on 18 October 2006
The Spanish Civil war must be one of the most tragic European wars of all time. Spaniard against Spaniard, a bloody conflict characterised by the failures on both sides but mainly the Republicans, to recognise modern warfare when they saw it and the clash of two bitterly opposed, totalitarian beliefs, Stalinist communism and Fascism. The contribution of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia and indeed, France and Great Britain to the perpetuation of this conflict as a testing ground for troops, tactics and weapons is well documented in this book.
Antony Beevor works through the mire of 1930's Spanish politics with aplomb, if confusingly, between the plethora of parties on both the left and the right, many identified simply by acronyms such as the POUM and the JONS. However, once the reader perseveres through the initial, context setting chapters the book opens up into a rich account of the often bloody and generally wasteful war through to its conclusion in 1939 on the eve of World War 2. The final chapter relates the continuing, relentless repression of the left in Spain right up to the 1960's when the advent of the package holiday finally opened up the country to peaceful outside influences and with General Franco's death, brought economic growth and stability.
This book was written sometime ago (1982) and it shows. A less polished if undoubtedly scholarly Antony Beevor shows through in comparison with later works (Stanlingrad, Berlin) and overall, the book has a more `academic' feel to it. One cannot help but feel the hand of a publisher seeing an early work re-published with a new title as a money-spinner. That said, I am pleased that it was and would recommend the book to all but the very casual reader.
The Spanish Civil War is an endlessly fascinating period of history. Mixed in with the undoubted tragedy there's a frisson of romance about it. Artists, writers and idealists of many stripes flocked to "help". The likes of Ernest Hemingway, Laurie Lee, George Orwell and Victor Serge have given the Republican side literary credence. Picasso, Dali and others depicted the bestiality in visual art. Numerous commentators and agitators stood on the sidelines or frontlines and stirred the political stew - Trotsky to name just one. Eric Hobsbawm (The Guardian, 17/2/07) has pointed out the very clear paradox of the Spanish Civil War - that it is one of the few conflicts whose history is not monopolised by the victors.
Although this book has been said to be better balanced than average, the balance is still with the Republican side. We know full well how the Republicans "motivated" their own troops. There is less on this subject with regard to the Nationalists, especially the feared Moroccans. What motivated these colonial troops? And would Trotsky's advice for winning them over have worked?
Beevor exposes the idiocy of some in the Republican leadership in pursuing fatuous stunts like that at the Ebro, with catastrophic losses of men, matériel and morale, in the pursuit of a propaganda-worthy victory. There is also something that appears verging on sabotage in the way the Republican generals repeatedly launch initially successful attacks, only to allow their forces to get sucked into trying to mop up isolated resistance rather than pursuing their advantage. It all too often seems like the hesitation born of fear of failure results in increasing amounts of failure, which is then blamed on the hapless ex-Trots of the POUM.
There is less detail of this kind on the Nationalist side. He upbraids Franco for his obsession with Madrid, which nevertheless remained out of his grasp until the very end of the war, his vanity, and his strategic ineptness, and it is apparent that his German and Italian allies were at least close to considering him a buffoon. But there are fewer such stories than there are about Republican leaders such as Negrín, for example.
As Beevor's story progresses, the full horror of Stalinism's insidious effect on the war becomes increasingly tragic in its consequences, with the paranoia rampant in the ranks of the communists, contracted through their Russian commissars, spreading like a contagion within the entire Republican movement, so that trust and comradeship rapidly disintegrate. It is apparent from his account that the fragmented Republican factions were as afraid of each other as of Franco, sometimes with justification (Delores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, is still commemorated by Trotskyists as L'Assassionaria).The virtual transformation of the International Brigades from volunteers to prisoners is a chilling development. The brutal punishment of Brigadistas after the battle of Brunete following their disintegration will surely have anyone contemplating a similar commitment now, should the opportunity arise, thinking more than twice.
Beevor adds to Stalin's tally of crimes the charge that, far from providing fraternal succour, the Soviet Union profited from its sale of arms and services, overcharging for these items in Spanish gold.
The book includes many references to the reports being made by Soviet agents back to Moscow and Stalin, which are enlightening in indicating the degree to which news from the war was dimensioned according to what Stalin wanted to hear - that blame for military defeats were due to the "fifth columnists" of the "international fascist" POUM, for example, thereby implicitly blaming Trotsky, despite Trotsky's own disavowal of his former devotees because of their participation in the Popular Front. The schismatic gene in the left continues to this day - no less than three Trotskyist candidates in the 2007 French presidential election, plus a communist.
Beevor gives plenty of food for thought in the "What If?" zone.
For example, what would have happened had the US and UK not been so craven, not only backing away from support of the legitimately elected Republicans, but even at times providing tacit support for the Nationalists, though admittedly the Royal Navy did also provide cover for merchant ships supplying the Basques.
There is a certain macabre irony that of the nations supposedly operating a blockade of Spain, two of them were Germany and Italy, so whilst everyone else was blocking supplies to both sides, the Germans and Italians were blocking supplies to the Republicans and actively supplying the Nationalists. The other powers, notably Britain, turned a blind eye to this state of affairs. Beevor reveals, perhaps tellingly, that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's sister-in-law was openly a fascist sympathiser.
