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Non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War
During the Spanish Civil War, several countries followed a principle of non-intervention, to avoid any potential escalation and possible expansion of the war to other nations, which would result in the signing of the Non-Intervention Agreement in August 1936 and the setting up of the Non-Intervention Committee, which first met in September. Primarily arranged by the French and British governments, important members of the committee also included the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Ultimately, the committee had the support of 27 nations.
A plan to control materials coming into the country was put forward in early 1937, effectively subjecting the Spanish Republic to severe international isolation and a de facto economic embargo, but this plan was mocked by German and Italian decisive and immediate support for the Nationalist faction. The subject of volunteers was also much discussed, with little result; although agreements were signed late on in the war, these were made outside the Committee. Efforts to stem the flow of war materials to Spain were largely unsuccessful, with foreign involvement in the Spanish Civil War proving instrumental to its outcome. Nazi Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union consistently broke the agreement they had signed, France occasionally so. Britain remained largely faithful to it.
Non-intervention, and with it the Non-Intervention Agreement, had been proposed in a joint diplomatic initiative by the governments of France and the United Kingdom. It was part of a policy of appeasement, aimed at preventing a proxy war – with Italy and Nazi Germany supporting Franco's Nationalist Coalition right at the onset of the conflict and the Soviet Union supporting the Republican faction four months later – from escalating into a major pan-European conflict.
On 3 August 1936, Charles de Chambrun, French ambassador to Italy, presented the French government's non-intervention plan; Galeazzo Ciano promised to study it. The British, however, accepted the plan in principle immediately. The following day, it was put to Konstantin von Neurath, the foreign minister of Nazi Germany by André François-Poncet. The German position was that such a declaration was not needed, but discussions could be held on preventing the spread of the war to the rest of Europe, so long as the USSR was present. It was mentioned at the meeting of the French with Neurath that both countries were already supplying the parties in the war, France the Republicans and Germany the Nationalists. A similar approach was made by the French to the Soviet Union. On 6 August, Ciano confirmed Italian support in principle. Despite a Pravda claim that 12,145,000 roubles had already been sent by Russian workers to Spain, the Soviet government similarly agreed in principle, so long as Portugal was included, and so long as Germany and Italy stopped aid immediately.
On 7 August 1936, France unilaterally declared non-intervention. Draft declarations had been put to the German and Italian governments. Such a declaration had already been accepted by the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, which renounced all traffic in war material, direct or indirect. The Portuguese Foreign Minister, Armindo Monteiro, was also asked to accept, but held his hand. An ultimatum was put to Yvon Delbos by the British: halt French exports to Spain, or Britain would not be obliged to act under the Treaty of Locarno if Germany invaded; on 9 August, exports were duly suspended. However, collections for food, clothing and medical supplies to the Spanish Republicans continued. On 9 August, the Germans informed the British that 'no war materials had been sent from Germany and none will', which was blatantly false.[nb 1] During the blockade of the Strait of Gibraltar by the Spanish Republican Navy one German Junkers was captured when it came down in Republican territory, and explained as 'merely a transport aircraft'. Its release would be required before Germany signed the Non-Intervention Pact. Portugal accepted the pact on 13 August, unless her border was threatened by the war.
There was popular support in both countries for the plan, although whilst in the United Kingdom the socialist Labour Party was strongly in favour,[nb 2] the political left in France wanted to directly aid the Republicans. The Labour Party would reject non-intervention in October 1937. The British Trades Union Congress was split. A report called the 'Commission of Inquiry into Alleged Breaches of the Non-Intervention Agreement in Spain' was drawn up in London, sponsored by Comintern, and headed by respectable figures. Both the British and French governments were aware of the First World War. France was reliant on British support in general. Léon Blum, the French prime minister, believed that support for the Republic would have led to a fascist takeover in France and ultimately no change in Spain.
On 5 August 1936, the United States had made it known that it would follow a policy of non-intervention, but did not announce it officially. This isolationism on the Spanish war would later be identified as disastrous by Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles. Five days later, the Glenn L. Martin Company enquired whether the government would allow the sale of eight bombers to the Spanish Republican Air Force; the response was negative. It also confirmed it would not take part in several mediation attempts, including one by the Organization of American States. Mexico soon became the first nation to openly support the Republicans. On 15 August, the United Kingdom banned exports of war material to Spain. Neurath also agreed to the pact, and suggested that volunteers (many of whom would eventually form the International Brigades) be included. Italy similarly agreed, signing on 21 August after a determined diplomatic offensive by Britain and France. Although a surprising reversal of views, it has been put down to the growing belief that countries could not abide by the agreement anyway. Admiral Raeder urged the German government either to back the Nationalists more completely, and bring Europe to the brink of war, or to abandon them. On the 24th, Germany signed.
