Soldiers of the Islamic State (IS) on the march

ISIS and the Spanish Civil War

Do the comparisons hold up?

One of the top news stories of the 1930s was the Spanish Civil War, especially during the two years or so between the start of the war in 1936 until the disbanding of the International Brigades in 1938. It was far more than an ugly war in one of Europe’s poorest countries; it was a powerful symbol of the powerlessness of the isolationist capitalist countries and the titanic forces building in the world — fascism and communism — and the prelude to the inevitable battle between them. The war was dramatic, often romanticized, and is now being remembered again as a parallel with the bitter war taking place in the Mideast involving the Islamic State (IS).

On the surface, there are, potentially, striking parallels. In both cases one finds nation-states in advanced states of decay with ill-trained and badly-equipped forces fighting for control of an impoverished, badly-educated land. Both conflicts also involved local, mostly domestic players, while the emphasis of most major powers is to keep the fighting contained. Yet at the same time other powers are jumping in militarily to take sides and volunteers are flocking to join the fighting in large numbers, especially from neighboring countries.

And in both cases, thousands of idealistic, young foreign volunteers joined by the thousands to take part in a cause they believe to be just, with these foreign fighters providing a key source of publicity and manpower.

The Spanish Civil War, however, does offer a lot of problems when it comes to comparisons. For starters, with whom do we compare IS? It was the anti-fascist side, the Republicans, who attracted the swarms of foreign volunteers. Apart from that single fact, it’s hard to compare the Republicans and IS. The Republicans were a loose coalition of leftists and anarchists, receiving some support from Stalin’s Soviet Union. They were barely united and sometimes fell to fighting (and purging) one another. At the same time, unlike IS, they did not look to expand beyond the borders of Spain, merely to stop the fascists from winning the civil war.

British members of the International Brigades in Spain

On the nationalist side, though it’s not widely remembered that Franco was heavily dependent on non-Spanish forces. A huge percentage of his forces, eventually totalling 60,000 men, consisted of the Army of Africa, a force consisting mainly of natives from Spain’s North African colonial possissions (today mostly northern Morocco). These men were the best-trained, best-equipped and best-led troops in Spain and usually served as the spearhead in any nationalist operation. At the same time, Nazi Germany sent a force of around 16,000 men, mostly in the air force, while Mussolini’s Italy sent a huge force of around 60,000 men. By way of comparison, the International Brigades who served on the Republican side were never larger than 20,000 soldiers at any given time.

Italian warplanes over Spain

In truth, it’s far too great a stretch to imagine that IS has anything in common with either side of the Spanish Civil War. It’s hard to imagine anyone in that old war desiring to claim the fanatical Syrians and Iraqis as one of their own.

But what really makes the Spanish Civil War so relevant in comparison with IS isn’t the details related to troop dispositions or the national origin of the soldiers on either side: it’s the symbolism of the war, the perception at the time (and still today, almost 80 years later) that it was a symbol, a metaphor, for the forces gathering to fight the Second World War. It was a place where fascism might have been stopped if the democracies hadn’t been in the throes of appeasement. It was a stage upon which the first act of a huge, enormously destructive war was played out.

And that, surely, is what makes it comparable with the Islamic State of today. Something is brewing in the Mideast. Islamic fundamentalism is growing, despite the fact of its very obvious contradictions (for example: how can pious Muslims so easily butcher fellow Muslims in the name of Islam? How can anyone claim to want to recreate the open-minded, cosmopolitain, scientific-minded, artistic and entrepreneurial Caliphates when they are so abysmally intolerant, close-minded and violent?).

Fascism and communism were similarly rife with blatant and savage contradictions; beneath a thin veneer of vigorous propaganda they essentially worshipped death — and yet they gained millions of adherents and proved a deadly threat to the globe for many years. Will Islamic fundamentalism rise to that level? Will IS eventually grow into a powerful, aggressive nation-state like Hitler’s Germany? Will IS legions pour across its future borders, assisted, as the Nazis were, by fifth columnists across the subcontinent? It took Adolf Hitler a decade of struggle before he finally rose to lead Germany, and a further six years after that before he got the war he so ardently sought. Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reputed leader of IS, a Hitler-in-waiting? Is he destined to becom “Führer” of an “Islamic Reich?”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reputed leader of the Islamic State

That, indeed, is the true parallel with the Spanish Civil War: not the similarities of fact, of which there really aren’t any, but of metaphor. The fear that IS in Syria and Iraq is only performing the opening acts, maybe even just the overture, of a drama that could be vast, global — and horribly bloody.

The real question, then, is this: if these are the opening acts of a ghastly new chapter in Mideast history, what, if anything, can be done to stop it?