“History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville
Today’s confusing events in Syria, where it’s hard to know the good guys from the bad, are not without historical precedent. Few can recall first-hand the Spanish Civil War fought from 1936 to 1939 and, outside of Spain, its relevance is obscured by the bookends of the First and Second World Wars. Although the war is but a footnote to most, the parallels between Syria now and Spain then are remarkably striking.
In the depths of the world’s Great Depression, leftist Spanish Republicans gained power legitimately, but their downfall would come by the vengeance they sought for past years under abusive conservative rule. The Spanish Nationalist right was forced to counter, eventually retaking their lost status quo. Shocking atrocities were committed by both sides; Republicans killed thousands of priests and nuns while the Nationalist death squads moved through cities and towns seeking reprisal on enemy sympathizers. Many of the dead were women and children. The world watched in horror as the war cost the lives of a half-million people and forced the flight of even more refugees.
For the democratic allied powers of France, the U.K. and the U.S., muddled decisions on self-interest and on whom to support led to their impotence. But not so indecisive were Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and the Catholic Church, all supporting the Nationalists. The Republicans were backed by Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mexico. And from around the globe, foreign fighters unofficially joined the causes on both sides, many times killing their own countrymen. Even artists Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso lined up differently. It was all very confusing.
The war evolved to be more than just a battle between the Spanish left and the right. It would become a microcosm, a chilling precursor to the chaotic forces that would continue to unfold through the next decade, causing a dramatic shift in world order power.
Action or inaction? Support or condemnation? The order imposed by the victors of World War I had failed. The complex entanglements – nationalism, communism, fascism, economics, religion, atrocities, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini – all made any resolution and a negotiated peace impossible. And so the allies did nothing. War would be not only left to decide the Spanish issue, but it would also lead straight into many of the same entanglements fought over in World War II.
One cannot help but see today’s chaos in Syria in the same light – ideological differences between the Shia and Sunni, repression and retribution, economic depression, mass atrocities, unofficial combatants drawn to the cause, involvement by outside powers driven by their own self-interest. But by far the most striking parallel to Spain is the world’s confusion over whom to back. Who really are the good guys?
Will the entanglements now seen in Syria lead to an even greater global conflict? Syria’s fate will be decided and realistically not by negotiated settlement. But the greater underlying chaos will remain, and it is more than likely to raise its ugly head elsewhere.
History is anything but forgiving.