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,…

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