Eric Hobsbawm: Intellectuals and the Spanish Civil War


Let me begin with the Hollywood film that has become a permanent icon of a certain kind of educated culture, at least among older generations: Casablanca. The cast will still be familiar, I hope: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio, Conrad Veit, Claude Rains. Its phrases have become part of our discourse: ‘Play it again, Sam’, ‘Round up the usual suspects’. It is essentially about the subject of this essay. For, if we leave aside the basic love affair, this is a film about the relations of the Spanish Civil War and the wider politics of that strange but decisive period in twentieth century history, the era of Adolf Hitler. Rick, the hero, you will remember, has fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He emerges from it defeated and cynical in his Moroccan café, and he ends by returning to the struggle in World War II. In short, Casablanca is about the mobilization of anti-fascism in the nineteen-thirties. And those mobilized against fascism before most others, and most passionately, were the Western intellectuals.

In my history of the ‘short twentieth century’ (Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Abacus), I discussed the peculiarities and complexities of this mobilization. As we know, the Axis – Germany, Italy and Japan – were in the end defeated by a military, and tacitly by something like an ideological, alliance, both short-lived, between capitalist USA, communist USSR and the old liberal-bourgeois imperialism of Great Britain. But this alliance did not come into being effectively until 1941, almost nine years after Hitler’s accession to power. In fact, it was forced on all the allies by the relentless expansionism of the Axis powers, headed by Germany. Hitler forced a war successively on Britain and France, the USSR and the USA, all of whom wanted to avoid it.

That ‘Fascism Means War’, as the slogan of the times had it, was evident from the moment that Hitler came to power. So, at least for everyone to the left of the political centre, was the nature of the Nazi project. Hitler made no secret of it. The logical response was obvious: to unite all the forces opposed to fascism, for whatever reason. I regard this proposition as self-evident, and indeed in the end this unity was forged and defeated fascism. For reasons that I fail to understand this has been contested in France, notably by the late François Furet in his Le passé d’une illusion. What infuriated Furet was that the Communists, and especially the French Communist Party, benefited from this policy of anti-fascist union, and indeed established themselves as the chief proponents of this union. He therefore denied the reality of anti-fascism, which he regarded merely as a Communist tactical trick to capture the support of liberal and democratic ingénues. Following similar lines, Kristof Pomian, who criticized my twentieth century history in the journal Le Débat, sought to present the politics of the 1930s as triangular rather than binary. Democracy, he argued, confronted both fascism and communism with equal hostility, or at least it should have done.

But that was not the case. The choice was between two sides. It was recognized as being between two sides. Those in London, Paris and Washington who feared a new world war did not for a moment believe that it would be against anyone except the aggressor powers, i.e. Germany, whether or not allied to Italy and Japan. No doubt Poland, Romania and the small Baltic States feared Russia, and with good reason, but speaking globally, Russia was seen as a counterweight to the main danger, which was Germany. Liberals did not even have the option of neutrality. The most immediate lesson of the Spanish Civil War was that ‘non-intervention’ helped one side. This was evident to the British government, which certainly wanted the Nationalists to win, though it also wanted at that time to avoid formally taking sides with Hitler and Mussolini against bolshevism. As Maurice Hankey, Cabinet Secretary, put it to the British Cabinet on July 20, 1936:

In the present stage of Europe, with France and Spain menaced by Bolshevism, it is not inconceivable that we may soon find it advisable to unite with Germany and Italy. The more we keep out of European complications the better.

(Cited in Enrique Moradiellos, La perfidia de Albión: el gobierno británico y la Guerra civil española, Siglo XX, Madrid 1996, p.51)

It was equally clear to Léon Blum that in accepting non-intervention reluctantly, for reasons of both domestic and international policy, he was betraying the Spanish Republic. He justified this in public by claiming that this was the only way to avoid a war, Europe being – he said – on the brink of war in August 1936 (Speech in the Chamber of Deputies of 6 December 1936) – but this was plainly not so. In short, genuine neutrality between the two sides in the Civil War, or equal hostility to both, was impossible. That, after all, is what Stalin himself was to discover in 1939-41.

