The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor [A Review]

Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain embraces the complexity of the Spanish Civil War and delivers a concise but thorough examination. As well as detailing specific battles and offensives, Beevor shares the agonising human story of the terrors and the plight of civilians, refugees and international volunteers. As a general history for the general reader it is hard to imagine it bettered.

The Battle for Spain

Before reading this book, the Spanish Civil War was an event on which my level of ignorance was high. All I knew about the conflict were the three things almost everyone knows about it.

First, that the war was an opening act to the Second World War. Though I agree with those historians who argue that the events of the first half of the twentieth century; comprising two World Wars, a Great Depression and numerous other closely-related events; will be increasingly viewed as one large calamity. Second, that it served as a proxy war, especially for the Nazis and the Soviets who supported opposing sides. Third, that it inspired (if it can be called that) a number of writers and artists, most famously Hemingway, Orwell and Picasso but, as I learned from this book, many others as well.

The Battle for Spain (2006) is not Beevor’s first book on the Spanish Civil War. An earlier one was published in 1982. A lot happened between these two efforts. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided a lot of material for Western researchers with new access to Russian military archives. Beevor subsequently become a bestseller with his critically acclaimed WWII history books, especially Stalingrad (1998) and Berlin: The Downfall (2002). Within both battles, for Stalingrad and Berlin, there were numerous German and Russian personnel in important roles who used key lessons from their experience in the Spanish Civil War. It is understandable that Beevor would want to revisit the subject armed with new material.

But it is a heck of an event to dive into. Firstly, because the complexity of this war is immense. In part because of the individuals and parties involved; with their conflicting interests, motivations and agendas. In part because of the wealth of information and prior analysis already done on this much-studied war even without the benefit of an informed Russian perspective. But also because of the mass of misinformation written by the victors who unsurprisingly omitted their crimes and failures while overstating their own genius and the crimes of those of they defeated. Beevor says the Spanish Civil War is one of the few cases where the most widely accepted version of events has been written more persuasively by the losers of the conflict than by the winners.

Beevor does not evade the problem of the unknowable or the complex; he embraces it, but manages to avoid making the book a heavy, dry or laborious read. Instead, The Battle for Spain is fast-paced, concise, while giving more depth to some poignant episodes during the conflict. I liken the experience for the reader to being like a pebble thrown across a pond. The pace is quick and at times you feel like you are only skimming the surface, that you are breezing past events for which an entire book could be written about alone. But each time you touch down, Beevor gives you enough of a view of what lies beneath to ensure you become knowledgeable. That being said, this book is a ‘general’ history and should be judged as such.

Beevor begins The Battle for Spain making the point that the Spanish Civil War did not simply begin with the rising of the generals in July 1936 but that there are lines of causation that stretch much deeper into Spain’s past. He cites a number of social, political, cultural movements and events that occurred in Spain over the centuries. Such as the mythologising of the Reconquista; the groundwork for totalitarianism laid by the Inquisition and the Church; a precedent of guerrilla war during the Peninsular War and the domestic peacekeeping role increasingly played by the Spanish Army. Beevor also provides the background for various political movements in Spain such as greater unionisation, greater regional autonomy or brief episodes of republicanism and democracy. There was also the influence of international events such as the German and Russian Revolutions and the First World War.

In his struggle to defeat the Marxist hydra Franco had been fighting against the past as well as the present: against the nineteenth century poisoned by liberalism; against the eighteenth century which had produced the Enlightenment and Freemasonry; and against the defeats of the seventeenth century. Only in an earlier period could the Caudillo find the roots of a great and united Spain, the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Beevor builds all of this as background to the 1936 elections which were to be the last free elections in Spain for 40 years. Both political sides promised civil war if the other won the election, but both were deeply divided internally as well. Following the election, Spain quickly becomes ungovernable with political violence being carried out by all sides. Some of the accusations that were being thrown around – that the Left were a Judeo-Marxist-Masonic conspiracy, for instance – just sound insane to a modern reader (or maybe not so insane if you have been following the current US Republican Primary!). The Spanish Civil War was one of the first where mass propaganda played an important role and the saturation of it meant no one knew what to believe. Beevor’s later chapter on the propaganda war, the role of journalists and intellectuals, and the battle for international opinion was one of the most fascinating of the book.

