on 30 October 2009
Thomas's book is often the first people read when they come across the SCW (Spanish Civil War). It is a monument to a lifetime of work and revision (being updated four times for this present edition) and a pioneering work of scholarship. However, it was written in 1961 and although it has been updated to try and include new waves of research, it is woefully inadequate and these shortcomings become more apparent in new books on the subject. This is not a reflection on Thomas, but on the time he published the book.
The work itself is generally written from a high-political position, that is he deals with the decisions made by generals and politicians rather than on the ground. This allows the reader to engage with all the issues as they unfold; from military decisions of Miaja and Rojo to the political intrigue of Franco and the various elements of his coalition. It is also an incredibly detailed narrative history, placing the reader at the heart of the moment with an incredibly well-written chronology. This, I feel is the book's greatest strength. This is hindered by its ENORMOUS length but for those wanting a one-volume work frequently turn to Thomas as a reliable and "neutral" observer. This is where my objection sets in.
Thomas himself is a notorious conservative (small c) and frequently reflects a centre-liberal position. This is not a major issue as he still incorporates evidence from the left and right. However, the way in which he does this is a real problem. If you take a look in his bibliography and footnotes you will find many accounts of atrocities or military escapades are supported by what are now accepted as Francoist propaganda. Particularly, Herbert Rutledge Southworth's work on the many lies and myths produced and developed by the regime and Preston's commentary on right-wing historiography undermine many of the claims made by Thomas. This is not entirely his own fault as he was writing in the late 1950s when the range of material was quite narrow but recent critical works have shown many of them to have embellished - if not invented - evidence. It just means that to the extent the book is heralded as "neutral" and "objective" should be treated with a severe health warning.
One example (mentioned by another reviewer) is that of Ronda and the massacre of 500 from the top of a cliff. Investigations by Buckley and Corbin (made more difficult by the Franco regime's mass destruction of documentation) have shown that this is a total fabrication and that the scale of the killings was much less, not committed at the location and frequently committed by PERSONAL not POLITICAL conviction. This is on instance. The work is peppered with accounts which are taken at face value and should be - and have been - genuinely challenged. Radcliff's work on the "anarchist" stronghold of Gijon has produced a different outcome and native Spanish historians - Moreno Gomez, Casanova, Espinosa among others - have highlighted the incredibly suppressed but brutal and destructive importance of Nationalist violence. Richards' book "A Time of Silence" really gets to grip with this.
Overall I cannot overstate the significance of the book as a historical landmark. It provided the gateway to generations of historians on the subject and the work is rightly seen as an excellent and pioneering contribution to the history of such a contested conflict. However, I have serious reservations about the age of the book despite numerous updates. It is a monumentally detailed history but unquestioningly incorporates Francoist and Rightist propaganda whilst not taking account of the post-war feuds within and between leftist factions.
It will continue to be a testament to the conflict but one should read it with caution. I strongly recommend Graham's book on the Republic for a more academic assessment or Beevor's popular history which is accessible and takes account of the plight of the vanquished.
Salvador Dali's painting, oddly titled, and appropriately sub-titled, graphically depicted the agony that would be the Spanish Civil War. It not a painting that would find a home over a mantelpiece; it is painful to study, and conveys the horrors of war even more than the works of his fellow Spaniard, Goya. Hugh Thomas has written the definitive history of this gut-wrenching war, perhaps without the required "distance," since Franco was still very much in power in 1961. But it is difficult to imagine that it will be superseded. As for capturing what Dali foresaw, his prose is more dispassionate, but he has done an admirable job: "Within a month nearly a hundred thousand people perished arbitrarily and without trial. Bishops would be torn to pieces and churches profaned. Educated Christians would spend their evenings murdering illiterate peasants and professional men of sensitivity. The majority of these crimes were the work, on both sides, of men convinced that what they were doing was not only right, but noble. Nevertheless these events inevitably caused such hatreds that, when some order was eventually established, it was an order geared solely for the rationalizations of hatred known as war. And it would be quite wrong to think that there was much repugnance at this development. Spaniards of all parties leapt into the war like the cheering, bellicose crowds in the capitals of the rest of Europe in 1914 at the start of that war of which, perhaps subconsciously even in 1936, the people of Spain felt they should have been a party."
Thomas has written a rich, dense, detailed account. He has clearly mastered his material, and his account is not for the casual reader. The first fifth of the book addresses the social and political causes of the war; Spain was a deeply divided society, with the power of the Church and the rich upper classes threatened by the rise of the labor and the anti-clerical forces. Throughout the book he balances the accounts of military action with the shifting political forces of the numerous factions involved. The maps included in the book are excellent references which detail the advance, and ultimate triumph of the nationalist forces.
As we know now, Spain was a "dress-rehearsal," for World War II. The Western Powers, mainly France, Britain and the United States adopted a policy of non-intervention. This was not matched by the Axis Powers, Italy and Germany, who used Spain as a training ground for its men, and a testing ground for their tactics and weapons. The Soviet Union was the chief supporter, in terms of aid, of the Republican forces. Leftists in the Western democracies volunteered, forming the International Brigades, with Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Membership in the later would be grounds for suspicion, or worse, during the McCarthy era. As Thomas notes, some observers say that the sole reason for a Nationalist victory was the support from Germany and Italy, but he gives a more judicious and balanced answer, identifying five critical periods, and concluding that it was mainly the timing of outside assistance. He also indicates that much of the reason for the outcome was the relative unity of those on the Nationalist side, and the disunity and conflict of those on the Republican side.
