The Spanish Civil War, Cartooning, and the Cultural Imagination: No Pasaran!, The Black Order Brigade, and Wolverine Part 1 of 4

Posted by on December 17th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Part One: A War of Memory and Imagination


There are two deaths at the end of Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth. One is that of Ofelia, a young girl who tries to escape her abusive stepfather by entering an enchanted fairy land.  She returns there, absorbed by the magic, as the blood runs out of her body.

The second death is that of the girl’s stepfather, Captain Vidal, the fascist commander responsible for suppressing the guerillas in the nearby hills.  In the end he is captured by the resistance fighters.  He offers his last words:

“Tell my son. . .  Tell him what time his father died.  Tell him that I —”

But he is interrupted by guerillas:  “No.  He won’t even know your name.”  They shoot him, and he falls.

The scene is symbolic in all but its finality.

Seventy years after the fascist generals declared their victory over the democratic Republic, the Spanish Civil War is still being fought.  It is being fought in movies, books, and comics.  It has become a battle of historical memory and cultural imagination.

Last year, NBM finally released the third and final installment of Vittorio Giardino’s graphic novel No Pasaran! Set in late 1938, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, No Pasaran! centers on the mysterious disappearance of Guido Treves, a Republican militiaman, and his friend Max Friedman’s efforts to find him.

At the beginning of the novel, Friedman is living as a respectable tobacco merchant in Geneva.  Treves’ wife approaches Max about his friend’s disappearance.  Max has been to Spain before — in fact he fought there with Treves — and he reluctantly agrees to return.

Friedman has done this sort of thing before, and he knows the risks.  In another Giardino comic, Hungarian Rhapsody, he’s spying for the French in Budapest.  Set in February 1938, the story occurs some months before he returns to Spain.  But here, too, the Spanish war looms always in the background — not only because of Friedman’s personal history, but because the plot he’s investigating seems to involve a shipment of arms to General Franco.

In between, at the end of summer, Orient Gateway finds Friedman in Istanbul.  Again, the preoccupation with Spain is evident.  In the bar aboard a ship, Max hears a passenger refer to Koestler as “that Communist journalist.”

Max corrects him:  “He wrote me saying that he had broken with the Party.”

Another adds, “Now he’s not in anybody’s camp.  Imagine what he must have seen in Spain . . .  [He] was Franco’s prisoner for four months and every day he expected to be shot.”

“He was pretty lucky,” Max says.  “Everyone in Barcelona said so.”

“You were down there too?  Did . . .  did you fight for the ‘reds’ too?”

“No,” Friedman clarifies.  “For the Republic.”

The distinction is important, but to understand it one must know something about the politics of the war:  In 1936, a “Popular Front” coalition of Communists, socialists, unionists, and liberals took control of the Spanish Government.  The left had been making gains in Spain for years, both electorally and through trade unions (especially the anarchist CNT).  As the Popular Front came to power, the country was polarized — workers, peasants, and intellectuals on one side; the army, the Church, landowners, Royalists, and the fascist Falange on the other.  It wasn’t long before the right launched a coup, led by General Francisco Franco.  With the army pitted against the government it fell to the people to defend themselves — and they did.  Unions and political parties organized militias, and soon the fascist advance was halted.  Spain was divided.

Michael Mosher’s illustrations in Orwell for Beginners represent the differences between two sides:  At the top of the page, the fascist forces — business men in suits, soldiers in uniform, the clergy in their collars and robes.  They stand in an orderly row, drawn stiffly.  At the bottom, the Republicans — some raising fists, others guns, some tools.  They are drawn in quick, bold, strokes, appearing as a chaotic, but vital, jumble.

There were wars within wars and revolutions within revolutions.  With government control almost absent outside of Madrid, the population quickly pushed beyond the reforms of the Popular Front.  Workers took over factories.  Peasants collectivized land.  Anarchists burned churches.  Women took an active role — sometimes fighting in the militias, but more commonly, working in the factories.  In many places, money itself was abolished.  By attacking when they did, the fascists paralyzed the government, and made possible exactly the revolution they had sought to prevent.

