Netanyahu, Syria and the Spanish Civil War

As the UN and the US cosy up to Iran and allow Assad to stay in power, Israel’s leader will go his own way to save his country

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Face of moderation?
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Emanuele Ottolenghi
On 7 November 2013 00:09

While waiting to hear Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's much anticipated UN speech in September, I read a brilliant essay, "Islamists Assemble", by Michael Weiss on the news website Now Lebanon.

His subject was the splintering of Syria's fractious opposition and the coming internecine battle between Bashar al-Assad's enemies, amid fading hopes that President Obama's promise of red lines and hints that "Assad must go" meant anything much.

Much has been made of the fractious nature of the Syrian rebels — the bewildering number of names and groups fighting on different fronts; the atrocities some of them have committed; the reported acts of ethnic cleansing; the public beheading of pro-regime fighters and soldiers. Weiss drew a vivid picture of the galaxy of Islamist groups vying for supremacy as they fight the regime, fight Christians, Kurds and Alawites, and fight among themselves.

Suddenly, I was reminded of Camillo Berneri, a youthful obsession of my university days. Berneri was an Italian anarchist and intellectual who lived a tumultuous life in the interwar period and mixed with the leading Italian anti-Fascist thinkers of his generation – Piero Gobetti, the Rosselli brothers, and Ernesto Rossi. 

His writing style was terse and clear. His knowledge was encyclopaedic. He had studied with Gaetano Salvemini, the great Italian historian who eventually migrated to the United States to escape fascism and taught at Harvard.

Berneri lived in exile, mostly in Paris, though he was periodically arrested and expelled for agitating and plotting with other anarchists. He was an undesirable, yet a towering figure among exiled intellectuals and anti-fascist activists. And like so many of his generation, he was gripped by the ideological fervour — and fractiousness — of socialism and its many splinters.

What Berneri had to do with Syria becomes evident when one looks at his untimely death. Like so many other young European leftists of his time, Berneri rallied to the cause of Republican Spain in the aftermath of General Franco's uprising against the Popular Front government. And like many of his comrades, he was felled by the bullets of an opponent from his own ideological galaxy.

Berneri died in Barcelona, in 1937, shot by the local Stalinist police, not killed by the fascists. Others would meet a similar fate. 

That was the part of Spain's Civil War history that resonated with Weiss's piece on Syria.

The Popular Front splintered. The glue of anti-fascism was not strong enough to overcome the animosity that divided Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin and their successors. They turned against one another. Democracies looked on. Fascism won.

Could that be Syria's fate? As the Syrian rebels splinter, unable to overcome their differences to achieve the common goal of toppling Assad, democracies have assumed the role of bystanders. Fearful of an al-Qaeda victory, they may let Assad win, come what may.

Earlier this year, in the pages of Standpoint, I addressed the analogies between the Syria conundrum and the Spanish Civil War. But they deserve more scrutiny because of the sudden turn of events in Syria in September, and the likely rapprochement between the US and Iran after Rouhani's visit to New York.

Less than a year into the Spanish Civil War, German and Italian warplanes bombed the town of Guernica in the Basque region. The wanton slaughter of civilians was a harbinger of the Nazi total war that would engulf Europe two years later.

The suffering of Guernica was immortalised by Picasso's homonymous painting, which toured the world shortly after its completion drawing public attention to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

The painting, now in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, is a symbol of all anti-war causes. And like many other such testimonials, it failed to move the world's conscience to act. If anything, it scared Western audiences into appeasement — for as long as they could sacrifice someone else's future to Hitler's appetites, diplomacy was preferable to conflict.

Look at Guernica then, but think of Assad's ruthless chemical weapons assault on his own citizens in August in Damascus's eastern suburbs. Assad is still there — his crime will go unpunished and his patrons have now been dignified with an indispensable role in finding a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict.

Speaking of analogies, Berneri's writings on Nazism and fascism show a moral clarity of judgment that today appears like a foregone conclusion but that was by no means obvious back in his time, even among sincere democrats.

For say what you want about the Spanish Civil War and the brutality on both sides of its ideological divide, the fact is that the Western democracies stood aside, believing that, distasteful as it was that Franco enjoyed the backing of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the possibility of a Communist takeover was infinitely worse.

And what for? In the end, even those who viewed Spanish Republicans as Stalin's proxies and thus unworthy of support had to align themselves with Stalin after June 1941 to fight a bigger threat.

Not that Communism was harmless — it was not — but the red scare blinded many to the fact that fascism was no less evil until it was too late. Picking a side was no doubt distasteful — but being a bystander in the face of multiple evils is never a good choice either. Letting two opposite evils determine the course of events guarantees a terrible outcome.

Today Syria is turning into a similar struggle between Sunni radicalism and Iran's proxies. Historical analogies should never be pushed too far; neither side fits neatly the paradigm of Franco and the Popular Front. But there are important lessons to be learned from the Spanish Civil War.

One is that Nazi Germany and fascist Italy read Western indifference as defeatism. The absence of consequences for their brazen actions helped to set the stage for the much larger conflagration that followed only a few months after Franco's victory in 1939.

Western indifference to human suffering and the impunity with which they were allowed to commit widespread atrocities also convinced the Nazi and fascist regimes that they could murder on a grand scale and get away with it. It is hard to believe that Assad and his Iranian patrons are drawing any other conclusion from the cowardly pretexts Western leaders are invoking to avoid any kind of interference in the Syrian arena.

There is another element that harks back to the Spanish conflict which offers a sobering lesson for Israel, as the world warms to Iran even as it sends thousands of trained fighters to Syria to support a dictator who has gassed his own people.

Two remarkable essays by Berneri come to mind — a 1934 essay entitled "Against the Racist Delirium" and a 1935 booklet entitled "The anti-Semitic Jew". Both works are sketchy — they were written in exile, without the benefit of a proper library to consult. Thus they read more like drafts of a more substantial project, especially the latter, which delves into the question of why some Jews turn against their own people, helping in the process to foment anti-Semitism.

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