New Zealand And The Spanish Civil War”
Peace Researcher 38 – July 2009
by Mark Derby, Canterbury University Press,
- Jeremy Agar
1939 newsreels showing German tanks
plunging into Poland
can make it seem that World War 2 had a sudden and surprising start. This
impression goes along with a supposed knowledge that Hitler’s generals had
devised a “lightning war” strategy, for which neither Britain nor France was
prepared. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, is remembered for “appeasement”,
a policy based on the hunch that the whinging Herr Hitler had a point. His
country had been hard done by and, treated with respect, the Chancellor would
In fact, the war had already begun.
It could be dated to 1937, when Japan
invaded China, or to 1935,
when the Italian Army marched into Ethiopia. And of course Hitler’s
propensity to violence had already gone unchecked within Germany. Rather than accept that
Chamberlain was a stunned mullet, it would be more accurate to say that the
governing elites in the UK and
didn’t mind what was happening. Their miscalculation was in gambling that the
strategic interests they felt they shared with the Nazis would be appreciated
They never thought the Wehrmacht would march west.
Spain Was The Cause Celebre Of the
These days, outside Spain
at least, the Spanish Civil War is largely forgotten, but not long ago it
provoked passion. Fought between 1936 and 1939, the war was historically
significant as it served as a prelude to World War 2, which broke out the year
it ended. In the Thirties, the drift towards catastrophe was there for all to
see, and nowhere more clearly than in Spain. It
began as a run of the mill military coup against an elected government in a
country that normally didn’t matter much to the big powers. But the times were
anything but normal. In his Introduction, Mark Derby sets the context:
“‘In a highly volatile Europe
already fractured along faultlines of politics and class, this desperate
localised uprising swiftly became an international conflict....Over the next
three years the names of at least 15 New Zealanders would appear among the
bewildering cosmopolitan forces in this very globalised ‘civil’ war... [T]hey
were drawn into the war’s centre of gravity by their conviction that Spain’s war would be a decisive bridgehead in
the struggle against fascism, the ideology that already held sway in Germany and Italy
and threatened much of the rest of Europe. By
late 1936 it was apparent, even in secluded New
Zealand, that if fascism were not defeated in Spain,
a world war would eventuate”.
In ones and twos the Kiwi compañeros
made their way to Spain, where they fought in defence of the Spanish
Republicans - the Government - alongside Britons, Americans, Canadians and
assorted Europeans in what came to be called the International Brigades.
Against them were ranged the regular Spanish Army - or at least those parts of
it on which the military leader, General Franco, could rely - and guns, bombs
and planes supplied by Hitler and Mussolini. It was a unique historical moment,
one that could not have occurred either earlier or later than it did.
collected chapters on each of the New Zealanders, from a variety of
researchers. We’re given the reminiscences of relatives and friends. It’s a
fascinating look at a past which might seem impossibly distant. It isn’t
though, not chronologically. A note at the end of one chapter reads, “Sir
Geoffrey Cox died in April 2008 as this book was in preparation”. Besides being
the longest-lived of the compañeros, Cox was the only one whose name is widely
known (but probably more so in Britain
than in Invercargill or Timaru, where his young life was spent). Cox was sent
to Spain as a cub reporter
for a London
newspaper. His dispatches and books on the experience and subsequently on hot
spots for the rest of the 20th Century became classics of the genre.
In the Thirties Cox, who went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, a contemporary
of those other expat university men, Paddy Costello, John Mulgan and Dan Davin,
held classic “old Left” views. Interviewed near the end of his life by James
McNeish, Cox was happy to pronounce himself an admirer of Margaret Thatcher.
Like his journalistic forays to the world’s crises, Cox’s ideological journey
defined and reflected an epoch.
Doug Jolly, from Otago, a medical
student active in the Student Christian Movement, became another expat in the UK with a background of classic New Zealand
idealism. Jolly pioneered surgical techniques that were to be used by Allied
surgeons in World War 2. Quotes from an articulate Jolly illustrate this
chapter. Not all the volunteers were motivated by a love of democracy.
Some were excited by the prospect of an adventurous OE. They’re a lively lot.
One at least seems to have been escaping a dodgy life at home. There were even
a couple who fought for Franco, but their motives seem to have been apolitical.
Labour Government Offered Only Tepid Support To
The contributors elucidate the
interplay between New Zealand’s
domestic politics and Spain.
Although the fascists were backed by Germany
and Italy, France and Britain did not help the Republic,
claiming that any intervention of theirs would provoke Hitler and Mussolini to
even grosser aggression. The Soviet Union did
chip in, but not on a scale that began to match what Franco got. Were
the Russians acting out of socialist solidarity or did they fear they’d be the
next target? At the time the Communist connection was a big deal, a reason for
the tepid support for Spain
offered by the Savage government, and for the heated opposition from the Roman
Catholic hierarchy in New
Zealand. The Spanish fascists paraded as
defenders of God and landlords, guarding family values against the Russian
bear, who wanted only to invade Spain
(and then NZ) and burn down the churches.
Did Rightwing intellectuals believe
their own propaganda? Nicholas Reid, a historian of the Church, quotes a letter
from Archbishop O’Shea to the Editor of the New
Zealand Tablet: “I know the Prime Minister and most of the members of
his Cabinet well enough to be convinced that they have not the slightest
intention of legislating on communistic lines nor in favour of anything
forbidden to Catholics... Unless our Government did what they are doing, the
Left Wing of the party, which such legislation holds in check, might easily
prevail with Labour”.
O’Shea was taking issue with the Editor
for having printed a letter denouncing Labour’s “socialism”. This suggests that
the Archbishop was concerned primarily to hold back progressive ideals. He
assumed that censorship of opinion in the Church’s paper was a justifiable
tactic, and that support for social democratic legislation was needed in order
to finesse the call for more radical measures. The Archbishop was an opportunist,
a manipulator, looking at the end game. Editorials on the evils of democratic Spain
dominated official Catholic writing throughout the late Thirties and it seems
likely that the obsessive hostility of the church to the Republican cause was a
way of discrediting Leftist ideals so that the Savage government would remain
only mildly reformist, a safety valve. O’Shea was relying on the prevailing
ignorance about foreign affairs among the population, using Spain as a scapegoat. The hierarchy
had to take into account the strong Catholic influence within the Government.
It knew that Catholics, in general, were more likely to vote Labour than were
the members of any other religious grouping.