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There are probably any number of reasons someone of my vintage might not know much about the Spanish Civil War.
Perhaps it is because I grew up in America, and there were probably far less than 10,000 Americans involved in the conflict, making it defensible to gloss over in courses on modern European history. Perhaps it is because the intervening years have seen Spain relegated to the back bench of European powers, thus making the civil war easy to ignore. Or perhaps it is because the conflict, waged between Franco’s facists on one side and the anarcho-socialist-communist Republic on the other, gave us anti-Facist and (after 1945) anti-Communist Americans no easy heroes?
In his masterful The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Anthony Beevor, who has written some of the best popular histories of World War II campaigns like Stalingrad, Crete, and the fall of Berlin, has taken on a far more complex conflict than the others. His task is thus ambitious: given a nation with whom few of us are familiar and a vast cast of characters who are all but alien and irrelevant to your average English speaker, allow us to follow the course of the conflict sufficiently to reach our own conclusions about it.
While there were moments about halfway through the book that I despaired of ever getting it all straight, not long afterward it was all coming together, even without the benefit of a good map or a scorecard of the major and minor characters. Along the way, Beevor makes it painfully clear that the war was inevitable. Spain needed to be yanked out of its somnambulant neo-feudalism, but a democratic republic could not accomplish the necessary changes against the opposition of the church and the landowners, and the radicals that captured and led the republic provoked an inevitable reactionary response.
There are few heroes, but Beevor hesitates just short of making either Franco or his radical opponents into villains. The Caudillo was as vain and power-hungry as the worst Latin despots and a mediocre commander, but one is left believing that if it had not been Franco, it would have been someone else, perhaps Jose Sanjurjo de Sacanell or Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano, Franco’s fellow generals and co-conspirators in the plot to overthrow the republic. The leaders of the republic, portrayed as fractious, squabbling, and mutually-distrustful, are tragic figures.
Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil war claimed the lives of over half-a-million people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If there were evildoers in this saga, Beevor subtly points beyond Spain: at the Germans and Italians, who honed their arsenals and armies for World War II in supporting Franco; at the Russians, who supported the Republic but exacerbated its centrifugal politics; at the British and French, who feared giving Hitler an excuse to go to war more than they feared facism in Spain; and to the Vatican of Pope Pius XII, who framed the war as a Catholic jihad and mobilized the faithful around the world against helping the Republic.
Beevor’s other conclusions are even more provocative, but I will leave you to read the book and decide for yourself.
One last thought.
The framers of the Declaration of Independence understood that, at some point, even the most downtrodden of peoples must rise up and replace the government that has kept them there. The history of the past three centuries is replete with examples of successful revolutions, and these have framed our political thinking. But if we learn more from our failures than our successes, it behoves those of us who believe in the value of a modern, participatory state to spend more time studying the failed revolutions than the successful ones.
The Spanish Civil War was a failed revolution. With peoples from Malaysia to Tunisia rising up against their leaders, we must remember Catalonia, the Republic, the Spain that might have been, and we must understand why it was not. Only then can we comprehend the dangers of spontaneous risings as well as we do the opportunities.