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Poster: Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party, 1936
I. State what the document is
The document is a political rallying call inspired by the proclamation of the Central Committee of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). It was part of a broader recruitment initiative by the Communist Party to enlist soldiers to fight in the Spanish Civil War, which officially commenced on 17 July 1936. Unlike their fascist opponents who could rely upon funding, weapons and personnel from Germany, Italy and Portugal, the Communist Party had little choice but to recruit fighters from the civilian population of Spain and, afterwards, of any democratic European countries that wished to curb the spread of right wing extremism across the continent.
Documents such as this were placed in town halls and meeting venues throughout Spain to encourage all opponents of fascism to continue with the ‘national revolution’ regardless of whether these opponents were communist or not. As a result, socialists, anarchists, liberals, republicans and nationalists from the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain were targeted to join the Communist Party in order to increase the number of fighters that the Left had at its disposal. In the event, the forces that eventually made up the defenders of the Spanish Republic (the ‘Loyalists’) were similar in composition to the Popular Front coalition government that collapsed in February 1936, largely due to an inability to achieve a lasting political consensus.
II. Place the document in its historical context
As a primary source document of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the poster should be seen within the historical context of the rapid descent into World War Two as the fighting in Spain afforded the German military machine the opportunity to test out their blitzkrieg offensive with devastating effects on Spanish towns such as Guernica. This war, like the wider world conflict that would follow in September 1939, was also a war that was fought along ideological lines between, on the one side, fascists and, on the other, a combination of socialist and democratic forces. This was an important break from the past and, in particular, the First World War, which was fought over imperial ambition rather than two opposing visions of political ideology. The historical context was therefore influenced by the ongoing struggle between the political Left and Right with the Spanish Communist Party holding the key to the hopes of the international socialist movement that had been starved of any kind of tangible success since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
III. Explain and comment upon specific important points, references or allusions in the text
The most prominent symbolic feature of the document is the hammer and sickle which dominates the background of the textual content of the poster. Although most famous for its association with the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle was, and remains, a trans‑national symbol of communism that exists far beyond the borders of Russia. Communist China, for instance, also adopted the hammer and sickle as did the Spanish Communist Party where the twin elements of the hammer and the sickle were seen to represent the tools of the industrial proletariat and the agrarian peasantry respectively. This would have been one of the major attractions of the poster to potential recruits from these two important economic sectors; indeed, the document must have met with some degree of success as the faction loyal to the Spanish Republic drew many soldiers from industrial regions such as Asturias and Catalonia as well as agricultural regions such as Andalucía and Galicia.
However, whereas the imagery evokes a strong association with communism and the USSR, the text itself is more intent upon reducing the divide that existed between the various socio-political sectors of the Loyalists. The document takes care to appeal to “all those dreamers or those who are irresponsible, who want to forcibly impose their own province or people experiments of ‘socialism’ or’ libertarian communism’ or of another kind” in order to “make them understand that all those experiments will crumble to the ground like imaginary castles if the war is not won.” This passage is a clear indication of the gravity of the threat facing the Spanish Republic as ideological zealots such as communists have historically sought to distance themselves from any political movement that does not practice pure Marxist doctrine.
IV. Comment upon the reliability of the document as a historical source
Clearly the document cannot be relied upon as an unbiased primary historical source. Any form of blatant advertisement for a political ideology cannot be considered to be a reliable source because it can only ever provide the views of one side of the conflict. History and historical evaluation is all about analysing the evidence from all sides of the argument; never from one side alone. The reasons for this are obvious. The document in question cannot, for instance, offer the historian anything approaching an impartial description of the opposing fascist enemy due to the aforementioned ideological nature of the struggle. Thus, the document uses words such as “monstrous”, “tormenter” and “criminal”, which negatively alter the reader’s opinion of Franco’s fascist army, regardless of what we now know about the Generalissimo’s military regime. The fascists are likewise termed as the “invading troops” despite the Spanish Communist Part’s overt drive to recruit soldiers of its own from abroad.
The usefulness of the document therefore resides in the insight that it provides with regards to the application of propaganda methods in a war context. The poster shows how rudimentary the PCE recruitment techniques were at the start of the war yet also how effective this propaganda campaign must have been for the largely illiterate peasantry who would have been drawn into the symbolic pretext of the poster every bit as much as the aggressive use of words within the text. Ultimately, the document is reliable in so far as it paints an accurate portrait of the turbulent condition of Spain in the late summer of 1936 – before the country slipped into forty years of economic depravity and authoritarian rule.
V. Summarise the document’s relevance and value to the student of the history of twentieth century Europe
There is little doubt that the document is very relevant to the student of twentieth century European history. The poster provides key information about one of the bloodiest civilian wars in recorded history with up to a million casualties on both sides by the official cessation of the conflict on 1 April 1939. The document is especially relevant in the contemporary twenty first century era as the poster provides a prism through which the student can view the ideological nature of the Second World War. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 this kind of conflict is never likely to happen again. The Spanish Communist Party’s recruitment poster is consequently an artefact as much as a primary source historical document.
Its value is also without question, in spite of the unquestioned bias at the heart of the document. When we think of the lack of first hand, written evidence available for a large portion of, for example, medieval European history, it would be foolish to devalue any primary source document that can help to shed light on the past. By applying analytical historical knowledge to the document, the student can see beyond the propagandist element of the poster. In fact, even this is useful because, through its attempts to paint the ‘revolution’ in a favourable light, the poster shows how non‑democratic, despotic regimes are able to maintain power over a population for a protracted period of time.
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