“How did Britain’s approach to Non-Intervention change during the Spanish Civil War?”
For a civil war whose battlefields were confined to its own nation as a civil war the Spanish Civil War came to exasperate political and societal tensions among societies across Europe in the inter-war period. Due to the ideologically charged nature of the Spanish Civil War nations undergoing their own shifts in political and public consciousness became embroiled in unfolding events. At it’s core the Spanish Civil War was an ideological battle for the soul and future of Spain, a conflict between the left and right wings of the country – both of whom had been massively polarized from each other to the extent that armed conflict had become the preferred form of recompense. When addressing the Non-Intervention Agreement of 1936 that came about with the outbreak of the conflict, an agreement that was intended to prevent other nations from interfering and affecting its outcome, historians often designate individual nations such as Britain or a collective of nations such as the Axis powers when conducting societal studies relating to the controversial legislation. This essay shall fall under the former, opting to explore the social and political conflicts in British society and how the debate over non-intervention came to change attitudes towards the same in the lead up to the Second World War. It shall explain, through a combination of primary and secondary material across political and social circles, how a nation that championed the policy often seen as the downfall of the Spanish Republic came to realise its folly and how Britons came to acknowledge the need of national solidarity in the face of impending fascist expansion and the inevitable escalation of European war.
Before beginning to address this question it’s a good idea to establish political and societal context, as such will be integral to the case to be presented. The 1935 general election in Britain saw a National Government headed by Stanley Baldwin of the Conservative Party (Right-Wing) retain power, albeit with a reduced majority but a majority nonetheless. This is an important point to consider because when the Spanish Civil War broke out on the 17th July 1936 and the left wing Spanish Popular Front (Centre Left-Wing) government found itself under attack from a Nationalist (Far Right-Wing) uprising the Conservative government in Britain could not be effectively pressured by Labour Party (Left-Wing) politicians because it held a comfortable majority in the House of Commons and as such was free from constraints on its foreign policy of pursuing non-intervention. The Labour Party itself, as political historians have noted, was a fledgling political force in the early 20th century that had managed to surpass the Liberal Party (Centre), which had been in a state of steady decline for decades, as the main opposition to the right wing. As with many rising political movements throughout history the Labour Party found itself in the midst of an identity crisis as it sought to stake a claim to become the legitimate opposition party. This context shows that British politics of this time consisted of a right wing government with leanings towards the Spanish Nationalists with few restrictions on its decision making process as its only left wing opposition struggled to assert its new identity. Given that political parties exist to represent the wills of their electorate it is unsurprising that socialist supporters in Britain were unable to assert themselves and that Conservative supporters were anxious of what they perceived to be hard-left-wing subversion, of communism taking root at home, threatening their way of life. Each was the enemy to the other and this would lead to a gradual break-down of dialogue and discourse on key issues, non-intervention among them, until a seismic event in the form of the Second World War focalised all.
The stance of the Conservative government with regards to the Non-Intervention Agreement was clarified to the House of Commons shortly after it was agreed in August of 1936. The Conservative Party foreign secretary Anthony Eden gave an address to parliament on the 29th October 1936 in which he established and justified the government’s position on the Spanish Civil War by drawing attention to the ‘profoundly unsettled’ state of the country and alluding to ‘instances of lawlessness’ being reasons as to why direct intervention in the conflict would be unwise. In their proper Spanish context these quotes allude to the years of social and political strife in Spanish society and the violence in the weeks and months leading to the civil war. Eden’s speech then delved further into the reasons why the Conservative Party was actively steering Britain away from intervention in Spain. Responding to criticisms of the Non-Intervention Agreement, Eden retorts by saying that ‘it is easy enough to say now “Oh, but this arrangement has helped one side more than the other”. I am going to deal with that in a moment. But our purpose in this was not to help one side or another but to prevent civil war, savage in itself, from passing beyond the boundaries of Spain and involving the whole of Europe in its orbit. … While I am not going to shirk criticism of the working of the agreement, I must emphasise that those criticisms, collectively or individually, seem to pale in significance beside the broad decision we must take’.
This passage has served as the basis for the arguments of historians such as Frances Lannon who argue a popular belief that the Spanish Republic was practically sacrificed by Britain by the process of non-intervention for the sake of preventing a European conflict between the Great Powers. The problem with this argument is that sources such as these from Eden’s tenure as foreign secretary present a likewise popular counter argument that the Conservative government simply did not know who was fighting for who in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War and as such did not want to inadvertently support concealed hard-line elements of both sides, such as Fascism in the case of the Nationalists and Bolshevism in the case of the Republic. The ruling elite of British politics during this time had no love lost for the Soviet Union as the ideology of communism was a terrifying prospect to the established wealthy elite. However, the same elite was also uneasy of fascism growing in strength across Europe because it threatened to re-allocate power into the hands of a handful and practically overthrow the status quo. It is likely, given that the British elite felt as though they were between a rock and a hard place, that inaction and appeasement remained the modus operandi for this exact reason until that position itself became untenable.
