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SPAIN: Pio Moa and the Civil War

Here is Stanley Payne's review of Pío Moa, Los mitos de la Guerra Civil (Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros, 2003).

It has become a commonplace to refer to the sheer quantity of publication on the Spanish Civil War, which runs to many thousands of books in all major and many minor languages. Professional historians in the western world, taken as a whole, no longer have great interest in the theme, and now generally tend to discount its importance. In other western countries, historians at the present time largely regard it as a uniquely Spanish self-slaughter, and for the most part no longer accord it the kind of international importance once ascribed to it during the era of the Second World War. Even so, new historical literature continues to proliferate very rapidly in Spanish, and new research also appears at a much lower rate in other languages, primarily English.

Infinitely more is known about the Spanish war than was the case back in 1961, when Hugh Thomas initially published what was to become the classic one-volume history. New research has broadened, deepened and clarified the understanding of nearly all its major aspects. A degree of objectivity has been achieved, at least to the extent that a certain proportion of historians and other writers who deal with the war sometimes suggest that both sides were "almost equally" responsible for originating the conflict, as well as almost equally atrocious in its prosecution. Nonetheless, the universities and the political life of the western world have been dominated since the 1980s and 90s by Political Correctness, with its matrix of diffuse yet often carefully prescribed ideas. Moreover, the Spanish Civil War was one of the comparatively few modern conflicts in which the losers largely won the battle of propaganda-to some extent during the war, but certainly during the decade that followed. Given the general dominance in the humanities and social sciences of professors and students sympathetic to the politics of the left, it is hardly surprising that such sympathies have been extended to the understanding of the Civil War of 1936-39, as well. With the passing of an older generation in Spain that had sometimes been more sympathetic to Franco and the Nacionales, this tendency probably became more firmly established by the close of the twentieth century.

Moreover, most of the new research in Spain on the conflict appears in the form of published doctoral theses. These are almost always predictably and distressingly narrow and formulaic, and rarely ask new and interesting questions. The senior professional historians are, to tell the truth, not much better. They almost always avoid raising fundamental new questions about the conflict, either ignoring them or acting as though nearly all the major issues had been resolved. This, of course, is very far from the case, for the Spanish Civil War will long constitute a major problem area, in its own way rather like the French or Russian revolutions, which have been and will continue to be long debated. Debate, revision and reinterpretation are of the essence of historiography, yet in Spain within recent years the kind of debate that has flourished with regard to economic history or even the political history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has rarely extended to the theme of the Civil War.

Into this partial vacuum of historical debate there suddenly stepped four years ago the previously little known pen of Pío Moa, when he published in 1999 the first of his four volumes on the Republic and Civil War, Los orígenes de la Guerra Civil española. This was followed by Los personajes de la República vistos por ellos mismos (2000), El derrumbe de la Segunda República y la Guerra Civil (2001), and now most recently by Los mitos de la Guerra Civil. Taken as a whole, they constitute the most important endeavor by any historian writing in any language during the past two decades to reinterpret the history of the Republic and the Civil War.

The corpus of Moa’s work constitutes a challenge to the standard politically correct interpretations of this epoch. The "myths" he confronts include, inter alia, such topics as a) the notion that leftist politics under the Republic were inherently democratic and constitutionalist; b) the idea that the Civil War was the product of a long-standing conspiracy by wealthy reactionaries rather than a desperate response to a revolutionary process that had largely destroyed constitutional government; c) the belief that prior to 18 July 1936 Manuel Azaña had in fact been more respectful of the constitutional and legal process than Francisco Franco had been; d) the vision of Franco as a blindly lucky incompetent rather than an able leader who did a capable job militarily, politically and diplomatically of managing a civil war in which initially he held the weaker hand; e) the projection that the revolutionary third Republic of the civil war years was somehow a pure continuation of the democratic parliamentary Republic of 1931-36; and many lesser issues which cannot be recounted in detail.

Each of Moa’s theses is seriously argued in terms of available evidence and based either on direct investigation or, more commonly, a careful re-reading of the available sources and historiography. As revisionist historiography, the new book presents its main theses forcefully and, as is frequently the case with revisionist historiography, sometimes with an exaggerated emphasis, for polemical effect. This is not, however, uncommon practice in historical debate. The public response to the appearance of these works has been fairly strong, with relatively good sales and sometimes several editions. Among historians and reviewers, however, the most remarkable thing about the response to Moa’s work has been the absence of debate and the refusal to discuss the many serious issues that it raises. With only a few exceptions, it has encountered either an icy or a furibund hostility. Most frequently it has been ignored or, if reviewed, dismissed as unworthy of consideration. Indeed, commentary on his work has often been reduced to seemingly sensationalist though completely irrelevant ad hominem remarks about his one-time militancy in a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization during the 1970s.

There seem to be at least three reasons for this extremely negative response. One is the fantasy that it breaks a supposed "pact of silence" about troublesome issues established during the democratization of 1976-78. The trouble with this argument that no such "pact of silence" ever existed. The pact of the democratization was altogether different; it had to do, instead, with renouncing the politics of vengeance and beginning democracy for all with a clean slate. As far as historical publication has been concerned, since that time Spain has been full of books denouncing franquismo and the right-before, during and after Civil War . The notion that only critics of the left must be bound by any such supposed (in fact, non-existent) "pact of silence" is preposterous.

A second reason, and this one much more substantial, is that the dictatorship lasted so long (even though with ever declining repressiveness) that there has been an uncritical tendency on the part of its opponents to reject any historical analysis that is seriously critical of the opponents of franquismo. This psycho-political tendency is perfectly understandable in human terms, but results in an unbalanced historiography which in fact makes it harder to understand how franquismo came about in the first place.

A third reason is simply the domination of "politically correct" attitudes among intellectuals, the universities and the media in western countries during recent years. In that regard, Spain is little different from, say, France or the United States, though the particular emphases in political correctness may vary somewhat from country to country. In the United States, for example, this has been most concerned with issues of race. So-called "victimophilia" has for years been an important feature of political correctness, and in Spain this has recently taken the form of special new concerns for various categories of victims of franquismo. There has been little or no concern during that same period of time for victims of the left (categorization and recognition of the official status of "victim" in contemporary culture always being dependent on political attitudes and political recognition), though again in the case of Spain this is somewhat understandable in human terms because of the long duration of the dictatorship.

There have been a few exceptions to the wall of hostility that has greeted Moa’s work. One of the most distinguished and venerable contemporaneistas in current Spanish historiography, Carlos Seco Serrano (known for his objectivity and lack of partidismo), has termed the findings of one of Moa’s books "verdaderamente sensacional." César Vidal, one of the most active figures in Civil War historiography and author of the best and most complete study of the Brigadas Internacionales in any language, calls some of Moa’s theses "verdades como puños" (truths like fists) while the television host Carlos Dávila has interviewed Moa on his program.

Since nearly all the standard myths and topics of the Republic and Civil War favor the left, a partisan reaction will inevitably be that to reevaluate or criticize them seriously is to favor the "right," or franquismo. Again, in human terms, this reaction is understandable enough, but it has nothing to do with serious scholarship or scientific investigation. In terms of historical inquiry, such an attitude is merely irrational and anti-intellectual. On such a mental basis, any significant advance in historiography becomes impossible.

The most noteworthy thing is that apparently not a single one of the many denunciations of Moa’s work makes any intellectually serious effort to refute any of his interpretations. The critics adopt a hieratic stance of keepers of the sacred flame of the dogmas of a kind of political religion, which must be accepted purely on faith and are immune to the slightest inquiry or criticism. This attitude may reflect sound religious dogma, but again has nothing to do with scientific historiography.

One of the hallmarks of contemporary Spanish historiography has been the absence of serious critical investigation of the left. There have been exceptions-perhaps most notably several of Santos Juliá’s excellent early monographs on the PSOE during the 1930s-but they have been rare. The result has been a mountain of historiography on the iniquities of franquismo-many of these iniquities genuine enough, but others sometimes imagined or exaggerated-and a yawning gap on the other side of the political equation.

Much of Moa’s work deals with inordinate shortcomings of the leaders of the Republic, especially Azaña, Alcalá Zamora, Prieto and Largo Caballero. The material here is rich and abundant, much of it provided by the Republican leaders themselves in their continuous and mordant mutual denunciations of each other. Rarely has a political regime in the history of modern Europe had a more self-destructive group of political leaders than those of the Second Republic. By comparison, the leaders of the Weimar Republic in Germany were much of the time a seasoned group of wise democratic statesmen. With leadership such as that enjoyed by the Second Republic and policies as destructive as those of the leftist and revolutionary parties, to attribute its downfall to the conspiracy of a handful of wealthy reactionaries may make a good fairy tale or political fable, but has nothing to do with serious critical historiography.

It would be an easy matter to call upon Spanish historiography to "grow up," become adult and mature, and to develop a balanced critical sense. As indicated above, however, the problem of political correctness and the "partisan tabú" extends far beyond Spain and has become a malady of western culture in the twenty-first century. In the United States, serious critical discussion of racial questions is usually ruled out of order before it even begins. University administrations, much stronger in the United States than in European countries, frequently attempt to impose politically correct speech codes on professors and students alike, and are frustrated primarily by legal recourse to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which mandates freedom of speech. In France similar tabues long extended to the critical discussion of Vichy and now often prohibit rational analysis of Middle Eastern problems. In Spain, for obvious reasons, they revolve around questions of franquismo, the left and the Civil War.

The main concern here is not that Moa is correct on every issue. This is true of no historian, and as for myself, I disagree with several of his theses. The principal point, rather, is that his work is critical, innovative and opens a breath of fresh air in a vital area of contemporary Spanish historiography long stultified by narrow formulaic monographs, hoary stereotypes and a long dominant political correctness. Those who disagree with Moa need to confront his work seriously and, if they disagree, demonstrate their disagreement in terms of objective research and serious analysis that takes up the serious issues that he raises, rather than seeking to suppress his work through a kind of censorship of silence or denunciatory diatribes more worthy of Fascist Italy or the Soviet Union than of democratic Spain.

RH: For many, these are fighting words. Moa's revolutionary activities are important. There are many people who were revolutionaries in their youth and then swing to the other extreme, which is scarcely a guarantee of objectivity. We should therefore know more about Moa's life and about his personal relations with the republican leaders. What does he say about Negrín?

Ronald Hilton - 7/8/03