Republican Spain appealed for help, but the western democracies declared themselves neutral.  Among governments, only the Soviet Union sent substantial aid, and even Stalin’s commitment was weak.  Mexico, however, deserves a special mention:  a poor country, an ocean away, it did more for the Republic than anyone could have expected, sending arms and accepting refugees.  Its contribution, modest though it was, should have been enough to shame the major democracies.

Franco, meanwhile, received all sorts of assistance — funding, advisors, soldiers, and equipment — from Hitler and Mussolini.  Over the course of the war, it is estimated that the Soviet Union sent 2,000 advisors, 1,300 planes, and 900 tanks.  Italy and Germany, meanwhile, sent 5,000 advisors, 1,200 planes, and 350 tanks — plus 100 German pilots and 70,000 Italian troops.

But one cannot say that the Republic was abandoned.  While their governments stood aside, tens of thousands of people sympathetic to the Republican cause enlisted in International Brigades, traveled to Spain, and fought.  Most of these were Communists, but not all.  Some, like Friedman, went for the Republic, but not for the reds. Hundreds of them died there.

In the end, it was not enough.  The non-intervention policy proved decisive.  Britain, France, and the United States did worse than stand idly by:  They actively prevented munitions and even humanitarian supplies from reaching the Republic.  They froze the Spanish government’s funds.  And they allowed or enabled trading to continue with the Nationalist side.  In part this bias was explained by the democratic countries’ concern for their investments in Spain — investments that were quickly being appropriated and collectivized.  The economic analysis was represented with the neatness of a subway map on a poster titled “Stranglers of the Spanish People.  The True Reason Behind the False Neutrality”: it graphically traced the commercial links between the western democracies and Spanish industry; and it illustrated the Republic’s political isolation through the handy trick of inserting a channel where the Pyrenees mountains should have been.  Under such conditions, the Republic was forced to pay extortionate rates for inadequate supplies, and it was left, to a very large degree, at the mercy of the USSR’s own policy aims.  And that was bad news for the revolutionaries.

With its eyes toward an alliance with England and France (against Hitler), Stalin’s government was eager to show itself as a moderating force on the left.  That meant, first, centralizing control of the Republic and winning a prominent role for the Communist Party, and second, subordinating any popular revolutionary tendencies to the military effort. The Communists consolidated their control by establishing a regular army and dissolving the militias.  They imprisoned or assassinated their rivals and wrested control of the factories away from the workers.  They ruled the cities through armed might, and starved the front of munitions and soldiers.

The anarchists and Trotskyites argued that the war and the revolution must proceed together.  The Communist Party countered that the war must be won before the revolution could proceed.  It is with this debate, on the Party’s relationship to the militia and on the growing emphasis on “discipline”, that No Pasaran begins:  Treves interrupts a firing squad as they prepare to execute an officer for disobeying orders.  He confronts the Commissar:  “The orders were absurd!  I won’t have you liquidate my best officers while I’m in command!  Besides, who would replace them?  Do you want to win this war, or not?”

Commissar Kusic replies:  “Without order and discipline we can never win.”

“Nor without some good sense.  Save the slogans and rhetoric for pamphlets! . . .  War isn’t won by bureaucracy, even your Party chiefs know that.”

We don’t know, for sure, which side was right.  All we can say is that the revolution was lost before the war.  George Orwell said, as early as 1937, that the revolution had been abandoned.  And on, April 1, 1939, Franco declared victory:  “On this day, with the capture and disarming of the Red Army, the National troops have achieved their final military objectives.  The war is over.”

Giardino is careful never to sermonize, but the central incongruity of the plot — the obsessive concern for one individual life in an atmosphere of ubiquitous, unrelenting violence and death — makes it clear where his sympathies lie.  Friedman’s loyalty to his friend and his fundamental decency are emblems of those values that distinguished the Republicans from the fascists; and his concern for the truth and disdain for the political machinations of army officers, party officials, and bureaucrats reflects the libertarian left’s critique of the Communist Party.

Image ©2000 Vittorio Guardino

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