I recently completed reading Antony Beevor’s “The Battle For Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939”, a magisterial history of the grim battle between The Nationalists and The Republicans for control of Spain.
In 1982, Beevor’s “The Spanish Civil War” was published, to great acclaim. It immediately became the standard English-language history of the war.
Post-1982 openings of archives in Germany, Russia and Spain inspired Beevor to reexamine the subject afresh; the result is “The Battle For Spain”, published in 2006, a complete rewriting of the earlier volume.
“The Battle For Spain” was immediately translated into several languages. The book was a bestseller throughout Western Europe, including and especially Spain, where “The Battle For Spain” became the best-selling book in the nation on the day of release (selling 10,000 copies a month—in hardback—for almost a year, a remarkable tally for a lengthy and densely-written history study).
In the U.S., “The Battle For Spain”, for whatever reasons, did not capture the public’s imagination. American sales were disappointing; the publication was not widely reviewed. This was so even though Beevor’s previous books—especially “Stalingrad” and “Berlin: The Downfall 1945”—had enjoyed robust American sales.
My conclusion is that The Spanish Civil War has never resonated with Americans as much as it has resonated with Europeans. The Spanish Civil War coincided with a period of American Isolationism—with the result, in American eyes, that The Great Depression became the single major event that occurred between World War I and World War II, to the exclusion of anything else.
Further, The Spanish Civil War has too often been treated as mere prelude to World War II, viewed as little more than provincial proxy battle in which The Nationalists fought with German weaponry and The Republicans fought with Russian weaponry. Americans have always enjoyed reading about the buildup to World War II in Britain and Germany—but the prewar years in France and Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, have never particularly captured the fancy of American readers.
Beevor does not see The Spanish Civil War as overture to World War II. Indeed, Beevor will have none of such nonsense—he firmly refuses to accept The Spanish Civil War as proxy conflict between Fascism and Communism fought on neutral ground prior to the main event getting underway. The Spanish Civil War was an independent, discrete event, bearing parallels with other ideological battles of the insane 1930s but nonetheless remaining a conflict sharply and uniquely focused on Spain and its unhappy history.
Not only does Beevor not view The Spanish Civil War as having anything to do with the ideological battle between Fascism and Communism, Beevor insists that The Spanish Civil War had very little to do even with a clash between Right and Left. Far deeper fissures were at the root of the conflict, he asserts, which is why The Spanish Civil War was so vicious if not outright barbarous (and left such long-lasting wounds).
The Spanish Civil War, in part, was a war about religion. An anti-Cleric wave swept Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century, but this wave only hit backward Spain in the 1920s. The wave festered—and grew—until it reached a boiling point in the early 1930s. The Catholic Church in Spain was viewed as authoritative, restrictive, unduly powerful—and unduly rich; it was viewed as indifferent to the needs of society, stuck in a mindset reminiscent of The Middle Ages. Many believed that the Church, as an institution, needed to be much more than reformed—it needed to be shuttered.
The Spanish Civil War was also, in part, a battle between those advocating centralization of power and those seeking regionalization of power. Spain had been falling apart ever since The Peninsular War—Spain’s overseas empire had already collapsed—and everyone understood that something needed to be done in order to halt Spain’s century-long deterioration. However, there was deep disagreement whether a stronger central government was the answer to the country’s woes or whether a dispersal of power to regional authorities was the necessary remedy to propel the country into modern times.
Tied to the centralization-versus-regionalization conflict was the question of ethnicity: some Spaniards viewed Spain as composed of one common people; other Spaniards viewed Spain as a nation composed of different ethnicities that happened to live in the same country. Those of the latter viewpoint quite naturally favored local autonomy.
Finally, 1930s Spain was in the grip of a major philosophical battle, a battle between those advocating 1930s-style authoritarianism of any stripe (akin to that then being practiced in Germany, Italy and Russia) and those advocating freedom of the individual (of which Britain was seen as the leading example). In this respect, the philosophical battle in Spain was not markedly different from the philosophical battle occurring in 1930s France, where authoritarianism-versus-freedom was the central—and most divisive—issue of the decade. Oddly, those seeking authoritarianism in both Spain and France came from both ends of the political spectrum; authoritarianism in 1930s Europe was a vision of many, of all political persuasions, advocated as a necessary evil to surmount the perceived inherent weaknesses of democratic governments.
