Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War I

If Britain and France refrained from challenging Italy and Germany in Spain, this was not because they were blind to the threat to their strategic interests;  it was because they feared that a general war in Western Europe, whether they won or lost, could only redound to the benefit of Russia.

In a policy summary drafted by Gladwyn Jebb, private secretary to Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office since January 1938, and based partly on the papers of William Strang, head of the Central Departmentall three men supporters of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain Jebb observed that the objection to collective security was that it would “provoke war in which defeat would be disastrous and victory hardly less so.”

At a session, on 15 March 1938, of the Comité Permanent de la Défense Nationale, Edouard Daladier, the French minister of defense, stated that “one would have to be blind not to see that intervention in Spain would start a general war.” As to what he envisioned by a general war was expressed by him apocalyptically three months later, when, as the reader will recall, he told Count von Welczech, the German ambassador: “[The] catastrophic frightfulness of a modern war would surpass all that humanity had ever seen, and would mean the utter destruction of European civilization. Into the battle zones, devastated and denuded of men, Cossack and Mongol hordes would then pour, bringing to Europe a new ‘Culture.’ ”          

Hence, the nonintervention policy of Britain and France during the Civil War was determined not only by their hostility to the social revolution and by later Communist domination, of which they were fully informed through their diplomatic and secret agents, but by the fear that a general war would bring in its wake the enthronement of Communism in the whole of Europe. Consequently, no effort at dissimulation or persuasion, no attempt by successive Spanish governments to curb or roll back the revolution could have affected Anglo-French policy.

We have seen that the policy of appeasement of Germany was pursued with greater vigor from the time Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin in the premiership in May 1937 and that the new prime minister perceived the Soviet Union as the major long-term threat to British interests and the Western world. For this reason, a political settlement with Germany was the cornerstone of Chamberlain’s policy, and it was visionary to believe that Britain would come to the aid of Republican Spain at the risk of a war in Western Europe. 

That some members of the PCE in the spring of 1938 had begun to question the assumption that Britain and France would eventually be drawn into the conflict, but such doubts, inadmissible in Communist circles, had to be squelched if morale were to be sustained, particularly at the battlefronts. “I never for a moment believed that the Spanish government would get real help from Britain and France,” Ralph Bates, the British author and assistant commissar of the Fifteenth International Brigade, wrote in 1940 after he had severed his connections with the Communists. He was “tremendously censured,” he said, by the English representative of the Communist party in Madrid for dealing with the problem, even implicitly, in the brigade organ Volunteer for Liberty of which he was editor and was ”charged with exposing the boys to the possibility of this thought coming up in their minds.” “In so far as we damped down the revolution in Spain,” he added, “in the interests of collective security, then we miscalculated. I feel compelled to face that fact. Not all our soft-pedalling won [Britain and France] to our side. Might we have got more out of the CNT and FAI if we had not soft-pedalled so much?”          

The extent to which Chamberlain and his supporters were prepared to pursue the appeasement of Germany is evident from a conversation that Lord Halifax held with Adolf Hitler on 19 November 1937. At that time, Halifax was Lord Privy Seal and later, as foreign secretary, formed part of Chamberlain’s “Inner Cabinet” with Sir Samuel Hoare and Sir John Simon. According to a German foreign ministry memorandum, Halifax recognized that Hitler “had not only performed great services in Germany” but also had been able “by preventing the entry of Communism into his own country, to bar its passage further West.” Halifax stated that on the English side “it was not necessarily thought that the status quo must be maintained under all circumstances.” He then spoke of “possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. England was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution and that methods should be avoided which might cause far-reaching disturbances [i.e., war in Western Europe].” Since Austria was the gateway to Czechoslovakia, and Danzig the key to Poland, these remarks must have encouraged Hitler to believe that his territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe would encounter scant opposition.    

“Halifax’s remarks,” writes the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, “if they had any practical sense, were an invitation to Hitler to promote German nationalist agitation in Danzig, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; an assurance also that this agitation would not be opposed from without.” 10 Hitler also received similar assurances from the French government. “[I] was amazed to note,” Franz von Papen, the German ambassador in Austria, told Hitler on 10 November 1937 after a visit to Paris, “that, like [foreign minister] Bonnet, Premier [Camille Chautemps] considered a reorientation of French policy in Central Europe as entirely open to discussion. . . .[He], too, had no objection to a marked extension of German influence in Austria obtained through evolutionary means.” And, on 4 December, in a letter to state secretary von Weizsäcker, the head of the political department in the German foreign ministry, von Papen stated: “I found it very interesting to note that neither Bonnet nor Chautemps raised any objections to an evolutionary extension of German influence . . . in Czechoslovakia, on the basis of a reorganization into a nation of nationalities.”        

In pursuit of his appeasement policy, Chamberlain removed Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, the most forceful exponent of anti-German opinion in the Foreign Office, and assigned him to the newly created post of “Chief Diplomatic Adviser,” where, according to the earl of Birkenhead, “he found himself trapped in a gilded cage” and where he “ceased to exert any effective influence on foreign affairs.” Commenting in a letter to his sister on all the months Stanley Baldwin had “wasted in futile attempts” to push Vansittart out of the Foreign Office, Chamberlain remarked: “[It] is amusing to record that I have done it in three days. . . . I am afraid his instincts were all against my policy. . . . I suspect that in Rome and Berlin the rejoicings will be loud and deep.”            

