Since the war ended in 1939, the Spanish Civil War has been obscured by romantic mythology created by foreign writers like Ernest Hemmingway and subsequent historians, who have tended to portray this conflict as, "the first great, heroic confrontation between fascism and democracy." Frances Lannon, an Oxford history professor, notes that in this traditional interpretation, "the Second Republic remains a great cause that was worth dying for." Lannon eschews this traditional depiction of the conflict in simplistic black and white terms, a fight between fascists and communists for the soul of Spain, and views the war in much more complex terms. Lannon's account is well written and rich in detail; her particular areas of interest are the role of women in both sides of the war and the role of the Catholic Church in the conflict. Overall, Lannon's book is an excellent primer on the war as well as representing a far more balanced and objective account than has come from other quarters.
The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 begins with short sections on the background to the war. These sections are interesting because they demonstrate that both sides had compelling reasons to resort to violence. While the Republicans (encompassing such diverse groups as urban trade unionists, rural peasants, intellectuals, communists and anarchists) viewed the Church, monarchists and the military as obstacles to the development of more liberalized conditions in Spain, the Nationalists fought to defend the traditional order from what they viewed as the imposition of alien cultural values. Due to the period of violence and disorder that preceded the outbreak of civil war, Lannon notes that, "many ordinary Catholics concluded that the new state would not respect their religion or protect property." Rather than the simplistic political depiction of democracy versus fascist, Lannon shows that the conflict had a strong religious dimension, and thus the conflict also could be depicted as Catholics versus atheists. Indeed, once the civil war started, Lannon notes that, "Catholicism went underground in Republican Spain, as churches burned and religious images were destroyed."
Lannon's section on the warring sides is a bit short at three pages, but she gets the relative balance of the two forces. Her section on the fighting is 32 pages long and again, gets the main points, but without embellishment. At heart, this is more of a social history of a civil war, rather than a purely military history, and some readers may be disappointed by the short shrift given to topics like the German Condor Legion or the International Brigades. The text is complemented by nine maps: Spain in 1936, the first defense of Madrid, the route of the African army in 1936, fighting around Madrid in 1936-1937, the Battle for Madrid in November 1936, the fall of Malaga, the war in Vizcaya, the Battle of the Ebro, and Spain in July 1938. Lannon clearly likes the colorful propaganda posters produced by both sides during the war and includes eight full-page examples(almost 10% of the volume); a few more actual photos of the war might have been a better choice.
Some readers may feel that Lannon goes easy on the nature of the Nationalists, given the terror bombing of Basque villages like Guernica and the subsequent repression under Franco's regime. In fact, something of a "Lost Cause" mythology has developed around the Republican cause, ascribing all sorts of democratic and liberal aspirations that were not evident in the policies of the Republicans. Indeed, reading Lannon, most readers will feel more revulsion at reading about the abuses of the Republicans, who murdered over 2,000 people (including 68 monks) in Madrid in November 1936. Lannon notes that, "one side protected religion, the other [the Republicans] attacked it and drove it underground. Churches were destroyed, religious symbols and statutes defaced and smashed." Not only were church marriages outlawed under the Republic but Lannon notes extreme examples where one witness saw, "the exhumed bodies of nuns in their shrouds that the revolutionaries had torn out of their tombs and displayed in the street." Was this a regime worth dying for? Lannon does note the repressive nature of the Franco regime, particularly in its hour of victory, when no effort was made at reconciliation with the defeated Republicans. About 50,000 people lost their lives in post-war executions and tens of thousands spent years languishing in prison. There is no doubt that both sides fought a brutal war of extermination against the other, but Lannon's account offers the possibility of distinguishing between the lesser of two evils. Despite an authoritarian structure, Lannon notes that Franco's Spain "was still a dictatorship, but its economy and society had modernized" by the 1970s. Lannon calls the rapid dismantlement of Franco's regime after his death in 1975, "one of the most successful transitions from dictatorship to democracy of the late 20th Century."
Another theme that Lannon touches upon is the failure of international diplomacy. The British and French pushed the Non-Intervention Agreement in August 1936, by which signatories promised not to ship arms to Spain. Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union signed the agreement and then promptly violated it. However the failure of the Anglo-French to inhibit German intervention in Spain, coupled with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, helped to instill more resolve to oppose German aggression in Eastern Europe.