German Ghost Border

I’ve just seen another map shared by the Twitter account, @onlmaps, which I felt compelled to discuss on here.  You can see it at this link.

As anyone who is familiar with maps of Europe between 1945 and 1989 can testify, this divide is almost exactly along the border between the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the communist, Soviet-puppet German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  Less than 30% of the population of former East Germany is religious, compared to an average of 60%-90% in former West Germany.  The reason for this seems fairly clear: after 12 years of Nazi rule, West Germany allowed its citizens to continue worshiping freely, whereas East Germany’s government advocated an atheist, secular agenda.  According to Wikipedia, one way it did this was by organising secular coming-of-age ceremonies to replace the Catholic equivalent, and largely discouraging church attendance in general.  As with the Polish Ghost Border, I find it incredible how long-gone borders between countries can continue to have a social and economic impact upon the territory they divided.

The main reason this divide surprised me is that I had always assumed that the Soviet-Communist governments had largely failed in bringing religious observance down.  But I’ve done some research into the former Eastern-bloc countries and the results seem to be mixed:

Country: (proportion of people who do not believe in a God)

Estonia: 71%
Ukraine: 63%
Belarus: 41%
Russia: 38%
Latvia: 21%
Czech Republic: 34%
Slovakia: 13%
Lithuania: 10%
Bulgaria: 9%
Poland: 5%
Romania: 0.2%

So actually, incredibly mixed.  Some area were successful, such as Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus.  These three countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union, yet Lithuania, also in the Soviet Union, still sees high religious observance.  Meanwhile, Poland and Romania have incredibly low rates of non-religion; I can only presume that their Cold War governments did not push an agenda of atheism.

For comparison, here’s the rates of some Western European countries:

The Netherlands: 51%
Sweden: 34%
France: 31%
Norway: 29%
Scotland: 28%*
Belgium: 27%
England and Wales: 25%
Spain: 25%
Denmark: 24%
Luxembourg: 22%
Finland: 21%
Switzerland: 20%
Italy: 15%
Portugal: 7%
Ireland: 6%

So actually, the cases of East Germany, Estonia and Ukraine aside, the Soviet-Communist governments of the Eastern Bloc don’t seem to have had that significant impact in reducing religious observance compared to the natural decline we’ve witnessed in the West.  Perhaps my original assumption was correct, and that East Germany’s government was the exception.

*This is from the 2001 census, as the results of the 2011 census for Scotland don’t seem to have been published yet.  I imagine it will be at least 30% now, considering that England and Wales lept from 15% to 25% between 2001 and 2011.  If Scotland had a similar jump, we might even see 38% of Scots claiming no religion.  It’s curious that Scotland is less religious than the rest of the UK.

A Democratic China?

One of the largest topics of debate in international relations these days seems to be ‘The Rise of China’.  It’s a theme mentioned practically in every news channel you watch, or rooted somewhere in any newspaper you might pick up.  That China is a rising star in the world is undeniable; its GDP has risen to be the 2nd largest in the world and it’s taking an increasingly important role in world affairs.  Thankfully, China’s leadership appears to have chosen to express this position of power through economic means, including investing in many developing countries around the world, rather than following the US route of attaining military hegemony.  China’s growth needn’t be a threat to the West simply because it’s a shock to the status quo – while worries about the effect corrupt deals could have in places such as in Africa, my only real concern would be if China decided to use its position to advocate Communism and authoritarianism outside its borders.  Instead, China seems committed to the principles of peace and stability and, after economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, has completely abandoned a Communist economic system while currently maintaining a Communist government (which completely defeats the purpose).

The question on many lips is this: will China, having adopted Western neoliberal ideas of the free market and private enterprise, also follow through and liberalise its political system?  The government has proven very successful thus far at warding off domestic unrest, largely I expect because of the country’s incredible economy (we have much to thank China for; its economic success has been praised for keeping the world from complete disaster during the financial meltdowns since 2008).  Since the brutal suppression of protests at Tienanmen Square in 1989 there has been no large pro-democracy movements, despite the cases high-profile dissidents such as Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng.  Indeed, China’s unprecedented economic success has caused many in the West to consider whether economic growth and democracy must necessarily go hand in hand, as surely China is proof that an authoritarian country can be successful, right?

