of the forces favouring peace to halt the apparently inevitable approach of another world war. I am also remembering the failure of its opponents to change public opinion. The only regions that saw a genuine political shift to the left after the Great Depression were Scandinavia and North America. Much of central and southern Europe was already under authoritarian governments or was to fall into their hands, but insofar as we can judge from the scattered electoral data, the drift in Hungary and Russia, not to mention among the German diaspora, was sharply to the right. On the other hand, the Popular Front's victory in France was a shift within the French left, not a shift of opinion to the left. The 1936 election gave the combined radicals, socialists and communists barely 1 per cent more votes than in 1932.
And yet, if I can reconstruct the feelings of that generation from personal memory, my generation of the left, whether we were intellectuals or not, did not see ourselves as a retreating minority. We did not think that fascism would inevitably continue to advance. We were sure that a new world would come. Given the logic of anti-fascist unity, only the failure of governments and progressive parties to unite against fascism accounted for our series of defeats.
This helps to explain the disproportionate shift towards the communists among those already on the left. But it also helps to explain our confidence as young intellectuals, for this social group was most easily, and disproportionately, mobilised against fascism. The reason is obvious. Fascism - even Italian fascism - was opposed in principle to the causes that defined and mobilised intellectuals as such, namely the values of the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. Except in Germany, with its powerful schools of theory critical of liberalism, there was no significant body of secular intellectuals who did not belong to this tradition. The Roman Catholic church had very few eminent intellectuals known and respected as such outside its own ranks. I am not denying that in some fields, notably literature, some of the most distinguished figures were clearly on the right - TS Eliot, Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound, WB Yeats, Paul Claudel, Céline, Evelyn Waugh - but even in the armies of literature, the politically conscious right formed a modest regiment in the 1930s, except perhaps in France. Once again, this became evident in 1936. American writers, whether or not they accepted American neutrality, were overwhelmingly opposed to Franco, and Hollywood even more so. Of the British writers asked, five (Waugh, Eleanor Smith and Edmund Blunden among them) favoured the Nationalists, 16 were neutral (including Eliot, Charles Morgan, Pound, Alec Waugh, Sean O'Faolain, HG Wells and Vita Sackville-West) and 106 were for the republic, many of them passionately. As for Spain, there is no doubt where the poets of the Spanish language - those who are now remembered - stood: García Lorca, the brothers Machado, Alberti, Miguel Hernández, Neruda, Vallejo, Guillén.
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