The measures that the Conservative government undertook to enforce its foreign policy of non-intervention was not limited to the upper echelons of political circles as it also opted to use legislation that would affect its domestic policy in relation to the Spanish Civil War, specifically to combat the issue of Britons volunteering and travelling to Spain to fight. To this end, the government began using the previously-mothballed 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act as justification for arresting would-be volunteers and detaining groups suspected of preparing to do the same. On the 11th January 1937 Eden delivered another address to the House of Commons, this time regarding the use of the Foreign Enlistment Act. This source, a debate between Eden and the William Gallacher, the latter being a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), reveals the pressures being exerted by the left-wing in parliament as well as reiterating the concerns of the right. Eden’s justification for the usage of the Foreign Enlistment Act is that it is to prevent ‘recruitment’ of young Britons by British parties with a vested ideological interest in Spain, parties such as the CPGB. Eden is remarkably adamant on separating ‘recruitment’ from ‘volunteering’, but nevertheless recognises a distinction between the two; respecting the will some may have to fight for their principles but explicitly expressing concern over young Britons becoming mercenaries. Despite the dire implications for a Spanish Republic in dire need of international aid in any way it could get it Eden’s case had logical merit for if young Britons travelled to, fought in and subsequently ran the serious risk of being radicalised by communists or fascists alike, the implications for British society if such people returned could have been severe.
Reading between the lines of this exchange and keeping Eden’s point of view in mind, the passage comes across as a thinly veiled attack on the International Brigades policy of the Communist International (Comintern) an organisation that was well-known for pursuing the active recruitment of international fighters for the cause of the Spanish Republic. Eden mentions two cases of which the government was recently made to intervene and enforce the Foreign Enlistment Act upon two young men. What is interesting to note about these two cases is that Eden does not explicitly mention the Comintern, or any other left-wing group for that matter, as being implicit. However, given the reservations of the Conservative government towards the conflict and its resentment of communism one could well assume that he is indeed implying the involvement of such groups. Eden’s policy of supporting non-intervention gradually waned partially through political and social pressure but more-so when it became increasingly obvious that fascist powers in Europe were blatantly ignoring their obligations and as the implications of German air power, demonstrated with devastating effect in the Basque country and in Catalonia, in particular became a frightening reality. This reversal of policy, not necessarily away from non-intervention in Spain, but away from a passive approach to the fledgling Axis powers with regards to rearmament is made clear in a communique Eden sent to the British ambassador in Germany, Sir Neville Henderson. Specific mentions of the ‘limitation of armaments’ and ‘limitation of bombing aircraft’ shortly after the horrific events in the Basque town of Guernica are intriguing but the absence of a specific mention of the Non-Intervention Agreement could lead one to believe that by this later stage of the Spanish Civil War the British government knew that pressing the point of non-intervention in Spain further would be a waste of time, it knew that darker days were ahead and it needed to prepare.
While the right wing of British politics initially held a relatively firm party line on the Spanish Civil War and on non-intervention the left wing of British politics found itself suffering from an identity crisis and lacked the means to exert meaningful pressure on the government. In the 1930’s the Labour Party was contending with clashing viewpoints on non-intervention from within its own ranks with not enough of its MPs opposing the initial vote to bring the measure into effect in the House of Commons. Since the Labour Party was perceived to be the mouthpiece for the left in general, and given its increased presence in parliament it practically was, it faced pressure from other parties on the left such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and CPGB, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and most importantly the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The TUC was a pivotal part of the left’s struggle to determine its foreign policy with regards to the Spanish Civil War for a number of reasons but for the purpose of non-intervention one must examine a particular letter sent in August of 1936 to the secretary of the TUC Alfred Wall by Francisco Largo Caballero, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and of the Workers General Union (UGT), and then Prime Minister of the Spanish Republic’s Frente Popular (Popular Front). As evidenced by this source, this letter was hastily forwarded the General Secretary of the TUC Walter Citrine due to a claim Caballero makes with regards to violations of the Non-Intervention Agreement. The fact that Caballero decided to initially send such an important statement to Wall instead of Citrine, let alone Clement Attlee who was at the time the leader of the Labour Party and therefore of the opposition in the House of Commons, speaks volumes and harkens back to the previously established point that British politicians, even some on the left wing were afraid of liaising with communist sympathisers – as Caballero was seen to be through his association with the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). If the Labour Party had been found to be in direct contact with fringe elements of the Spanish Republic the political fallout in the House of Commons would have been dramatic, as much as if the Conservative Party had been proven to be in cohorts with the fascist elements of the Nationalist cause. This presented a serious problem for the Spanish Republic as it was not only unable to establish an effective dialogue with the Conservative government in Britain with regards to upholding, or rather ending, an already controversial policy of non-intervention but it was likewise unable to do the same with the leading opposition party and its affiliates due to the only credible opposition suffering from an identity crisis as to where they stood.
