XII. The Spanish Civil War had been a curious sideshow since 1936. That year, a large and unruly left coalition in the “anti-fascist” mold had managed to squeeze a small victory in the polls. Then, it had proceeded to announce that there would be no quarter for the enemy, and the revolution would be shortly implemented, whatever objections there could be from any side. Murders and revenge-murders became common-place, and the police was forced to side with the left militias: in one such event, a bunch of particularly pro-active policemen simply kidnapped the leader of the (disloyal) parliamentary opposition at his own home, and then shot him. When a vast right-wing coup was launched in the early summer of that year, the ruling left coalition was shocked and appalled, and requested help from fellow democracies. Of course, only the Soviet Union was willing to help such a government, and pitted itself against Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, both of which sided with the rightists under the self-righteous general Franco.
The Spanish Civil War became a field for experimentation for all the foreign parties involved: while Spaniards resolved their quarrels in pitch battles, the Germans tested their new ideas for concentrated air bombing, and the Italians advanced their theories of mobile war towards, and running away from, the enemy. The Soviet Union dumped a whole load of substandard military machinery and all sorts of rogue red adventurers, together with Stalin’s instructions to ensure that the Communists achieved all power no matter what. It was a bizarre spectacle all along.
For three years, everything worked as expected: stiffened by the German planes and the Italian moral support, the right-wing Nationalists advanced on all fronts. Meanwhile, on the shrinking Republican territory, the Anarchists squabbled with the Trotskysts, the Socialdemocrats with the Left Republicans; and the Communists worked to put their boot on everyone’s neck. As Stalin had anticipated, the red Republic collapsed in 1939.
The surprise came later: flushed with success after the humiliation infringed on the U.K and France with the Czechoslovakian crisis – that is, the German occupation and dismemberment of the whole country, with no strings attached – and now the victory in Spain, Hitler sent envoys to Stalin, ready to talk serious business: they proposed a non-aggression pact, and a secret deal to divide Poland in two areas, following a German attack from the West. In addition, the Soviet Union would be allowed to take over the Baltic states and Bessarabia, a dusty corner of northern Romania that chauvinistic, imperial-minded Russians held dear in their hearts.
Stalin took the deal without a second thought, thinking that such a move would be the end of Hitler and his disgusting regime. As soon as he attacked the plucky Polish, his ill-prepared army would have to face the combined forces of France and the U.K. on the western front: once again, Germany would be defeated by a two-front war, only this time without any need for a Russian intervention. Plus, the Soviet Union’s prestige in the world, already in a fairly low point, would only fall to even lower levels.
This time, Stalin’s expectations were confounded in every sense: Hitler’s troops stormed Poland in no time, while France and the U.K. contented themselves with a declaration of war, and sturdy preparations to replay the western-front stalemate of 1914-1918, but only after the Germans moved against their lines. The Soviet Union had to abide by its side of the deal, and send troops to occupy all the territories allocated in the pact with the Nazis. Appalled, Stalin saw a wave of excitement take over the Kremlin: there was general agreement that Stalin’s coup had been a masterly one: now, the Nazis and the decadent capitalist democracies would bleed each other white. And the Soviet Union would be there to pick up the pieces.
Stalin responded quickly to the challenge, and ordered his unprepared army to strike at Finland, another former region of the Czarist empire that had escaped the Russian fold after the revolution, in the full knowledge that the the Finnish would put up a spirited defense. This they did: and that helped to lower expectations amid the gung-ho Soviet nomenklatura.
A further strike was needed to de-stabilize the situation, and Stalin quickly dusted off the files on Trotsky. His old nemesis was by then exiled in Mexico, no less, and had lost much of its residual prestige over the past decade, but still the NKVD had came up with several imaginative proposals to finish him off for good: there were plans to use pills and poisonous cigars, as well as an elaborated scheme – a Sudoplatov brainchild – to set off hidden explosives through the blowing off of candles on a mock birthday cake. There also was a simple, gaffe-free plan available: a fanatic Spanish communist had been infiltrated within Trotsky’s circle and was ready to hit at any moment, with whichever means available. Stalin gave the green light, and it was with some satisfaction that he read the news in the British press, about how Ramon Mercader had split Trotsky’s head open with a mountaineering piolet, causing some commotion even among hardened fellow travelers abroad.
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