There have been several conflicts that have drawn comparisons to the current war in Ukraine. Vietnam, Afghanistan, WWII, and others have been said to make that particular grade.
But one, musically chronicled by The Clash, makes most sense. Four sides fought there, two as proxies. Granted, only one is a proxy in Ukraine and that one is almost the entire West. And yes, ninety years ago there was little to love in either of the ground combatants, whereas now Ukraine is clearly the hero. At the end of the 1930s the least noxious side won. Today, the question of who will win in Ukraine is still up for grabs.
But in new weapons used, in that it was a precursor to a larger conflict just as Ukraine might be, and in the ideological passion it’s drawing, the Ukrainian War has one modern prequel: The Spanish Civil War. As promised, The Clash.
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For those of you not familiar with the war, from various sources: “The Spanish Civil War was a civil war in Spain fought from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans and the Nationalists. Republicans were loyal to the communist backed Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic. The Popular Front was mainly manned by government loyalists, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). The Nationalists, an alliance of monarchists, conservatives, and traditionalists was led by a fascist military junta among whom General Francisco Franco quickly achieved a preponderant role. According to Claude Bowers, U.S. ambassador to Spain during the war, it was the ‘dress rehearsal for World War II.’ The Nationalists won the war, which ended in early 1939, and they ruled Spain until Franco’s death in November 1975.”
The proxy nature of the war is by far the biggest point of comparison with Ukraine. The Soviets poured arms, funding, and advisers into Spain to support the Popular Front. The Nazis did the same to support Franco, with the addition of serious air support. Picasso’s famous painting Guernica was designed as a memorial to those bombed by the Germans. Many of the weapons used in WWII saw their introduction in the battlefields in Spain. Ukraine is also using new Western weapons to make life miserable for Russian forces. And just as in Ukraine today, foreigners fought for both sides in Spain, though mainly for the Popular Front. American writers and intellectuals joined the PF’s Abraham Lincoln Brigade and nattered on about it forever.
Obviously, NATO and the West are supplying weapons to Ukraine. But unlike the Nazis, NATO does not operate over the skies of Ukraine. The WWII German terror bombing of Warsaw and Rotterdam was practiced over Spanish cities large and small. On the side of the Popular Front, Soviet commissars roamed the front lines committing atrocities and shooting PF troops not properly subservient to Moscow. The junta also committed their share of war crimes.
The ideological fervor was intense. It was reflected in the popular culture. The main character in the classic film Casablanca, Rick Blaine, ran guns to the Spanish loyalists. Evelyn Waugh countered in Brideshead Revisited by having a character volunteer as a nurse for Franco.
The Spanish Civil War was seen as an opportunity to confront a German backed threat to a quasi legitimate government, though a regime compromised by Russian influence. Granted, after meeting Franco and not getting him to drop his neutrality in WWII, Hitler said, “I prefer to have three or four of my own teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again!”
While both Spanish sides were backed by different brands of fascism, today we have better options. The choice now is not between the Nazis or the Soviets. This time Putin embodies both.