The Soviet Union was keen not to be left out. On 23 August 1936, it agreed to the Non-Intervention Agreement, and this was followed by a decree from Stalin banning exports of war material to Spain, thereby bringing the USSR into line with the Western Powers. Soviet foreign policy considered collective security against German fascism a priority and the Comintern had agreed a similar approach in 1934. It walked a thin line between pleasing France and not being seen to hinder the World revolution and communist ideals. This was also the time of the first significant trials of the Old Bolsheviks in Russia. Soviet press and opposition groups were entirely against non-intervention; Soviet actions could hardly have been further from the goal of spreading the revolution.
It was at this point that the Non-Intervention Committee was created to uphold the agreement, but the double-dealing of the USSR and Germany had already become apparent. It also removed the need for a declaration of neutrality (which would have granted the Nationalists and Republicans control over neutrals in the areas they controlled), and had little legal standing. In Britain, part of the reasoning was based on an exaggerated belief in Germany's and Italy's preparedness for war.
The ostensible purpose of the Non-Intervention Committee (1936–1939) was to prevent personnel and matériel reaching the warring parties of the Spanish Civil War, as with the Non-Intervention Agreement.
The Committee first met in London on 9 September 1936 and was attended by representatives of solely European countries, and did not include Switzerland (whose policy of neutrality prohibited even inter-governmental action).[nb 3] It was chaired by W. S. Morrison, Britain's Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The meeting was concerned mostly with procedure only. Charles Corbin represented the French, Italy by Dino Grandi, and the Soviets were represented by Ivan Maisky. Germany was represented by Ribbentrop (with Otto Christian Archibald von Bismarck as deputy) but left the running to Grandi, although they found working with him difficult; Portugal, whose presence had been a Soviet requirement, was not represented. There was little hope in the committee, since the British and French would have been aware of the continued shipment of arms to the Nationalists from Italy and Germany. Britain protested twice to the Italians, once in response to Italian aircraft landing in Majorca, the other pre-emptively over any significant change in the Mediterranean. Stanley Baldwin, British prime minister, and Blum attempted to halt global exports to Spain, believing it in Europe's best interests. Soviet aid to the Republic was threatened in the Committee. It began once it was clear the Non-Intervention Agreement was not preventing Italian and German aid to the Nationalists.
The second meeting took place on 14 September 1936. It established a subcommittee to be attended by representatives of Belgium, Britain, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and Sweden, to deal with the day-to-day running of non-intervention. Among them, though, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy dominated, perhaps worryingly so. Soviet non-military aid was revived, but not military aid. Meanwhile, the 1936 meeting of the League of Nations began, beset not only with the Spanish problem, but also with the review of the Abyssinia Crisis. It was much weakened, but still spoke out in favour of worldwide peace. There, Anthony Eden convinced Monteiro to have Portugal join the Non-Intervention Committee. Álvarez del Vayo spoke out against the Non-Intervention Agreement, claiming it put the rebel Nationalists on the same footing as the Republican government; that as the official government, the Republic had the right to buy arms. On 28 September, Portugal was represented on the Committee for the first time; the Earl of Plymouth replaced W. S. Morrison as British representative. Conservative, he often adjourned meetings – to the benefit of the Italians and Germans – and the Committee was accused of an anti-Soviet bias. In Geneva, Maxim Litvinov once again confirmed Soviet support, based on the suggestion it would avoid war. However, the Soviet government remained hostile to the idea, and supported Álvarez's view that non-intervention was illegal.
On 12 November 1936, significant changes were put in place to the functioning of the committee, with the ratification of plans to post observers to Spanish frontiers and ports to prevent breaches of the agreement. This had been delayed by Italian and German demands that air transport be included, which was perhaps a delaying tactic given the impossibility to doing so effectively. Russian military aid now being transported to Spain did not go unnoticed. France and Britain became split on whether to recognise Franco's forces as a belligerent as the British wanted, or to fail to do as the French wanted. On 18 November, this was subsumed by the news that the Italian and German governments had recognised the Nationalists as the true government of Spain. A British bill preventing exports of arms to Spain by British ships from anywhere was signed. Yvon Delbos requested mediation; at the same time, the Republic appealed to the Council of the League of Nations for assistance. Franklin Roosevelt, also approached, ruled out US interference with the words '[there should be] no expectation that the United States would ever again send troops or warships or floods of munitions and money to Europe'. On 4 December, France and Britain approached Italy, Germany, Russia and Portugal to request mediation.[nb 4] An armistice would be called, a commission sent to Spain, and, after a plebiscite, a government featuring those uninvolved in the war (such as Salvador de Madariaga) would be established. The considerable number of German soldiers in Spain – at least 5,000 – was now clear, but Italy and Germany were opposed to isolated discussion of the matter.