Gradually as the TUC rallied its members behind opposing non-intervention it was able to apply concentrated pressure on the Labour Party to the extent that Clement Attlee was in turn able to garner enough support to revoke Labour Party support for the Non-Intervention Agreement and label it a failure in hindsight, despite the fact they had been unable to act on it themselves due to internal politics. This pressure can be found in a variety of documents from the era but a particularly striking source can be found in the work of Henry Brailsford, a noted socialist journalist who launched an attack on what he described as the ‘sham of non-intervention’. In this source Brailsford attacks both left and right wing groups for failing to act against what he perceives as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy’s ‘blatant violations of international law’ with regards to non-intervention. Brailsford’s work, a pamphlet intended for mass distribution, does however praise the Labour Party for withdrawing its compliance and support for the Non-Intervention Agreement but concedes that the gesture is too late for the Spanish Republic. In summation, the episode of the Non-Intervention Agreement and the Spanish Civil War in general proved to be a pivotal moment for British politics as it undermined the popularity of pacifism on the left, destroying Labour’s pacifist and non-interventional approach to foreign affairs, effectively paving the way for its acceptance of rearmament and for the need to prepare itself for what it now saw as an impending European war – a point made very clear by a remarkable rallying cry made to the TUC by Attlee.
The subject of the International Brigades and volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War has been extensively studied. Given that Britons who fought in the conflict were made to do so largely covertly because of the Conservative government’s persistence with non-intervention, a point made by the Foreign Enlistment Act, separating the subject of volunteers from the subject of non-intervention is difficult if not completely impossible. Therefore, an appropriate approach would be to examine two notable case studies of international volunteers and contextualise the social backgrounds they came from and then pitting this against the subject of non-intervention. The first and easily most famous and recognisable account of a Briton going against non-intervention is that of Eric Blair, otherwise better known by his pseudonym George Orwell. Orwell, by admittance in his work ‘Homage to Catalonia’, travelled to Spain initially intending to solely write newspaper articles for British audiences but was soon swept into the conflict when his long standing socialist leanings compelled him to take up arms against fascism. The second account comes from William Rust, a name potentially familiar to Marxist historians. Like Orwell, Rust was dispatched to the Catalan front as a reporter for the International Brigades where he served with like-minded communists and wrote an account of his experiences for communist audiences in Britain through his contacts at The Daily Worker newspaper. Between these accounts the major point of interest comes from Rust’s ‘Britons in Spain’ where, in true Marxist fashion, he declares that the decision for many International Brigadiers to defy the Non-Intervention Agreement was formed out of class conflict and that such an act was seen as an occasion that unified the working class against the bourgeoisie. While this comes across as a sensationalist statement it arguably contains an element of truth. Historians such as Paul Preston have exasperated this point of view by suggesting that fighting in the Spanish Civil War was indeed an example of class warfare given the social and economic backgrounds of those who fought for each side. It also presented an opportunity for Britons, who were polling in overwhelming numbers against non-intervention by mid-1938, could fight not only against international fascism when their government would not, but inadvertently also against their government out of frustration for its inaction over the same. Bill Alexander suggests an equally viable, if not greater theory in tandem with the account of Orwell where the main motivator for fighting against the Non-Intervention Agreement was not based on class but rather on an intense hatred of fascism.
Alexander’s belief that the hatred of fascism more than any other factor that led to the British public, despite having a Conservative government in power dictating policy, pursuing an end to non-intervention has a multitude of sources to support its case. Among these are the records and activities of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, an off-shoot organisation formed by Isabel Brown of the Relief Committee for the Victims of Fascism and an affiliate of the Trades Union Congress. The Committee went about gathering funds and supplies for the besieged Spanish Republic through a leaflet campaign before embarking to Madrid on a humanitarian mission. The group was also responsible for promoting a humanitarian cause for the Spanish Republic through a series of articulate posters, many of which owe their artistry to notable contemporary artists such as Edward McKnight Kauffer. Groups such as these were defying the government line of non-intervention and thus could well be classified as domestic international volunteers but efforts to stop them were surprisingly slack, perhaps because they were expressly travelling to Spain in a non-combatant capacity and that preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the needy would have been an extremely bad look for the Conservative government.