A few reviewers criticize Thomas for not being "balanced"; specifically they feel he was too "pro-Republican." It is a difficult charge to weigh, like saying various World War II histories were not balanced because they portrayed Hitler as evil. Franco very much had fascist tendencies, but did manage to keep Spain out of WW II. Thomas's "tribute" to him was to call him "the Octavius of Spain," a reference to the Roman emperor who managed to survive the civil wars of Rome, when virtually all others did not.
Today Spain is at peace. In terms of numbers, the impact of the civil war was more catastrophic than the American Civil War. Thomas estimates that 600,000 died, out of a population of 25,000,000, whereas the numbers in America were also roughly 600,000, out of a larger 32,000,000. The higher percentage dead and the greater proximity of time may be one of the reasons that 90% of the Spanish population opposed their country's participation in the Iraq war.
The civil war reverberates in numerous other ways as well. Just in terms of language, the nationalist General, Mola, gave us the term, "a fifth column," meaning a subversive group, when he talked about how he would seize Madrid - it was from those within. Only last week the NYT ran yet another article which seemed to confirm that Capa's famous picture, of a Republican soldier at the instant of death, was faked.
I started the review with a painting, and will end with another, Pablo Picasso's "Guernica." He painted it in honor of the civilians who died there, in the first deliberate aerial attack on a civilian population, with no military motive. It was a careful, controlled "experiment" by the Luftwaffe. The painting is at the United Nations, and when Colin Powell gave his speech advocating the invasion of Iraq, with the inevitable aerial bombardments, the painting was covered up, a not very subtle tactic to erase the lessons of Guernica from our memory.
Hugh Thomas carefully describes the attack at Guernica, as well as the rest of the war, so the lessons cannot be covered up. His book is a wonderful historical account, and deserves 5 plus stars.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on August 31, 2009)
The original research for this book was back in the 1960's. When published it was rightly regarded as a blockbuster despite leaning heavily in favour of the Republicans and, together with Gabriel Jackson, proclaiming the communists as allies in the fight against fascism. The Cold War played a major, if unspoken role, in the writings about the Spanish civil war at this time.
Unfortunately, the book is now woefully dated. The opening up of local and national archives on the death of Franco, and the release of masses of documents from soviet archives in the past decade has greatly reduced the value of this book.
There is still no consensus view of the civil war. Arguments rage as to whether it was a contest between Christianity and atheism, or fascism and communism, or capitalism and socialism. The bitterness engendered by the war still lingers in Spain.
What is clear is that the war was savage, bloody and protracted. It was also the biggest example of anticlerical violence in modern times. Atrocities on both sides were despicable involving nuns and other innocent civilians. Anarchists and released criminals massacred thousands as did the adherents of Franco's forces.
The atrocities were akin to those inflicted by the Jacobins in the late 18th century.
Today one needs to read the works of, for example, Payne, Beevor, and Preston, if you want to get a more up to date version of events. Even these and other recent books and articles have not quelled the disputes among historians as to the causes and consequences of this simply dreadful war. Preston has even called what happened a 'holocaust'.
Two other things are worth mentioning with the release of the archives mentioned above. Firstly, the military aid given by the Soviet Union to the Republicans was far less than was previously thought-and much of it was of very poor quality. Stalin in fact was concerned to see that the Soviet Union did not get too heavily involved for fear of antagonising Hitler. Secondly, the view, commonplace in the 60's and 70's, that the civil war was in fact the beginning of the Second World War is now largely discounted by leading authorities in this field.
Finally, the depth of ignorance about this terrible conflict that took place only 2 hours flying time from this country never fails to amaze this reviewer. In, for example, school history curricula it hardly rates a mention.
on 16 March 2006
I enjoyed this book so much that I was at first shocked by the reviewer who said it was useless for him. On second thought, it probably is not a book for people without some background in 19th and 20th century European history. Most books on the subject tend to divide the various factions between villains and heroes. The reality is that so many horrible murders were carried out on both sides that it's difficult to see who the "good guys" are. When you here that in the beautiful Andalusian town of Ronda, left-wing militias gathered together much of the middle classes of the town and pushed them over the edge of the steep cliff, a panoramic beauty spot much visited by tourists, or that in Paracuellos many "bourgeois" captives were massacred in cold blood by left-wing death squads with probable Communist party connections, it makes your blood run cold. Priests slaughtered, nuns raped and assassinated, all these things are fully balanced out by the atrocities carried out by Franco's troops. Hugh Thomas is not a famous right-winger, so his description is all the more valuable and his sources impeccable. Perhaps the book's only failing is that not enough effort is made to understand the background of the conflict. Was this civil war really necessary? This is a splendid source for people hungry for knowledge about 20th Century, and is highly recommended.
on 14 February 2010
Originally published in 1961, this is the definitive english language history of the Spanish Civil War, describing the major political and military events of the conflict in 600-plus pages of narrative, with numerous maps, some photographs and appendices giving statistics of industrial production, imports and exports, military aid supplied by other countries, casualties and collateral damage.
In it's descriptions of the fighting,the book concentrates on events at the operational level upwards, rather than at the individual or small unit level. At the expense of "human interest", this helps maintain the flow of the narrative and prevents an already long book from becoming even longer. There is a useful bibliography listing much of the material about the war that was available at the time of publication.
This review is based on the 1961 hardback first edition.