26 February 2021

Spanish Civil War Histories: Guides for the Perplexed

Building on the suggested readings here, Mr McClarey adds several resources he recommends.

From The American Catholic

By Donald R. McClarey

Dale Price at Dyspeptic Mutterings continues his look at the Spanish Civil War:

Building upon the review of Mine Were of Trouble, I would like to offer a list of books to help cradle English speakers get a grip on the War in Spain.

I am compelled to offer three framing comments at the beginning.

1. First, works about the War–even in English–are inevitably politicized. The War inspires strong passions in the Western world to this very day, and the historians who write about it are no exception. Even the act of toning down one’s reactions and trying to assess the facts objectively, in a comparative framework with other ideological conflicts, is subject to accusations of bias. One is accused of (or lauded for) being pro-Republican or pro-Nationalist, pushing a narrative. And readers can be sucked in as well.

Raises hand.

The necessity for the reader is to recognize the historian’s biases and his own and to engage in periodic reality checks.

For example: is the author presenting one side’s atrocities in a different light than the other’s? Pro-Republic authors frequently have a tic in this respect. This is best seen in what I call “the church caught fire and the priest died” pro-Republic depictions of the Loyalist pogroms of 1936.

Thousands of Catholics–laity, clergy and religious–were targeted and slaughtered by Republican forces in the wake of the rising of the generals.

In a grand irony, this butchery turned the officer corps’ rising into a Catholic crusade. The initial proclamations of the Generals explicitly spoke of restoring order to the Republic and respecting its institutions, including the separation of church and state. And there really is no evidence that such were insincere. 

The massacre of the Faithful changed all of that, with Catholics of every class and region under Nationalist control becoming fiercely pro-Nationalist and swelling the ranks and resources of the Generals’ forces. This forced the Generals to change their tone fairly quickly: by autumn of 1936 the Crusade for Catholic Spain was on.

The slaughter is acknowledged by Republic-favoring historians, but it is often described in the passive voice, occurring as opposed to directed, spasmodic, spontaneous and unforeseeable–definitely not the systematic killing of Nationalist firing squads. 

Um…no. The Republic threw open the arsenals to anti-religious fanatics and what followed was entirely foreseeable. Anti-religious rages had been blazing, albeit at a much lower level, for months before the War. What did they expect when they handed the militias military weaponry and the color of law? 

It is true that members of the Republican leadership tried–sometimes successfully–to intervene to save people, and eventually the pogrom wound down. But this was due as much to the flight of Catholics to Nationalist territory and the sending of the fanatical militias to the front lines to do some actual fighting against people who could shoot back as to policy. 

Bottom line: watch how each side is depicted for similar actions. Because pro-Nationalists get their passive voice on as well.

2. Secondly, have a note pad handy. It is taken me years to get the names of the various personages straight. When you first run across someone who appears to be a major personage, write down his or her name and political affiliation. Gil Robles was not Calvo Sotelo–that took me a while, for some reason. 

And do the same for the major factions. Because, you see, there is usually a very unhelpful Spanish acronym, or a puzzling adjective before an otherwise understandable noun, which describes the welter of contending organizations.

Trust me: you do not want to confuse the CEDA with the CNT, the PSOE for the PCE or POUM, or the Alphonsine monarchists with the Carlist ones, etc.

3. Learn Spanish.

At least the pronunciation–you are much less likely to sound like an idiota. Canada and Cañada are…different places after all.  But getting at least a tentative grip on the language will help you see the mindsets better, too.

With those advisories in hand, on to the recommendations:

1. Hugh Thomas’ one volume history. Still the gold standard. First published in 1961, and considered fair enough by the censors to be published and sold in Franco’s Spain. Genuinely even-handed, even if it focuses more on the Republic. Which is actually fair enough in and of itself: the dysfunction of that half of Spain necessitates more words.

2. The Victorious Counterrevolution by Michael Seidman. Absolutely essential. It could also be entitled “How the Nationalists Won.” A searching evaluation of the factors that led the Spanish “Right” to win their civil war when similar forces in Russia and China lost theirs. 

Bottom line: no bleed-out from a previous war (World Wars I and II, respectively), better logistics, better use of resources, much less corruption and infighting. Nationalist soldiers ate well and civilians had a functional currency which meant they managed to do the same. Foreign assistance was not as decisive as pro-Republic historiography suggests–the Nationalists just did better with theirs than the Republic did. Alas for Spain, the regime would founder economically after the War and only start to get its legs underneath it with American aid and the abandoning of quasi-fascist demands for autarky.

3. Martin Blinkhorn’s history of the Carlists in the Second Republic and the War. At least you will understand how one of the major members of the Nationalist coalition thought and fought.