Yes and no, is my largely unprofessional opinion.  History has shown time and time again that economic development in the country – greater infrastructure, a growing middle class, rapid urbanisation – results in unrest within authoritarian countries.  An affluent middle class grouped together in urban areas with access to information will soon realise that they have no say in the political process; this is unavoidable.  China may effectively sensor the internet but bits and pieces will trickle through.  Meanwhile the number of Chinese people taking holidays abroad is skyrocketing, and there’s nothing the government can do to stop them realising how much more political freedom people have elsewhere.  Combine these factors with a gradual slowdown of economic growth and I would argue that the government is on a direct collision course with its citizens.  There are claims of ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ which, like all claims of national exceptionalism, is merely a vain justification of certain policies.  China has a vastly unique and wonderful culture, yes*, but human nature remains the same.

So working on the assumption that a democratic transition is likely, we must now speculate the course this will take.  Will we see cautious policies to open up the political system, perhaps similar to what’s happening in neighbouring Burma, or will there be an Arab-Spring style uprising?  I’m inclined to predict the first option.  In fact, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson recently said that “Leading Chinese dissidents now believe the stage is set for multi-party democracy in maybe 5, 7, 10 years”, describing these dissidents as “surprisingly optimistic“.  He is of the view that China’s new leadership is aware that political liberalisation is necessary for continued development and that the real question is how this would be achieved.  Don’t confuse this with the idea that its leadership are Liberals – I believe them to be very Conservative – but this is in many ways an issue of pragmatism, not ideology.

Another curious question is, if this remarkable feat is ever achieved, what implications would a democratic China have?  While its possible a nationalistic government could be elected that would make the world a much less peaceful place, which would not be unusual  for a new democracy, chances are any elected government would be more moderate.  I can’t imagine even a democratic China being best buddies with the West – it has too many of its own interests to consider – but there would certainly be the opportunity to improve relations which wouldn’t exist under authoritarianism.  A democratic China would possibly be the best thing that could happen for the cause of spreading democracy worldwide; while I don’t expect it would join the West’s desperate fervour to impose democracy upon various countries, it would at least recognise that such a spread would be desirable.  For this reason, a democratic China would probably use its considerable influence over North Korea to force reform and openness.  Without Chinese support I find it unlikely to think that the Kim regime could survive for long.  There would probably also be much good news for human rights in Tibet, even if full independence might initially be off the agenda.

Also, what would a democratic China look like?  Would it keep elements of its Communist system or adopt a multi-party system as in Japan, India and South Korea?  A close example is the Soviet Union which completely dismantled its Communist style of governance in 1991 and adopted a Western model of governance, though China’s transition would probably not be quite so dramatic and therefore not so extreme.  And what would become of the flag?  Would it return to the flags of 1912-1949 republic?

Much of this is wild conjecture at best, though I think the odds are in favour of there being some political opening occuring.  It would be very nice if this happened as soon as 7 years time, while other commentators have suggested it’s more likely to occur during the 2022-2032 sixth generation of leadership.  It’s impossible to tell, though I suspect something has to change during my lifetime.  I’m excited to watch and see!

*One I would absolutely love to experience to a greater extent, incidentally.

 

2013 Iranian Presidential Election Predictions

The first round of Iran’s presidential election will be held on Friday.  Outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a controversial time in office, particularly after his re-election in 2009 which I shall discuss in a moment.  His presidency has raised some questions over the extent of Iran’s president’s power.  He has precided over a period of increasing isolation for Iran as pressure, largely in the form of sanctions, mounts over the country’s nuclear program – it is also now more unpopular than ever.  A regional cold war has developed between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the USA + its allies.  These tensions are now factoring in the Syrian Civil War, which has developed into something of a proxy war between competing interests.  Ahmadinejad is forbidden from serving more than two terms and so a new President shall be chosen.  Whoever this will be certainly has a lot on their plate.