The thread of anti-fascism is also reflected in the news media the British public consumed. Many instances of wartime correspondence, the efforts of Orwell and Rust among many, can be found, each with their respective stances but one event that universally generated condemnation and served to unify Britons against both non-intervention and fascism was the infamous bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe. The Gaumont Newsreel that reported the incident to the British public is remarkable for many reasons. The clip is short but still conveys a horrific image to its audience, even if it is riddled with inaccuracies that fail to communicate the true scale of the destruction, perhaps intentionally. Historians have addressed the fact that the newsreader heard in the clip greatly underestimates the number killed by the air-raid as well as the length. In particular the concluding sentence of the newsreel delivers an ominous message of ‘this was a city and these were homes, like yours’, a bizarre act of intentional sensationalism considering the skewing of figures but nevertheless intended to communicate the implications of aerial bombing to its British audience, effectively adding a whole new dimension to both the concept of a ‘home front’ and to public perception on the Spanish Civil War. Written reports of the same incident, such as a famous article written by a Times correspondent George Steer, likewise convey a sense of ominous horror in the aftermath of the bombing. What separates Steer’s written account from the visual newsreel is that the former goes out of its way to implicate the Nationalists and the fascist powers in the atrocity. By reporting on events in the Spanish Civil War the British media played a role in pitting more of the British public against the Non-Intervention Agreement who, in turn, could be relied upon to exert more pressure on their political parties to bring about a change in policy.
In conclusion, British politicians and the British public were both paralysed into inaction over the Spanish Civil War because of elements of the conflict that affected each group separately and on occasion both groups simultaneously. Sources have attempted to chronicle the progression of the Non-Intervention Agreement in British society and have attempted to connect events in Britain to events in Spain. The fear of both communism in Spain and encroaching fascism in Europe forced the Conservative government to opt for the policy of non-intervention rather than risk escalating the conflict. The Labour Party on the other hand, despite initially supporting the Non-Intervention Agreement, was gradually able to unify its ranks and satellite parties on the left wing in favour of the Spanish Republic and establish an identity but was unable to force a change of policy given its lack of a majority in parliament – instead concluding that defending the Spanish Republic was a lost cause and that tackling the impending threat of the Axis powers took precedence. Similar divisions among the British public either deterred or compelled Britons to defy the Non-Intervention Agreement however they could on matters of principle. It was not until the impact of the Spanish Civil War and its implications for Britain became apparent through the news media and eyewitness accounts from volunteers that British society began to collectively realise that they had been following, to repeat the words of Henry Brailsford ‘a sham of non-intervention’. By the time popular opinion was firmly against continued non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War the damage of inaction had already been done and had sealed the demise of the Second Spanish Republic.
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 Andrew Rothstein, British Foreign Policy and its Critics, 1830-1950 (London, 1969), p.29.
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 Anthony Eden, ‘Statement on Non-Intervention’, House of Commons (October 1936) Vol. 316. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1936/oct/29/spain#S5CV0316P0_19361029_HOC_241
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 Alfred Havighurst, Britain in Transition: The Twentieth Century (Chicago, 1985), p.254.
 Francisco J. Romero Salvado, The Spanish Civil War (Hampshire, 2005), pp.63-64.
 Anthony Eden, ‘Statement on the Foreign Enlistment Act’, House of Commons (January, 1937) Vol. 319. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1937/jan/19/mr-edens-statement#column_98
 Tom Buchanan, The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain: War, Loss and Memory (Brighton, 2007), p.15
 Anthony Eden, A New Approach to Germany (London, 1938), as cited in Anthony Adamthwaite, The Making of the Second World War (Torquay, 1977), p.179.
 Rhiannon Vickers, The Labour Party and the World: The Evolution of Labour’s Foreign Policy, 1900-51 (Manchester, 2003), p.123.
 Francisco Largo Caballero, Spanish Civil War (London, 1936). http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/compoundobject/collection/scw/id/4255/rec/1
 Louise Grace Shaw, The British Political Elite and the Soviet Union (Oxford, 2003), p.22.
 Henry Brailsford, Spain’s Challenge to Labour (London,1937), p.12. http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/scw/id/16223
 Ibid, p.7.
 Ibid, p.12.
 Clement Attlee, International Conference on Spain (London, 1937), p.89. http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/scw/id/3005
 George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (London, 1938), pp.4-6.
 William Rust, Britons in Spain: The History of the British Battalion of the Fifteenth International Brigade (London, 1939), p.130.
 Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution & Revenge (London, 2006), p.138.
 Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty Spain, 1936-1939 (London, 1982), p.30.
 Isabel Brown, Aid for Spanish People (London, 1936). http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/compoundobject/collection/scw/id/1167/rec/1
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 Edward Emmett, Guernica Wiped Out by Air-Raid, Gaumont British News (London, 1937). http://www.itnsource.com/en/shotlist/BHC_RTV/1937/05/06/BGU407220501/?s=Guernica%20air%20raid
 Anthony Aldgate, Cinema and History: British Newsreels and the Spanish Civil War (London, 1979), p.159.
 George Steer, The Tragedy of Guernica (Bilbao, 1937). http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/europe/article2601941.ece