Beevor then covers the rising of the Generals and the first 48 hours of the war; the most crucial, most important period of the war according to him. Though, as Beevor points out, nothing in this war was inevitable, the inability of the Nationalists to capture key regions and cities meant the country now faced a prolonged civil war.

Some suspect that [Franco] wanted a more drawn-out war so as to crush all opposition, bit by bit, in the conquered territories. According to Dionisio Ridruejo, a short war for him ‘inevitably signified negotiations and concessions to finish it. A long war meant total victory. Franco chose the crueller option which, from his point of view, was also more effective.’

From here the story of the war proceeds in a way readers would expect from a book on the Spanish Civil War and by Beevor. The battles and campaigns are covered in detail, with an analysis of the strategic strengths and weaknesses and a chronicle of the mistakes and good fortune experienced. A collection of maps of the key engagements was also of great advantage though I wish they had been referred to in the text. Readers will be treated to the details of the tense but brutal stalemate around Madrid; the importance of the Nationalists attacks in the north for ultimate victory combined with the awkwardness of attacking the Catholic Basque region and the repeated failures of the Republican offensives.

Fresh volunteers were shocked by the cynicism of the veterans, who laughed at the idealism of the newcomers while remembering their own with bitterness.

The chapters covering each major battle and offensive is married with ones on developments behind the front lines; the political intrigues and the motivations and characters of individuals and groups behind them. Then there is the human story of the plight of civilians. The horror of each sides’ treatment of their fellow countrymen during the war makes it hard to imagine any chance for reconciliation or any outcome other than the complete annihilation of one side by the other. Some of the stories of the ‘Red Terror’ and the ‘White Terror’ that Beevor shares are extraordinary, but many are unfortunately only exemplars of events that were far too common. It is when detailing the atrocities committed by each side that Beevor best shows his skill at dealing with complex issues in an objective and even-handed way. Positive reviews from the Spanish press for this book are testament to that.

Outside of the military story of the Spanish Civil War, two threads dominate the book. The first is that one of the deciding factors in the war was the relative unity of the parties on the Nationalist side as opposed to the Republican side. Beevor argues that seeing the war as a clash between the left and the right is an oversimplification as there were other divisions involved. The Nationalists, though, enjoyed greater unity as the philosophies of their various groups – monarchists, Carlists, Falange, the Church, the military, etc – were in greater agreement as they were generally centrist, authoritarian, upper class or those who rely directly on the upper class, etc. The Republican side, however, faced greater internal division as their various groups – republicans, socialists, anarchists, communists, libertarians, etc – differed on key fundamentals such as central or regional power, authoritarianism or individual freedoms, social classes, etc. For the uninitiated like myself, Beevor adequately explains the complex political story of the war; the consolidation of power by Franco on the right and the disintegration which played into the hands of the Spanish Communist Party on the left.

A second thread that runs through the book concerns the international influence during the conflict. Mussolini was an early and eager participant in the war; keen to prove the abilities of Italian soldiers and equipment in real battle as well as the possibility of opening up new territory to capture in North Africa. That they did not prove proficient was both a great source of frustration to Mussolini and a preview of things to come in the Second World War. The Germans were also eager to lend a hand but in more specific areas which matched their needs and for which they received Spanish iron and copper in trade. One area was their abilities at the long-range carpet-bombing of cities which was invented during this war. The other was to test their tanks, which they found to be inferior to Russian tanks; a fact they would quickly rectify when the time came for the German invasion of Russia. French and British observers, however, made a different interpretation of the future of tank warfare to their detriment. Stalin was far more reluctant to become involved; like Western leaders he was wary of antagonising Hitler. But he was more than happy to drain Spain’s gold reserves, then one of the largest in the world. The Russians, though, did learn lessons of their own which would also play a role in the coming World War.

But it was the policies of the Western Democracies, who largely stayed out of the conflict, that held the greatest interest for me. The factors involved are as complex as they are fascinating. There was of course the long memory of the heavy cost of the First World War, guilt over the Treaty of Versailles and policies of appeasement and non-intervention. There was also a genuine fear of communism compared to uncertain feelings towards fascism though neither side was attractive to the West. But the West’s decision to stay out of the war, despite sometimes considerable support for the Republican side from Western voters, only aided the Nationalists, who were helped by their German and Italian allies, while driving the Republicans to seek help from Stalin, giving more power to the Spanish communists who were only a minority on the left at the beginning of the war.