This made the civil war a very one-sided rehearsal for WWII. The Germans and Italians were able to field-test their armaments, battle-harden elite forces, and experiment with tactics - the blitzkrieg and one of its principal components, the Stuka, made their debuts in the service of Franco. Meanwhile, Soviet advisors received their initiation into the appliance of techniques which would not attract Stalin's disfavour because of their association with purged generals, rehearsed the infallible motivational technique of shooting their own retreating troops irrespective of circumstance, and perfected their blame-passing capabilities. The British and Americans not only chose to avert their gaze, they also intimidated the French into inaction. In fact, even at the death, as rampaging Nationalist forces slaughtered everything in their path, it was only the most searing embarrassment that persuaded the French to permit the retreating Republican forces to cross the border. But the relative humanitarianism of that act was soon smothered by their internment of refugees in horrendous concentration camps.
The irony is, as Niall Ferguson asserts in War Of The World, had the British acted sooner they would have caught the Germans underresourced and unprepared for full-scale conflict, thus averting WWII; had they done so, the Republicans would have been in far better shape to repulse the Nationalists, who would have been denied the men and matériel provided by the Germans, if not the Italians.
Beevor himself considers that history must always end with questions; conclusions are way too convenient.
The Battle For Spain is the first work of Beevor's I have read, but I doubt it will be the last. Overall, it is an impressive piece of work: thorough and well-written, even-handed at least insofar as it sees the flaws in both sides, and providing a plethora of localised stories for reflection. For example, how many, having read of the Republicans pitched over its side by marauding Nationalists, will be able to look into the ravine at Ronda in quite the same light again?
The account of the bombing of Guernica, harrowing as it is, is short on histrionics. Beevor reveals that the death toll was lower than the Republicans claimed, but the attack is confirmed as ruthless and brutal, a test of the effects of aerial bombardment by Richtofen and the Condor Legion. The collusion of the Catholic church in blaming such atrocities on the Republicans must rate as the greatest betrayal in Christian history since Judas: it was, after all, Catholics in Durango whose church was bombed and who were subsequently strafed as they fled. The bombing and strafing were courtesy of the Nationalists; the Catholic church put it about that the Republicans were responsible for the deaths. But short as it is on martial porn - overgraphic descriptions of carnage - the end of the war comes as something of a relief, aftershocks notwithstanding, because you don't need graphic descriptions to know it was hell.
It does, however, leave some questions unanswered, such as what was all this like for the people of Spain as a whole? What was it like to live in a Nationalist or Republican village but to be a non-combatant? Was it actually possible to be a non-combatant, or be relatively ignorant of the war? These questions are either overlooked or only partially answered, which is less a criticism of Beevor than an opportunity for someone else.
Anthony Beevor is a fine narrative historian. His books on Stalingrad and Berlin have been widely read and praised. However it would be hard for any competent writer not to produce interesting books on these apocalyptic battles. Spain in the thirties is a very different challenge.
Having read a little of the Peninsular War, I had no enthusiasm to re-visit Spain. A sideshow of the Napoleonic War (despite tireless English efforts to make it more important) it was replete with duplicitous arrogant people, fighting in a mean country, vain incompetent generals, vile politicians, and the pervasive interference of the church. Extreme cruelty is something the Spanish do well. I was not motivated to read further into the twentieth century. Then I watched Ken Loach's film "Land and Freedom" finding the commentary an excellent history lesson. It was on my list to read something solid, so to Beevor's Battle for Spain.
If you want to read one book on the events between 1936-39 then this will do the job. It was originally published in 1982 then revised using fresh research to mark the 70th anniversary. Beevor is a master of detail. An ex soldier his battle descriptions are complex and required supplemental maps to follow the narrative. The politics are also complicated, fragmenented, bizarre especially taken out of context decades on. How could you expect anarchists and communists to form a government, herding cats would be easier? The military aspects, incompetence on both sides, militias, international brigades are uninspiring and savage. The Spanish civil war was a fetid affair, both sides excelled at torturing and shooting prisoners/civilians while in conventional fighting running away and indiscipline was widespread. It was the Germans and Russians who added backbone. As for the Italian military contribution or the role of external intellectuals, no glory is reflected on either.
Big geo political issues were being tested within an essentially pointless civil war - another sideshow with the Spain of 1939 much the same as 1814, a spiteful land. Nationalist and Republican, it was hard to tell who were the most repugnant and the entire dreadful war best relegated to a dusty shelf in history. Proof of this was that after the real war (1939-45) Franco was allowed to drift on until his natural demise in 1975. No one really cared about Spain. From the embers of the war, a plethora of interpretation (much of dubious logic) has emerged seeking to show the relevance of the conflict, that it emboldend fascists, inducing the Second World and then the Cold War.
Left alone I would have skim read this book. But I went to the library and borrowed the CD audio version and loaded it onto my IPod. Sean Barrett read it well, and his Spanish pronunciation was helpful. I listened to his narration as I simultaneously read the book. It made it more enjoyable, actually bearable. If you are feint hearted and peripherally interested in the war - consider doing the same. Beevor has produced a good book but it is a slog to read. I have now filled a gap in my knowledge but do not feel the better for it.