In fact, of course, liberal and democratic opinion was not neutral between the two sides. In Age of Extremes, I quote the public opinion poll of early 1939 that asked the people of the USA who they wanted to win if war were to break out between Russia and Germany. Eighty-three per cent wanted a Russian victory, seventeen per cent a German one. A similar enquiry exists for the Spanish Civil War: eighty-seven per cent of Americans favoured the Republic, thirteen per cent the Nationalists.


The Spanish Civil War was both at the centre and on the margin of the era of anti-fascism. It was central, since it was immediately seen as a European war between fascism and anti-fascism, almost as the first battle in the coming world war, some of the characteristic aspects of which – air raids against civilian populations – it anticipated. But Spain took no part in World War II. Franco’s victory was to have no bearing on the collapse of France in 1940. The experience of the Republican armed forces was not relevant to the subsequent wartime resistance movements, even though in France these resistance movements were largely composed of refugee Spanish Republicans, and former International Brigaders played a major role in those of other countries. For it is a curious fact that guerrilla or partisan warfare was not much used by the Republicans during the Civil War, and, where it did occur, it was not very successful; all the more curious since this strategy was pursued with local success by Spanish Communists between 1945 and 1949.

The British and American armed forces were to make scarcely any use of the experience of the ‘premature anti-fascist’ volunteers who had fought in the International Brigade, whereas the German, Italian and Russian forces were to make prominent use of the professionals they had sent to Spain between 1936 and 1939.

Strangely enough the Civil War made its greatest impact on subsequent history through its political rather than its military activities. As I tried to show in my Age of Extremes (chapter 5, section IV) it provided the model both for the political strategy of the European resistance movements and hence for the form taken after liberation by liberated governments, particularly in the Soviet zone of influence. However, this phase of European politics was short-lived. The Cold War put an end to it after 1947.

In short, after its brief moment at the centre of world history, Spain returned to its traditional position on its margin. Outside Spain the Civil War lived on, as it still does among the rapidly diminishing number of its non-Spanish contemporaries. It became and has remained something remembered by those who were young at the time like the heart-rending and indestructible memory of a first great and lost love. This is not the case in Spain itself, where all experienced the tragic, murderous and complex impact of civil war,obscured as it was by the mythology and manipulation of the regime of the victors, which has been excellently studied in Paloma Aguilar Fernández’s Memoria y olvido de la Guerra civil española (Madrid 1996) [Remembering and forgetting the Spanish Civil War].

If we want to situate the Spanish Civil War within this general framework of the anti-fascist era, we have to bear in mind two things: the failure actually to resist fascism and the disproportionate success of anti-fascist mobilization among Europe’s intellectuals.

I am speaking not only of the success of fascist expansionism and the failure of the forces favouring peace to halt the apparently inevitable approach of another world war. I am also remembering the failure of its opponents to change public opinion. The only regions that saw a genuine political shift to the left after the Great Depression were Scandinavia and Northern America. Much of central and southern Europe was already under authoritarian governments or was to fall into their hands, but insofar as we can judge from the scattered electoral data, the drift in Hungary and Russia, not to mention among the German diaspora, was sharply to the right. On the other hand the victory of the Popular Front in France was a shift within the French Left, not a shift of opinion to the left. The 1936 electoral victory gave the combined Radicals, Socialists and Communists barely one per cent more votes than in 1932. And yet, if I can reconstruct the feelings of that generation from personal memory, my generation of the left, whether we were intellectuals or not, did not see ourselves as a retreating minority. We did not think that fascism would inevitably continue to advance. We were sure that a new world would come. Given the logic of antifascist unity, only the failure of governments and progressive parties to unite against fascism accounted for our series of defeats.

