On 22 March 1937, 1,000 people turned out to Melbourne University’s Public Lecture Theatre to debate the motion: “The Spanish government is the ruin of Spain”. It was a hot night and, according to a newspaper report, communists, Catholics, republicans and other students were “packed into the steeply raked rows of the public lecture theatre, cramming the aisles and the space in front of the platform; they were jammed in at the doors and corridors, they climbed into skylights and ventilators”.
Big hitters from the Catholic Campion society, such as Bob Santamaria, spoke in the affirmative. In the negative were prominent writers such as Nettie Palmer, who had, with her husband and daughter, been in Spain at the beginning of the revolution. The Age reported, “[F]eeling ran high from the beginning, and Mr Santamaria, who opened the debate, was interrupted by many hecklers”. Each speaker for the negative was also jeered and interrupted. The meeting ended in chaos. The Catholics started chanting, “Long live Christ the King!” which prompted a hostile response from the communists. The warring parties came to blows, and eventually fire hoses were turned on sections of the audience.
The debate gives us a sense of the degree of tension and passion which a section of the Australian population felt about the Spanish Civil War. The significance of Spain went beyond Spain itself. By 1936, fascist regimes were in place in Germany and Italy, and a clerical fascist government was in power in Austria. For millions of people across the world, therefore, Spain was an opportunity to push back against fascism. The war also cut to the heart of many political, class and religious fault lines of Australian life: communism versus fascism, Protestant versus Catholic, workers versus bosses.
The conservative Lyons government had been in office since 1932, and its general approach to the question of Spain, following the British line, was one of neutrality. Lyons himself said in parliament in 1936:
“I have already declared that the policy of the Commonwealth government in regard to the Spanish conflict is one of strict neutrality and have appealed to the Australian public to refrain directly or indirectly from taking any partisan measures. The Commonwealth government has no reason to believe that this appeal will not be respected.”
The ALP in practice had a very similar line to the Lyons government. Historian Amirah Inglis writes, in Australians in the Spanish Civil War, of the nearly unanimous agreement by all major political parties on a policy of non-intervention. The policy, she argues, amounted to support for the Francoist uprising, as non-intervention was not honoured by the Italians and Germans. The ALP avoided accusations of support for fascism by justifying their neutrality in anti-war terms: by staying out of the conflict, the ALP was helping to keep Australian workers at home and away from war. Furthermore, it claimed to be helping avoid a European-wide war. These positions were reflected in the mainstream of the union movement.
The rise of revolutionary workers’ movements across Eastern and parts of Western Europe were increasingly threatening the entrenched power of many institutions; the Catholic Church was one. Historian Gianfranco Cresciani has described how the Catholic Church became an important backer of the Italian fascist movement. And Italian priests in Queensland were invariably present at fascist rallies and spoke in favour of Mussolini’s regime throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.
The rise of the Republican government and the growth of anarchist and radical workers’ movements were similarly deeply threatening to the Spanish church. Fear and loathing were transmitted to the Australian hierarchy and expressed clearly here by the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, who said that the Spanish Civil War represented a crisis of civilisation—a “stand-up fight between God and the devil, and between communism and Christianity”.
The Communist Party of Australia began discussing the situation in Spain before the attempted fascist coup. Meetings were held in July 1936 to discuss the meaning of the Popular Front government, but after the Nationalist revolt began, the levels of activity intensified. In August, in the first-floor rooms of Mooney’s Club in George Street in Sydney, the Spanish Relief Committee was formed. This became the main body that organised activist support for the Republican side in the war.
By the mid-1930s, the Communist Party had adopted a Popular Front approach to campaigning. This meant a drastic move away from the party’s previous “class against class” posture, which consisted of a deeply sectarian attitude to the ALP and other non-communist organisations. Now, the party flipped. It made overtures to the ALP and courted a variety of decidedly non-working-class and, in the words of one historian, “not even mildly pink”, institutions and individuals, such as the Protestant clergy. The Spanish Relief Committee, although primarily organised and run by the Communist Party, emphasised its social breadth. This project was aided by the participation of several high-profile middle-class writers and artists, such as Vance and Nettie Palmer.
The Australians who participated in the International Brigades played a similar role. Australian men and women were directly involved in the civil war between 1936 and 1939. Only one of these groups fought with the Francoist forces; the vast majority were organised to fight alongside or nurse the communist forces. Indeed, the Spanish Relief Committee launched a recruitment drive to convince Australian workers to go and fight.
