Heroes and Beasts of Spain (1937)
Manuel Chaves Nogales (1897-1944)
Translated from the Spanish by Luis de Baeza
Much can be learned about the Spanish Civil War from books that detail the history of the conflict, such as Hugh Thomas’ now classic The Spanish Civil War. Particularly for civil wars, however, while history books may do an excellent job providing an understanding of the broad events of the war, they generally struggle --- and often seem to fail --- to convey the extent of the breakdown in civil order, and the resulting brutality that can occur at the level of the individual in society. For such an understanding one must needs turn to more personal narratives, such as (auto-) biographical or fictional accounts.
Thomas’ work, for example, covers the history of the war, including the military, political and social situation, and in that context, the violence that occurred within the Spanish population behind the front lines. He describes, for example, how authorities on both sides struggled to control a tendency among the Spanish population to use the war as a cover to violently resolve personal grudges, disappointments and hatreds that were at most only tangentially related to the larger conflict. He also goes into some detail on the fratricidal killings that occurred between supposed allies on the Republican side, such as between the communists and the anarchists, and even among various factions of the communists themselves.
But such high-level descriptions fail to convey the depth of what occurred during that war, the descent into violence that has left scars that have lasted across generations. For such an understanding, one must reach for more personal recollections of the conflict.
Certainly anecdotal histories can struggle to meet the standard of rigorous proof required by historians. Nonetheless, such accounts can play an important role in providing depth and completeness to the understanding of the history of a period, by telling the story of individuals, of individual experiences and acts, individual impacts. For the Spanish Civil War in particular, journalist and author Manuel Chaves Nogales’ collection of short stories Heroes and Beasts of Spain, fills that void, using fictionalized accounts that capture the barbarism and irrationality he witnessed in the first months of the war.
Chaves Nogales left Spain in November 1936, some four months into the conflict. As he makes clear in the Prologue, his goal as a writer was “to bring forward by means of works based on facts or fiction what I considered to be the paramount truth, namely, an insuperable hatred of all stupidity and cruelty.” (3) He was a strong supporter of the Republic, a confident in fact of the president of the Spanish Republic, Manuel Azañ, when the rebel uprising began. (For an overview of the conflict, see my review of Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War, here.)
Chaves Nogales had a visceral distaste for dictatorship of any kind, and so was equally disillusioned by both the fascist rebels, as well as the communist and anarchist revolutionaries who, for broader political and military reasons, took control of the Republican side as the war continued, displacing the more center-left elements of the government. Finally leaving Spain in late 1936, Chaves Nogales wrote:
I was fully convinced that all was lost and that there was nothing left to save; terror had made life impossible … [I am leaving] not only because blood was spilled by gangs of murderers who brought Red terror to Madrid, but also because of the death sown in the town among women and children by Franco’s [Rebel] air raids. I was as much afraid of the barbarity of the Moors, the bandits of the Foreign Legion and Falange (the Spanish Fascists), as of the illiterate Anarchists and Communists. (5)A few lines later he adds:
The final issue of the present struggle does not interest me very much. I am not interested to know that the future dictator of Spain will spring out of one side or the other of the trench. It is immaterial to me. The strong man, the leader, the victor, who at the end of the struggle will plant a masterful foot in the pool of blood into which Spain has been plunged, the man who with a bloody knife between his teeth will keep his country in strict servitude for at least a quarter of a century, may emerge from either side of ‘no man’s land’.(7)How prescient he was: the leader of the Rebel side, General Francisco Franco, ruled over Spain as dictator for some 35 years after the end of the war.
The stories he has written are not, in terms of language and structure, crafted works of subtlety and nuance. Raw and direct, they read as fictionalized accounts of scenes Chaves Nogales witnessed or heard about, characterizations of life in Spain during the war. They demonstrate the bloodthirsty irrationality that gripped both sides, the violence that people perpetrated against even others of their own side who they felt were not staunch enough adherents to their beliefs. Chaves Nogales’ stories represent a desperate cry for the mercy of liberty in the midst of an ugly and brutal conflict.
The collection consists of nine stories, the majority of which take place on the Republican side of the war, though several straddle the front lines, or are told from the Rebel side. Except for the names of larger cities, place names seem to be invented --- perhaps a method by which Chaves Nogales could emphasize that the barbarism and senseless violence he describes were not isolated incidents in particular towns, but rather commonplace events throughout Spain during the war.
