European Affairs

altThe Republicans failed militarily, but their idealistic-sounding struggle prevailed in memory, casting them as the good guys whose defeat opened the way to the larger war between the fascist Axis and the democracies, belatedly but decisively joined by Communist Russia and America. Not only a testing ground for aerial bombing and other weapons of the coming world war, the Spanish Civil War was also an ominous prelude with the unfolding victory of the local fascists aided by Germany and Italy. Ennobled by their heroic efforts to forestall it, the Spanish Republicans and their friends from abroad were cast as innocent leftists. In fact many were hard-bitten communists, but even the dissonant message in George Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia, with its tale of disillusion about the Stalinist takeover of the anti-fascist Republican forces, did little to displace this received picture of the struggle in Spain. The image stuck as the official version, even among many Spaniards themselves and even after the country’s successful move to democracy following Franco’s death.

Now, a new Spain – one prosperous, liberal and modernized in the partnership of the European Union since 1986 – is coming to grips with some underlying tensions that preceded the war, including regional separatism, terrorism and long pent-up tensions between secular forces and the entrenched Catholicism inherited from the Spanish empire. However gingerly, for fear of re-opening wounds from the first modern conflict in which civilians were routinely killed and savaged, Spanish writers are addressing the civil war and sifting through their country’s searing upheaval then in order to see more clearly now into the current pressures for change and their limits. What they see is how deeply all sides were bled and ultimately discredited by the excesses of the civil war.

The effect of this awareness of the war seems to have translated into a new appreciation of limits – a mainstream sense that is also salient these days in contemporary Spanish politics, which have tended to divide almost evenly between left and right parties. Symptomatically, Spain’s constitutional monarchy has been secure enough to put down one briefly comical coup attempt and, more seriously, in a democratic election, throw out a government the public believed to be lying in the face of a terrorist attack. Until Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist government won power in 2004, an unspoken accord seemed to prevail that alternating right and left governments would push their agendas only so far. Now, under Zapatero, Spain suddenly is forging ahead of most liberal nations in Europe in upending social and cultural conventions, including posting Europe’s highest divorce rate. If some kinds of marriage are not working, Spaniards are trying alternatives with the sanction of the state and despite the opposition of the Catholic Church. Recently wire services reported on a wedding between two male members of the army, happily celebrated by families and fellow soldiers. So far, that seems not to have upset Spain’s new form of political equilibrium. These days it is regional separatism, notably the ETA in the Basque regions, that is more threatening to political cohesion than traditional left-right divides. This fissure, which has terrorist elements, long pre-dates the civil war – and may ultimately be tempered by the lessons now being relearned from studies of that conflict.

To get the full measure of these radical changes – and the surprise that they have emerged without worse internal divisiveness and bloodshed – it is important to have in mind the extremes that erupted three generations ago in the civil war that was modern Spain’s baptism by fire. Spaniards certainly feel the need to revisit this cauldron of their history, and Beevor’s book – actually a revised version of an earlier book that appeared in 1982 – became a best-seller in Spain, at or near the top of the best-seller list for six months in 2005. Beevor, whose intervening books about the battles of Berlin and Stalingrad have won wide praise and popularity, is a meticulous but accessible historian and his new treatment of the Spanish conflict – virtually a new work – benefits notably from insights gleaned from the trove of Moscow archives that became public after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This newly-unearthed material helps substantiate the contradiction at the heart of this account. For all the idealistic passion this war aroused during and immediately after (some of us are old enough to remember table-pounding dinner discussions from our youth), it is presented here as being as coldly cynical as it was brutal. And like most wars it was rife with stories of colossal ineptitude.

The simmering tensions in Spain erupted into conflict when a just-elected leftist government in 1936 found itself confronting a military putsch, led by Franco and an army based in Spain’s North African territories. The rebellion that turned into a three-year conflict pitted the centuries-old trinity of Imperial Spain (army, church and monarchy with Franco assuming the role of monarch-cum-dictator) against newly-empowered workers in a recently proclaimed republic. The ensuing struggle contained all the horrors that Europe has witnessed from the Inquisition to modern totalitarianism. Beevor captures a special Goyaesque dimension of the “Spanish sideshow” before World War II. “The Spanish Civil War is, however, best remembered in entirely human terms: the clash of beliefs, the ferocity, the generosity and selfishness, the hypocrisy of diplomats and ministers, the betrayal of ideals and [the] political maneuvers and, above all, the bravery and self-sacrifice of those who fought on both sides,” he writes.

In recounting the saga, Beevor is unsparing in his astringent judgments on several targets that have often managed to impose their own self-serving version of events and their respective roles. First, there was the government of the Spanish Republic, presented here as barely capable of managing a two-car funeral. Split among liberals, socialists, communists and anarchists, it failed at almost every opportunity to mobilize politically or militarily the limited resources at its command. The Republican government even was snookered into sending its massive gold reserves, among the largest in the world at that time, to the Soviet Union for “safekeeping.” Out of ineptitude and desperation, it allowed itself to be subsumed in the manipulations of Stalin and the Comintern, the subversive organization set up by Moscow for international operations – to the point, Beevor avers, that had the Republicans won the civil war Spain would have become a post-World War II Soviet satellite as isolated as those in Eastern Europe.

Of course, had Britain and France not been so grudging in helping a legitimate European government, its feeble diplomacy operating mainly in the guise of a big-power non-intervention committee that Hitler and Stalin totally ignored, the Republic would not have been so dependent on Moscow’s help. (Given the isolationist mood that prevailed in prewar-America and the influence of the Catholic Church even among Democrats in Congress, the Roosevelt administration avoided helping the beleaguered Republican cause.)

Turning to the other side, though not justifying even one murder of a cleric, the author holds no truck for the Catholic Church in Spain in its efforts to present itself as an innocent victim of evil-doers. The Church in his view was a major combatant in the war, and the numbers of its casualties at the hands of revolutionaries, vastly exaggerated.

The propaganda gains Franco’s Nationalists won from journalistic accounts of alleged mass clerical killings give the author one of several opportunities to skewer the foreign press coverage of the war by partisans of both the left and the right. Great names in literature do not escape. Citing the case of André Malraux, the renowned French chronicler of revolutionaries, Beevor notes how his career pivoted on his novel L’Espoir: the novel was “regarded by many as the great novel of Spanish Republic’s resistance, but it would not be long before this great political opportunist became a ferocious anti-communist.”

And Beevor’s take on Ernest Hemingway includes some questions about the American writer’s willingness to be manipulated: “It is difficult to ascertain how much Hemingway was influenced by the privileged information he received from senior party cadres and Soviet advisers. Being taken seriously by experts distorted his vision [as a war correspondent in Spain]. It made him prepared to sign moral blank checks on behalf of the Republic,” Beevor writes, citing Hemingway dispatches describing a tactical Republican victory as a battle that “will take its place in military history with the other decisive battles of the world.” Hemingway only seemed to regain his perspective in his post-war novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, written just after the Republicans’ defeat, in which he has Robert Jordan – the American demolition expert in the International Brigades and one of Hemingway’s self-projections – say: “Was there ever a people whose leaders were as truly their enemy’s as this one?”

If there is a fault with this otherwise splendid account it is that too many of the leading characters come across almost as stick figures, a rapid succession of names and titles familiar only to specialists. This is definitely not the textbook for a beginners-level 101 course on the Spanish Civil War. Good historians do not need to emulate the writers at People magazine in order to put some flesh and blood and personality on their protagonists. Very few of his descriptions of people have any of the sense of color or drama that usually emerges from Beevor’s justly-celebrated flair for battle scenes.

As for battle scenes, his most gripping account, though sparse by necessity since it lasted only minutes and not months, is the German bombing of Guernica, a largely-Basque town of 5,000. The atrocity was chronicled in contemporaneous accounts in The New York Times and Times of London and later made into an icon in Picasso’s graphic depiction – which collectively provided a compelling first draft of history about this war. Beevor provides this succinct account of the event of April 26, 1937: “At 4:30 in the afternoon, the main church bell in Guernica rang to warn of air attack. It was market day and, although some farmers had been turned back at the edge of town, many had still come in with their cattle and sheep. The refugees from the advancing army, together with the town’s population, went down into the cellars which had been designated as ‘refugios.’ A single Heinkel III bomber of the Condor Legion’s ‘experimental squadron’ arrived over the town, dropped its load on the centre and disappeared.

“Most people came out of their shelters, mainly going to help the injured. Fifteen minutes later the full squadron flew over, dropping various sizes of bombs. People who rushed back to the shelters were choked by smoke and dust. They became alarmed as it was evident that the cellars were not strong enough to withstand the heavier bombs. A stampede into the fields around the town began, then the Heinkel 51 fighter squadrons swept over, strafing and grenading men, women and children, as well as nuns from the hospital and even the livestock. The major part of the attack had not even started.

“Moments later, the heavy sound of aero engines was heard. The soldiers immediately identified them as ‘trams,’ the nickname for the ponderous Junkers 52. The squadrons from Burgos carpet-bombed the town systematically in twenty-minute relays for two and a half hours. Their loads were made up of small and medium bombs, as well as 250 kilogram bombs, anti-personnel twenty-pounders and incendiaries. The incendiaries were sprinkled down from the Junkers in two-pound aluminum tubes like metallic confetti. Eyewitnesses described the resulting scenes in terms of hell and the apocalypse. Whole families were buried in the ruins of their homes or crushed in the refugios; cattle and sheep, blazing with white phosphorous ran crazily between the burning buildings until they died. Blackened humans staggered blindly through the flames, smoke and dust, while others scrabbled in the rubble hoping to dig out friends and relatives.”

Though recent research indicates the death toll was probably not a third of the originally estimated 1,649, the physical ruin of the town and the shock of so many civilian casualties by aerial bombing in that still relatively-innocent era, became an enduring metaphor for the war.

Spain’s civil war extended beyond the casualties on the battlefield itself. In his account of the struggle that continued after the war during what he calls the post-war “Franquist terror,” Beevor concludes that at least 200,000 more Spaniards died by execution, suicide, hunger and sickness in prison. Indeed, the one character who does emerge in his pages, almost inadvertently it seems, is Franco himself – as a little man, except in his lust for killing. Beevor provides this look at how Franco would prepare execution lists: “The Caudillo used to read through the sentences of death when taking his coffee after a meal, often in the presence of his personal priest, Jose Maria Bulart. He would write an ‘E’ after those he decided should be executed, and a ‘C’ when commuting the sentence. For those who [sic] he considered needed to be made a conspicuous example, he wrote ‘garrote y prensa’ [garroting and press coverage]. After coffee, his aide would send off the sentences to be passed to the military governor of each region or each province who would communicate them by telegram to the head of the prison. The sentences would then be read out in the central gallery of the prison. Some officials enjoyed reading out the first name, then pausing if it was a common one such as Jose or Juan, to strike fear into all those who bore it, before adding the family name. In the women’s prison of Amorebieta one of the nuns who acted as warders would perform this duty.”

Franco’s self-obsession came up in so many ways that he managed to irritate Hitler with his demands for money and matériel as a price for joining the Axis in the European war, so much so that the Führer handed him off to Mussolini with the thought that the two “Latin charlatans” were better left to deal with each other.

To American readers, who are still living with the consequences of our civil war that ended in 1865, it is remarkable that Spain has so quickly developed the civic health it is showing today, at least on the surface. It has had a lot to overcome: Beevor addresses that point about the extraordinary extremes both of bravado and of violence that both sides often exhibited during the war. This dimension, which so astounded outsiders, was really a product of distorted fear born in the codes of pre-modern Spanish society, Beevor writes. “The more that fear is suppressed out of a need to show bravery, the more explosive the result.”

Insights of this sort, which abound in the book, lead Beevor to his summation. Real history is never tidy, he admonishes. Written history “must always end with questions. Conclusions are much too convenient.”

Michael D. Mosettig is senior producer for Foreign Affairs & Defense at the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.