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British public opinion and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

John Randolph Hubbard


Department of History, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


In the battle of diplomacy and power politics which marked the half decade preceding the outbreak of the second great world conflict, it was the Spanish Civil War which irrevocably set the sails for the course Europe and the world were to follow. From the military standpoint, Spain was the proving ground for modern arms and armor and new techniques of destruction so refined that whole cities could be out from the air. An even more ominous if less awesome portent was the manner in which the dictators defied the democracies with utter disregard of the pledged 'word and without fear of retribution. There were crises before Spain, to be sure. Each of the Axis partners had already challenged the status quo successfully, Italy in Abyssinia and Germany in the Rhineland; but might not these initial successes be attributed to beginner’s luck? Were the Western democracies so moribund as to submit again to the tactics of the Old Regime? Spain supplied the answer: agreements could be ignored with impunity; obstruction and delay were highly effective means of obtaining desirable ends; and apparently there were no limits to the application of such strategy. "Munich" was the mere formalizing of a transitory victory which had been won on the blood-soaked plains of Old Castile. In Spain, an invitation to disaster had been tendered and accepted.

The Spanish Civil War made a profound impression on British public opinion. The preceding crises had scarcely stirred the by then accustomed and comfortable English lethargy The general attitude toward the Abyssinian debacle had been that there could hardly be anything catastrophic about the disappearance of a remote and backward African empire, although some irresponsible persons would have had Britain become involved. And as for the Rhineland, was there anything criminal about a nation reclaiming its own territory in order better to defend its own frontier? But the Spanish war, by reason of its propinquity, its rapid assumption of an International character, and the veritable confusion of Issues, was something else again, and the British public took notice. Every facet of public opinion was tinctured with the Spanish news. The halls of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, the Albert Hall reverberated with dramatic by the Spanish struggle. Government spokesmen repeatedly went to the country in defence of national policy. The news- paper and periodical press appealing to every stratum of intellect was filled with explanations, entreaties--and sometimes struggle inspired some of the best, and some of the perorations inspired interpretations, straight news, for the Spanish worst, reporting in British journalistic history. From the pulpits, Christian dogma was intoned in support of one or the other of the Spanish factions with equal felicity. Issues were abundant for the most discriminating taste: democracy. communism, fascism, socialism, Christianity, international morality, pacifism, rearmament. Imperial defence, appeasement, collective security, humanity, peace. Britain’s great political parties stood revealed in strange raiment the Conservatives had become the pacifists and Labor the champion of an aggressive foreign policy. On Spain, the greatest statesman of the modern era was caught up in ideological toils from which he never quite managed to extricate himself. The Non-Intervention Agreement was the first calculated venture in British appeasement, and the resignation of Mr. Eden, the first tangible result. From all this melange of sensation and sentiment there emerged one incontestable fact: regardless of the consequences, the vast majority of the British people were determined to escape involvement in the Spanish embroglio and to maintain a peace for which some were willing to pay any price and others almost any price almost any price. This tragic and almost psychopathic dread of conflict was perhaps the clearest manifestation of the British reaction to what Anthony Eden was moved to call the "War of the Spanish Obsession," It is worthy of examination. British public opinion in relation to the Spanish Civil War has been treated under three general headings: Strategic ideological and economic; for these were the major areas of conflict within the body politic. The principal sources Relied upon were Parliamentary Debates, the newspaper press, and periodicals, three of which, the New Statesman and Nation, Spectator and Saturday Review, because of the plentitude and style of their Spanish coverage, were treated in the manner of newspapers. Official documents, which had little pertinency in the formation of public opinion, were cited only in support of specific arguments. The writer spent the winter of 1948-1949 in the United Kingdom where he had complete access to the sources on which the work is based.