This helps to explain the disproportionate shift towards the Communists among those already on the left. But it also helps to explain our confidence as young intellectuals, for this social group was most easily, and disproportionately, mobilized against fascism. The reason is obvious. Fascism – even Italian fascism – was opposed in principle to the causes which defined and mobilized intellectuals as such, namely the values of the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. Except in Germany, with its powerful schools of theory critical of liberalism ,there was no significant body of secular intellectuals who did not belong to this tradition. The Roman Catholic Church had very few eminent intellectuals known and respected as such outside its own ranks. I am not denying that in some fields, notably literature, some of the most distinguished figures were clearly on the right: Eliot, Hamsun, Pound, Yeats, Paul Claudel, Céline, Evelyn Waugh – but even in the armies of literature the politically conscious Right formed a modest regiment in the 1930s, except perhaps in France. Once again this became evident in 1936. US writers, whether or not they accepted US neutrality, were overwhelmingly opposed to Franco, and Hollywood even more so (Frederick R. Benson, Writers in Arms: The Impact of the Spanish Civil War, 1968, p.26). Of the British writers asked, five favoured the Nationalist, 16 were neutral and 106 were for the Republic, often passionately (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, paperback edition, p. 347). As for Spain itself, there is no doubt where the poets of the Spanish language stood, who are now remembered: García Lorca, the brothers Machado, Alberti, Miguel Hernández, Neruda, Vallejo, Guillén.

This bias already operated against Italian fascism, even though it lacked at least two characteristics that were likely to make it unpopular among intellectuals: racism (until 1938) and hatred of modernism in the arts. Italian fascism did not lose the support of intellectuals, other than those already committed to the Left in 1922, until the Spanish Civil War. It seems that, with rare exceptions, Italian writers – very unlike German writers – did not emigrate during fascism. Therefore, 1936 forms a turning point in Italian cultural as well as political history. This may be a reason why the Civil War has left few traces in Italian belles lettres, except in retrospect (Vittorini). Those who wrote about it at the time were the émigré activists: the Rossellis, Pacciardi, Nenni, Longo, Togliatti (Aldo Garosci, Gli intelletuali e la Guerra di Spagna, Torino 1959, 433ff). On the other hand, against Germany intellectual anti-fascism operated from the moment Hitler took power, ritually burned the books of which Nazi ideology disapproved, and let loose a flood of ideological and racial emigrants. Willi Muenzenberg recognized its international potential immediately and exploited it brilliantly with the Brown Book and the campaign in defence of Dimitrov in the Reichstag Fire Trial.

The reactions of both intellectuals and the mobilized Left to the Spanish Civil War were, not surprisingly, spontaneous and massive. Here, at last, the advance of fascism was being resisted by arms. The appeal of armed resistance, being able to fight and not merely to talk, was almost certainly decisive. The poet Auden, asked to go to Spain for the propaganda value of his name, wrote to a friend: ‘I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier. But how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?’ (Carpenter, Life of W. H. Auden, p. 207) I think it is safe to say that most politically conscious British students of my age group felt they ought to fight in Spain and had a bad conscience if they did not. The extraordinary wave of volunteers who went to fight for the Republic is, I think, unique in the twentieth century. The most reliable figure for the strength of the body of foreign volunteers fighting for the Republic is around 35,000, not much less than Hugh Thomas’ original estimate of 40,000 (Skoutelsky, 1998, pp. 327-331).

They were a very mixed bunch, socially, culturally and by personal background. And yet, as one of them, the English poet Laurie Lee, has put it:

I believe we shared something else, unique to us at that time – the chance to make one grand and uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith, which might never occur again . . . few of us yet knew that we had come to a war of antique muskets and jamming machine-guns, to be led by brave but bewildered amateurs. But for the moment there were no half-truths and hesitations, we had found a new freedom, almost a new morality, and discovered a new Satan – Fascism.’

Laurie Lee, A Moment of War, 1991, p.46

I am not claiming that the Brigades were composed of intellectuals, even though volunteering for Spain, unlike joining the French Foreign Legion, implied a level of political consciousness and certainly of knowledge of the world that most non-political workers did not have. For most of them, apart from those from neighbouring France, Spain was terra incognita, at best a shape in a school atlas. Thanks to an excellent monograph (Skoutelsky, 1998), we know that the largest single body of International Brigaders, the French (just under 9000), overwhelmingly came from the working class – ninety-two per cent – and included no more than one per cent students and members of the liberal professions, virtually all of them Communists (p. 143). Given their technical qualifications, most of these were in fact employed behind the front lines (Rémi Skoutelsky, L’Espoir guidait leur pas: les volontaires français dans les Brigates internationals, Bernard Grasset, 1998). There were probably more intellectuals among the political exiles who formed the cadres of the Brigades, and I hope I am not too ‘chauvinist’ in suggesting that the high proportion of Jews among the volunteers implies intellectual activities. One third of the American Lincoln Brigade were Jews, as was the majority of all American women in Spain (N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford 1994). According to an informed estimate about 7000 of the International Brigaders were Jews (Arnold Paucker, ‘Deutsche Juden im Kampf um Recht und Freiheit’, Schriften d. Leo Baeck Instituts 2nd edition Teetz 2004, p. 254). However, inside or outside the Brigades, the commitment, sometimes the practical commitment, of intellectuals is not in doubt. Writers supported Spain not only with money, speech and signatures, but they wrote about it, as Hemingway, Malraux, Bernanos and virtually all the notable contemporary young British poets – Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, Macneice – did. Spain was the experience that was central to their lives between 1936 and 1939, even if they kept it out of sight later.

This was clearly so in my student days at Cambridge between 1936 and 1939. Not only was it the Spanish War that converted young men and women to the Left, but we were inspired by the specific example of those who went to fight in Spain. Anyone entering the rooms of Cambridge socialist and communist students in those days was almost certain to find in them the photograph of John Cornford, intellectual, poet, leader of the student Communist Party, who had fallen in battle in Spain on his twenty-first birthday in December 1936. Like the familiar photo of Che Guevara, it was a powerful, iconic image – but it was closer to us, and, standing on our mantelpieces, it was a daily reminder of what we were fighting for. As it happens, not many Cambridge or other students actually went to fight in Spain after the Communist Party of Great Britain decided, presumably in the autumn of 1936, to discourage students from volunteering for the International Brigades unless they had special military qualifications. Many of those who fought had joined the Republican forces before the Party established this policy. Nevertheless, the British International Brigaders contained a significant number of talented intellectuals, of whom several fell. So far as I am aware, none of those who survived has expressed regret for his decision to fight.


Among the losers, polemics about the Civil War, often bad-tempered, have never ceased since 1939. This was not so while the war was still continuing, although such incidents as the banning of the dissident Marxist POUM party and the murder of its leader Andrés Nin caused some international protest. Plainly a number of foreign volunteers arriving in Spain, intellectuals or not, were shocked by what they saw there, by suffering and atrocity, by the ruthlessness of warfare, brutality and bureaucracy on their own side or, insofar as they were aware of them, the intrigues and political feuds within the Republic, by the behaviour of the Russians and much else. Again, the arguments between the Communists and their adversaries never ceased. And yet, during the war the doubters remained silent once they left Spain. They did not want to give aid to the enemies of the great cause. After their return, Simone Weill, though patently disappointed, said not a word. Wystan Auden wrote nothing, though he modified his great 1937 poem Spain in 1939 and refused to allow it to be reprinted in 1950. Faced with Stalin’s terror, Louis Fischer, a journalist closely associated with Moscow, denounced his past loyalties – but he took trouble to do so only when this gesture could no longer harm the Spanish Republic. The exception proves the rule: George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. It was refused by Orwell’s regular publisher, Victor Gollancz, ‘believing, as did many people on the Left, that everything should be sacrificed in order to preserve a common front against the rise of Fascism,’ which was also the reason given by Kingsley Martin, editor of the influential weekly New Statesman & Nation, for accepting a critical book review. They represented the views overwhelmingly prevalent on the left. Orwell himself admitted after his return from Spain that, ‘a number of people have said to me with varying degrees of frankness that one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist Party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco,’ (Hugh Thomas, p. 817). Indeed, as Orwell himself recognized in a letter to a friendly reviewer, ‘what you say about not letting the Fascists in owing to dissensions between ourselves is very true.’ More than this: the public showed no interest in the book. It was published in 1938 in 1500 copies, which sold so poorly that the stock was not yet exhausted thirteen years later when it was first reprinted (Orwell in Spain, pp. 28, 251, 269-70). Only in the Cold War era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure.

Of course the posthumous polemics about the Spanish War are legitimate, and indeed essential – but only if we separate out debate on real issues from the parti pris of political sectarianism, Cold War propaganda and pure ignorance of a forgotten past. The major question at issue in the Spanish Civil War was and remains how social revolution and war were related on the Republican side. The Spanish Civil War was, or began as, both. It was both a war born of the resistance of a legitimate government, with the help of a popular mobilization, against a partially successful military coup, and, in important parts of Spain, the spontaneous transformation of the mobilization into a social revolution. A serious war conducted by a government requires structure, discipline and a degree of centralization. What characterizes social revolutions like that of 1936 was local initiative, spontaneity, independence of or even resistance to higher authority, especially given the unique strength of Anarchism in that country. In short, what was and remains at issue in these debates is what divided Marx and Bakunin. The polemics about the dissident Marxist POUM are irrelevant to this issue and, given the small size and marginal role of that party in the Civil War, barely significant. They belong to the history of ideological struggles within the international communist movement or, if one prefers, of Stalin’s ruthless war against Trotskyism with which his agents (wrongly) identified it. The conflict between libertarian enthusiasm and disciplined organization, between social revolution and winning a war, remains real in the Spanish Civil War, even if we suppose that the USSR and the Communist Party wanted the war to end in revolution and that the parts of the economy socialized by the Anarchists (i.e. handed over to local workers’ control) worked well enough. Wars, however flexible the chains of command, cannot be fought, or war economies run, in a libertarian fashion. The Spanish Civil War could not have been waged,let alone won, along Orwellian lines.

However, in a more general sense, the conflict between revolution as the aspiration to freedom and winning war is not purely Spanish. It emerges fully after the victory of revolutions in wars of liberation: in Algeria, probably in Vietnam, certainly in Yugoslavia. Since the Left lost in the Spanish Civil War, in this case the debate is posthumous and increasingly remote from the realities of the time, like Ken Loach’s film, inspiring and moving as it is. Moral revulsion against Stalinism and the behaviour of its agents in Spain is justified. It is right to criticize the Communist conviction that the only revolution that counted was one that brought the Party a monopoly of power. And yet these considerations are not central to the problem of the Civil War. Marx would have had to confront Bakunin even if all on the Republican side had been angels. But it must be said that, among those who actually fought for the Republic as soldiers, most found Marx more relevant than Bakunin. Even though Fascism with among the survivors there are some who recall the spontaneous but inefficient euphoria of the Anarchist phase of liberation with tenderness as well as exasperation.

Today it is possible to see the Civil War, Spain’s contribution to the tragic history of that most brutal of centuries, the twentieth, in its historical context. It was not, as the neo-liberal François Furet argues it should have been, a war both against the ultra-right and the Comintern, a view shared, from a Trotskyist sectarian angle, by Ken Loach’s powerful film. It was a war against Franco, that is to say against the forces of Fascism with which Franco was aligned, though not a fascist himself. Unlike in World War II, in the Spanish Civil War the wrong side won. But it is largely due to the intellectuals,the artists and writers who had mobilized so overwhelmingly in favour of the Republic, that in this instance history has not been written by the victors. In creating the world’s memory of the Spanish Civil War the pen,the brush and the camera wielded on behalf of the defeated have proved mightier than the sword and the power of those who won.

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 – 2012) was an historian and writer who taught in London and various parts of the world. He was Professor Emeritus of Economic and Social History of the University of London, president of Birkbeck College, University of London and the author of a number of historical books and an autobiography. This article is taken from Revolutionaries (Abacus, 2007), and reproduced by kind permission of the author.