Non-intervention, 75 years ago

August 3, 2011 at 12:10 am (anti-fascism, apologists and collaborators, democracy, history, Human rights, Johnny Lewis, spain)

From Wikipedia:

Neville Chamberlain in recording studio

Two influential figures in non-intervention: the British Neville Chamberlain (top) and the French Léon Blum (below).

During the Spanish Civil War, several countries followed a principle of non-intervention, which would result in the signing of the Non-Intervention Agreement in August 1936 .

Non-intervention had been proposed in a joint diplomatic initiative by the governments of France and the United Kingdom. It was part of a policy of appeasement, aimed at preventing a proxy war, and escalation of the war into a major pan-European conflict.

On 3 August 1936, Charles de Chambrun presented the French government’s non-intervention plan; Galeazzo Ciano promised to study it. The British, however, accepted the plan in principle immediately. The following day, it was put to Nazi Germany by André François-Poncet. The German position was that such a declaration wasn’t needed. A similar approach was made to Russia. On 6 August, Ciano confirmed Italian support in principle. The Soviet government similarly agreed in principle, so long as Portugal was included, and that Germany and Italy stop aid immediately. On 7 August, France unilaterally declared non-intervention. Draft declarations had been put to German and Italian governments. Such a declaration had already been accepted by Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia, renouncing all traffic in war material, direct or indirect. The Portuguese Foreign Minister, Armindo Monteiro, was also asked to accept, but held his hand. On 9 August, French exports were suspended.[6][7] Portugal accepted the pact on 13 August, unless her border was threatened by the war.[8]

On 15 August, the United Kingdom banned exports of war material to Spain.[9] Italy agreed to the pact,[9] signing on 21 August.[5] Although a surprising reversal of views, it has been put down to the growing belief that countries could not abide by the agreement anyway.[9] On the 24th, Germany signed.[10][11] The Soviet Union was keen not to be left out. On 23 August, it agreed to the Non-Intervention Agreement,[12] and this was followed by a decree from Stalin banning exports of war material to Spain, thereby bringing the USSR into line with the Western Powers.[10]

Non-Intervention Committee

It was at this point that the Non-Intervention Committee was created to uphold the agreement, but the double-dealing of the USSR and Germany had already become apparent.[13] The ostensible purpose of the committee was to prevent personnel and matériel reaching the warring parties of the Spanish Civil War, as with the Non-Intervention Agreement.[1] The Committee first met in London on 9 September 1936.[14][nb 2] It was chaired by the British W. S. Morrison. Charles Corbin represented the French, Italy by Dino Grandi, and the Soviets by Ivan Maisky. Germany was represented by Ribbentrop; Portugal, whose presence had been a Soviet requirement, was not represented.[15] The second meeting took place on 14 September.[16] It established a subcommittee to be attended by representatives of Belgium, Britain, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, Sweden, to deal with the day-to-day running of non-intervention. Among them, though, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy dominated, perhaps worryingly so. Soviet non-military aid was revived, but not military aid.[17] Meanwhile, the 1936 meeting of the League of Nations began. There, Anthony Eden convinced Monteiro to have Portugal join the Non-Intervention Committee.[18] Álvarez del Vayo spoke out against the Non-Intervention Agreement, claiming it put the rebel Nationalists on the same footing as the Republican government.[19]0    The Earl of Plymouth replaced W.S. Morrison as British representative.[20][21]  Conservative, he often adjourned meetings – to the benefit of the Italians and Germans – and the Committee was accused of an anti-Soviet bias.[21]

On 12 November, plans to post observers to Spanish frontiers and ports to prevent breaches of the agreement were ratified. France and Britain became split on whether to recognise Franco’s forces as a belligerent as the British wanted, or to fail to do as the French wanted.[22]This was subsumed by the news that the Italian and German governments had recognised the Nationalists as the true government of Spain.[22] The League of Nations condemned intervention, urged its council’s members to support non-intervention, and commended mediation.[23] It then closed discussion on Spain, leaving it to the Committee.[24] A mediation plan, however, was soon dropped.[23]

The Soviets met the request to ban volunteers on 27 December, Portugal on 5 January, and Germany and Italy on 7 January.[25] On 20 January, Italy put a moratorium on volunteers believing that supplies to the Nationalists were now sufficient. Non-intervention would have left both sides with the possibility of defeat, which Germany, Italy and Russia in particular were keen to avoid.[26]

Control plan

Observers were posted to Spanish ports and borders, and both Ribbentrop and Grandi were told to agree to the plan, significant shipments already having taken place.[27] Portugal would not accept observers, although it did agree to personnel attached to the British Embassy in Lisbon. Zones of patrol were assigned to each of the four nations; an International Board was set up to administer the scheme. There were Italian assurances that Italy would not break up non-intervention.[28]

In May, the Committee noted two attacks on the patrol’s ships by Republican aircraft.[29] It reiterated calls for the withdrawal of volunteers from Spain, condemned the bombing of open towns, and showed approval of humanitarian work.[30] Germany and Italy said they would withdrawn from the Committee, and from the patrols, unless it could be guaranteed there would be no further attacks.[29][31] Early June saw the return of Germany and Italy to the committee and patrols.[32] Following attacks on the German cruiser Leipzig on 15 and 18 June, Germany and Italy once again withdrew from patrols, but not from the Committee.[33][34] This prompted the Portuguese government to remove British observers on the Spain–Portugal border.[35] Britain and France offered to replace Germany and Italy, but the latter powers believed these patrols would be too partial.[36] Germany and Italy requested that land controls be kept, and belligerent rights be given to the Nationalists, so that rights of search could be used by both the Republicans and Nationalists to replace naval patrols.[36][37] A British plan suggested that naval patrols would be replaced by observers in ports and ships, land control measures would be resumed.[38][39] Belligerent rights would only be granted when substantial progress was made on volunteer withdrawal.[39]