Go here to read the rest.  I agree with Dale’s choices and his general advice.  There is a great deal of drek in English language accounts of the Spanish Civil War, with quite a few authors demonstrating a very shallow knowledge of Spanish history and obviously recycling anecdotes from prior bad histories.  The Spanish Civil War had a very long fuse, extending well into the Nineteenth Century.  Indeed, a good argument could be made that the Spanish Civil War was the ending of the long Spanish Nineteenth Century.  Unless that period of Spanish history is mastered any history of the Spanish Civil War reads like a review of a play which is confined to the last act of the play.  It also does not help that the war was massively complicated with numerous factions, many of which are quite obscure outside of Spain.  Here are some additions to Dale’s list:

The go to man on the Spanish Civil War is Stanley Payne.  He has been writing on the conflict since the Fifties.  He interviewed many of the leaders of the various factions in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.  Originally a man of the Left, I think it would be fair now to call him a conservative, but what he is above all is a first class historian.

I would recommend his The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism, and for background his Spain a Unique History, which is not only an overview of controversies in Spanish History, but also a memoir of his life spent studying Spanish History.  His look at how the present Spanish Socialist government is using the Civil War for political purposes is biting and  incisive.

Anthony Beevor, although somewhat sympathetic to the Anarchists, did an excellent one volume history a few years ago which is superb about showing the military mistakes of the Republic.

The best memoir of a participant that I have read is Combat Over Spain by the Duke of Lerma.  He served as a nationalist pilot during the war.  Growing up in a bi-lingual family, he wrote his memoir in both English and Spanish.  His descriptions of life in Spain prior to the Civil War and during it give the reader a feel for the conflict lacking in other works.

Spain in Arms:  A Military History of the Spanish Civil War by E. R. Hooton is one of the better military histories of the struggle that I have read, but it is cursed by bad maps.

Burnett Bolloten’s The Spanish Civil War:  Revolution and Counter-Revolution. The late Mr. Bolloten made an in depth study of magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and other publications published in Spain during the war. You find material in his history you find nowhere else. He is especially good on the byzantine Republican factional infighting.

Jose Alvarez has written two volumes on the Spanish Foreign Legion in the Rif War and in the first year of the Spanish Civil War.  Lots of painstaking original research.  Three drawbacks:  the writing is dry, the minute account of skirmishes and battles can blur together and the maps are close to useless.

I have learned more about Spain and the Spanish Civil War from Gironella’s trilogy of novels, however, than I have from all the hundreds of histories I have read on that conflict.  In the first volume in his trilogy,  the lead up to the war is depicted in Cypresses;   the war  is set forth unforgettably in One Million Dead;  and the aftermath of the war is depicted in Peace After War.   Gironella, a veteran of the Nationalist Army, achieves the remarkable feat of creating sympathetic characters in all the warring factions.  Many of these characters do terrible things, but Gironella skillfully leads the reader to understand why they did them without condoning their actions.  Spain is very much a figure in these novels as the characters act out the various aspects of the Spanish character and fight over what Spain was, is and should be.  The whole work is suffused by a deeply Catholic spirit and sensibility as the characters come closer to God or repel themselves away from Him.  The finest novels I have ever read.

In studying the Spanish Civil War I ever keep in mind the foreword that Gironella wrote to his trilogy for his American readers:

“Author’s Note for the American Edition
Spain is an unknown country. Experience proves that it is hard to view my country impartially. Even writers of high order succumb to the temptation to adulterate the truth, to treat our customs and our psychology as though everything about them were of a piece, of a single color. Legends and labels pile up: black Spain, inquisitorial Spain, beautiful Spain, tragic Spain, folkloric Spain, unhappy Spain, a projection of Africa into the map of Europe.

I defend the complexity of Spain. If this book attempts to demonstrate anything it is this: that there are in this land thousands of possible ways of life. Through a Spanish family of the middle class–the Alvears–and the day-by-day living of a provincial capital–Gerona–I have tried to capture the everyday traits, the mentality, the inner ambiance of my compatriots in all their pettiness and all their grandeur. In Spain the reaction to this novel has been that it is “implacable”. Nothing could satisfy me more.

This book spans a period of five years, five years in the private and public life of the nation: those which preceded the last civil war, which speeded its inevitable coming. The explosion of that war, its scope, and its significance are described in minute detail.
A single warning to the American reader: Spain is a peculiar country and its institutions therefore take on unique coloration. Certain constants of the Spanish temperament operate under any circumstance. A Spanish Freemason is not an international Freemason. A Spanish Communist is not even an orthodox Communist. In every instance what is characteristic is a tendency toward the instinctive, toward the individualistic, and toward the anarchic. Spaniards follow men better than they follow ideas, which are judged not by their content, but by the men who embody them. This accounts for the inclemency of personal relationships, the small respect for laws; this, too, is what causes our periodic civil wars.
To bear all this in mind is important in understanding this book. When the narrative deals with a priest, a policeman, a Socialist, a bootblack, it is essential to remember that it is dealing with a Spanish priest, a Spanish policeman, a Spanish Socialist, a Spanish bootblack, not with generic types. This warning is doubly necessary with reference to Freemasonry, Communism, and Catholicism, the interpretation of which will undoubtedly clash with the American reader’s concept of these doctrines.

The book’s protagonist–Ignacio Alvear–is a type of young man who abounds in present-day Spain.

Palma de Mallorca, Spain
August 1954
José Maria Gironella”

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