On 10 December 1936, Álvarez put the Republic's case to the League of Nations, further demanding that the League condemn Italy's and Germany's decision to recognise the Nationalists. He pointed to the risk of the Spanish war spreading, and suggested that the Non-Intervention Committee was ineffective. This charge was denied by Lord Cranborne and Édouard Viénot, the British and French representatives respectively, who appealed to the League to endorse the mediation plan. The League condemned intervention, urged its council's members to support non-intervention, and commended mediation. It then closed discussion on Spain, leaving it to the Committee. The mediation plan, however, was soon dropped. Britain and France continued to consider, and put forward, plans to prevent foreign volunteers, outside of the Committee.
On 6 January 1937, the first opportunity after the winter break, both houses of Congress in the United States passed a resolution banning the export of arms to Spain.[nb 5] Those in opposition to the bill, including American socialists, communists and many liberals, suggested that the export of arms to Germany and Italy should be halted also under the Neutrality Act of 1935, since foreign intervention constituted a state of war in Spain. Cordell Hull, continued to doubt the extent of German and Italian operations, despite evidence to the contrary. The Soviets met the request to ban volunteers on 27 December, Portugal on 5 January, and Germany and Italy on 7 January. Adolf Hitler authored the German declaration. On 10 January, a further request that volunteering be made a crime was made by Britain and France to Germany. There continued Germany uneasiness about the scale, limitations and outcomes of intervention in Spain. On 20 January, Italy put a moratorium on volunteers, and on the 25 January Germany and Italy agreed to support limitations to prevent volunteers, believing that supplies to the Nationalists were now sufficient. In that meeting, both the Germans and Italian spoke as if their men in Spain were genuine volunteers. The Spanish Civil War (Non-Intervention) Act, 1937 was signed into law on 24 February by the Irish, and provided penalties for exporters of war material, and for service in the military forces of a belligerent, and restricted travel to Spain. Soviet war aid continued to reach Spain through the Mediterranean. However, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia continued to believe a European war was not in their best interests; non-intervention, however, would have left both sides with the possibility of defeat, which Germany, Italy and Russia in particular were keen to avoid.
Observers were posted to Spanish ports and borders, and both Ribbentrop and Grandi were told to agree to the plan, significant shipments already having taken place. Portugal would not accept observers, although it did agree to personnel attached to the British Embassy in Lisbon. The cost of the scheme was put at £898,000; Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia would each pay 16%; the other 20% would be met by the other 22 countries. Zones of patrol were assigned to each of the four nations; an International Board was set up to administer the scheme. The setting up of the scheme took until April. For the Republicans, this seemed like adding insult to injury – the wholesale transfer of arms to the Nationalists would now be policed by the very countries supplying them. Despite accusations that 60,000 Italians were now in Spain, and Grandi's announcement that he hoped no Italian volunteer would leave until the war was over, the German delegation appears to have hoped the control plan was effective. There were Italian assurances that Italy would not break up non-intervention.
In May 1937, the Committee noted two attacks on the patrol's ships in the Balearic islands by Spanish Republican Air Force aircraft, the first on the Italian cruiser Barletta and the second on German pocket battleship Deutschland. It iterated calls for the withdrawal of volunteers from Spain, condemned the bombing of open towns, and showed approval of humanitarian work. Germany and Italy said they would withdrawn from the Committee, and from the patrols, unless it could be guaranteed there would be no further attacks. Early June saw the return of Germany and Italy to the committee and patrols. Italian reticence of operations in Spain, however, was dropped. By contrast, it continued to be a crime in Germany to mention German operations. Following attacks (attributed to Republicans by Germany, but denied) on the German cruiser Leipzig on 15 and 18 June, Germany and Italy once again withdrew from patrols, but not from the Committee. This prompted the Portuguese government to remove British observers on the Spain–Portugal border.
Discussions about patrols remained complicated. Britain and France offered to replace Germany and Italy in patrols of their sections, but the latter powers believed these patrols would be too partial. Germany and Italy requested that land controls be kept, and belligerent rights be given to the Nationalists, so that rights of search could be used by both the Republicans and Nationalists to replace naval patrols. The French considered abandoning border controls, or perhaps leaving non-intervention. However, the French were reliant on the British, who wished to continue with patrols. Britain and France thus continued to labour over non-intervention; whilst they judged it effective, some 42 ships were estimated to have escaped inspection between April and the end of July. The air route had not been covered. The Nationalists' debt to Germany reached 150 million Reichmarks. On 9 July, the Dutch Ambassador suggested that Britain draft a compromise. Lord Plymouth did, called the 'compromise plan for the control of non-intervention'. Naval patrols would be replaced by observers in ports and ships, land control measures would be resumed. Belligerent rights would only be granted when substantial progress was made on volunteer withdrawal. The French were furious, considering that Britain was moving towards Germany and Italy. Grandi demanded the discussion of belligerent rights before volunteer rights; Maisky insisted that volunteers be discussed first.
Conference of Nyon and onwards
It culminated in a period during 1937 when all the powers were prepared to give up on non-intervention. Ciano complained to his government that Italian forces in Italy were ready but not being used; the Soviet Union was not prepared to discuss belligerent rights; Delbos was considering proposing mediation by Roosevelt and the Pope, whilst simultaneously preparing French war plans; Britain's new Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, saw securing a friendship with the Italian Benito Mussolini as a top priority. Eden confided he wished Franco to win, so Italian and Germany involvement would be scaled back; Chamberlain considered Spain a troublesome complication to be forgotten. By the end of July 1937, the Committee was in deadlock, and the aims of a successful outcome to the Spanish Civil War was looking unlikely. Unrestricted Italian submarine warfare began on 12 August. The British Admiralty believed that a significant control effort was the best solution, of four which were put forward, in response to attacks on British shipping. On 27 August it was decided by the Committee that naval patrols did not justify their expense and would be replaced, as planned, with observers at ports.
The Conference of Nyon was arranged in September 1937 for all parties with a Mediterranean coastline by the British, despite appeals by Italy and Germany that the Committee handle the piracy and other issues the conference was to discuss. It decided that French and British fleets patrol the areas of sea west of Malta, and attack any suspicious submarines. Warships that attacked neutral shipping would be attacked. On 18 September, Juan Negrín requested that the League of Nations' Political Committee examine Spain. He also demanded an end to non intervention. Eden claimed that non-intervention had stopped European war. The League did report on the Spanish situation, noting the 'failure of non-intervention'. On 6 November, the Committee met once again, with the plan to recognise the Nationalists as belligerents once significant progress had been made was finally accepted, down in part to Eden's patience. The Nationalists accepted on 20 November, the Republicans on 1 December. The former suggested 3,000 would be a reasonable number; this was, in reality the number of sick and unreliable Italians Franco wished to withdraw. This was countered by British suggestions fifteen or twenty thousand might be enough. These talks were subsumed by bilateral Anglo-Italian discussions. In trying to protect non-intervention in the Anglo-Italian meetings, which he grudgingly did, Eden would end up resigning from his post in the Foreign Office. On 17 March 1938, France reopened the border to arms traffic to the now weakened Republic. Between mid-April and mid-June, 21 British seamen were killed by attacks on British shipping in Spanish waters, as well as several Non-Intervention Committee observers.
On 27 June 1938, Maisky agreed to the sending of two commissions to Spain, to enumerate foreign volunteer forces, and to bring about their withdraw. It was estimated to cost £1,750,000 to £2,250,000, borne by member countries of the Committee. The Nationalists wished to prevent the fall of the favourable Chamberlain government in the United Kingdom, and so were seen to accept the plan. With much bemoaning, the Republicans also accepted the plan. The Nationalists demanded belligerent rights first, then withdrawals of 10,000 from each side after, which amounted to a rejection of the plan. Following the Munich Agreement – judged by Chamberlain to have been a success – Britain would host similar mediation in Spain. Negrín would propose the removal of the International Brigades, a majority of whom were now Spaniards, at the last meeting of the League of Nations, thereby showing his contempt for the Non-Intervention Committee. Similarly, Italians would leave Spain under the Anglo-Italian agreement, not through the Committee.
Britain and France recognised the Nationalist government on 27 February 1939. Clement Attlee criticised the way it had been agreed, calling it 'a gross betrayal... two and a half years of hypocritical pretence of non-intervention'.
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