It culminated in a period during 1937 when all the powers where prepared to give up on non-intervention. By the end of July, the Committee was in deadlock, and the aims of a successful outcome to the Spanish Civil War was looking unlikely.[40] Unrestricted Italian submarine warfare began on 12 August.[40] The British Admiralty believed that a significant control effort was the best solution to attacks on British shipping.[41] It was decided by the Committee that naval patrols did not justify their expense and would be replaced with observers at ports.[42]

The Conference of Nyon was arranged for all parties with a Mediterranean coastline by the British, despite appeals by Italy and Germany that the Committee handle the piracy and other issues the conference was to discuss.[43] It decided that French and British fleets patrol the areas of sea west of Malta, and attack any suspicious submarines.[44] Warships that attacked neutral shipping would be attacked.[45] Eden claimed that non-intervention had stopped European war. The League of Nations did report on the Spanish situation, noting the ‘failure of non-intervention’.[45] On 6 November, the plan to recognise the Nationalists as belligerents once significant progress had been made was finally accepted.[46] The Nationalists accepted on 20 November, the Republicans on 1 December. On 27 June, Maisky agreed to the sending of two commissions to Spain, to enumerate foreign volunteer forces, and to bring about their withdrawal. The Nationalists wished to prevent the fall of the favourable Chamberlain government in the United Kingdom, and so were seen to accept the plan.


Remind you of anything?


  1. Karl Dallas said,


  2. Geoff Collier said,

    I would say no as well, although maybe for different reasons. Firstly, I don’t think anybody was arguing for direct British or French military intervention in Spain. What the opponents of “non-intervention” wanted was surely the right of the Spanish government to arm itself properly. As far as I know, the opponents of the intervention in Libya would not oppose the right of the rebels to buy arms.
    More importantly though, the issue in Spain was not simply that of the nationalists versus the democratically elected government. There was the revolution sparked by Franco’s revolt. For revolutionary socialists the crucial question is how could that have been successful. I somehow doubt that British military intervention would have been of any great help in that. British interests would surely have coincided with those of the USSR in destroying revolutionary Spain.

  3. Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

    dallas fuck

  4. Geoff Collier said,

    It’s all gone a bit quiet. Maybe I’m right?

  5. Geoff Collier said,

    If you want to delve back into history to bring up a better example to justify acceptance of imperialist force, perhaps northern Ireland in 1969 might be better. An embattled and oppressed group suffering oppression from a local power welcomed the imposition of British troops. The International Socialists (Socialist Worker) warned that those troops would not benefit the Catholic community in the long run but recognised that they were the only means of stopping an immediate series of pogroms. That seems a close parallel with how the AWL see Libya now.

  6. Jim Denham said,


    The point of my post wasn’t to argue that an intervention by Britain or France would have ensured a victory for the Republican forces – although my understanding is that many on the left at the time *did* call for intervention and the non-intervention agreement was widely regarded on the left as a betrayal. The point is that we wouldn’t have *opposed* an intervention, just as we shouldn’t oppose it in Libya. But we’d have argued against any illusions in what the “intervening” powers were up to, and for working class independence – again, just what we argue for in Libya.

    To make opposition to the NATO intervention and the call for “Stop The Bombing” our main call (as do the SWP and STW) is to elevate an abstract “principle” above the realities of the struggle and to (objectively) side with Gaddafi against the rebels. At least prof Callininicos was realistic enough to recognise that the SWP’s “line” if implemented, would inevitably lead to a massacre…but that was less important than upholding the “principle” of opposition to intervention, it seems…

    I agree that there has been amost a 180-degree role reversal between the IS/SWP and Workers Fight/AWL over the troops in N Ireland in 1969 and NATO in Libya today. I think there’s more justification for Workers Fight’s “Troops Out” line in 1969 than there is for what the SWP are saying now about Libya, but I agree that memberts of both traditions need to ponder the implications.

  7. Geoff Collier said,

    I didn’t realise it was your post. You are Johnny Lewis then.

    Rather than speculate on what the AWL might have done in the 1930s, look at what the trotskyists did do. The best referenced issue is over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Abbyssinia) when the CLR James group in the ILP vigorously opposed even calling for international/state sanctions against Italy. You will no doubt see that as raising abstract principles above the reality of the struggle and, in practice, siding with Mussolini.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    Geoff: I’m sometimes, but not always, Johnny Lewis. On this occasion it was indeed I.

    CLR James was simply wrong about Abyssinia, the line of his group within the ILP (who were *not* really Trotskyists in any meaningful sense) being overly influenced by a desire to differentiate themselves from the CP and the Labour Party (both of which by 1935 advocated sanctions against Italy). James’s line verged on pacifism, seeing the threat of war as the decisive factor in British politics at that time. He was also wrong to have stayed in the ILP as long as he did, rather than re-orientating to the Labour Party, as Trotsky advocated.

  9. We don’t want your solidarity or How Western ‘progressives’ scabbed on Syria: A (angry) comment on ‘progressive orientalism’ or “On Passive Interventionism” | The Eternal Spring said,

    […] on the other side either. They left them abandoned and often tacitly supported the fascists, not least by stopping resources going through to them, firstly through an arms embargo and then extending to eventually encompass a volunteers ban. […]

  10. Belladonna said,

    I’m Spanish and I’m freaking sure things would have been way different if we had received more help. What Great Britain and France did seems to me like a betrayal to democracy and freedom.

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