Several of the stories describe aspects of the war-within-a-war that occurred between various revolutionary groups on the Republican side during the conflict, infighting that led to significant violence and death amongst the Republican forces, ultimately undermining their efforts against the Rebels. In The Iron Column, a group by that name has formed from Anarchists who revolted against the discipline that Republican leaders attempted to impose on their troops to put an end to the pillaging some of the troops were using the cover of the war to engage in. Splinter groups such as the Iron Column broke off ostensibly to root out and kill fascists hiding in Republican held lands, but in reality “under the pretext of ridding the country of Fascists these men went about the villages and hamlets [in Republican-controlled territory] killing and looting in the most brutal manner and without fear.” (109) In Hugh Thomas’ work of history, we can learn that such a group by that name did indeed exist, operating largely beyond control of local and national authorities; in Chaves Nogales’ story we confront up-close the dark reality of the chaos and death that they perpetrated on the towns they devastated.
The Massacre tells a similar story of uncontrolled violence, by a group of thugs in Madrid calling themselves the Revenge Patrol. Feeling that the government was too timid, the group took it upon themselves to root out and kill anyone they thought might be a fascist and so a supporter of the Rebels. In fact, as Chaves Nogales writes:
Every army soldier [on the Republican side], from the rank of sergeant upwards, was a suspected Fascist. [Rebel] General Mola had said that, besides the four columns of Rebel troops marching on the capital, there was another column inside the town, the “Fifth Column”, ready to co-operate with the attackers. On few occasions in the history of mankind have such idle words been the direct cause of so many deaths. Each time the militiamen in search of suspects were confronted by proofs of innocence that might have spared a life, someone mentioned the Fifth Column and, proof or no proof, the suspect was dragged before the firing squad to be mowed down at down in the open spaces around Madrid. (178)The Revenge Patrol certainly took Mola’s comment to heart, seeking out and killing anyone they found who could not conclusively prove conclusively their fealty to the Republican side.
In the final and perhaps most damning of the stories, two workers at a factory in Republican territory who are accused of being fascists desperately attempt to defend themselves and so save their own lives. The two are apolitical, and simply want to work to feed their families. One of the men had belonged to a so-called yellow syndicate before the war, a trade-union group organized by the factory owners; now, in civil war Spain, the revolutionaries viewed such people, who had generally joined the earlier organizations simply in order to be able to work, as suspected fascists, traitors to be eliminated. The second man, Daniel, has no particular political history that the revolutionaries can oust him on --- he is simply uninterested in any political parties or movements. Daniel finds himself in an almost Kafkaesque position as the story develops; as Chaves Nogales writes: “The delegates hated him even more … for the strong-willed and courageous Daniel was a more dangerous enemy to the cause than most the poor devils who were being shot every day. A man like Daniel was the worst enemy of revolution and of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (295) Ultimately Daniel can only prove his loyalty by sacrificing himself to a cause he neither supports nor opposes.
And here was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the war for the centrist Chaves Nogales, who in the Prologue states that he was writing as “a citizen of a democratic and parliamentarian republic.” (2) For someone for whom liberty was of overriding importance in human life an affairs, the fall of Spain in the Civil War was highlighted by the case of people like Daniel:
[H]e was condemned. Why? For the same reasons the bourgeoisie condemned during the old regime those who were not for them. Liberty was the enemy. Herein lay their weakness and their defect. For the day when the council expelled Comrade Daniel from the factory the cause of the people was lost. The Rebels’ guns were battering in vain against the trenches defending Madrid; the Italian and the German airplanes were killing in vain women and children in the city. The cause of the people had been lost simply because the Council of Workers of a factory had decided to expel a comrade for the sole crime of being a man who believed in the rights of individual liberty. (296)
Other reviews / information:
The book was originally written and published in Spanish, in 1937. The English language version also appeared in 1937, and the translation appears to have been a quick work to get the book onto English-language bookshelves while the war still raged, with the English at many points a bit stilted and awkward.
For some of the information on Manuel Chaves Nogales in this review, I consulted the Diccionario onomástico de la guerra civil (Onomastic Dictionary of the Spanish Civil War); my review of that work here.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf