Edward Rothstein's thumbs-down review of a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, "Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War," is a shrill indictment of all those New Yorkers who risked their lives and careers to fight fascism in Spain in the mid-1930s. Rothstein is so pumped up with trashing the naivety of anyone who was silly enough to fight for republican Spain to counter General Francisco Franco that his last eight paragraphs of his "review" sound like the anticommunist ranting of the young J. Edgar Hoover. According to Rothstein, Franco's Spain was not "really an arm of what was called 'international fascism,'" because "Spain was neutral during World War II, and the Fuhrer wasn't interested in Franco's late offer of support."
Rothstein is wrong on two counts. Adolph Hitler believed that General Franco's victory in Spain was so important to the Third Reich that he ordered his state-of-the-art Air Force, the Luftwaffe, to launch bombing raids in support of his fellow fascists in Spain. Nazi Germany's military assistance to Franco's fascists and the Third Reich's role in the Spanish Civil War, which Rothstein, (for whatever reason), chooses to downplay, was substantial, and it even determined the outcome. The Nazi bombing of civilians at Guernica against the Spanish republicans, which Rothstein does not mention, was the first time Europeans came under that kind of aerial assault. I suppose Rothstein would have nasty things to write about Pablo Picasso's painting depicting the massacre.
In his screed against the political orientation of a museum exhibit, Rothstein argues that "Stalin's demonic enterprise," meaning the Soviet dictator's desire to "control" Spain, was far more sinister than any of the aims Hitler might have had for the Iberian Peninsula. Rothstein here makes a curious argument given the history that transpired over the next few years in Europe: Franco and his fascists were victorious; they crushed their left-wing opposition thereby strengthening "international fascism" on the Continent, giving greater leverage to Hitler and Mussolini; and as a result of yet another nation succumbing to fascism the seeds were planted for "Operation Barbarossa" of June 22, 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The United States, Britain, and "free France," sided with the Soviets and "Uncle Joe" against the Nazis.
To read Rothstein's account, one gets the impression the real enemy in all of this was not Franco and his pal Hitler, but "Stalin's demonic enterprise." The New York museum exhibit emphasizes the heroism of those who volunteered to fight for republican Spain because its curators have a much clearer view of the history informing their endeavor than does Mr. Rothstein who belittles their effort.