The Spanish Civil War was not, in sum, a clean ideological battle. Different factions chose different sides for different reasons—and it became increasingly difficult, on both sides, for the joined forces to hold together. This was especially true for The Republicans: infighting between factions was often as brutal as the battle against The Nationalists.
The central theme of Beevor’s book is that The Nationalists won the war simply because The Nationalists were better at holding together than The Republicans—a conclusion in stark contrast to earlier histories, which had claimed that The Spanish Civil War had been won on the battlefield (and largely because imported German weapons had proved superior to imported Russian weapons).
Franco was an inept commander, and an inept military strategist; any Nationalist success on the battlefield was entirely coincidental, a point Beevor drives home with overwhelming force. The Republicans, however, were even more inept on the battlefield—and broke into numerous factions that fatally imperiled Republican attempts not only to win military battles but to capture the hearts and souls of Spain’s people.
As a practical matter, The Spanish Civil War began far earlier than 1936, the year in which fighting erupted.
Like much of Europe, Spain had been in a state of virtual civil war since the end of World War I. A military dictatorship had seized power in the early 1920s, and had managed to last eight years. The dictatorship dissembled only with the onset of worldwide Depression. Spain’s military realized that it had no solution for the economic problems caused by The Depression, and that it would be better for the military to step aside and allow a civilian government to handle the fallout from—and to assume the blame for—the severe economic contraction.
In 1931, the same year Spain’s military relinquished power, Spain’s royal family abdicated. A New Republic was declared—and a series of inconclusive elections was conducted, repeatedly, over the next five years. While the country attempted to arrive at a consensus for moving forward as a democratic nation, massive strikes, uprisings and outright anarchy prevailed. The nation was on the constant verge of collapse.
A new Leftist plurality narrowly prevailed in the 1936 elections and managed to form a minority government. As soon as installed, the government swiftly passed vehement anti-Cleric legislation and immediately embarked upon a wave of incendiary anti-Cleric rhetoric. Having seized all church property and closed all church schools, the new government announced that it welcomed the outright destruction and burning of churches and monasteries and convents—and, shockingly, that it would not prosecute persons who murdered priests, nuns and monks.
The reaction to the new government’s anti-Cleric pronouncements was swift and entirely predictable: the floodgates of zealotry opened—and over 7,000 Roman Catholic priests were promptly murdered throughout the country. (Protestant clergymen, too, were not immune from the slaughter: twenty Protestant ministers were murdered in a single day in Madrid alone.) After the first round of appalling bloodshed, the military decided that it had to step in and establish order.
The minority government, quite naturally, resisted the military’s move—and civil war was on.
Both sides made a grievous strategic error at the outset of war: both The Nationalists and The Republicans made no effort to attract the support of the middle classes. Had either side done so, it most certainly would have prevailed within months.
However, neither The Nationalists nor The Republicans had the foresight to seek solidarity with the very classes without whose support the war could not be won. Instead, both sides were determined to win the war purely on the battlefield—not, perhaps, the best strategy for prevailing in a civil war.
More than anything, The Nationalists did not so much win the war as The Republicans lost it. The Republicans alienated the middle classes in the areas controlled by The Republicans, while The Nationalists over time learned to court the support of the middle classes in the areas controlled by The Nationalists.
Within a year of the onset of civil war, it was apparent that The Nationalists were destined to prevail. Not only were The Nationalists winning on the various military fronts, but persons caught between sides learned that they could carry on with their lives much more readily in Nationalist territories than in Republican territories. For the last eighteen months of the war, it was apparent to all—including foreign governments—that the game was up for The Republicans. Nonetheless, The Republicans continued to fight—and with ever more recklessness. The final eighteen months of civil war were, if anything, the most barbarous months of all, with untoward numbers of persons losing their lives on both sides.
The Spanish Civil War was shockingly brutal. Both sides routinely executed captured soldiers after a battle was over. Both sides were merciless in destroying towns and villages standing in their paths. Both sides exhibited a degree of inhumanity toward each other—and sometimes toward civilians—that dismayed the outside world. No one, on either side, emerged from The Spanish Civil War with credit.
Beevor’s narrative is compelling, even artful, as he vividly examines a state and society in the process of total disintegration. Spain’s economy was a mess, Spain’s politics were a mess, Spain’s ideologies were a mess—and Spain’s civil war, too, was a mess. Beevor’s is a depressing and appalling tale.
Foreign intervention has been over-emphasized in past accounts of The Spanish Civil War, and Beevor offers a stern corrective. In no way did foreign intervention affect the outcome. This is one of the most important themes of Beevor’s book.
