THE temperature in the Spanish crucible had been persistently rising long before the revolt of General Franco and his brother officers against the Republican Government last July. With the actual outbreak of that revolt, however, much more than the political destinies of the Spanish people began to be tried in the fire; for Spain quickly became the testing ground of all the beliefs, interests and policies which divide Europe as a whole. Into the Spanish fire were heaped, within a few days of the officers' rebellion, the antagonism of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia; the Italo-British dispute over the control of the Mediterranean, begun by Italy's aggression in Abyssinia less than a year before; the future status of Morocco, ignored for a generation; the warring ideologies of Right and Left; and the even more fundamental division between democracy and dictatorship.

Franco's rebellion broke out only two months after the collapse of Abyssinian resistance to Italian aggression and only one month after the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Anthony Eden, had announced to an abashed House of Commons, more bitterly divided than at any time within living memory, that at the forthcoming meeting of the League of Nations the British Government would unilaterally urge the abandonment of sanctions against Italy. Accordingly, the Spanish insurrection raised embarrassing problems of foreign relations and strategy at a moment particularly inopportune for the British Government. Repercussions of its diplomatic defeat at the hands of Italy were still reëchoing; its rôle in leading the League into and out of sanctions had not yet faded from the British electorate's memory; nor had its pledges of a foreign policy based on collective security -- pledges which had won for Mr. Baldwin the general election of 1935 -- been forgotten. Furthermore, the rearmament program had scarcely more than begun when the Spanish crisis once more confronted the Government with those very dilemmas which for five years it had sought to evade in Manchuria, Abyssinia and the Rhineland. It was all most discouraging.

The successes which the latter-day apostles of power politics in Japan, Germany and Italy had achieved since 1931 undeniably emboldened the Party régimes of Italy and Germany to participate in the Spanish insurrection from the very beginning. It is now established that Italian military aircraft and personnel were detailed for dispatch to the Spanish Moroccan zone, General Franco's first base, before the insurrection broke out; and German aircraft, warlike stores and men of the Party régime's military formations were in the territory of the insurgents almost at the outset. The Italian and German Governments -- to be distinguished, if that is indeed possible, from their totalitarian Party régimes -- introduced the first of those paradoxes which make the Spanish insurrection unprecedented in history and international law. On the one hand, they allowed, even encouraged, their Party régimes to compass the forcible overthrow of the government of a friendly Power. On the other hand, their totalitarian governments maintained the contradictory attitude that they could not prevent "voluntary" acts of their citizens. It was this first paradox, and its manifest unfairness to the legitimate Spanish Government, which decided the totalitarian Party régime of Russia to embrace the same attitude in favor of the Spanish Government.

Thus from the outset Spain became the crucible of Europe's two warring ideologies -- despite the reiterated, if somewhat platonic, contentions of the British Government that it rejected the necessity of any choice between the two. That choice, at least in the realm of foreign policy, was nevertheless thrust upon democracies -- in particular France and Great Britain, the only two democratic Great Powers in Europe -- by the inescapable dilemmas which the Spanish insurrection raised. Decisions had to be made which necessarily implied taking a stand for or against not only the Spanish insurgents but also the Party States of Germany and Italy, for or against not only the legitimate Spanish Government but also the Party State of Russia. Again, it was most discouraging.

Beside these first two factors -- European policy and conflicting European ideologies -- there was a third, the strategic. In the case both of France and Britain vitally important interests were here involved. Suppose that Spain were to fall under the sway of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, or under that of a Fascist generalissimo sympathetic to and dependent upon these two Fascist Powers. In that event, France's economic and military reliance upon her African resources and Britain's economic and maritime dependence upon her imperial highway through the Mediterranean would alike be jeopardized. The military and economic enfeeblement of France would constitute a weakening of Britain's outlying bastion of defense on the Continent. Standing Fascist armies south of the Pyrenees, coupled with Italian and German strategic footholds -- located, say, at Ceuta in the Spanish Moroccan zone, Tarifa Point on the Spanish coast a few miles west of Gibraltar, Tangier and the Canary Islands, lying athwart the Cape route to the East -- could seriously interfere with British and French military and naval plans. France would be surrounded by Fascist armies on all three land frontiers. The communications of Britain and France with their sources of manpower, food, oil and industrial raw materials could be interrupted, perhaps entirely blocked. Clearly, the Italian and German régimes stood to gain much more than a mere sympathetic comrade by their support of General Franco. They might obtain all the aces in the diplomatic rubber, of which they had already won the rearmament, Abyssinian and Rhineland tricks.

