"When the first version of this book was published in 1982 under the title, The Spanish Civil War, Gerald Brenan described it as 'by a long way the best, and fairest and the most accurate book upon it'. Over the intervening years, a huge amount of new material has appeared in Spain and from documents finally emerging from Russian, German and other archives. Antony Beevor's Spanish publisher persuaded him that the time was right, with the approach of the war's seventieth anniversary, to rewrite the book taking advantage of the new information and reinforcing it with new research." "Antony Beevor charts not only the course of the war in a fresh light, but illuminates the vicious infighting on both sides. The hopes and fears of a whole generation foundered in disillusionment and despair at the cruel war which destroyed the Spanish Republic."--BOOK JACKET.
Well I should qualify that: the bravery and heroism of the usually undermanned and overmatched soldiers fighting on the republican side against Franco's forces, often despite the incompetence and stubbornness of their own generals, was admirable indeed. But good gracious, it is depressing to read of the hypocracy of England and France and the U.S. who, in the name of "non-interventionism," assured that arms would get to Franco's forces but not to those those defending the Spain from fascist generals. And it is depressing to read of the success the Spanish Communists had in marginalizing and terrorizing most of their political partners in the struggle against Franco and who were willing, as military commanders late in the war, to sacrifice the lives of thousands of their soldiers in hopeless and vain attempts to win propaganda victories. And that's the short list.
But, again, that's not to blame Beevor for his subject matter. His ability to write about all these things clearly and compellingly, and to sort out the many political movements and their incessant comings and goings, is nothing short of admirable. Beevor also does a terrific job of going back centuries to quickly and clearly set up the long-developing contexts for the political, class and religious histories that made passions run so high and animosities so fervent and entrenched once the explosion occurred with the military rising against the civilian government in 1936.
So this is a very, very good book, but a very difficult work to read. That said, I'm very glad to have read it.
Intriguing is how the Communists were effective about encroaching on power but hopeless at military strategy, being only concerned for propaganda victories, ie suicidal frontal attacks. But behind it all is Stalin who didnt want them to win anyway - was it deliberate? That's not made clear.
My own reflection: Franco's Africanista army was the steelier part of the Spanish armed forces, but can't have been that good. They had the Nazis Condor airpower to soften up the Republicans who were barely professional, under-equipped and inwardly eroded by the Communists. Should have been a walk over for the fascists.
I chose his book on another topic, civil war in Spain, intentionally. What did I know about this war? Not much, to be honest. Well, USSR participated, Germans bombed a hell out of one Spanish town Picasso painted a picture on it, and at the end cruel fascists and not good communists won. So I started reading this book just to learn about the course of events.
I did not regret a second after I started this book. All the names, vaguely associated with this war, got a context and entourage in my mind. Right now I know for sure that Dolores Ibarruri and Passionaria are not just the streets in my home city, but in fact are the same person. Plus I know the course of events and key figures there. And after I've finished the book Fanco turned from the photo in a handbook to a garrison commander in the middle of a Spanish nowhere, who got all the power during the war.
The core of the book, however, is not in the fact that author tells about battles, participants and results. Page by page and phrase by phrase the text created the feeling and the atmosphere of these days. Franco's repressions, the devastation of anarchist Barcelona by communists, soviet tanks and German planes and many other things became meaningful, and not dry list of facts in a handbook. So by the end of this book the Spanish Civil War doesn't become either a struggle for the social justice, or a restoration of constitutional government. It is nothing but but a banal fight over the power, and all the parties were, in fact, worth each other.
In my opinion, the main strength of the book lies in its framing of the War in a very particular historical context: on the eve of the Second World War, nationalistic authoritarianism and fascism were perceived by democracies as less of a threat to stability than communism. Democratic nations feared a communist inspired regime in Spain and acted in accordance with that analysis, thus denying support to the Republic, effecting an arms embargo, disregarding the involvement the axis powers. Furthermore, in that light, one can propose a cogent explanation for the actions of Franco and the Junta, set in a historical, ideological and global context.
Naturally the author does not condone the military usurpation of a democratic regime (nor do I - Franco’s tomb deserves to be pissed on), and goes at length to catalog the cleansing and killing on both sides. One expects communists and anarchists to be killed in the nationalist zones, but what surprised me was the scope of the slaughter within the republican areas. Fanned by Moscow, the ideological dissentions between communists, socialists, trotskyists, anarchists, syndicalists, and the overarching ideological orthodoxy which drove military decision making were the main reasons for the fall of the Republic, more than the campaigns of unified nationalists, reliant on allies’ manpower and technology.
This aspect was wonderfully clarified by the author, as were the military campaigns of the conflict. The author’s fluency in portraying the various battles of the conflict is evident – and he relied on a range of historical documents, from reports of Commissars and other foreigners to accounts of ground troops. Furthermore, the fact that so many literary figures took stances in this conflict does help by adding another layer of perspective.
If I were to offer some criticism, I would put forth that the book does not start strongly, with its style at times a little tenuous. I will also add my usual complaint, which is that the author should have offered more information on the foot soldiers. They often come across as toy soldiers, pawns of great masterminds: however this was a conflict of deeply held convictions, therefore the motivation, the demographics of those who took sides would have illustrative. I understand that poumistas were primarily factor workers, and that requetes were mostly landowning peasants from the North – bringing them, and others to life is good history in my mind.
Instigated by fascist generals against elected republic though republic likely have revolted against a right wing elected government
Republic not supported by Britain, France or USA who remained non interventionist and let to Republic turning entirely to Russia for arms and support which steered the republic towards communism
Nationalists received arms throughout from Nazi Germany and Italy and used their own army of Africa - though unable to take the major Cities of eg Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona for some time they did take control of surrounding areas and the reminder of the county before taking the major Cities
Franco was subsequently ruthless in his regime and attacking republicans after the war. Regime would have been overthrown but saved by cold war and the threat of communism felt throughout Western Europe
Obviously the slaughter and reprisals, and the bombing of innocents was horrific, but what I also found disturbing was the non-interventionist policies of countries such as Britain and the USA in applying arms-embargos to what was a democratically elected republican government. The Catholic Church was also happy to back Franco, though this came as less of a shock.
I didn't find it just as enthralling as 'Berlin' or 'Stalingrad' by the same author - too often the book seemed to get bogged down in a detailed description of military manoueveres. But he displays the same skills he showed in those titles in terms of giving an overview of how the war affected all sections of Spain, as well as the life of the individual. A difficult book about a harrowing subject but an essential read if you want to know more about Spains dark past.
Beevor takes us on a tour of Spanish history leading up to the 1930s, and explains why such a destructive war could take place. He describes darkly humorous moments of history as well events that will haunt you long after you put the book down. He introduces us to the few heroes of the war (Dr Marcel Junod for one) as well as its many villains (Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, the non-interventionist west et al.) and its turning points. In the end you can only think of “what ifs?” and marvel at Franco’s journey from Fascist pariah to key western ally.
I’ve been holding off reading other books by Beevor for fear they would suffer by comparison with “The Battle for Spain” but I’ve finally taken the plunge and am reading “Stalingrad”. Wish me luck.