The Spanish Civil War

Alex Koppel bio photo By Alex Koppel

As an experiment, I’m going to try writing quick book summaries of the books I read. One session, about 10 minutes. Revising allowed later. Go!

The Spanish Civil War

Read: September/October 2012

Until just a few years ago, I knew very little about Spain’s troubles in the 20th century. Actually, that’s too weak: I didn’t even know that I knew very little about Spain’s troubles. I barely knew there were troubles at all. There’d been a dictatorship, of course, which (shockingly to me) lasted until 1977; there’d also been a civil war, which I, err, learned about from Pan’s Labyrinth. Beyond that, I held a (perhaps understandable) American view of Europe as a simple collection of ethnically-based nation-states: Spain is filled with Spaniards, Germany is a uniform collection of Germans, and so on1.

This state of affairs lasted until someone very close to me, who had studied in the Basque Country, told me about brutal repression of the Basques under Franco. In Europe, I made friends early on with a great group of Catalans, whose attitudes toward toward el Centro (Madrid), Spain as a country, and toward Spanish history were (and are) endlessly fascinating. It’s possible these sympathetic early exposures to people from the regions gave me a bit of bias in Iberian matters, but after reading this history, it’s hard to imagine any other conclusion with regard to the war than this:

Everyone involved gets an F

It’s a depressing history. There was a staggering amount of dishonor2 on both sides, but the Nationalists – Franco’s side, led by the military and the church and the older elites who rose up against the democratically-elected government, won, and established a 40-year dictatorship – claimed to represent religion and morality, and they appalled me. The “White” side would happily negotiate safe surrender agreements only to bloodily discard them immediately afterward, sure in the morality of their cause.3 There’s something banal about the hypocrisy of those who fight in the name of God, but it doesn’t make the image of Franco ordering the killing of hundreds of captives and returning calmly to lunch any easier to stomach. The Nationalists were monstrous.

More surprising and interesting were the Soviets, who manipulated the Republican side for their own ends. Under the guise of fighting fascism, the Communists literally infiltrated the Spanish government and loyal army at all levels; from those positions, their Spanish agents and their foreign “advisors” continously and deliberately sacrificed the lives and the military chances of the Republican side to further the propaganda goals of the Soviet Empire.4 The International Brigades (volunteers from around the world) were in particular badly trained and equipped, thrown into the grinder so the Comintern could produce heroic stories for radio and print. It’s disconcerting to discover that there actually were communist conspiracies – significant, well-executed, and effective.5

All that said, it’s not like the Republic needed sabotage to fail: the incompetence of the militaries on both sides, but in especially on the Republican side, was impressive. The Republican military commanders had no sense for the newly-emerging modern warfare, and tried time after disastrous time to fight a 19th-century war; their greatest successes usually happening when command devolved by necessity to local commanders. The legitimate government’s cause wasn’t helped by its politicians, either, who failed to recognize the extent of the military uprising or respond to it quickly and proceeded to make bad choice after bad choice. They weren’t the self-justifying monsters in the service of a Greater Cause that the Nationalists or Soviets were; they were just bad, sometimes selfish, mostly short-sighted leaders that lead their country to ruin.6

And we shouldn’t forget the democracies’ actions in all this. Britain, France, and the United States all abandoned the democratically elected government in Madrid: out of sympathy with Franco, out of a desire not to provoke Germany7, out of the idea that the Republic was red – the last one a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Republican Spain was forced into the hands of the Soviet Union for want of anyone else who would supply arms and support.

The Aftermath

The war itself is a long, slow unwinding of attack and counterattack, with the Republican side quickly and permanently disadvantaged but holding on for a surprisingly long time against the better-equipped Nationalists. After he conquered Madrid and Barcelona, Franco unleashed a massive and brutal campaign of reprisals and repression, echoes of which are still audible in the relations between Catalonia and the Basques and Madrid to this day.

The dictatorship is, apparently and (to me) surprisingly, a complicated topic for some in Spain. The only pro-Franco argument I’ve ever heard (secondhand) is that for those in central (Castilian) Spain, the Franco regime lifted living standards, bringing the country from the Third World into industrialized modernity. That may well be true, but it’s horribly ironic: the very forces that had kept Spain in that darkness – the church8, the large feudal landowners, and the military – were the ones who supported Franco. Had these same groups not repeatedly blocked the reforms that kept trying to break out in previous centuries, Spain surely would have reached the modern age sooner and much more happily.

The book

This book is well-written and enjoyable military history, though unfortunately (to me) it’s mainly that. There are only passing descriptions of life in the Republic and very few of life under the Nationalist regime, aside from the brutality of the purges and the resumption of medieval levels of church control over society. I would have liked to read more about what individuals thought and experienced on both sides of the conflict – both the civilians and the soldiers who often fought such bloodily pointless, inconclusive, wasteful battles for Franco9 or the Republic. I will at some point have to find a book on Spanish life both before and after the Civil War – another project.

Also worth noting: the book is, additionally, 20 years old (which I didn’t notice when I bought it used) – if you’re interested, the author released a completely revised edition in 2006 using new materials from Russian archives and other sources. I may pick it up myself.

  1. I wonder if it’s still presented that way at schools here. 

  2. A term I’m not going to define :) 

  3. “Kill them all, God will know his own.” 

  4. It’s hard at this remove to understand the world of the 1930s; communism was only a decade in power, and many, lacking information about the true state of affairs in Russia, believed it represented a new way of organizing human society. I can just barely almost glimpse the outline of how one could think that such deceit and ruthlessness as happened in the war was necessary to replace of a corrupt and oppressive system…but not really. 

  5. Not that this justifies or validates McCarthy or anything that happened in America, of course – a very different time and situation. 

  6. This is a gross simplification – there was a lot going on. In Catalonia, for instance, the anarchist movement took control and devolved control from the regional government, producing both very effective results and a lot of tension with the central government, which was loathe cede any control. And so on. 

  7. The unwillingness to acknowledge and confront Germany and Italy over their violations of the neutrality agreements allowed Germany free reign to experiment with techniques and technology later used in World War II, culminating in the atrocity at Guernica. 

  8. Fact: in the 19th century, Spanish doctors could be fined if they did not prescribe a confession on a patient’s first visit. 

  9. Who IMO should be dug out of the impressive, ornate mountainside tomb he built for himself with convict labor and dumped at sea, as befits a dictator and war criminal.