Friday, January 26, 2007

Spanish Civil War Symposium

Spanish Civil War Symposium

Of the four sessions offered at the Symposium on the History and Culture of the Spanish Civil War, I was unfortunately only able to attend the first two. The first topic discussed was “Art Under Fire,” or the role of the arts and culture in the War (presented, as you know, by Tony Geist). The second topic discussed was the historical context in which the war occurred. Dr. Peter Carroll presented this segment which dealt with the political and historical climate in Europe and the US in the years before, during, and after the war. He placed special emphasis on relations between the Soviet Union and the West, as well as the emergence of fascism. Much of the content of these two portions of the symposium concerned material that we have touched on in class or in our readings, but was presented in a more concise and focused format. For someone who had little or no previous knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, these two portions of the symposium would have provided a good working background in the elements that were involved in the conflict in terms of politics, art, culture, and history.

The symposium started with Professor Geist’s discussion of “art under fire,” or the role of culture in the war. He described the first part of this history in terms of the problems confronted by the new Republic and the steps it took to resolve them. He talked about the idealism embodied in the artists, intellectuals, and writers who worked to create the Republic and how they attempted to address the social problems in Spain through land reform and literacy campaigns. Professor Geist described the involvement of the arts community with the Republic to be a double history that involved a Republican commitment to culture as well as culture’s defense of the Republic.

The main problems confronting the young Republic were poverty and illiteracy. The former was addressed by attempts at land reform that met with limited success. The latter was addressed by broad-based literacy campaigns that were even taken into the trenches after the war broke out. In addition, a domestic peace corps was formed to take the arts to rural areas, among other things. Basically, the Republic defended the arts and encouraged literacy and culture whereas the fascists, as part of policy of terrorist attacks against civilian targets aimed at breaking the will of the people, bombed museums and libraries. The fascist attitude towards culture was expressed by a quotation attributed to Joseph Goebbels, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.”

Professor Geist went on to say that the vast majority of artists, intellectuals, writers, and other “culture workers” were predominantly Republican in their sympathies. This is due in large part to the hostile attitude of the fascists towards free expression. This relationship of art to the conflict was symbolized by the fact that the war was framed by the deaths of the two poets Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado. Republicans responded by forming the Alliance of Anti-fascist Individuals, a kind of “cultural militia” that turned art into a weapon. Since the Republic was poor in military supplies and was essentially cut-off from outside aid, they focused on using art as a propaganda tool in order to rally support for their cause both domestically and abroad.

An important element of “art as weapon” was poster making. Posters were made in all artistic styles and were of high quality. They ranged in size from postcards (often sent to people in foreign countries) to posters that covered the sides of entire buildings.

The next segment of the symposium was presented by Dr. Peter Carroll, the chairman of the board of the Lincoln Brigade Archives. His topic was the historical context of the Spanish Civil War. He described this context as a complex series of convergences which included Spain’s own internal situation combined with such things as the emergence of the communist party in the US and elsewhere, and the depression in the US that seemed at the time to be a sign that capitalism was failing. To this was added the complex web of international relations that formed after World War I.

His general take on why things turned out as they did in Spain was that Western nations, fearing the spread of communism more than fascism, hoped to play the two sides off against each other, thus buying time to strengthen capitalism’s role. By appeasing the fascists in Germany and Italy and essentially offering them Spain as a sacrifice, Britain, France, and the US hoped to limit the Soviet influence in Western Europe. Because of the Spanish Republic’s association with communist, socialist, and anarchist groups, it was cut off by the West. The fascists, on the other hand, were allowed to slip through enough loopholes to remain well supplied and supported.

Dr. Carroll also discussed the legacy of the attitudes that were formed during this period in history, and how they are still in effect to this day. Examples cited were the days of Hoover’s “red fascists” and some of the US’s activities in Latin America.

I wish I had been able to attend the entire symposium, however I feel that I benefited from the part I did attend. The presentations covered a lot of material and were complementary to each other in many ways. The slides of the posters also added a lot to the visual aspect of the presentation. In a way the sessions I attended worked well as a review for much of the material we’ve touched on in class in terms of the history and politics involved in the war. It also gave a good background in the general attitude of each side towards culture and art, as well as the “culture workers” attitudes towards each side. It would have been interesting to have seen some examples of fascist art, particularly in the form of posters. I think it would have helped to give a more informed perspective on the attitudes and events of the times. Far from softening the view of the fascist side (mine, at least), I think it would help to show the contrast between the sides even more clearly, especially when looked at in conjunction with the historical and political background that the symposium provided. This could also be said of the class in general. However, I would not have wanted to give up any of the works we’ve looked at as part of this class (books, posters, films, etc.) in order to make time to look at something that would probably be repugnant to me. However, I can’t help feeling that without the opposing viewpoint, my own perspective remains partly obscured.

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