In order to discuss the presidential election, it’s important to look at how Iran’s political system actually works.  The Western image of Iran is this bizarre, antiquated dictatorship and, while it often acts in this way, does have constitutional democratic elements.  Unlike Communist or dictatorial governments, which use elections to create the illusion of public legitimacy, I believe Iran’s system is designed to have a fairly elected president and parliament.  I haven’t studied Iran in detail, but that’s how it comes across.  The trouble is, as a theocracy, the ultimate authority in Iran is God.  Because consulting God poses a challenge, it is necessary to base laws on religious scriptures – the Quran, generally – and also the traditions of Shia Islam.  Interpreting these rules is the role of the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts.  As the name suggests, the Supreme Leader (currently Ali Khamenei) has supreme power over the judiciary, the armed forces, foreign policy, etc.  This leaves the role of the president unclear.  It’s incredibly complicated, but this BBC page helps make it a bit simpler.

In theory, the system should allow the population of Iran to democratically elect leaders to govern day-to-day issues that are not the concern of the Supreme Leader.  Yet, clearly, this is often not the case.  In 2009 Ahmadinejad was elected president in favour of the more reformist candidate Mousavi.  Many people believe Mousavi to have been the rightful winner and accuse the government of rigging the vote.  There were mass protests across Iran in response, and it did momentarily look as though the regime was in danger.  Yet, the government survived – mostly through using brute force to suppress the protests. It is clear that while there may be an element of democracy in Iran’s political system, it is in a manner tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader who will manipulate results if he does not believe them to be in the country’s interests.

I don’t believe the protests of 2009 will be repeated this year.  Another challenge to the regime would be nice, and the conditions of economic frustration which is common in most uprisings does certainly exist (though the anger quite successfully deflected towards the West, it would seem), I think careful planning will have gone into the election to ensure it produces the desired result.  The majority of accepted candidates are Conservatives, with the exception of the moderate Rouhani and reformist Aref, who dropped out yesterday to improve the chances of Rouhani.  Six candidates remain: five Conservatives and Rouhani.  Naturally, I am hoping Rouhani will win but I don’t think it would make much difference if he did.  If a candidate posed a serious threat to the status quo I don’t think they would not be allowed to stand after the events of 2009 – that Mousavi is currently under house arrest makes this clear.  Perhaps the results have already been decided.  It is impossible to say.

These are difficult times for Iran.  Anything could happen.  Even an unlikely reformist could be convinced that reform is necessary; look at Gorbachev in the Soviet Union or de Klerk in South Africa.  But, of course, the ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader, who currently seems determined for things to remain the way they are.

For an alternative look at Iran’s election, check out this unofficial candidate.

Russia Quote

Quote

“If there is one single factor which dominates the course of Russian history… it is the principle of autocracy.”

Just read this quote by Hugh Seton-Watson in The Russian Empire 1801-1917 (quoted by Eric Wilmot in The Great Powers 1814-1914).  He wrote this in 1967 and it is still relevant nearly 50 years later.  It’s as if Russia is allergic to democracy; even with the establishment of a multi-party system it had snapped back within a decade to strongman rule under President Putin.  I look forward to the day that this quote is no longer relevant.

 

Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

It’s strange to think that Doctor Who’s 9th episode of series 7, Cold War, is a historical episode set in the year 1983, considering that the original series of the show was actually nearing its end during that time.  30 years ago.  Feels too near to count as a historical, yet, it also feels a long time ago.  Mark Gatiss has returned to write his fifth story for the show, and has again tackled a companion’s first trip into the past – as he previously did with The Unquiet Dead (2005) for Rose and Victory of the Daleks (2010) for Amy.  Gatiss has a reputation for writing consistently decent episodes, but never anything special or that impressive, so I was curious to see how he would tackle this episode.  Returning to direct is Douglas MacKinnon, who has previously directed the The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2008).

Firstly, I really love the concept of being trapped on a submarine with a deadly monster.  (In fact, I actually had a similar idea myself for a spin-off/fanfiction series I wrote a couple of years, though that was with a Dalek – so I feel slightly bitter towards Gatiss for stealing it!).  A sense of claustrophobia is successfully developed; when the TARDIS disappears; the submarine is stuck; there’s nowhere to run – it’s brilliant edge-of-the-seat viewing.  In many ways, this felt a very traditional episode.  Cold War has clearly taken notes from the 1960s’ ‘base under siege’ stories, and also has a lot of similarities with the 2005 episode Dalek.  Gatiss has been criticised for, again, writing a good episode but nothing revolutionary.  Which is fine, as long as we do get the more experimental pieces from time to time.  My only criticism of the writing was that the pacing felt a bit off, at times – almost as if the plot was being stretched out to fill the time slot (unusual for Doctor Who; generally the opposite is true), though for such a small-scale story, despite the global implications, this may have actually added to the tension.

