By Antony Beevor
Weidenfeld & Nicholson | London | 2006 | ISBN 0-2978-4832-1 | £25
There has been an explosion of scholarship about the Spanish Civil War since the death of El Caudillo, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, in 1975. Antony Beevor, the acclaimed author of Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall, has now thrown his contribution onto the growing pile. The Battle for Spain is a heavily revised version of his 1982 book and takes into account material available in the newly-opened Russian archives. It was published first with great acclaim in Spain, where, even after 70 years, the wounds of this terrible conflict are still open.
As Beevor points out, it is wrong to describe the Civil War as a “fratricidal” conflict. It was a bloodbath which transformed brothers into anonymous ideological enemies. In one of the many telling anecdotes which bring the book alive, Beevor repeats a story told by the philosopher Julián Marías. He never forgot the hate on the face of a tram driver as a beautiful, well dressed young woman stepped off. “We’ve really had it.” he said. “When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.”
Indeed, by 1934 war was inevitable. After the election of February 1936 the division was stark. On one side was the Popular Front government – the Republic – whose socialist leader, Largo Caballero, had openly threatened civil war if the Right won. It was strongly influenced by Communists and anarchists and allowed the country to slide into chaos, with endless strikes, assassinations, and burning of churches. On the other were panicking conservatives, the Catholic Church, and most of the military – the Nationalist side. Both sides had murdered prominent political opponents. Left-wing paramilitaries even murdered the leader of the opposition. The outbreak of war in July 1936 came as no surprise, the only question being how many weeks it would last. It took nearly three years.
As the curtain-raiser for World War II, in which Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union sent munitions and men and sharpened their military tactics while the other European powers and the United States dithered, the Spanish Civil War has been the focus of passionate political debate for decades. It is the exception to the adage that history is written by the winners. At least in the English-speaking world, supporters of the Republican cause have held the moral high ground. The conventional wisdom is that a legitimately elected left-wing government was overturned by Fascist armies led by a stumpy, enigmatic general with a high-pitched voice. While the sinister Franco sought help from the Nazis, thousands of idealistic young men from around the world died for democracy by fighting in the International Brigades. Franco’s victory was a disaster for Spain, and for Europe.
The truth is far more complex, and thankfully Beevor miraculously maintains a high level of objectivity in his narrative. Although he demolishes the cliché of a martyred democracy, he also shows how ruthless and unforgiving the Nationalists were. In this war, the rebel troops faced death if they failed for treason to the state, and the government troops for treason to the “nation”. For most ordinary people, the tragedy must have been that there was no third option. They had to choose between a murderous left and a murderous right.
From an administrative and military point of view, the incompetent Republicans deserved to lose. In the opening weeks of the war, when the Nationalists flew its troops from Morocco to the south of Spain, the government dissolved into anarchy and a Red Terror was unleashed upon the Church and the “bourgeoisie”. It is accepted by scholars that 13 bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 members of religious orders, and 283 nuns were murdered, most of them during the summer of 1936. Although order was eventually restored – it was very bad public relations for governments sympathetic to the Republic – the Stalinists eventually seized control of both the government and the army. Beevor shows how they out-manouevred the socialists and cynically eliminated their left-wing and anarchist opponents. A mini civil war broke out in Barcelona and ended with the Stalinists on top.
A security service, SIM, was established as a Spanish version of the Soviet NKVD. It was not answerable to the government and had its own Gulag and torture chambers – mostly for political opponents, not for Nationalists. Stalin held the Republic to ransom: if Soviet advice was not followed, military aid would be withheld. Apart from the fact that Soviet arms were often faulty and out-of-date, Communist officers held rigidly to obsolete tactics because newer ones were banned after Stalin had the genius Marshal Tukhachevsky executed for a “military-Trotskyist conspiracy”. Tens of thousands of soldiers died because of the stupidity of the Communist generals.
Franco was not another Stalin. He was incorruptible, patriotic and a good Catholic, according to his own lights. He took Mussolini and Hitler’s guns, but he was not Hitler’s patsy. After the war, for instance, Hitler travelled all the way to the French border to meet Franco – and Franco arrived late. He refused to let Germany seize Gibraltar. But Franco was a hard man with simple ideas. A competent strategist and a diabolically clever politician, he was determined to win the war. He let nothing stand in the way of total victory.
In conquered territory the Nationalists unleashed a White Terror. The country had to be cleansed of the contagion of liberalism, communism, freemasonry and other advanced social movements. Beevor estimates that 200,000 opponents were killed and executed during the war and afterwards. Militants were obsessed with cutting out “the gangrenous parts of the nation”. (Spaniards are not famed for their understatement.)
Franco was strongly allied with the Catholic Church, but this did not stop the Nationalists from shooting 16 Basque priests who had supported the Republic. He spoke of the Reconquista of Spain, an allusion to the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Muslims over hundreds of years. Ironically, one of his key forces was the regulares, Moroccan Muslims whose ferocious efficiency terrified civilians and soldiers alike. They had been told that the Republic wanted to abolish Allah. The Madrid train bombers of 2004 were not the first Muslim terrorists in recent Spanish history – just the first to do so without being paid.
The Battle for Spain is an absorbing chronicle of a bewildering time. It is essential for understanding the social revolution which is taking place in Spain at the moment. Beevor manages to cover all the major topics without getting bogged down in endless recriminations. I would have like more analysis, but a sober, detached account of the facts is precious, especially for English-speakers. In any case, analysis is not Beever’s forte. “History, which is never tidy,” he says, “must always end with questions. Conclusions are much too convenient.”
Perhaps Spain was lucky, however, in Franco’s victory, however brutal. Most importantly, they were free to practice their ancestral faith. But it may also have saved them from participating in World War II. Had the Republicans won under a Stalinist government, Hitler would surely have invaded and once again Spain would have been put on the rack.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.