Book Review: The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939


by Anthony Beevor

Penguin Books, 2006. . . . ISBN:0 14 30.3765 X

The Battle for Spain, by Anthony Beevor, is a reworking of The Spanish Civil War, a book he first published in 1982. Since then, a great deal of new material about the war has become available, some of it from Spain, now that Franco is long gone, and much of it from Russia, now that the Soviet archives have been opened.

Beevor points out that perceptions of the war have long been colored by pro-Republican sentiment that often overlooks the crimes and follies of the Republican side. The propaganda used during the war was virulent and venomous, and the war aroused the most bitter passions, both in Spain and abroad. The victorious Nationalists were reviled long after the war ended because they received aid from Hitler and Mussolini, while the Republicans were more or less given a free pass for receiving aid from Stalin. In The Battle for Spain, Beevor attempts to write a dispassionate, evenhanded, general history of the war.

To a large degree he succeeds. The Battle for Spain isn’t strictly a military history. An account of the Spanish Civil war has to deal with the highly complex political and diplomatic background of the conflict. In fact, the political history takes up most of the book. Beevor begins by quoting Antoine de Saint-Expuery; “A civil war is not a war but a sickness.” Spain was deeply riven by political and class conflicts in the 1930s. Beevor walks the reader through a brief of history of Spain from the time of the Reconquista, and spends a good deal of time explaining the various political factions in the country following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931. This is a case where one really can’t tell the players without a card, and Beevor provides a list of Spanish political factions that runs to slightly over three pages in length, most of which have some sort of acronym. (POUM, UGT, PSOE, etc) If this sounds potentially confusing, that’s because at times it is, although Beevor does a good job of explaining the various issues and agendas involved.

General Franco and the Nationalists are often condemned for overthrowing an elected government. Beevor convincingly shows that while the Republican government was elected, calling it legitimate was a bit of a stretch. The Popular Front, the center left coalition that took power in the 1936 elections, had some worthy goals, including land reform and reducing the political power of the Catholic church. But though the Popular front had won the election by a narrow margin, it behaved as though it had won an overwhelming mandate. Worse, it contained Communists and other far left factions that had clearly undemocratic goals. The far Left had itself already tried to overthrow the government by force, and the Right had every reason to believe that they would try again. Republican Spain was becoming ungovernable. The country was swept by a wave of church burnings, assassinations, and other lawlessness that the government could not control, much of it carried out by Leftists. Beevor points out that the military revolt of July 1936 was not so much against the government as against the lack of it. The army managed to seize control of a large section of the country, but failed to remove the government from power, and Spain settled into a protracted civil war.

The war quickly took on an international character. Hitler and Mussolini supported the Nationalists, Stalin the Republicans. Spain became a testing ground for new weapons and tactics, including the airlift of troops, dive bombing, and the use of large scale tank formations. The war in Spain was, in effect, a dress rehearsal for World War II. The Germans sent tanks, aircraft, pilots, and advisors (As did the Soviets). The Italians sent troops as well, and Italian submarines sank Republican shipping. The Republican side raised the International Brigades made up of foreign volunteers. Behind the lines, both sides carried out purges and atrocities against their enemies, real and imagined.

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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