Friday, 25 September 2015

The Battle For Spain - The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 - Antony Beevor - book review

The Spanish Civil War remains highly emotive. Antony Beevor chronicles and analyses the conflict in his book The Battle For Spain.

In the chapters which constitute a "preamble", Spain's history prior to the 1930s is stressed , with some emphasis on the influence of the Church and the landowners. The country had, it appears, not been affected as much as other parts of Europe by liberalizing impulses.

The plethora of factions on both sides of this conflict can be confusing to say the least, but Beevor does his best to clarify who was who, and why. As he observes, this was not just a struggle between left and right, but also one between libertarianism and authoritarianism and centralization and "federalism"/separatism. These dynamics served to create a very intense and volatile picture.

It is difficult not to be sympathetic to the more libertarian elements of the republican side, however much one feels that they were occasionally naive in their idealism in the face of cold realities. The anarchist scene in Spain around that time, particularly that located in Catalonia, is a fascinating and thought-provoking phenomenon. For all its flaws, a hopeful and positive experiment.

My interpretation was that Beevor felt that the left misjudged the size of its mandate, with its strident rhetoric more than its actions, driving many into the arms of the nationalists. The right exaggerated the "threat".

The infighting between the various groupings, and the fragmented nature of the alliances, is one of the factors which gives the Spanish Civil War an enduring fascination. Loose cannons, hot heads, impractical idealism, brazen opportunism, impulsiveness, impetuosity and cold calculation - all played their part in the drama.

I was impressed by the author's analysis of the early stages of the uprising, the government's hesitant and dilatory initial response, and the motivations behind some of the early atrocities. The republican excesses were more the result of an outburst of rage and chaos. The nationalists, on the other hand, planned a systematic campaign of terror, even "cleansing". The language coined by some nationalist officials is chilling, like something harking back to the Middle Ages...

Beevor goes to great lengths to outline how the unity, or otherwise, of the two sides developed and evolved, Franco maintaining a semblance of cohesion via a mixture of concessions, sops, coercion and eventually demonstrable indispensability to the success of the nationalist cause. Staying largely above the internal strife also clearly helped him. The republicans were not so fortunate, of course, having the heavy hand of Stalin and the Comintern to contend with. Was it the case that the nationalists had a simplicity of purpose, even allowing for lingering agendas, so that they were able to keep their eyes on the prize?  It seems bizarre, but the situation in the anti-fascist camp was not that straightforward.

Another illuminating section of The Battle For Spain deals with the war economy in the republican zone, and the tensions which some methods sparked with the central government. It is difficult not to conclude that the anarchists sometimes clung too rigidly to lofty theories and ideals when a more pragmatic approach may have been more beneficial in the grand scheme of things. Later on, though, they felt with some justification that they were struggling for their very survival and identity.

The rather inglorious attitude of some foreign countries, as well as the manner in which big business connived with the nationalists, is a distasteful facet of the conflict. Yes, we all know now what Stalinism was like, but isn't this a case of being wise after the event? The "rationale" behind certain people's backing for Franco was rather grotesque. The republicans were drastically deprived of genuinely powerful friends, and the consequent reliance on support from the Soviet Union was to bear bitter fruit.

The "romance" surrounding the republican cause is very seductive, even if it is often tricky to pin down exactly. One of the main tasks of the historian therefore is to separate fact from myth, and to weigh what was propaganda, distortion or fabrication. I feel that Beevor remains relatively dispassionate throughout, and does not allow the emotive nature of the subject matter to impinge on lucid judgement. The cruelty and barbarism of the nationalists largely speaks for itself, although the cracks in the republican side take a little more explaining and understanding.

The International Brigades are often the things which most laymen remember about the Spanish Civil War, partly due to the literature and evocative tales which emerged, and also because of the principled stand which they made. Beevor strives to place their role into its proper perspective, and stresses how they slotted into the structure of the Republic's forces.

Diaries and private correspondence are invariably very useful in getting nearer to the truth. Intimate, often candid thoughts committed to paper in the midst of the maelstrom, not alloyed or compromised by propagandistic concerns or embellishment. Such material is made excellent use of in this book.

A probing look at the involvement of intellectuals and artists is also a feature of this work, how many became disillusioned, and how some journalists had their hands tied. It is also pointed how the "demonization" of the communists may have played into their hands, by allowing them to portray themselves as the sole meaningful and dedicated bulwark against fascism.

The portions which address the "civil war within a civil war" evoke a loss of faith among some of the leftist forces and the growth of disenchantment, It is at this point that the paranoia of the Stalin-aligned communists and their acolytes becomes a pervasive trend, seeing the hands of fifth-columnists in almost every military or political reverse. They had leverage, which meant that the other players in the republican fold had to tread carefully in dealing with them. They may admittedly have been on firmer ground in advocating firmer, more cohesive organization and leadership in the face of the nationalist threat.

The vagaries of Stalin's stance are strange. He was doing his best to conceal or downplay the "communistic" side of the republican make-up, for foreign consumption at least, whilst his men on the ground in Spain were throwing their weight around in no uncertain terms. The activities of the secret police, the harsh treatment of the International Brigades volunteers and the draconian punishments for soldiers are all documented here. It is easy to imagine how many people became exasperated and cynical.

A theme which emerges in the second half of this history is the tendency of the republican leadership, under communist sway, to embark on military adventures for reasons of propaganda, playing to both the domestic and international gallery, even when this was not consistent with military or strategic logic. At the same time, of course, the diplomatic picture was clouded and complicated by the gathering storm on the wider European scene. Decisions made regarding Spain were not made in isolation.

Rightly or wrongly, I discerned from some of the author's observations a sense that the republicans were almost naive and "green", both in some of their military decisions, and in their dealings with the outside world, in areas such as finance and arms procurement.

There is a look at what happened after the civil war concluded, including the fate of the exiles,and how Franco went about consolidating his grip on power. The role of both sides in the Second World War is given some attention, and Beevor also looks at the military lessons which the great powers learned, or disregarded, from the fighting in Spain. He also assesses the impact of the interventions made by the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy.

Overall, when reading this book I was left with a feeling of sadness at what befell Spain, at the behaviour of some people on both sides, and how those with honourable and humane motivations and intentions were let down, manipulated and misled.

The Battle For Spain is a sobering but rewarding and worthwhile read. It is well structured and paced, and it brings to life a tragic and contentious episode in modern European history.

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