I also enjoyed how the Cold War period was realised in this episode.  From the costumes the Soviet workers wore, the stars littering the submarine (even if historically inaccurate) and the stream of references to things like America and nuclear Armageddon, the setting immediately feels convincing – I particularly liked the line which went something like, “I know telling the truth might be a foreign concept to you, sir…”  Excellent dig at Communism, there.  One thing: the actual Russian soldiers didn’t feel entirely convincing.  The lines about “Oh, we’re speaking Russian” were a bit forced, and the crew felt more British than Russian.  Not sure how that could have been improved – the crew wouldn’t necessarily need to have had Russian accents, though that might have helped.

Of course, the true focus for Cold War was the return of an Ice Warrior, who were last featured in an episode as far back as 1974 in The Monster of Peladon.  After a 39 year hiatus they’re back and, unlike previous returns such as the Cybermen and the Silurians, have remained very loyal to the original designs.  The scales, the hissing voice – it’s all there!  I lament the loss of the clamp-like hands, but that’s a minor detail.  My first impression was how wonderfully well lit Skaldak, the Ice Warrior, was in every scene, particularly once he had crawled out of the suit.  Tiny flickers on the side of the screen as he ran down corridors were also very effective.  I wasn’t completely convinced by his final CGI appearance outside of the armour, however – the edges and proportions just didn’t feel that real.  But I appreciated seeing an Ice Warrior outside of his armour – a first for the show – nonetheless.  Gatiss did a good job of briefly explaining their history; in fact, he did a better job than most previous writers for them.  Though I don’t find the idea of a mighty Martian Empire existing 5,000 years ago all that realistic but, I suppose, who cares?

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman were perfect as the Doctor and Clara, as I have come to expect.  Coleman is very nicely fitting into the role, now, and Matt Smith still surprises me three years into the role.  Most of the crew members were well acted; David Warner as the 80s pop fan Professor Grisenko particularly stood out to me.

Overall, this was a very decent episode.  The Cold War submarine setting was used to its maximum potential, and the return of an Ice Warrior was by no means underwhelming.  Perhaps Cold War was a rehash of successful Doctor Who ideas, but they are successful precisely because they work.  This may not be remembered in the future as the greatest episode, but for now it has achieved its aims rather well.

Final rating: 7.5/10

A History of Communism: From Idealism to Tyranny

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The idea of Communism means many things to many people, and has evolved considerably since it was first developed by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto of 1848.  Marx saw Communism as a solution to the mass poverty and class structure which the capitalist system had created.  Most significantly, and this is where he parted from various socialist and liberal ideas, Marx believed the implementation of Communism had to be revolutionary.

I’m not an expert on his beliefs, and I’ll confess I’ve never read The Communist Manifesto – though it’s definitely high on my list of books to read.  However, I believe he advocated a state which would possess supreme power over the people in order to liberate the workers from extreme poverty and their ‘bourgeoisie’, upper class rulers.  To do this it would be necessary, if not desirable, to create a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would, in essence, follow the idea of a ‘benign dictator’.  Communism would not follow immediately, but this dictatorship would work towards the world revolution and eventually develop a stateless, classless world.  This is what Marx perceived to be true Communism.

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A depiction of revolutionary chaos in Berlin.

However, despite being formed in the euphoric hope of the doomed 1848 Revolutions, Marx’s ideas gained little traction during his lifetime.  He died in 1883 with the cause making little headway, though Marx maintained his belief that socialism was an inevitable stage in human development.  As the Europeans carved up Africa and created alliances, the ideas of Communism must have seemed fanatical.

