Commentary | 06 June 2014

From Spain to Syria: a tale of two civil wars

From Spain to Syria: a tale of two civil wars

Roger Shanahan

ABC Online

Please click here for full online text.

  • Rodger Shanahan

From Spain to Syria: a tale of two civil wars

Roger Shanahan

ABC Online

Please click here for full online text.

  • Rodger Shanahan

Executive Summary

Australia no longer tolerates its nationals going abroad to fight another country's war - especially a war as devoid of ideological merit as the one in Syria, writes Rodger Shanahan.

In Canberra's Yarralumla, the same suburb that hosts the Governor-General's residence, sits a monument to 70 Australians who fought in Spain's civil war more than 75 years ago.

Australia was officially neutral in the conflict, although at the time it resonated with many in the country and posed difficult questions for both the Australian Labor Party and the Catholic Church. Now, more than seven decades later, significantly more Australians are involved in another foreign civil war.

Attitudes to the conflict in Syria though are different. To most Australians, it is remote, savage and alien, and has failed to gain popular attention at either an individual or institutional level. There are many reasons for this; the sectarian nature of the conflict is alien to a secular country, the background of those Australians killed fails to resonate with the average Australian, and the proliferation of Islamist groups in the opposition makes most Australians view participants as posing a security threat on their return.

The Spanish civil war was seen by many of those who participated as a war against the totalitarian forces of fascism, an attempt to forestall the victory of forces who were bent on further expansion.

Over 50,000 foreigners fought against Franco's Nationalist forces. Many of them were socialists or communists and were organised into international brigades. Of the Australians who participated, nearly all were communists or trade unionists, although their individual motivations for going varied from an ideological commitment to stop the expansion of fascism to a simple desire for adventure.

The existence of 'Spanish Relief Committees' in Australia that sought funding and volunteers made the passage somewhat easier. Spain's Catholic Church sided with Franco's forces against what it saw as the Godless communists, and at least one Australian Catholic joined Franco's forces as a consequence.

Perhaps what stands out from that civil war, though, is the inspiration for literary and artistic works that have had a significant effect on Western thought about totalitarianism and war. Pablo Picasso's legendary anti-war painting Guernica, named after the town bombed by German and Italian aircraft in 1937, stands as a symbol to the cost of war on civilian populations. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 were inspired in part by his own experience of watching Stalinist purges of Trotskyites in the Spanish Republican forces on whose side he was fighting, some of which was included in his Homage to Catalonia that catalogued his own experience of the war.

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is another work based in part on Hemingway's own experiences that uses the Spanish civil war's foreign fighters as a vehicle for explaining the futility of war. The future West German chancellor and Nobel peace prize winner Willy Brandt covered the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, and as a dedicated socialist, his experience of the way in which the Soviets dealt with those they saw as their ideological enemies on their own side gave him a lifelong aversion to communism in general and Stalinism in particular.

While the Syrian civil war is as brutal and vicious as Spain's, it is unlikely that the participants in the Syrian civil war will throw up any works of lasting cultural value to mankind, or produce any towering political or literary figures of the future. All civil wars are brutish and nasty by definition, but this one seems to be devoid of any ideological merit entirely. A repressive autocratic government is facing a collection of opposition groups who long ago turned, or allowed the war to be turned, into one with religious overtones. It says something about the way in which the conflict has been hijacked by regional interests with little or no understanding of the second-order effects of their actions that the West now considers elements of the opposition to be their main security threat rather then the Assad regime. 

In 1936, well before the 1978 Foreign Incursions and Recruitment Act was passed and September 11 and the Bali bombings brought home the reality of contemporary globalised violence in the name of religion, the then minister for health Billy Hughes in response to a parliamentary question regarding the participation of four Sydney nurses who had volunteered to work for the Spanish government claimed that:

While I should be prepared to exercise my powers of persuasion over them, and, if necessary offer them inducements to remain in Australia, officially I have no authority over them.

Six Australians who returned from the Spanish civil war were greeted by a welcoming crowd of 3,000 in Sydney. And, while the connections of the volunteers with the communists always remained with them, the onset of the war in Europe forced the government to look towards more pressing matters. While their individual politics may still be looked on in a poor light, with the benefit of hindsight a case can be made for the fact that their stance against fascism was the right one.

Nowadays both the Australian Government and the population is much less tolerant of its nationals going abroad to fight someone else's war. Citizens have been detained at airports and charged with trying to join, or facilitating the recruitment of fighters for opposition groups in Syria. Many more have had their passports confiscated on suspicion that they may join these groups. Australians scoff at the stories offered up by spokespeople that some of its nationals have been killed while providing 'humanitarian assistance' to opposition forces. And they are rightly repulsed at the thought that one of its own citizens would make a martyrdom video invoking God before detonating a truck bomb with him inside.

In contrast to the Spanish civil war, the Syrian conflict doesn't resonate with Australia's major political institutions or with Australians individually. Its brutality may even surpass that of Spain, even if its relevance doesn't. It is a small war, in part now a proxy war sponsored by regional autocratic governments of varying hues and fought by groups with whom most in the West have no ideological affinity.

How the post-civil war Syria will turn out is yet to be determined, but it is fair to say that in 75 years' time there won't be any monuments to Australians who participated in the Syrian civil war.

Dr Rodger Shanahan is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute of International Policy.