A large section of British public opinion, representing all three political parties, was alive to these considerations from the very beginning of the Spanish insurrection. The temerity of the Fascist states in taking the initiative so soon on the heels of the Abyssinian affair, and here at the very entrance to the Mediterranean, perturbed Conservatives in the Center and Left of the unwieldy governmental majority. Those on the extreme Right, a small but vocal minority, showed a narrow, class conception of British interests. It sufficed for them that France had just elected a Front Populaire Government, that the legitimate Spanish Government was called Frente Popular, that Communists were supporting both, and that the Spanish men of property were supporting General Franco. The nineteen-year-old bogey of Bolshevism -- Bolshevism in France, in Spain, in Czechoslovakia -- was evoked by the astute Propaganda Ministries of Italy and Germany for the special purpose of impressing the British Conservatives. It succeeded in causing a division in the British Cabinet, not so much of counsels as of sympathies. In this division, be it said, the Cabinet faithfully reflected the divided sentiments of the Conservative majority in the Commons and the division of sympathies over Abyssinia, sanctions and the Hoare-Laval plan which had existed less than a year earlier. On the questions of isolationism versus collective security; limitation of armament versus unilateral rearmament; collaboration with France and the small European democracies, aided by Russia, versus the issuance of a laissez passer to the German, Italian and Japanese totalitarian states -- the Conservative Party had been divided ever since it had jettisoned the Geneva Protocol in 1925 and lowered its eyelids over Manchuria in 1931-32.

By 1936, after the Abyssinian and Rhineland examples of Fascist initiative, this division in the Conservative Party tended to follow age groups. It has always been the party of the "old men." The majority of the Cabinet and the National (Coalition) Liberals led by Sir John Simon, all of them well on in years, were chiefly concerned to evade commitments, keep Britain out of anything like "trouble," and avoid entanglements of all kinds. The younger Tories -- a realistic, very able, but politically impotent group -- became mainly preoccupied (as were all the Opposition Liberals and informed Labor Members) with the safeguarding of British economic and strategic interests. Two elder statesmen gave them counsel and help -- Winston Churchill and the late Sir Austen Chamberlain. The great mass of the British electorate -- workers and Trade Unionists -- meanwhile felt the traditional British sympathy for the under-dog in Spain.

To Mr. Eden has fallen the invidious duty of proclaiming, from last July right down to the present, a medley of Cabinet decisions over Spain, some of them reasoned and courageous, some contradicting others, but most of them puzzling alike to the British and other peoples. The plan seemed to be to allow events to take their course in the Peninsula, the Balearics and the Spanish zone of Morocco, so long as British men, material and ships were not directly involved. Three things about this decision particularly puzzled the British public as well as the Dominions and the rest of the world: first, the Government's apparent dismissal of the possibility that Italy and Germany might threaten British interests via Spain; secondly, the Government's apparent predisposition against the legitimate Spanish Government and in favor of the insurgents; and, finally, the Government's sudden decision in February to launch a naval armament program of record proportions for peacetime construction.


The Spanish insurrection came so soon after the humiliation of the League, and of the British Government which had led the League, that when on August 2 the Popular Front Cabinet of M. Blum appealed to the British and Italian Foreign Offices for "the rapid adoption and rigid observance of an agreed arrangement for non-intervention in Spain," British public opinion and the British Government were relieved to find an initiative being taken elsewhere than at Geneva. At the time there were strong rumors that M. Blum's Government, hard pressed by its Communist supporters to assist the Spanish Government with men, money and materials, had turned to London for advice and had found the British unprepared to do anything active on behalf of the friendly Government of Spain. Thereupon, in order to prevent dissension and disintegration at home, so it was said, M. Blum made his non-intervention proposals in London and Rome. Two days later, on August 4, the British Government agreed to non-intervention and suggested ordinary diplomatic negotiations, which should include Germany and Portugal. On August 5, Russia and Belgium agreed to non-intervention in principle; and on August 7, 8 and 9, Italy, Germany and Portugal also gave, informally and in very qualified terms, their agreement "in principle."