The way was now open for a more vigorous pursuit of appeasement by circumventing the Foreign Office, which, according to Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s intimate colleague and chief diplomatic adviser, represented an obstruction to the prime minister’s policy of coming to terms with the dictators. “The old-established machine of the Foreign Office,” wrote Lord Templewood (Sir Samuel Hoare), in his published memoir of the period, “did not seem to [Chamberlain] to move quickly enough for the crisis that threatened Europe.” More expressive of Hoare’s true attitude toward the Foreign Office was the candid letter he sent to Neville Chamberlain on 17 March 1937, shortly before Stanley Baldwin’s resignation from the premiership. After suggesting that Chamberlain should not copy “Baldwin’s slipshod, happy-go-lucky quietism” he continued: “Do not let anything irrevocable or badly compromising happen in foreign politics until you are in control. I say this because I am convinced that the FO [Foreign Office] is so much biased against Germany (and Italy and Japan) that unconsciously and almost continuously they are making impossible any sort of reconciliation. I believe myself that when once you are Prime Minister it will be possible greatly to change the European atmosphere.”         

On 3 March 1938, the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who bypassed the regular Foreign Office channels and plied the prime minister directly with letters and visits, told Hitler that the aim of British policy was “to establish the basis for a genuine and cordial friendship with Germany.” Lord Halifax, Henderson added, had already admitted that changes in Europe could be considered “quite possible,” provided they were the product of “higher reason” rather than “the free play of forces.” This policy was certainly not one that Henderson “had worked out for himself,” as William N. Medlicott affirms in his preface to volume 18 of Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, second series, in a “revisionist” interpretation of appeasement. As British historians Keith Middlemas and Ian Colvin have pointed out, Henderson was a disciple of Chamberlain’s and one of the principal exponents of his policy. Medlicott’s assertion is all the more remarkable in that he quotes Henderson’s own testimony from the latter’s memoir Failure of a Mission, in which the former ambassador states: “Both Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Baldwin, whom I had seen earlier, agreed that I should do my utmost to work with Hitler and the Nazi Party as the existing government of Germany. . . . Mr. Chamberlain outlined to me his views on general policy towards Germany, and I think I may honestly say that to the last and bitter end I followed the general line which he set me, all the more easily and faithfully since it corresponded so closely with my private conception of the service I could best render in Germany to my own country.”  

In this connection, it is worth quoting from a memorandum by Henderson to the Foreign Office, dated 10 May 1937, in which he stated: “[Eastern Europe] is neither definitely settled for all time nor is it a vital British interest, and the German is certainly more civilized than the Slav, and in the end, if properly handled, also less potentially dangerous to British interestsone might even go so far as to assert that it is not even just to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav, provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it.”    

On 10 March 1938, two days before Hitler’s annexation of Austria, German foreign minister von Ribbentrop reported to Hitler during a visit to London that Lord Halifax had told him that “Chamberlain and he, Lord Halifax, were determined to reach an understanding with Germany” and that in advocating this policy “Chamberlain had assumed a great responsibility in the eyes of the British people and a great risk as well.” Ribbentrop then stated: “Germany wished to be and had to be strong. . . .Germany must be armed for defense against Soviet Russian attacks. . . . The Führer did not wish to request aid at the outset from the great Western Powers, if some day the steamroller of world revolution should be set in motion against Germany.” At this point Lord Halifax interjected that “England was well aware of Germany’s strength and that she had no objection to it whatever.” Then Ribbentrop continued: “Germany wished to obtain the right of self-determination for the 10 million Germans living on her eastern border, i.e., in Austria and Czechoslovakia. . . . In this connection . . . the Führer had been pleased when Lord Halifax had shown understanding for that, too, at Berchtesgaden and when he had declared that the status quo in Eastern Europe could not be maintained unconditionally forever.” The next day, Ribbentrop reported that Chamberlain had “very emphatically requested” that he inform the Führer of “his most sincere wish for an understanding with Germany.”

Hitler’s annexation of Austria had no effect in London it had, in fact, been regarded as inevitable and Chamberlain pursued his appeasement of Germany with unruffled self-assurance. Nevertheless, it was essential that Hitler achieve his next territorial objective by peaceful means lest Great Britain be drawn into a European conflict through France’s treaty obligations. On 22 May, during the mounting crisis over Czechoslovakia, Lord Halifax instructed Nevile Henderson to inform Ribbentrop of this dangerous contingency: “If a resort is had to forcible measures, it is quite impossible for me or for him to foretell the results that may follow, and I would beg him not to count on this country’s being able to stand aside if from any precipitate action there should start a European conflagration. Only those will benefit from such a catastrophe who wish to see the destruction of European civilization.” At the beginning of September, there was mutual understanding. Theodor Kordt, the German chargé d’affaires in London, reported to ambassador Dirksen on a conversation with Chamberlain and Sir Horace Wilson: “The conversation took place in an exceedingly friendly atmosphere. [Wilson] was visibly moved (as far as an Englishman can betray such feelings at all) when at the end he shook my hand and said: ‘If we two, Great Britain and Germany, come to agreement regarding the settlement of the Czech problem, we shall simply brush aside the resistance that France or Czechoslovakia herself may offer to the decision.” At the end of the month there followed the Munich settlement, the result of British pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory.