Then, in the worldwide chaos caused by the First World War, everything changed.  In February 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed after centuries of power in a complex series of events which, I will again admit, I have not deeply studied.  As German and Austrian soldiers advanced further and further into Russian territory, the people and soldiers protested and mutinied in what became a mass uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate.  This was not a Communist revolution; Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Communist party, lived in exile and returned upon hearing the news.  It was in a second revolution during October 1917 when the Communists took advantage of the power vacuum which followed Tsar rule and seized power in a coup.  Not, as future Russian propaganda would have you believe, in a united empowerment of the proletariat demanding Communist rule.

Lenin worked to introduce Marx’s ideas and established a Dictatorship of the Proletariat – with himself as chairman, of course.  A bloody civil war ensued, as the Communists (‘reds’) fought European-backed reactionary forces (‘whites’), resulting in a red victory.  The formation of the Soviet Union was complete, and the world’s first Communist State entered the world stage.  Half of Europe had been set ablaze during the First World War – in addition to the Russian Empire, the war saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.  Dozens of new states were created and in this revolutionary chaos thrived many short-lived Communist governments, but as the dust settled Russia stood the only country in which Communists had managed to keep their grip on power.  (There was also a Communist government in Mongolia, which achieved independence with the help of the ‘Reds’ during the Russian Civil War, though this had very little influence).

So the Soviet Union stood alone.  Lenin died in 1924 and, after a struggle for power, Joseph Stalin became leader.  This struggle fractured a split in the Communist Party, as two sides formed led by Stalin and a man called Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky believed that socialist policies could not work alone in Russia, that Marx’s doctrine clearly stated a worldwide revolutionary was necessary to create Communism.  Stalin, in contrast, was throughout his life an extreme paranoiac and believed the Soviet Union vulnerable against its capitalist enemies, so felt the focus should be on building defences.  Stalin won and Trotsky was sent into exile, eventually to be assassinated on Stalin’s command in 1940.

Stalin’s Soviet Union saw unprecedented industrial, technological and demographic development.  The Soviet Union became the first state to lead an organised Industrial Revolution, in which the country worked by ‘Five Year Plans’ to determine the focus of development.  This led to a much faster development than the random and uncontrolled forces of capitalism which had driven development elsewhere in the world.

More significantly, in my opinion, Stalin’s rule marked the transition between idealism and tyranny in Communist belief.  This need not have happened.  Stalin’s paranoia led to the creation of a totalitarian state and a cult of personality, in which human rights were non-existent and a level of devotion close to worship was expected for the Communist Party and for Stalin himself.

The rise of Communism coincided with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries fell to the sway of Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, imposing vast military rule upon their people and creating similar cults of personalities for the leaders.  It is said that if you could get Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, in a room together and avoid talk of economics, they would find much in common.  The creation of such brutal Fascist regimes created parallels with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with many critics labeling the Soviet Union as a Fascist regime itself.  There is certainly a strong argument for this claim.  Though not on the scale of The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges of anyone he perceived a threat led to the executions of millions of people.

This was how Communism would be defined during the second half of the century.  Once again it took a world war to make Communism a reality in many countries.  After the fall of Nazi Germany, Europe was carved up between the Allies and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a series of puppet states making up the Eastern block, comprised of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.  To the east, Communists in China had won a bloody civil war after Japanese defeat in the Second World War, and the Korean War split Korea into two states, the north of which became ruled by a Communist government.  Communist also began spreading to the French colonies of southeast Asia, which would lead to the famous Vietnam War.

This spread of Communism led to a ‘Cold War’ forming between the liberal, capitalist forces of ‘The West’ headed by the USA, and the tyrannical, Communist forces of ‘The East’ headed by the Soviet Union.

Communism at its greatest extent in 1983.

The middle classes and landowners in capitalist countries were terrified of a Communist takeover, fearing land repossessions and reprisals, perhaps even threats to their lives.  And so a global war of power spheres, espionage, technological advancement and fear would define the 20th century; a war in every aspect besides the fighting.

And then, suddenly, Communism collapsed.  There are too many reasons for this collapse to go into in this blog, particularly as my understanding will be very limited.  I think the most significant factor was an economic crisis which brought the entire fragile system crashing down.  The Eastern block crumbled, ironically, during mass revolutions, and the Soviet Union split into a series of successor states not long afterwards.  Other than a handful of Communist States which survived in Asia, mostly reliant on China’s growing influence, and also Cuba, Communism has died a swift death.  Even these countries are increasingly accepting capitalism as a road to success.  Occasionally a Communist party will join a coalition government in some small country somewhere in the world, but as a major political force it is utterly spent.

