Mexico and the Spanish Civil War, Mario Ojeda Revah

mexico_scwReviewer: Wouter van Dijk

Mexico and the Spanish Civil War. Political Repercussions for the Republican Cause, Mario Ojeda Revah

Sussex Academic Press, Eastborne 2015
ISBN: 978-1- 84519-666- 0

Hardcover, with List of Abbreviations, Notes, Bibliography and Index
305 pages
£60,00 / €78,99

Mexico and the Spanish Civil War

As one of the two main countries that lent support to the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, Mexico has received surprisingly little attention in the historiography of that war up to now. Although two earlier attempts have been undertake to shed light on especially Mexico’s involvement in the Spanish war, the author dismisses both as outdated. Decades have passed since their publication, and one of them is also gravely biased.

Mario Ojeda Revah is professor at the School of Political Science of the National University of Mexico. What he sets out to do in his study is to present as broad and as complete as possible an overview of Mexican involvement in the Spanish Civil War; its causes, consequences and the Mexican government’s actual actions to influence the outcome of the conflict that was raging on the Iberian Peninsula. In addition, Ojeda Revah wants to explicate how Mexico, in supporting the Republic on the international stage, was pursuing its national interests.

Despite the difficult relationship between Mexico and Spain in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the Republic was declared in Spain relations between the countries improved considerably. Both governments now saw the similarity of the problems with which they were confronted; a rising conservative right-wing political group, a history of authoritarian regimes, the need for land reform and the modernisation of the state and law apparatus in institutional, juridical and social issues.

As a left-wing government with a revolutionary background, president Cardenas’s Mexico didn’t have many friends among foreign governments in the 1930’s. Republican Spain was an exception. Besides solidarity of the president, there were more reasons for Mexico to support the Spanish government as both countries had to deal with similar problems, among them the large groups of conservatives that stood not unsympathetic towards Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Ojeda Revah describes how the Mexican government, most importantly in the figure of president Cardenas, responded swiftly to the Spanish government’s call for help once the military rebellion broke out. Immediately the complete reserve of Mexico’s arms industry was shipped towards Republican Spain, the famous 20.000 rifles and 20.000.000 rounds of ammunition. Here Mexico’s help did not stop however, although not much of its further help is being remembered nowadays by the general public and even the scholars working on the Spanish Civil War.

Ojeda Revah has followed as much as possible all the efforts made by Spanish and Mexican diplomats and civil servants to obtain weapons for Loyalist Spain. Mexicans played a very active role in intermediating arms deals on behalf of the Spanish Republicans. Exploring these shadowy diplomatic transactions required a lot of research in not only a host of diplomatic archives but also in many personal documents of the individuals involved. Particularly tragic in these events is the case of the Czech Republic, that was willing to help Spain, but being surrounded by hostile regimes, and still hoping in 1937 not to be deserted by the democratic Great Powers, was unable to contribute substantially to the quest for arms for Republican Spain.

The author treats many different forms Mexico’s help to the republic took. As said there were the arms shipments, clandestine and susceptible to interception by rebel war ships or aircraft. There were the shipments of food, clothes and medicine that were sent to Spain, all against payment under an exchange rate favourable to the Republic and paid for in Republican peseta’s instead of the pure gold the Soviet Union was eager to lay its hands on in exchange for help. Of course Mexican Republican, and francoist, volunteers get their share of attention, albeit not that much. More space has been given to the international, unconditional and unwavering support Mexico gave the Republic in the League of Nations and on the diplomatic scene. Unfortunately this all proved in vain, because both Mexico and the Spanish Republic were by many countries seen as just two ‘red’ pariahs that were equally bad as the communist Soviet Union.

The book ends with the immediate aftermath of the civil war in Spain, when Cardenas allows thousands of refugees to emigrate towards Mexico, which leads to heavy protesting in his own country by the conservative pro-francoist pressure groups. In the end, also Cardenas feels obliged to appoint a more moderate, more conservative politician as his successor in order to prevent a civil war in Mexico and save the revolutionary gains in his own country. The fear which led him to intervene in the Spanish conflict, namely that such an uprising could also happen in Mexico, led him also to moderation in light of rising tensions at home. The wish of the United States to prevent a fascist coup in its neighbour country also helped keeping the German-backed fascist groups of the country in check.

Ojeda Revah has succeeded in his goal of presenting an extensive overview of Mexican involvement in the Spanish Civil War. However, there still remain gaps to fill in this Mexican connection, for instance in the role Mexican representatives had in the international weapon trade circuit on behalf of the Spanish government. The question is however, if it would be possible after all these years to fill these gaps. For now though, Mario Ojeda Revah has provided us with a very worthwhile study of the Mexican role in the Spanish Civil War, a little known subject among historians of the Spanish Civil War. They now don’t have an excuse anymore for not having taken note of this side of the war in Spain.

Wouter van Dijk