The Historiographical Earthquake

By Falcoff, Mark | New Criterion, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Historiographical Earthquake

Falcoff, Mark, New Criterion

The Spanish Civil War: the continuing controversy: I

Only recently, with the virtual passing of an entire generation, has the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) ceased to be a subject of passionate historical and ideological debate. Even so, the martyrdom of the Second Republic (1931-39) has inspired the construction of a remarkably enduring historiographical edifice. Its main lines are well known--that in Spain, the democratic West failed to meet the earliest challenges of European fascism in the guise of General Francisco Franco's military uprising against the government of the Popular Front. In so doing, it presumably emboldened Hilter and Mussolini to venture on to what became the Second World War.

At the same time, the Spanish conflict occupies a particularly important role in the apparently endless apologetics for Stalin and the Soviet Union. Whatever horrors the former may have inflicted on the latter, so the argument runs, in Spain at least the Soviets put Britain, France, and the United States to shame by expeditious support of the embattled republic. If the Soviets came to occupy a disproportionately important role in Spanish politics by 1939--again, we are told--the cause lay not in Moscow's ambitions so much as in the failure of countries who should have hastened to the aid of one of their own, rather than crouching behind a hypocritical posture of "nonintervention."

To be sure, almost from the very beginning this view of Spanish events was challenged by historians and participants alike. One such was George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia (1938), a book whose literary excellence perhaps eclipses its crucial political message. Another was Walter Krivitsky, a defector from Soviet intelligence who died under mysterious circumstances in Washington shortly after publishing In Stalin's Secret Service (1939). Yet another was Jesus Hernandez, a former member of the central committee of the Spanish Communist party whose memoirs (evocatively tided To fui un ministro de Stalin) originally appeared in 1953.

In later years what might be called the Revised Standard Version was likewise attacked by historians left and right--from Trotskyists like Pierre Broue and Emile Temime to liberals like Stanley Payne, but also by E. H. Carr, generally known for his Soviet sympathies, and by Ricardo de la Cierva, perhaps the most accomplished of Spain's franquista historians.(1) For reasons probably more cultural and ideological than historical, however, the field has been dominated by people like Paul Preston, a British academic known among other things for a massive biography of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. As Preston himself points out in a survey of several recent monographs (The Times Literary Supplement, June 29), in recent years the main thrust of Civil War historiography in Spain has shifted to documenting the horrors of the Franco regime, both during and after the war.(2) This serves a number of useful purposes, the most important of which is to divert attention from the troubling questions that persist concerning the republic itself.

Alas for Preston and the Spanish historians of whom he happens to approve, these issues will not go away. After the demise of the Soviet Union, in 1991 and 1992, its military archives, as well as those of the Communist International, were suddenly made available to Western researchers. For some years now the Yale University Press has been publishing selections from this unprecedented source in its Annals of Communism series, much to the discomfiture of some extremely well-placed members of the American and British historical professions. Now comes Ronald Radosh, assisted by two scholar-archivists, to reveal what light such materials shed on Spanish events.(3)

The task itself was daunting, since it required the translation and careful perusal of hundreds of documents in several languages. This volume includes some eighty-one of them, together with a running commentary and notes. …

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The Historiographical Earthquake


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