This initiative for an international non-intervention policy -- contrasted with the status of neutrality (as between two recognized belligerents) or with assistance (which the Government of Spain could legitimately expect from friendly Powers who refused to accord the insurgents the status of belligerents) -- was taken outside the framework of the League. And it was taken by Powers who became divided into: (1) a great majority who refused to recognize the insurgents as belligerents but at the same time also refused, in virtue of non-intervention, to aid the Spanish Government, whose authority they still acknowledged; and (2) Italy and Germany, who recognized the insurgents as the legitimate Government of Spain, thus jumping over the stage of recognized belligerency altogether. Accordingly, on the one hand the British, French, and other democratic governments during August imposed effective bans on the exports of an agreed list of arms, aircraft and war materials; on the other hand, Italian, German and Portuguese citizens, members of the Fascist and Nazi Parties and therefore servants of their Party States, continuously supplied the insurgent forces with men and war material. The German Government prohibited exports of war material; but the Italian, Portuguese and Russian Governments each agreed to enforce the embargo only in case the other two did.

The British Government's reason for immediately involving itself in the legal paradoxes and factual dilemmas of non-intervention was made plain at the outset. On August 15 the Government declared: "It should be realized that the maintenance of a strict and impartial attitude of non-intervention is essential if the unhappy events in Spain are to be prevented from having serious repercussions elsewhere." It warned British citizens who tried to help either side in Spain that they would receive no official support whatever in any difficulties they might encounter. This drastic denial of aid, even through private citizens, to the legitimate government of a friendly Power engaged in a struggle for existence against freebooters -- to whom, be it repeated, all the democratic governments refused even recognition as belligerents -- led to embittered domestic dissensions in Britain and France. It also led to accusations from the Left parties in those two countries that non-intervention was only a smoke-screen behind which the Spanish insurgents were being favored by the Fascist and democratic governments alike. This was also the contention of Russia, cogently urged by the Soviet Ambassador in London, M. Maisky, in the wearisome meetings of the London Non-intervention Committee. And it was reiterated by Labor, Opposition Liberal and some younger Conservative members of Parliament in the debates on foreign affairs which became progressively more bitter as General Franco's forces were reinforced by Moors ("black" from the Spanish Moroccan zone, "blond," as the Spaniards called them, from Germany) and as Italian Blackshirt militiamen were called up and sent by troopships to Spain.

The British Government had been cleverly advised on the technical legal position. Britain and France stoutly refused to recognize either the insurgents as belligerents or the Spanish Government as capable of declaring a "blockade" of the coasts in insurgent hands. Accordingly, the Spanish Government on August 22 obligingly gave the British Government two pledges: (a) not to stop and search British ships on the high seas; and (b) to recognize the British definition of territorial waters, i.e., the 3-mile instead of the traditional Spanish 6-mile limit. Thus, when the Non-intervention Committee first met in London on September 9, it seemed as if the British and French Governments would need only to lift their little fingers and the Fascist states -- Italy, Germany and Portugal -- as well as Russia, would agree to make non-intervention really effective.

There was even talk and hope at this time that the British and French Governments, with their eyes on the Spanish Moroccan zone, Tarifa Point and the Italian occupation of the Balearics, would, in defense of Franco-British interests in the Western Mediterranean, proceed to institute a Franco-British naval blockade of Spain's entire coastline. Undoubtedly this would have secured effective non-intervention quicker than anything else. Nor would Germany or Italy have dared to challenge the naval power thus displayed. But, owing to the delicacy of the Central European situation last autumn, to the sympathy in sections of the British Conservative Party for the Spanish insurgents and their foreign Fascist supporters, and to the difficult position of M. Blum just before the devaluation of the franc, the British and French Cabinets "went slow" at the London meetings of the Non-intervention Committee. Furthermore, in spite of M. Blum's urgent representations to Mr. Eden, the British in September did not even exert sufficient pressure upon the Portuguese Government to prevent the wholesale transit of war material and men through Lisbon and thence overland to insurgent headquarters. The Spanish delegate in Geneva at the end of September protested that non-intervention was in fact resulting in intervention against his Government; and he circulated among the delegates documents which, had they been formally examined by the League (still officially not seized of the matter), would have short-circuited the (non-League) London Committee's bland protestations that no Power was guilty of having intervened in Spain.

