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Guernica and the perversion of the Spanish Civil War

The memory of the Spanish Civil War has become a leading reference point for self-styled 'liberal interventionists'.

A crowd gathers to ponder "Guernica". Flickr/rogiro. Some rights reserved.

George Orwell once told Arthur Koestler that "history stopped in 1936."

Both men realised that the Spanish Civil War, triggered by a military coup in July of that year, presaged what was inevitable for the rest of Europe: the destruction of entire cities, the bold and violent expansion of Fascism, and a total war in which it was impossible to be neutral.

Their personal experiences of the Spanish War – captured in Koestler’s Spanish Testament and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia – have become leading works in a massive canon of literature on the brutal nearly 3-year-long conflict. If these testimonies have formed much of the modern understanding of twentieth century warfare, then they are matched, if not exceeded, by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the sprawling and terrifying 3.5x7.8m mural displayed in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum.

On the afternoon of April 26, 1937, Guernica, “the cultural capital of the Basque people”, was turned into a pile of burning rubble by “twenty-five or more of Germany's best-equipped bombers, accompanied by at least twenty more Messerschmitt and Fiat Fighters”, which “dumped one hundred thousand pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the village.”

A third of the town’s population was killed or wounded – demonstrating not only the barbarity of the Nazi Condor Legion, but also Adolf Hitler’s willingness to unequivocally back his ally, General Franco. While Britain, France and the Soviet Union – supposedly friends of the Spanish Republic – either stood by or intervened “on a niggardly scale”, the Fascist powers acted decisively and ruthlessly. In 1942, Orwell would write, “the Spanish Civil War demonstrated that the Nazis knew what they were doing and their opponents did not.”

"Iraq, if you look back at it, is going to be like the Spanish Civil War"

80 years on from the bombing of Guernica, Picasso’s painting and the wider Spanish War remain powerful symbols and analogies for politicians, writers and self-styled “liberal interventionists.” UK Labour MP (and former Shadow Foreign Secretary) Hillary Benn provided a clear example of this thinking in his widely applauded speech to the British Parliament on December 2, 2015. “As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism,” he said to his Labour Party colleagues. Describing “Daesh”, as “fascists”, he told the House:

“What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.”

Benn is far from the first western politician to evoke the memory of this period in support of a foreign military intervention. The Hitler (or Munich) analogy is particularly well-worn from use in defence of the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq – even U.S. intervention in Grenada and Nicaragua (for a long discussion of these examples, see Jeffrey Record’s Appeasement Reconsidered).

But Spain, too, has become a popular reference point. U.S. Senator John McCain – one of the most ardent hawks in Congress – has long glorified the “idealistic freedom fighters” of the International Brigades, while former Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman in 2007 likened the Iraq War to the Spanish Civil War because the “larger war on Islamist terrorism” playing out in the country was comparable to the wider war against fascism which began in Spain.

For Lieberman, however, “The painful irony of this moment in our history is that while, in some senses, it is comparable to the 1930s, it's also already 1942, because Pearl Harbour in this war has already happened on 9/11/01.” A year earlier he suggested: “Iraq, if you look back at it, is going to be like the Spanish Civil War, which was the harbinger of what was to come.”

"Aleppo(nica)"

In a way, Senator Lieberman was right: Iraq was “the harbinger” of much bigger things – like the Syrian Civil War and the Islamic State. That’s about as far as the comparison goes. The great purveyor of the WMD lie and “darling of the neocons”, Ahmed Chalabi, was no Juan Negrín; the Blackwater mercenaries who flooded into Iraq were no International Brigades; and the post-invasion sectarian government no Popular Front.

As for the idea that Saddam Hussein and his regime posed a threat like the fascists of the 30s, Chris Rock put it better than anyone else: "If they’re so dangerous, how come it only took two weeks to take over the whole fucking country? Shit, man, you couldn't take over Baltimore in two weeks.”

In Syria, however, the analogy of the 1930s – and Spain in particular – seems somewhat more appropriate. For one thing, thousands of mostly young people have poured into the country from across the world, with motivations seemingly as various as securing the Caliphate, resisting a murderous dictator, and even “Fighting ISIS and Patriarchy with the Kurds.”

The Assad regime’s barrel-bombing of civilian areas and brutal Russian-backed aerial campaign against Aleppo led British Conservative politician Andrew Mitchell to tell the House of Commons: “What Russia is doing to the United Nations is precisely what Italy and Germany did to the League of Nations in the 1930s.

And they are doing to Aleppo precisely what the Nazis did to Guernica in the Spanish Civil War.” Portuguese cartoonist Vasco Gargalo created his own version of Picasso’s Guernica, featuring the faces of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin among the distorted shapes and warped images of the original painting. “Aleppo(nica)”, he called it.

The new military humanism

By no means are all of these historical references aimed at precipitating a “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, but an “atrocity campaign” – supported by relentless, almost pornographic images of bloodshed – is not usually meant to make you sad, or make you want to donate to the UNHCR; it is meant to make you angry. Most importantly, it makes you want to punish the perpetrator, and pressure your government to do it on your behalf. This is as true today as it was in 1937. 

Historical analogy has always given force to arguments for “humanitarian intervention”, but also dangerously clouded our judgement. As Noam Chomsky documents in The New Military Humanism (1999), it is a great irony that interventionists frequently draw on the horror of the 30s and 40s not to defend the UN Charter and some semblance of the post-1945 international order, but to undermine it.

In the case of Kosovo in 1999, they advanced the “dubious doctrine” of an “illegal but legitimate” 78-day bombing campaign (often against civilian targets); or, in the case of Iraq in 2003, the idea that “international law stood in the way of doing the right thing.” Most of these arguments boil down to the assertion that the most powerful military machine in the world – along with its clients – should be able to unilaterally break the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force when it believes the act is moral.

Anyone who has seen Guernica or the images of the Spanish War should be wary of such a cavalier attitude. They should remember (to quote Orwell again), that even if they are fighting a tyrant, “a louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb”; and “the laws of nature are not suspended for a ‘red’ army any more than for a ‘white’ one.”

Finally, they shouldn’t uncritically swallow shallow historical analogies. In Syria, how do they really help us? If ISIS are the fascists, then is Assad Stalin? Should we then work with him, as Boris Johnson once suggested, because WWII taught us that “we cannot be picky about our allies”? Or is he Hitler? Or is ISIS Germany and Assad Japan? That might work. Wait, was “Jihadi John” part of the International Brigades? Is Jabhat al-Nusra the Popular Front?

It’s worth considering such elementary questions before calling every war “Spain”, every despot “Hitler” and every pro-western rebel group the “International Brigades.” Otherwise, we will debase the very real struggles fought in a time far less comfortable than our own.

About the author

Harry Blain is a Graduate Center Fellow pursuing a PhD in Political Science at the City University of New York. He has previously lived and worked in Sydney, Edinburgh and London. Follow him on Twitter @Hblain.

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