So what are my thoughts on Communism?  If I had lived during the turmoil of the 20s following the First World War, in a period marked by extreme poverty, I would undoubtedly have been a Communist.  However as the totalitarian nature of Communist states became clearer, the Liberal within me must reject Communism.  It is an incredible idea, but human history has shown that whenever an individual is given power, however benevolent the reason, they will become corrupted.  Very often Communist states have exacerbated the poverty they were created to solve, while well-fed dictators think only of war and power.  Left-leaning institutions such as the welfare state have proven an effective means of lifting the majority out of poverty without imposing the extremes of Communism and this, I believe, is the path we ought to continue to follow.  Think of it as a diluted, safer form of Communism, achieving the same goals without the idealistic insanity.

Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

As you will have no doubt heard – due to the fact that the media has finally cottoned on to the horrors occurring – there is a vicious and bloody civil war being fought in the country of Syria.  Unrest began in March 2011 after demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.  The regime responded in the form of tear gas, bullets, shells, warplanes, and recently, cluster bombs.  Violence spiraled in a series of massacres and resistance from a growing rebellion army, dragging the country into the largest civil conflict in the country’s history.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after a rebellion was launched by Fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco and aided by the established Fascist dictatorships in Europe, sought to topple the democratic left-wing government.  The war raged for three years between the ‘Republican’ forces and the ‘Nationalist’ forces, and by 1939 the Nationalists had taken control of the country, imposing a military dictatorship which would last for decades.

There are many similarities between the two conflicts in some ways, and differences in others, but enough similarities to be worth commenting on.  Whether Syria will be one of many cases where history is repeated remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will explore where these repetitions may occur.  As ever, I am not an expert and there are merely my own views – as misguided they may possibly be.

Both the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, from a Western Liberal perspective, can be interpreted as a war between freedom and tyranny.  The lines blur, as they always must in wars, but overall this seems to be the case.  In Spain the combatants were the democratic (to begin with) Republican government and the dictatorial, Fascist Nationalists.  There is little doubt that, having seen the atrocities in Spain’s totalitarian government under Franco, which was to follow, the Nationalists were not on the side of freedom.  With the Republican government increasingly becoming a puppet of the Soviet Union, almost entirely dependent on Soviet support, it is debatable whether this side could be considered the side of ‘freedom’, but as the war began the Republicans were certainly fighting in the defence of democracy and freedom.

Syria is more clear cut.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has ruled Syria for nearly four decades.  The government’s rule has been characterised by brutal oppression; Syria is a country where mass imprisonment and torture are commonplace.  An Islamic revolt occurred between 1976 and 1982, culminating in the mostly undocumented Hama massacre which razed the city and killed tens of thousands of people.  In retrospect, this can be seen as a sort of blueprint by the government in handling civil unrest.  Assad’s regime is undeniably on the side of oppression and tyranny.  The rebellion to oust him began as mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, and the rebel army which followed is dedicated to fighting for a free, democratic future.  Yes, there are extreme factions within the rebellion – most worryingly Islamic jihadists – whose growing influence is a cause for concern, but I believe a majority of the fighters would reject their views.

Another similarity, which in my view is the strongest, is how both wars rapidly became a proxy war.  A proxy war is the situation where a major power, or often two major powers, instigate or support sides in a conflict which the power itself if not directly involved in.  I’ve already mentioned how the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war, with the Nationalists supported by the Fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Portugal, and with the Republicans supported by the Communist Soviet Union.  This level of support on the Fascist side extended deeply.  The Guernica bombing is a famous example of German intervention, and over 10,000 German soldiers fought in the war.  Italy’s level of support went further, with over 60,000 Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side, as well as in the form of aid such as warships, ammunition and over 700 warplanes.  The Fascist powers of Europe were desperate for a Nationalist victory as this would further isolate the dwindling democratic powers of Europe – namely Britain and France.

