The Spanish Civil war: Dreams and Nightmares

The Spanish Civil War, which broke out in July 1936, was a struggle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution. After the fascist victories in Italy and Germany, many saw this war as the last stand against fascism. From more than 50 countries, some 45,000 volunteers left home to fight fascism on Spanish soil. One of the most powerful images of the conflict remains Picasso's Guernica. Painted following the massive aerial bombardment of the Basque town by German and Italian nationalist allies in April 1937, it is an angry memorial to the thousands of civilian war dead.

Though Picasso's masterpiece is not part of this exhibition, Picasso is one of the many artists who feature in this major survey marking the 65th anniversary of the arrival in Spain of these foreign volunteers. The exhibition contains an array of documents, letters, diary extracts, posters and photos that cover the conflict. Some of them from George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Spender, all of whom fought against Franco.

There are all kinds of artefacts featured in the exhibition, from a coin salvaged from the battered ruins of Guernica to a bread ration card from the siege of Alcazar. They serve to bring to life the basic emotions that permeated the Civil War. The hopes, dreams, the sacrifice and struggle are all captured.

The Spanish Civil War was interwoven with the Spanish socialist revolution. The uprising against the fascists placed power in the hands of the working class of Catalonia. Such were the heroic actions of the workers that Trotsky was to comment that their struggle could have accomplished ten revolutions.

Unfortunately, without a revolutionary party, the Spanish revolution was ultimately betrayed by the Stalinist and Anarchist leaders, who entered the bourgeois government of Catalonia and set about restoring the capitalist state machine.

Stalin wanted to prove his moderate credentials to the western democracies and deliberately strangled the Spanish revolution through the Communist Party's policy of "win the war first", and then we will see about revolution. The arms they supplied were paid for with gold and were deliberately kept from the revolutionary fronts held by the POUM and Anarchists.

The Art of the Revolution

It expresses the enormous hope for the future and the terrible fate that faces mankind if fascist barbarism is victorious. The propaganda posters of the trade unions, the UGT and CNT, depict strong-armed workers marching forward to defeat fascism. "More men! More arms! More ammunition!" they cry. They carry dreams of a New World free from capitalist exploitation. It is a fight they are prepared to die for. The graphic images each tell a story. The black and white images have a striking visual impact. Perhaps none more so than Robert Capa's Falling Soldier. As the dying militiaman is releasing the grip on his rifle, life drains from his body, thrown back onto the soil of Spain. A single shot caught in an instant.

The image of a woman in blinding pain is also captured in the initial artwork that you see on entering the exhibition; Montserrat 11, a 12-inch tall bronze cast by Julio Gonzalez. A woman, her head wrapped in a simple headscarf, her face contorted in pain, screams in terrible agony. No noise emanates from this sculpture, yet her pain can be heard. She screams not for herself but for the thousands and millions crushed by the heel of reaction.

The exhibition also includes the images of the Francoists. The most sinister picture is of General Franco surrounded by a group of fascist officers. On his extreme right is a group of cassock-clad clerics, their arms held high in praise of fascism. Their actions sought to spiritually justify Franco's "just" war. There are clear parallels with the Archbishop of Canterbury's endorsement of the bombing of Afghanistan as a "just" war.

The victory of fascism opened up a new chapter of blood and iron and prepared the way for the second world war. Although the Allies said the war was a war against fascism, the fascist dictatorship in Spain was left intact. Only those who sought to challenge the interests of the imperialist powers of Britain and the USA were to be defeated. Franco was left in peace to continue his bloody rule for the next thirty years.

This exhibition is certainly worth seeing. If nothing more it serves to provoke an interest in these events.

Nothing could explain things more clearly than a reading of Felix Morrow's book Revolution and Counter-revolution in Spain, as well as Trotsky's Writings on Spain. There are lessons to be learnt and a new generation that needs to understand the heroic and tragic events of the past.