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The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Civil War

by Hugh Thomas
Harper and Row, 1,115 pp., $40.00

The Spanish Civil War: A History in Pictures

introduction by Raymond Carr
Norton, 192 pp., $29.95

Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War

edited by Valentine Cunningham
Oxford University Press, 388 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Voices Against Tyranny: Writing of the Spanish Civil War

with an introduction by Stephen Spender, edited by John Miller
Scribner’s, 227 pp., $7.95 (paper)

The Signal Was Spain: The Spanish Aid Movement in Britain, 1936–39

by Jim Fyrth
St. Martin’s, 344 pp., $32.50

Prisoners of the Good Fight: The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939

by Carl Geiser
Lawrence Hill, 297 pp., $12.95 (paper)


July 1986 was the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. The war began as a rebellion of the Spanish army generals against the country’s democratically elected government, and ended three years later with the establishment of General Francisco Franco Bahamonde as dictator, a position he was to hold until his death in 1975.

Seen in retrospect, the war was the almost inevitable product of irreconcilable antagonisms within Spanish society that only a strong regime could hope to control. Instead of a strong government, however, the election victory of the Frente Popular in 1936 brought to office a cabinet of liberal republicans from minority parties, dependent for its continued existence on the cooperation of the Socialists and the as yet small Communist party. The Popular Front was threatened by forces that did not recognize its authority. On the right stood, among others, the Falange, a fascist party on the Italian model, and the Carlist Requetes, fanatically devoted to the Monarchy and the Catholic Church; on the left, a strong and widespread anarchist movement which proclaimed its intention to abolish not only the state but also the Catholic Church—and in fact burned many churches. Small wonder that two of the most impressive books on the politics of Spain in the twentieth century are entitled The Spanish Labyrinth1 and The Spanish Cockpit.2

Yet though its causes were so deeply rooted in circumstances peculiar to Spain (Basque and Catalan aspirations to autonomy added another unique complication), this war became, within days of its outbreak, the passionate concern of many people in Western Europe and America who had little or no understanding of its complex origins. The military rebels were supported and supplied by Hitler and Mussolini from the very beginning—German and Italian planes made possible the first military airlift in history, the transportation of Franco’s Moorish mercenaries from Africa to the mainland. The Madrid government represented the electoral victory of the Frente Popular, a left-to-center coalition like that which had brought the Socialist Léon Blum to power in France in the same year. So Spain became the first battleground of the antifascist war, a place where the advance of fascist power, unopposed and in fact at times actively encouraged by the British government, might be given a serious if not decisive setback.

Madrid sera la tumba del Fascismo” was a slogan launched when Franco’s Moors and foreign legionaries were stopped dead at the edge of the city in November 1936; it was the hope, a not irrational one, of all progressive opinion in the West. It was not to be, of course; the French, cowed by threats from London that if they sold arms to the Republic they would have to face the consequences alone, joined Great Britain on the Non-Intervention Committee, which “was to graduate,” as Hugh Thomas puts it, “from equivocation to hypocrisy.” The British and French left the Republic to fight a professional army, backed by German and Italian weapons, specialists, and troops, with a rabble militia, without officers and heterogeneously armed, and dependent for heavy armament on Soviet shipments over the long sea route from Odessa through waters patrolled by Italian submarines, warships, and planes.3 The wonder is that the Republic survived so long; if it had managed to survive six months longer, in fact, it might have been saved at the last moment by the outbreak of the European war in September 1939.

The long, heroic resistance of the Republic aroused in its time the enthusiastic admiration of liberal and leftwing circles in the West. This was true above all of writers, who were especially sensitive to the threat of fascism, both abroad and at home. “Our prerogatives as men,” Louis MacNeice wrote in a poem addressed to Auden in 1936,

Will be cancelled who knows when.
Still I drink your health before
The gun-butt raps upon the door.4

Later, recalling a visit to Spain just before the war broke out, he wrote of leaving the country,

…not realising
That Spain would soon denote
Our grief, our aspirations;
Not knowing that our blunt
Ideals would find their whetstones, that our spirit
Would find its frontier on the Spanish front,
Its body in a rag-tag army.5

MacNeice spoke for an entire generation of writers, British, European, and American; the war was midwife to an abundant and talented literature, a “burst of creative energy,” as Hugh Thomas puts it in his definitive history of the war, “which can be argued as comparable in quality to anything produced in the Second World War.”

The fiftieth anniversary has revived interest in this struggle that now seems so remote even to those who took an active part in it. In Washington, for example, a conference organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History recently discussed the impact of the war on the American political scene and in particular the role of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. It was addressed by historians and veterans (one of them, Professor Robert Kolodny, was both) and concluded with a screening of a remarkable film, The Good Fight, which through interviews with veterans and contemporary photographs and newsreels re-creates the atmosphere of the time and explores the motives of the participants.

Similar conferences are being planned or already announced at more than one university; meanwhile a number of new books on the war and an important reissue of an old one have already appeared, and there are no doubt more to come. The reissue is Hugh Thomas’s basic history, The Spanish Civil War. It was first published in 1961; in 1977 a “revised and enlarged edition” incorporated the new material, much of it published in Spain, which had come to light in the interval. Now Harper and Row has produced what it calls a “third edition,” with a “new preface by the author.” There is indeed a new preface—less than two pages in length—but otherwise the text is unchanged from the 1977 edition. The misprints remain uncorrected (two lines missing and two repeated on page 862, for example) and so do slips of the pen (a remark of Orwell attributed to Auden on page 653).