Support for the Republicans came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union, whose motives were more halting the spread of Fascism than to install Communism in Spain.  Its level of support was also large, with many thousand Soviet soldiers fighting for the Republicans and large amounts of aid being sent.  The Republicans also received aid from Mexico, though this was nowhere near comparable to the amount provided by the European dictators.

The attitude of what would today be perceived as ‘The West’ was one of non-intervention.  In fact, many officials in Britain were open about their desire for a Nationalist victory, as this was seen as preferable to a potential spread of Communism.  Britain, France and the USA pledged to not become involved in the war, limiting their role to that of sending humanitarian aid.

This was similar to the situation in Syria in many ways.  Although to not as great a degree or from as many sources, much military and logistical aid is making its way to the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.  The regime’s most outspoken backer is Iran, which sees its unusual alliance with the secular dictatorship as a way of maintaining influence in the Middle-East and applying pressure onto Israel.  The regime is also, more covertly, receiving aid from Russia – both politically and militarily.  Russia’s political support of Syria, due to its presence on the UN Security Council, has prevented any meaningful international intervention in the conflict, thus giving the Assad regime the opportunity to clamp down on resistance without interference.  Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the regime, despite international condemnation.

Support for the rebellion comes from an even stranger source; the highly oppressive Gulf States – most significantly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The rebellion in Syria is being fought, mostly, for freedom and democracy, so it may at first appear odd that these Islamic Monarchies are supporting the movement, but their motivations are down to politics.  Fiercely opposed to Iran, the Gulf states see this as an opportunity to sever Iranian influence upon the region.  Democracy would be an unfortunate side-effect to this goal.

Dark green shows countries which have recognised Syria’s opposition. Light green shows countries which have officially supported the opposition.

Very much like in the Spanish Civil War, the role of ‘The West’ has been minimal.  Although there is clear vocal support from most democracies towards the rebel movement, most governments are unwilling to become involved without a legally-binding resolution from the UN, which is currently being blocked by Russia and China.  To date France, Turkey, the UK and Spain have recognised the ‘Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and, along with the USA, have been providing non-lethal aid – including communications equipment.  Turkey is also allowing its territory to be used by rebel fighters to organise and supply.

However, although there are many similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, there are also many differences.  One significant difference is the root of each conflict.  The Spanish Civil War began as an armed insurgency and coup attempt by the Nationalist Forces, whereas the Syrian Civil War began as a popular uprising against President Assad’s regime and the armed elements followed later.  From my perspective this gives the rebel factions in Syria more legitimacy than those in Spain had, as they are actually fighting for the will of ‘the people’ (but not all).

The forms of warfare are also different.  The war in Spain was fought in trenches, land battles and with heavy aerial capabilities from both sides.  The rebels in Syria are far more disadvantaged: they’re fighting a guerrilla war across the cities and country side of Syria, fighting street by street and making minimal gains against the regime’s artillery and air-power.  The role of warplanes is significant in both conflicts, but in Syria this role is far more one-sided with the air virtually dominated by Assad forces.

The war in Syria has not attracted the number of foreign volunteers to join the rebellion as would be expected.  The most significant volunteer movement from abroad would be the emergence of Islamic Jihadist groups, whose numbers make up over 5,000 fighters.  This pales in comparison to the 32,000 volunteers who joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Fascism.

And finally, although the most difficult at present to judge, is the direction in which the war is flowing.  The Nationalists made steady gains all throughout the Spanish Civil War and were heading towards a victory from early on.  The situation in Syria, being far from conclusion, can only be predicted.  Although the regime has an upper hand in virtually every respect, it is gradually being pushed back in all areas of the country be rebels.  Despite this, the war is currently in a state of stalemate.  Most analysts and observers do not believe the Assad regime will survive, however, due to the wide opposition to it both domestically and internationally.  It appears likely that both wars will be won by the rebellion and end in revolution, but where in Spain this was a triumph for Fascism, in Syria this will, it is hoped, be a triumph for democracy.

In conclusion, there are both many similarities and differences between the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011-present.  It may be futile to explore the similarities, or it may also give an indication of the direction Syria as a country will go during the war and after.  It is said that history repeats itself, and I believe this is and will increasingly be one of those instances.