The experiences of those who went to Spain were recounted in many lectures held throughout the four or so years of the campaign. There was significant drama and moral intensity to these accounts. You can get a flavour from one Sam Aarons, in a letter to Workers’ Weekly in December 1937 after witnessing the bombing of a school in Barcelona: “It is then that one knows such a surge of hatred against this bestiality which seeks to engulf the world. It is then that I want to be able to talk to the Australian people because I feel I MUST convince them of the need for unity to destroy finally such monsters”.
The Spanish Relief Committee also published several pamphlets on the topic, which were sold at a variety of Spanish solidarity events. Mass rallies were held, and in 1937 and 1938 the committee organised “Spanish Weeks”. Historian Judith Keene offers details:
“Supporters took to the streets with trays of slogans like ‘Defend Spanish Democracy’ and ‘Food for Spain’. The New Theatre in Melbourne and Sydney produced Spanish plays and May Day celebrations took the theme of the Spanish Civil War. In Cessnock on the NSW coalfields a competition for schoolchildren offered a prize for the best drawn map of Spain. There were typical community fund raising events with cake stalls, raffles and bazaars like the one at Connibere YMCA hall where the Oakleigh ALP Spanish Relief group sold homemade jam and sweets and the CP grocery stall was judged the best decorated stall.”
Phil Thorne, the main Communist Party figure associated with the Spanish Relief Committee, exhorted readers of Workers' Weekly in 1938: “During this week all liberty loving people must be stirred to a realisation of their duty towards the beleaguered people of Spain who are holding the fascists at bay in their fight for democracy. Make up your mind to do something”.
Film screenings also proved important in the campaign, especially when the federal government tried to ban two of them—The Defence of Madrid and Non-Intervention. A huge amount of activity was organised through both the Spanish Relief Committee and the Communist Party. For instance, in February 1937 alone, the party held more than 100 factory and street meetings throughout Victoria on the topic of the Spanish Civil War.
Politically, the Communist Party’s approach to the politics of the Spanish Civil War tracked very closely with that of the international communist movement and was overwhelmingly concerned with Spain in the context of the geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union. The primary goal was to pressure Britain and France into a pact of opposition to Germany and Italy. The Popular Front approach was hostile to the working-class revolutionary ferment in Spain, and in Australia such an approach was clearly emphasised from August 1936 onwards.
The battle in Spain was not to be considered as between socialism and fascism but rather as between capitalist democracy and fascism. Meetings entitled “The struggle between fascism and democracy”, hosted across the country by prominent Communist Party member Ralph Gibson in December 1936, were emblematic of this approach.
Another leading party member, J.B. Miles, was even more explicit on this point when he said at a conference on Spain in 1938:
“The issue in Spain is peace and democracy, not revolution. The appeal is made on behalf of Republican Spain to all democrats. That necessarily includes capitalists, socialists, communists, unionists, farmers, intellectuals and middle class. All honest democrats, including those who today are exploiting labor.”
The Australian Communist Party was uncritical of the Spanish Communist Party’s role in the suppression of political rivals in Spain. For instance, in response to the working-class upsurge in Barcelona in May 1937, the Australian Communist Party wrote that it was the work of “Spanish Trotskyist agents of fascism”. According to the report, a large conspiracy of espionage against the Popular Front by the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (known by its Spanish acronym as the POUM) had been unearthed. The latter were alleged to be in “contact with foreign elements, some belonging to the Gestapo and others to international Trotskyists”.
This wasn’t the first or the last slander of anyone who politically opposed the Communist Party either in Spain or in Australia. All non-Stalinist revolutionary groups were referred to by communists as Trotskyists. “The audience at a [Spanish Relief Committee] public meeting in Melbourne’s Presbyterian Assembly Hall early in 1938 heard a returned fighter from Spain flay the Trotskyist swine in Spain—the capitalists’ agents everywhere in the world—and demand that they be rooted out of the labour movement”, Inglis writes. She makes the point that many of these references would have been greeted with bemusement by many ordinary supporters of Republican Spain, who were less attuned to the political battles being played out in the Republican camp than to the horrific images of fascist atrocity.
The anarchist and Trotskyist currents in Australia were small at this time. The Trotskyists, mainly located in Sydney, did however hold public meetings on the Spanish situation, published criticisms of the Communist Party’s approach and gave speeches (often to a very hostile reception) in the Domain. The anarchist currents were smaller still, with the exception of a community of Spanish and Italian anarchists in north Queensland, who affiliated to the anarchist International Anti-Fascist Solidarity and raised money to send to the anarchist trade union federation the CNT.