While Western governments may have avoided getting involved, some Western corporations – Texaco, Rio Tinto, Ford, GM, Studebaker, DuPont, etc – were not so hesitant and favoured supplying the Nationalists, perhaps due to pro-fascist sympathies on their boards. In 1945 the under-secretary at the Spanish foreign ministry, José María Doussinague. Admitted that ‘without American petroleum and American trucks and American credit, we could never have won the civil war’.

Beevor also chronicles the fate of the international brigades – volunteers from a range of countries that came to Spain to fight for the Republic. Like everything in the war, their story is complex. Some came to fight for democracy, for communism or against fascism while some were mercenaries, vigilantes or those thirsty for combat. But many were simply unemployed labourers or fleeing conditions in their own countries. Their fate was also mixed; some were no doubt victims, manipulated and abandoned, while others were guilty of crimes of their own.

Reading of the effect of Western policies of appeasement and non-intervention during the Spanish Civil War, one can’t help but think of the current situation in Syria. Another conflict where the West is reluctant to become involved due to war-weariness and a hesitancy to support either side. It is a reminder that to have a policy that avoids involvement is still a policy with considerable consequences regardless, one of which may be unavoidable involvement. By the time Western leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt realised the consequences of their polices it was too late to save the Republic and Franco was in a position to reject all offers of mediation in the knowledge that total victory was within sight. Beevor’s evocation of the final destruction of the Republic, the plight of refugees and the fate of those who remained behind in Franco’s Spain are some of the most harrowing passages in the book.

Teresa Pàmies, a young militant of the communist PSUC, described what she saw: ‘Of the flight from Barcelona on 26 January, I will never be able to forget the wounded who crawled out of the Vallcarca hospital. Mutilated and covered in bandages, half-naked despite the cold, they pushed themselves towards the road, yelling pleas that they should not be left behind to fall into the hands of the victors… Those who had lost their legs crawled along the ground, those who had lost an arm raised the other with a clenched fist, the youngest crying in fear, the older ones shouting in rage and cursing those of us who were fleeing and abandoning them.’

The Civil War over, Beevor also devotes generous space to detail the aftermath. The casualties, perhaps as many as 200,000, during the Franquist Terror from official executions, random murders, suicides, hunger, sickness and torture in prison; thousands of children separated from their parents to be indoctrinated in Nationalist values; various branches of secret police established; neighbours spying and accusing each other and priests taking down the names of those who failed to attend mass. Conditions for refugees in France were difficult as well with many returning to try their luck in Spain, settling in France or emigrating to Latin America.

The post-civil war years formed a period of great suffering and little hope for change. Franco’s regime appeared impregnable.

In a dense summary, Beevor examines the strengths and weaknesses of various conclusions and speculations that have been made since the war. Did the Nazis win the war for Franco? Was Western intervention ever likely? What could justify the extreme cruelty of the war? Does Franco’s regime deserve credit for Spain’s eventual economic recovery? How might have the Republican’s won and what would that victory have looked like after the Second World War? A communist state isolated behind the iron curtain, or a liberal democracy that would have been aided by the Marshall Plan?

But history, which is never tidy, must always end with questions. Conclusions are much too convenient.

One additional thing I’d like to say before I wrap up; I had the opportunity to see Beevor speak when he visited Melbourne last year promoting his latest book; Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble. It was an interesting talk though you have to keep up – he speaks quickly and is a bit of a mumbler! Despite being in my mid-30’s I was one of the youngest in attendance and I think his style of speech was a bit difficult for the mostly octogenarian, hearing-aid clad, audience. He did though, share a funny anecdote about speaking in Berlin after the publication of Berlin: The Downfall.

Given my ignorance of the Spanish Civil War, there was much in this book that I learned and that surprised me. I was surprised that a country that was once the head of a global empire that could almost rival the British, was by the 1930’s deeply impoverished, illiterate, and unindustrialised only a generation after the empire collapsed. Another surprising fact was that Hermann Göring; the German head of the Luftwaffe, was selling German weapons to the Republic! Göring was secretly arming the side his men were fighting, presumably for personal profit as there was a lucrative market in illegal arms trading.

As a general, one volume, history of the Spanish Civil War it is hard to imagine anyone bettering Beevor’s effort. As well as the appreciation for the immense complexity and the achievement of making such complexity accessible, there is also the evocative inclusion of diary entries and witness accounts that add considerable power to the horrors and mentality of the period. As one Spanish reviewer says, it is ‘perhaps the best general work on the war to be published in decades’.

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