Germany and Italy supplied arms to The Nationalists while Russia (and, to a much lesser extent, France) supplied arms to The Republicans. Foreign arms, however, were not a determinative factor in the war’s outcome. They seldom are in civil wars. Civil wars ultimately become battles for the hearts and souls of a nation’s people—and The Republicans lost the battle for the hearts and souls of Spaniards.
There are few history books I have encountered in which literally all persons addressed in the chronicle are so soundly found to be wanting in judgment and character as the persons covered in “The Battle For Spain”. Literally no one—Nationalist or Republican, Spaniard or outsider—emerges from Beevor’s book unscathed. Even Andre Malraux is revealed as the unscrupulous, conniving, corrupt, preternaturally untruthful figure he most assuredly was.
Beevor is especially harsh on his countrymen, the British, for failing to support a democratically-elected government against insurgents. Britain withheld support for The Republicans for the duration of the war—and was the first nation to recognize the Franco regime, doing so even before the civil war had concluded.
America is not immune from censor. Beevor criticizes American corporations for selling automobiles, trucks and oil to The Nationalists—as well as for extending credit to The Nationalists.
Beevor, too, puts to bed the myth of America’s Lincoln Brigade nobly fighting on behalf of The Republicans. Noting that only 1,000 of the 3,000 American volunteers actually were involved on the fighting front, Beevor exposes the men and women of The Lincoln Brigade as spectacularly inept, not even arising to the level of “useful idiots”.
Although his sympathies are with The Republicans, Beevor is withering in describing how, early in the war, The Republicans wantonly shipped Spain’s gold reserves—the fourth largest gold reserves in the world—to Russia. Intended as prospective payment for armaments, the gold reserves proved to be nothing more than an outright gift to Stalin (Russia obtained the gold with the assistance of France). Most weapons ordered from Russia were never delivered to Spain, and those that were shipped were outdated and of inferior quality.
Stalin was happy to receive Spain’s gold reserves, but Stalin was never serious about getting involved in Spain’s war or providing significant aid—Stalin had far more critical matters at home with which to contend.
Significantly, Beevor retires permanently the longstanding fiction that Russia had a positive impact on The Republicans. In fact, Beevor argues the reverse: that Stalin’s agents in Spain substantially contributed to The Republicans losing the war. The Communists insisted upon the elimination of all Republican factions that did not share Communist ideology—on Moscow’s orders, The Republicans conducted Soviet-style purges within Republican ranks—and the Communists insisted upon the elimination of “the ideologically incompatible” in Republican-held territories (i.e., murder of the bourgeoisie). Such measures guaranteed that Spain’s middle classes, otherwise supportive of reform, would be scared off by The Republicans.
And this is precisely what happened: the Republicans lost all support among Spain’s middle classes, which were driven into the arms of The Nationalists. The overwhelming scale of this loss is best exemplified by Spain’s official government functionaries: halfway through the war, those administering the very mechanisms of state—Spain’s diplomatic corps, the central security agency, the police force, the central bank—were all nominally working for The Republicans but in fact had already switched allegiances to The Nationalists. The Republicans had lost all moral suasion over the people of Spain—with the result that the war had become de facto a lost cause.
Unlike other chroniclers of The Spanish Civil War, Beevor does not attempt to ennoble the various leaders of The Republicans. He reveals them to be as opportunistic and as ruthless and as inhumane as The Nationalists, if not more so. Unattractive as Franco and his cohorts were, the opponents, if anything, were worse.
Late in his volume, Beevor provides an extraordinary revelation, a revelation based upon his research in Russian archives: had The Republicans won the war, The Republicans planned to conduct post-war “purges” on an unimaginable scale, far exceeding anything Franco attempted. The revelation, from an author with innate Republican sympathies, is chilling.
In his conclusion, Beevor issues a bold, even striking, claim: previous English-language assessments of The Spanish Civil War offered little more than myth. They provided versions of events purely and exclusively Republican in outlook, and were of limited—if any—worth. More than merely outdated, those previous publications had been conspicuously untruthful.
It is a pity that “The Battle For Spain”, widely read throughout Europe, remains so little-known in the United States. It is a seminal book. Beevor has forever altered the ground upon which histories of 20th-Century Spain will be written.
In his book, Beevor accomplished one great feat: no longer is The Spanish Civil War that rare thing, a war in which the losers won the final word.