Writers Take Sides, Stalinists Take Control: The Second International Congress for the Defense of Culture (Spain 1937)

By Thornberry, Robert S. | The Historian, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Writers Take Sides, Stalinists Take Control: The Second International Congress for the Defense of Culture (Spain 1937)


Thornberry, Robert S., The Historian


Descubri que la revolucion era hija de la critica y que la ausencia de critica habia matado a la revolucion

(Octavio Paz, 1993)(1)

Civil war in Spain became inevitable when an alliance of liberal, republican, and left-wing parties narrowly won the general elections of February 1936 and polarized the country into two irreconcilable camps. On the one hand were the victors, or Loyalists, a Popular Front coalition of moderates, socialists, anarchists, communists, and regionalist parties from Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country, each one seeking some measure of autonomy; on the other, a National Front consisting of conservatives, monarchists, clerics, Falangist groups, and the influential CEDA (Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas, or Spanish Confederation of Autonomist Right-Wing Parties). On 17 July, only five months later, portions of the army led by General Francisco Franco rebelled against the legally constituted government of Spain's Second Republic--promulgated in April 1931--and thus began one of the most violent and impassioned civil wars of the twentieth century.

When the struggle ended in April 1939, on the eve of World War II, democracy had suffered a humiliating defeat and fascism a major victory. Whereas Hitler and Mussolini shipped weapons and ammunition to the insurgents soon after the pronunciamiento, both France and Great Britain, fearing a general European war, adopted a policy of nonintervention in Spanish affairs. In this way, they effectively deprived a fellow democracy of the military assistance it urgently needed to put down the uprising. Partly to compensate for this policy, in the fall of 1936 the USSR began to send military advisors and technicians of its own, and also to organize the International Brigades. These consisted of about 35,000 volunteers, not all of them Communists, from 50 countries who journeyed to Spain to enlist in the fight against Spanish Army troops, at that time rapidly advancing on Madrid.

The international dimension of the Spanish conflict was not limited to political and military matters. One of the numerous anomalies of the war is that in July 1937, almost exactly one year after hostilities began, some 200 writers assembled over a period of two weeks in major cities in both Spain and France to support the people of Spain and proclaim their unrelenting hostility toward fascism. Participants in the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture represented approximately 30 countries, from Algeria to Iceland and Peru to China, as well as Great Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

That the congress should meet at all was considered a major moral victory for the Republican government. It appeared to demonstrate unequivocally what antifascists everywhere had proclaimed over the previous 12 months: that few Spanish writers of international repute had allied themselves with the Nationalist cause.(2) On the other hand, many of the most prestigious writers and intellectuals of both Europe and the Americas had expressed unstinting support for the beleaguered Republic; and of these, a significant number made the difficult journey across the Pyrenees to show support for what had been termed "la republica de intelectuales."(3) This was a just cause, or so it was believed at the time, ill served by neutrality and non-intervention policies of nonfascist European countries, one that men and women steeped in a liberal humanist culture could espouse without compromising their time-honored belief in truth, reason, and justice.

Despite their seeming near-unanimity in supporting the Republican cause, however, the Writers' Congress in fact became a forum for many of the same ideological conflicts and partisan manipulations that ultimately would undermine the organization of the country's defense. My objectives in this essay are twofold: first, to provide a succinct overview of the Congress itself, and second, to show how it was subverted by Stalinist agents whose totalitarian objectives were fundamentally at odds with the antifascist intellectuals' belief in restoring democracy to Spain.

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