By now, it must have been obvious to Stalin that the policy of collective security that he had indefatigably pursued since the USSR joined the League of Nations in 1934 in the hope of warding off the German threat might fail and that the slender hope that Britain and France would risk a conflict over Spain was fading. He therefore renewed his interest in the possibility of negotiating a nonaggression pact with Hitler in order to divert German military might against the West. We have already seen that quite early in the Civil War, his trade representative David Kandelaki had initiated negotiations for an agreement with Germany but that these tentative efforts had been rebuffed by Hitler. In fact, it was not until after the overthrow of Juan Negrín on 6 March 1939, that Stalin finally gave up all hope of involving Britain and France in a war with Germany over the Spanish conflict and revived his plans for a compact with Hitler.   

At this stage it is important to anticipate the course of events in Spain and even to probe the diplomatic intrigues among the European powers beyond the close of the Spanish Civil War, in order fully to appreciate the perilous game being played and the real concerns of British policymakers during the war itself.            

In his report to the eighteenth congress of the Soviet Communist party on 10 March 1939, Stalin inveighed against Britain and France for encouraging Germany to embroil herself in a war with the Soviet Union, in which “they would appear on the scene with fresh strength . . . to dictate conditions to the enfeebled belligerents” precisely the role of arbiter that Stalin had reserved for the Soviet Union should the Spanish Civil War develop into a Western European conflict and for the first time he threw out the first open hint of his desire for a rapprochement with Germany. “Marshal Stalin in March 1939,” testified the former Reich foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, during his trial at Nuremberg, “delivered a speech in which he made certain hints of his desire to have better relations with Germany. I had submitted this speech to Adolf Hitler and asked him whether we should not try to find out whether this suggestion had something real behind it. Hitler was at first reluctant, but later on he became more receptive to this idea. Negotiations for a commercial treaty were under way, and during these negotiations, with the Führer’s permission, I took soundings in Moscow as to the possibility of a definite bridge between National Socialism and Bolshevism and whether the interests of the two countries could not at least be made to harmonize.”

The extremely cautious manner in which both sides broached the question of a political settlement from the time of Stalin’s speech, as revealed by documents found in the archives of the German foreign office, stemmed no doubt from the fact that each side feared that the other might use any concrete proposal for a political agreement to strengthen its own bargaining position vis-à-vis Britain and France. In fact, up to 30 May 1939, less than three months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact (in August) and the Secret Protocol that touched off the German attack on Poland and World War II, these documents indicate that matters had not gone beyond vague soundings. On that date state secretary Weizsäcker wired the German embassy in Moscow: “Contrary to the policy previously planned we have now decided to undertake definite negotiations with the Soviet Union.”

Although Stalin did not open formal negotiations with Hitler until the middle of 1939, he was not backward during the Spanish Civil Warapart from the overtures made by Kandelakiin letting Hitler know that it would be to Germany’s advantage to have him as a partner rather than an enemy. This is borne out by the testimony of Alexander Orlov: “The fourth line of Soviet intelligence,” he wrote, “is so-called Misinformation. . . . Misinformation is not just lying for the sake of lying; it is expected to serve as a subtle means of inducing another government to do what the Kremlin wants it to do. . . . During the Spanish Civil War . . . the Misinformation desk was ordered to introduce into the channels of the German military intelligence service information that the Soviet planes fighting in Spain were not of the latest design and that Russia had in her arsenal thousands of newer planes, of the second and third generation, possessing much greater speed and a higher ceiling. This was not true. Russia had given Spain the best and the newest she had (though in insufficient quantities). This misleading information greatly impressed the German High Command. . . . Evidently, Stalin wanted to impress on Hitler that the Soviet Union was much stronger and better armed than he thought and that it would be wiser for Germany to have Russia as a partner rather than an opponent.”

Four months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in August, Walter Krivitsky claimed that Stalin’s foreign policy in the Western world was predicated upon a profound contempt for the “weakling” democratic nations and that his international policy had been a series of maneuvers whose sole purpose was to place him in a favorable position for a deal with Hitler. This is by no means certain, for Stalin could not rely entirely on a problematical agreement with Hitler on which to base his foreign policy. For this reason, he was careful to keep open his other option of collective security in the hope that the Western powers would eventually confront Hitler, whether in Spain or Czechoslovakia, and deflect German aggression away from Russia’s borders. It was because Stalin held open both these options that even after the loss of Catalonia in February 1939 he still hoped, as we shall see later, that Britain and France might reverse their policy of neutrality and instructed the Spanish politburo to continue the struggle in the fading expectation that the latent antagonisms in the West would finally burst into flame.

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