Gibraltar and the Spanish Civil War: How can we broaden the debate?
Gibraltar played a very significant role in the unfolding of the Spanish Civil War, particularly in the early months according to Dr Chris Grocott. One of the key note speakers at the Unite Symposium, he spoke of how in the opening days of the Spanish Civil War virtually all communications between British diplomats in Spain and the British Government were relayed through Gibraltar. A lecturer in Management and Economic History at the University Of Leicester, School Of Management, Dr Grocott, has written several articles and book chapters on the history of Gibraltar examining aspects of its politics, industrial relations, and economic development.
In an interview with the Chronicle he said it was in Gibraltar that the first British response to events in Spain had to be formulated.
“Ironically, the Colonial Authorities decided to adopt a position of official neutrality whilst at the same time working behind the scene to assist the rebels whilst prevaricating at requests for assistance from the Spanish Government. Effectively, of course, this became Britain’s position more generally once the non-intervention treaty was signed,” he says
Dr Grocott who has studied Gibraltar for over fifteen years is looking forward to the symposium and acknowledges he is always happy to talk about the “very interesting history of its people”.
He believes the Spanish Civil War period remains fascinating because one can see so many of the international debates over Spain being played out in Gibraltar too.
“We also have very rich archival material both in Gibraltar and in Britain to help understand this period. Excitingly, there also appears to be increasing amounts of material relevant to Gibraltar and the Civil War being discovered in the Spanish archives and in private collections. Whilst in recent years there have been some excellent histories of Gibraltar and the Spanish Civil War written, what is exciting is that there is definitely more to learn,” he says.
Although presently his research often takes him far away from Gibraltar’s history he is now combining the history of Gibraltar with the history of industrial relations.
With Gareth Stockey (who will also be in Gibraltar) and Jo Grady he is looking at anarchist movements in Gibraltar and the Campo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their next project will be to look at how the Transport and General Workers’ Union, now Unite, came to displace anarchist organisations from Gibraltar’s industrial relations scene in the aftermath of the Great War of 1914-18.
Talking about the Spanish Civil War he suggests it is clearly still a period of history which affects life in Spain tremendously.
“At a grand level, policies such as the Law of Historical Memory remind us of what is at stake in relation to the events of 1936-39. But even little things keep the events and participants of the Civil War in people’s minds such as monuments and street names. In other words, for many the Civil War is actually hard to forget.
“However, in many of the older histories of Gibraltar, the Spanish Civil War is often ignored, or else seen as a breaking point between Gibraltar and Spain. This was not the case, as Gareth Stockey has persuasively argued, and events such as this commemoration of life in Gibraltar during the Civil War help us to reclaim this past.”
Dr Grocott believes that in many ways, the Spanish Civil War was uniquely Spanish in its origins. But the themes and ideological contrasts of the Civil War – democracy and dictatorship, fascism and communism, regionalism and nationalism, caught the imagination of people in Europe and globally.
“For many, the politics of the Civil War spoke not only to the conflicts that were going on in Spain but also to those which they faced every day themselves. or governments, the Civil War was not so much a “dry run” as a proxy for their foreign policy goals – the UK and France attempting to avoid war, Germany and Italy flexing their military might, and the Soviet Union struggling to come to terms with how to deal with capitalism and fascism, both economic and political systems its rulers profoundly disagreed with,” he adds
“Much of this international political landscape was swept away after 1945, but Franco remained and so too did the ability of the politics of the Civil War to speak to the convictions of people far beyond Spain.”
And of his own contribution to the symposium he looked at what had been written about Gibraltar and the Spanish Civil War and asked how we might broaden the debate out.
“We know that the TGWU campaigned actively on behalf of the Republic but given the diversity of political positions in Spain, might we now re-interpret some of the events of the Civil War years and suggest ways that we can identify more complex political positions playing out in Gibraltar’s history?” he asks.
This year represents the anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, but it also holds a new beginning – the inaugural academic year of the University of Gibraltar, he continues.
“I think having a university in Gibraltar invites us to think about the history of Gibraltar as an academic subject. What themes are important to examine, and what debates do we want to have?”
Dr Grocott also looked at the changing ways in which historians have seen the Civil War in the past thirty years or so.
“Traditionally historians have viewed Gibraltarian’s sympathies in the Civil War to have been filtered through an ‘us and them’ lens. In reality, I will suggest that the connections between Gibraltar and Spain were so close that the response to the Civil War was raw and heartfelt; we need to decide how we are going to integrate that into the writing of Gibraltar’s history and question why it isn’t already part of it.”
In Spain, of course, the Civil War was utterly crucial, he adds.
“The repression in the years following the Civil War led to death or to exile for many Spaniards. Internationally, the dictatorship provided support for the United States and Britain in the Cold War, but this relationship was one of necessity given the perceived Soviet threat. But closer to Gibraltar, the obvious outcome of the Civil War – economic ruin in Spain and the need to deflect domestic discontent outwards – led to increased tension at the Gibraltar-Spain frontier from 1954 and, as we all know, its closure from 1969 for well over ten years.”
He also suggested that in some ways, it is easier to focus on the cleavages between Gibraltar and Spain since 1939.
“The closure of the frontier, the Spanish propaganda campaign against Gibraltar, and the vicissitudes Gibraltarian politicians have faced in dealing with international organisations such as the United Nations all go a long way to helping us forget that up until 1954 the relationship between Gibraltar and the surrounding hinterland was very close. Events such as this commemoration of the anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War remind us of the personal ties that existed at the time between people in Gibraltar and in Spain.”
And he added how these ties were on-going and cruelly disrupted – at times severed – during the closure of the frontier.
“It’s natural to hope that this event will help people to reflect on the relationship between Gibraltar and the Campo.”