The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931-1939

by Gabriel Jackson
Princeton, 565 pp., $12.50

Journey to the Alcarria

by Camilo José Cela, translated by Frances M. López Morillas
Wisconsin, 292 pp., $5.00

The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 and for a period Europe was engulfed in a larger tragedy. In retrospect the Spanish Civil War seemed what one of the Republican Ministers once called it—a paupers’ war. The exiles, like the issues, were forgotten. They were embarrassing relics.

Why should the Spanish Civil War now compel an interest which goes beyond the usual curious concern for the past? Perhaps because of the symbolic overtones that gives Spanish history in general resonance and significance, making it a perpetual demonstration of the truth of Croce’s dictum that all history is contemporary history. The continuing—and still bitter—controversy that rages around Las Casas and his “docile Indians” has a relevance beyond the history of the Spanish Colonial Empire; it was the first debate on the relationships between the developed West and the under-developed world. In the 1830s it seemed that the great European battle between liberal principles and reactionary government was being fought out in the mountains of Navarre and Aragon. Journalists, idealists and soldiers of fortune came to Spain. A hundred years later, in 1936, they came once more; once more Spain seemed part of a universal struggle between the ideologies that divided the Western World: Fascism and Democracy.

The price of symbolic significance and international resonance is distortion. The history of the Second Republic, its collapse and its defeat at the hands of Franco, were seen as an international occasion rather than as a domestic tragedy. No one would deny that the course of the Civil War became involved in, and its issue in a large measure dependent on, international power politics. Yet in its origins it was a Spanish affair, the outcome of secular stresses and the immediate tensions of domestic politics. As Mr.Jackson says, psychologically speaking, Spaniards felt, until the Spring of 1937, “that their fate was being resolved primarily by Spanish forces.” It was only visiting intellectuals or professional propagandists who thought it was all a result of international plots.

The generals acted, not as agents of international Fascism, but in Spanish style, throwbacks to the era of pronunciamientos. They could not be certain of large-scale German and Italian support; indeed they old not think that they would need it. They did not contemplate a Crusade; they gambled on a nineteenth-century military take-over. Italy did not see that support of Franco in a long war would nearly destroy the Italian military machine; Ciano wanted, like Hitler, a useful ally on the cheap. A long war frayed tempers in the Nationalist camp. Germans considered Franco an old-fashioned clerical, a “slow” general unaware of the importance of tanks; Mussolini had doubts about the virility of the Spanish and the Spaniards doubted the utility of Italian ground troops.

The Second Republic committed many errors—a weak agrarian reform coupled with old-fashioned anti-clericalism; Mr. Jackson rightly calls their closing of church schools “a self-defeating sectarian policy.” It rallied the right without strengthening the left. As a democratic concern, it fell because men of the left…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.