More important, no notice is taken of material published after 1977 that calls for correction or addition. In his account of the arrival of the Eleventh International Brigade at Madrid in November 1936, for example, Thomas has the march led by “a battalion of Germans with a section of British machinegunners, including the poet John Cornford.” In fact, Cornford and the present reviewer were in the Second Battalion, the French “Commune de Paris.”6 This error was corrected in an article published in The New York Review in 1980. 7

As for additions, Peter Wyden’s book The Passionate War8 provides new evidence about the massacre of prisoners by Franco’s troops at Badajoz in 1936, a subject for bitter controversy ever since the first reports of these mass shootings in the bullring reached the outside world. Wyden interviewed a Portuguese laborer who was hired to help bury the Republican corpses (after they had been burned); the mass grave was forty meters long, ten meters wide, and one and a half meters deep. Wyden also reproduces a still from a Pathé newsreel which shows the heaps of burned corpses awaiting burial outside the bullring.

Still, even though it is regrettable that the opportunity to bring it up to date was not seized, Thomas’s book is the fullest and best one-volume nonpartisan history of the war in English.9 Starting from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931 Thomas constructs a clear and skillfully paced narrative which gives equal weight to the military, political, and economic aspects of the conflict. His analysis of the dissension on both sides is illuminating and fair-minded, though on rereading I detected a somewhat disproportionate admiration for the way Franco succeeded in manipulating his warring constituencies to his own advantage, unlike the unfortunate Republic, which resorted to armed repression in Catalonia in 1937 and in its final days was unable to prevent the military commanders at Madrid from surrendering unconditionally and so ending the war.

A subtle bias perhaps shows itself in the fact that victims of repression are either “shot” or “executed” in Franco territory whereas in the Republic they are usually “murdered.” The distinction may stem from Thomas’s generalization that

though there was much killing in rebel Spain, the idea of limpieza, the “cleaning up” of the country from the evils which had overtaken it, was a disciplined policy of the new authorities and a part of their program of regeneration


in Republican Spain most of the killing was the consequence of anarchy, the outcome of a national breakdown, and not the work of the state.

Since the “national breakdown” had been mainly provoked by the rebellion of the military authorities and since the policy of limpieza entailed what Thomas calls “a wave of executions which began in 1936 and continued, if the truth be known, until 1941 or 1942,”10 this summary is, to say the least, disingenuous.

It is true that in Franco territory the killings were carried out by men in uniform, but that is hardly warrant for the distinction between “execution” and “murder.” Given the scale and difficulty of the undertaking, however, these are minor lapses; the task of maintaining an impartial tone in a field where controversy rages on almost every point (Thomas’s bibliography includes nearly nine hundred publications) must have been exacting in the extreme and one can only admire the careful weighing of the evidence and its full citation, which make this book still, for the English-speaking world, the standard history of the war.

The illustrations in this edition of the book, unlike those in the first, consist entirely of photographs of the leading personalities on both sides, and since one of Thomas’s strong points is his incisive delineation of character—his portraits of Franco, Manuel Azaña, the Republican president, and the anarchist leader Durruti, for example, are particularly memorable—this seems appropriate. But the war was the first to be fully documented by photographers. “This,” said a Catalan official to Claud Cockburn, “is the most photogenic war anyone has ever seen.” The visual aspect of it is handsomely covered in a collection of more than 350 illustrations: The Spanish Civil War: A History in Pictures. They are arranged chronologically from the fall of the monarchy in 1931 to the collapse of the Republic in 1939; the first photograph shows triumphant Republicans standing on an overturned equestrian royal statue and the last a Republican soldier interned in France, giving a light to a sentry through the wire. These images of the war come from both sides of the lines and they are supplemented by a generous selection of those posters which, in the hands of the Republican artists, marked a new level in the techniques of visual propaganda.

  1. 1

    By Gerald Brenan (1943).

  2. 2

    By Franz Borkenau (1937).

  3. 3

    For Italian sinkings of supply ships (not only Russian but also British, French, Greek, and Danish) see Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 740 ff. Mussolini boasted in September 1937 that he had sunk nearly 200,000 tons (Thomas, p. 743) and by October, according to Thomas (p. 745), “the blockade of the Mediterranean was now almost complete.”

  4. 4

    The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice (Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 75.

  5. 5

    The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, p. 112.

  6. 6

    Thomas has confused our section with the English group (of which Esmond Romilly was a member) that served in the German Battalion of the Twelfth Brigade. They arrived at Madrid several days later.

  7. 7

    Bernard Knox, “Remembering Madrid” (November 6, 1980).

  8. 8

    Simon and Schuster, 1983, pp. 136–138.

  9. 9

    Gabriel Jackson, A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980) is also worth consulting. Antony Beevor’s The Spanish Civil War (Bedrick, 1983) is a much fuller treatment, especially notable for its expert discussion of the military operations. (Beevor was trained at Sandhurst and served for five years as a regular officer in the British army.)

  10. 10

    Jackson’s figures for executions and reprisal killings (as revised downward in his 1980 paperback edition) are: 20,000 on the Republican side, “committed mostly during the first three months of the struggle,” and on the other side “the Nationalists, counting the entire time from July 1936 to the end of the mass executions in 1944, liquidated 150,000 to 200,000 of their compatriots.”

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