By October 5 the continuous support reaching General Franco from the Fascist Powers had compelled the Annual Conference of the Labor Party at Edinburgh to repudiate the action taken by the British Trades Union Congress on September 10, when it endorsed the policy of non-intervention. The Labor Party Conference, in fact, voted to oppose the Government's foreign policy as a whole. (Incidentally, owing to the conduct of Italy and Germany, the Conference on this occasion dropped its official opposition to the Government's rearmament proposals.)

During September and October the Non-intervention Committee was the scene of mutual recriminations. The Russian delegate and the Italian, German and Portuguese representatives were continually accusing each other of giving support to one side or the other in Spain. British Liberal and Labor opinion became more and more dissatisfied with Mr. Eden's assurances that the British Ambassador at Lisbon had been unable to substantiate the charges against the Portuguese authorities. In his speeches at Sheffield on October 14 and in the Commons on October 29, the British Foreign Secretary again defended the extra-League system for non-intervention as the only feasible policy. On the latter occasion, after Mr. Eden had again declared that the Nonintervention Committee had been unable to substantiate any of the charges against the Portuguese Government, the Opposition took the line that the Non-intervention Committee had become a dilatory farce, that the insurrection was patently the result of a conspiracy engineered by the Fascist Powers, and that the slight risk of provoking Italy to war would be less than the alternative risks that would ensue if Fascism were triumphant throughout the Continent. Mr. Baldwin's only answer was that, while an ideal League might have achieved more than the Non-intervention Committee, the League as it was could certainly not have done so. In this he was probably correct; but the British Government had not thereby answered those of its opponents who, quite naturally, asked why it refused both recognition of belligerency to the rebels and aid to the Spanish Government.

In Britain the feeling now once more began to grow that the Government had determined to "wait and see" (as it had done in the case of sanctions) and to leave the Fascist Powers to set the diplomatic pace. This feeling was intensified in November by Germany's and Italy's recognition of the insurgents as the government of Spain. Mr. Eden's proper distinction between such de jure recognition to the insurgents and the granting to both sides of the status of belligerency -- which no Power had done -- passed almost unnoticed. British public opinion became definitely more uneasy in the third week of November, when the Government, reaffirming its intention to accord belligerent rights to neither side, introduced a bill to make a criminal offense of the transportation of war materials to Spain by British ships, even from a foreign port. In response to this public uneasiness, Mr. Eden on November 23 declared that, since no belligerent rights had been accorded to either side in Spain, the Navy would protect all British ships from arrest and search on the high seas outside the 3-mile limit; and on November 25 he made it clear that the new bill would not prohibit British ships from carrying to Spain coal, food and goods not on the agreed non-intervention list. Government spokesmen repeatedly emphasized that their policy was dictated by the need to save Europe from something even worse than the Spanish Civil War. In this sense the British Government on December 9 appealed to Germany, Italy, Portugal and Soviet Russia to restrict the intervention of volunteers and to supervise non-intervention by international control.

At this point a new and encouraging note was sounded by Mr. Eden. On December 14 he said: "It is a consideration of great moment to us that, when Spain emerges from her present troubles, her integrity should remain intact and unmenaced from any quarter." This was taken as a warning to Germany and Italy. He admitted in the Commons on December 18 that in the previous August the Government might have exaggerated the risks of war. The attitude of the self-styled "German Admiral in Spanish waters," who seized Spanish Government ships as reprisals for their seizure of a German ship carrying wireless sets for the insurgents, greatly annoyed British public opinion; and when the French Government complained of German troops in the Spanish zone of Morocco, the feeling in Britain grew that German "admirals in Spanish waters" and troops in Morocco constituted a direct danger. British naval observers sent from Gibraltar on General Franco's invitation to satisfy themselves about the presence of German troops reported laconically that, as far as they were permitted to observe, no extraordinary activity was perceptible. Their reports, taken with other developments, seemed to stiffen the British Government's attitude. At any rate, twice in January Mr. Eden reiterated Britain's concern that the integrity of all Spanish territory (including the Moroccan zone, the Canaries, and the Balearics) should be scrupulously maintained, as provided by treaties. He even denied that the Anglo-Italian "gentleman's agreement" of January 5 could permit Mussolini to intervene against the ultimate establishment of any kind of government in Spain, whether "Red" or another color.

After this sudden access of British plain-speaking, and despite continuous charges from the Opposition that the Government was spinning out the story in order to favor the insurgents, the British Foreign Office was able in February to secure Portugal's long withheld consent to the supervision of her frontiers by an Anglo-Portuguese commission; while the German Government, after the rout of the Italian divisions at Brihuega, began clearly to withdraw from too exposed a position in the Spanish maelstrom. Even so, however, the Italian Government contrived to land another 10,000 or 20,000 troops at Cadiz. This took place after the conclusion of the February agreement to stop the sending of volunteers but before the supervision of Spain's frontiers had actually begun. The Russian, German and Italian delegates on the London Committee again fell on each other with charge and countercharge. As it was so near the date for effective supervision, the British Government restricted its action to announcing that the Italian Government had officially informed them that the men landed at Cadiz on March 5 consisted only of medical units. The British Opposition naturally grew alarmed at the prospect of "supervision" systems which, by all precedent, might be worked to let through troops and supplies for the insurgents but not for the Spanish Government. To all questions raised in the Commons, Lord Cranborne, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, simply replied by stating that foreign policy could not be conducted on hypotheses.

The latest phase in the story opened at the end of March. At that moment supervision was due to begin, the ban on volunteers was presumably being enforced, and the Spanish Government forces were making progress on all fronts. The desperate mood of the insurgents was indicated by their navy's sudden interference with British shipping on the high seas, action which on March 20 drew a sharp protest from the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. To the utter consternation of British public opinion, represented by members of all parties and by most of the press, Mr. Baldwin nevertheless announced on April 12 that, owing to the investment of Bilbao by insurgent forces, and due to the danger from mines, from aërial bombing and from General Franco's threatened interception of British shipping bound thither, the commander of the British destroyers at St. Jean de Luz (France) had advised several British food ships -- had indeed virtually instructed them -- not to proceed to Bilbao.

This incensed the British Opposition, who took it as an open admission of British aid in the insurgent effort to starve out Bilbao by the renouncement of British maritime rights. The Government admitted that, as Britain had never accorded belligerents' rights to either side, the insurgent fleet could not arrest or search a British ship outside the 3-mile limit, nor could it institute a legal blockade. After two stormy Commons debates, the Government agreed that any British ships which carried non-prohibited goods and which decided to scorn the insurgents' so-called blockade and the mines in Bilbao's harbor of which Mr. Baldwin had made so much, could legitimately claim the full protection of the British Navy beyond the 3-mile limit. The commanders of the destroyers and of the giant 45,000-ton battle cruiser Hood still tried to persuade the British food ships from going to Bilbao. But the persistence of a band of Welsh skippers upheld maritime rights; and in the third week of April, one food ship after another slipped out from French harbors at night and were duly shepherded within the 3-mile limit and the range of Bilbao's shore batteries. Of mines there was no trace. The British Government laconically amended its warning to British shipping and announced its inability to say whether mines were in the harbor approaches or not.

The government-controlled presses of Germany and Italy described the inexplicably varying attitudes of the British Government as favorable to the "Reds" in Spain. The British Opposition hailed the Government's use of the Navy as a victory for its contention. And the Welsh skippers became popular heroes in every British newspaper, even The Times. The prevalent feeling in England was that the Government, for the sake of full international collaboration in the supervision of Spain's frontiers (due to begin on April 19), had tried to sacrifice British maritime rights. Actually, supervision of the Spanish coasts and frontiers began on the twentieth; and on the twenty-second the first food-ships got through to Bilbao, thus staving off its surrender and capture. A vicious precedent in international law was thereby obviated. Compliance with the demands of the insurgents without having accorded them belligerent rights would have been to jettison both the moral right and the substance of non-intervention. It would have been to allow non-belligerent rebels to institute a blockade and prevent a third Power's ships from enjoying the freedom of the seas -- the very thing that the British and French Governments and all the other democratic countries had been determined to avoid by refusing to recognize the insurgents as belligerents.

The failure of General Franco's blockade around Bilbao was grimly emphasized by the sinking of his biggest battleship, the España, on April 30. It came just after the atrocious and sedulous annihilation of the Basques' holy city of Guernica on April 26. Guernica was subjected to intensive aerial bombardment for upwards of three hours, during which the latest German bombers and pursuit planes (said to have been flown direct from Germany over France at a great height the week before despite the nonintervention agreement) virtually wiped out this town together with several hundreds of its inhabitants. In spite of General Franco's first assertion that no insurgent aëroplanes had been in the air that day and of German press statements denying all responsibility, the testimony of the mayor and priest of Guernica and of the Dean of Valladolid was irrefutable. It compelled even General Franco to admit that some of his aircraft had bombarded Guernica. A storm of indignation arose among all classes and political parties in the European democracies, and in none more than in Great Britain. Mr. Eden, subjected to searching questions in the Commons by spokesmen of all parties, could do little to assuage popular resentment, and he fell back on protestations of horror. The British Government, perhaps bowing to the strength of public resentment, agreed forthwith to use the Navy to protect British merchantmen carrying civil refugees from Bilbao to France, and this again angered both General Franco and his Fascist abettors. At the same time, the London Non-intervention Committee proceeded to ask the opinions of the constituent governments about the proposals of the Scandinavian Powers that French and British warships might protect merchantmen belonging to the non-intervention Powers and carrying the inspectors required by the international supervision system, from molestation outside the 3-mile limit around the coasts of Spain.


As May unfolds, the Spanish insurrection drags its slow length along. The policy of non-intervention has certainly been successful, post tot varios casus, in securing the supervision, perhaps the isolation, of Spain's European frontiers. But no British citizen need be complacent over the conduct of his Government's foreign policy during the last nine troubled months. If General Franco eventually wins, it will be by German and Italian aid, unprevented by the London Committee's masterly inactivity. If he loses, it will be because Germany has left the onus of supporting Franco against Europe to Italy alone.

In the variations of Fascist mood, in the rise of world rawmaterial prices, in the internal preoccupations of Italy and Germany, and in the degree of resistance which the Spanish Government's levies are able to display must be sought the reason for any eventual failure of Franco or, conversely, the defeat of the Spanish Government. The least likely reason for the success of one and the failure of the other will be the tardy achievements of non-intervention and supervision; for these, like other agreements, can be broken if it suits the totalitarian States.

British public opinion has not altered much in nine months of Spanish tragedy. A vote today would reveal a majority in favor of victory by the Spanish Government, despite its "Red" composition and its irresponsibility. Of course the Right Wing Conservatives up and down Britain, "men of property" (though by no means all such men), still think of General Franco and his Moors as fine, patriotic fellows out to suppress canaille; and irrespective of Britain's national interests, they applaud the Italian, German, and Portuguese Fascists for aiding them. But these Right Wing Conservatives are a minority -- even perhaps at Westminster.

Certainly the Opposition has been wrong in charging the Government with deliberate partiality to the insurgents. During the last three years the Government has been deliberate in very little. Least of all has it been Machiavellian in favor of General Franco. If any of its actions was Machiavellian, it was the announcement of the vast rearmament program in February. For that coincided with the Italian reverse at Brihuega and the desire of the German Reichswehr to draw out of Spain. Every evidence regarding British policy during the Spanish insurrection shows that the Cabinet has blown alternately hot and cold. It has united on doing nothing and divided on doing something firm; it has been indecisive and worried, fearful and yet in a degree farsighted. Today, it is hard to resist the conclusion that time, and not the British Government, has worked against Franco. But it is equally hard to resist the conclusion that if the British Government has been at all Machiavellian, then in the long run it has been so more against Italy, Germany and their Spanish insurgent client than against the Spanish Government.

Mãnana es otro día. The initiative may still lie with the totalitarian Powers of Europe, and they may still use it to seek and make trouble. But the scale of circumstance does seem to be tilting against them. The democratic governments do seem to be beginning to present a stronger front to them. If the growing British armaments embolden the new Cabinet and Prime Minister after the Coronation to take a firmer line in foreign policy, none would welcome it more than the British people themselves.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now