Foreign Intervention: government responses
Overseas interest in the Spanish Civil War was aroused by what appeared to be a clear left-right split that mirrored the divisions in Europe at that time. Franco and the
Nationalists presented the civil war as a struggle against communism, while the Popular Front viewed the war as a battle between
democracy and fascism. Azana appealed to the French government for help but it was reluctant and in no position to help unless supported by Britain. Both Britain and France were suspicious of the communist-backed Spanish Republic and still hoped to keep
Mussolini away from Hitler. So they organized the ‘Non-Intervention Committee’ in London, at which 27 states agreed not to supply either side with ‘military goods’. It failed.
Although Germany and Italy joined the Non-Intervention Committee, they both supplied Franco, at first in secret but increasingly openly. This included an Italian force of 100,000 ‘volunteers’ (in reality regular Italian troops) and 400 German fighter planes that formed the Condor Legion.
Stalin also sent troops and equipment to support the republican side but on nothing like the same scale. At the same time as Italian and German military support was pouring into Spain, Britain and France were actually impeding the Republican war effort by using their navies to prevent supplies reaching the Republican side. Here was further evidence of the extraordinary lengths to which the British and French governments were prepared to go, in order to appease Hitler and Mussolini and avoid a general European war.
Foreign intervention: individual responses
Whilst the western democracies followed a policy of appeasement and non-intervention, individuals in these countries with strong left wing political views felt strongly enough to go to Spain and fight, as they saw it, for freedom and democracy against fascism and in defence of the Republic. This combination of intellectuals, industrial workers and political activists – 40,000 in all – left their jobs and families, and made their way to Spain from all over Europe to be recruited into battalions of what became known as the
International Brigade. In Wales, 174 men volunteered for the International Brigade, most of them (118) from the mining valleys of South Wales. Thirty-three of those who volunteered lost their lives. In his book, Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War, the historian Hywel Francis has described the typical Welsh volunteer.
The ‘typical’ Welsh volunteer was invariably a miner who was unemployed as a result of his trade union activities. His first and most telling political and trade union experience would have been the
1926 General Strike and lock-out…He would have played a part in many extra-parliamentary and extra-legal actions from 1926 onwards, including hunger marches, street demonstrations, stay-down strikes and disturbances for which he could have been fined or even imprisoned… An activist in the
SWMF (South Wales Miners Federation) from an early age, and then the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain), he would have come from a mining family, often large and poverty stricken…. The contingent from the mining valleys of South Wales was by far the largest regional occupational grouping within the British battalion. Indeed, there were more from the South Wales Coalfield than from all the other British coalfields combined.