Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: 'The Spanish Civil War' by Hugh Thomas

The Spanish Civil War (1961, and subsequent updated editions)
Hugh Thomas (1931-)
1120 pages

In the middle of April, 1931, large numbers of Spaniards took to the streets to celebrate the beginning of the Second Republic, as King Alfonso XIII abdicated his throne and withdrew into exile. Only five years (but, tellingly, nine Prime Ministers) later Spain sank into a civil war that devastated the country and left an estimated 500,000 dead from the fighting, malnutrition and executions. Hugh Thomas' over 1000 page history describes in extensive detail the torturous path from the euphoric days of the spring of 1931 to the final collapse of the army of the Republic in the spring of 1939. He covers not only events in Spain, including detailed accounts of the political struggles and military battles, but also the key role played by outside powers during the Spanish war, particularly Germany, Italy, Russia, England, France and the US, whose natural sympathies for one side or the other in the war often conflicted with their business interests, their desire to avoid having the civil war become a European-wide war, and, in some cases, their use of the civil war in preparing for a European-wide war they considered inevitable. (And that, at any rate, erupted just months after the end of the war in Spain).

Though the length of the book can seem daunting, the devil in these eight years of Spanish history is truly in the details. Certainly it is easy to turn a little knowledge of the war, gained say from a brief mention in history class and reading a bit of Hemingway, into a simplistic view of what happened: the republican side was a popularly elected government, attacked by the nationalists, led by a Fascist general who was determined to be the supreme ruler of Spain; assisted by Germany and Italy, these nationalists were able to overcome and defeat the republicans, despite the help of brigades of foreign sympathizers who fought as part of the republican army. What Thomas' book makes clear is that the truth is almost unimaginably more complicated.

[In the following, all quotes are from Thomas' book, except when otherwise indicated. The maps showing the division of Spain as the war progressed are also from Thomas' book; they represent 6 of the 35 maps in the book. I have avoided using the names of the Spanish Presidents and Prime Ministers during this period, because there were, for example, ten Prime Ministers and the specific names are not the important aspect of the review that follows; I have included a table that shows an overview of the changes in government, and includes the names of the politicians holding these positions.]

Thomas opens with a brief summary of the century or so of Spanish history that lead up to the Second Republic. Throughout the 1800's there was a slowly increasing liberal awareness in Spain that argued, among other points, for the rights of workers and day-laborers, and for a secular education system to be introduced. This growing group of reformers was countered by the tightly knit dominance of the monarchy, the church and the army, and had little chance to hold real power. They were primarily a group of academics, philosophers and radicals. From 1873-74 they had their first brief flirtation with power, in the First Spanish Republic; John Crow wrote in Spain: The Root and the Flower, "The wonder is that it ever got established at all. Its death was a forgone conclusion." (p. 256)) When King Alfonso XIII abdicated in April 1931, this liberal group found itself suddenly propelled to power by a large segment of the population tired of the corrupt and ineffective monarchy, tired too of what many saw as an overbearing church and eager to shake off the meager existence they felt they were condemned to by the rich landowners and businessmen of the country.

Although the initial government included several members from one of the Catholic parties, including the first Prime Minister, the majority were from the left; the right was still in disarray, struggling to adjust to the sudden shift in the political landscape created by the abdication of the King. Elections held for the parliament (known in Spanish as the Cortes) in June of that year, "suggested that the majority of the people were behind the regime. … They were the fairest elections that had been held in Spain" (p. 70).

In an example of the thoroughness of the text, Thomas provides extended descriptions of the key political parties, their history in Spain, and their inner conflicts and motivations. Particularly fascinating is the discussion of the Anarchists (and the associated Syndicalists, which during the years of the Second Republic were gradually subsumed by the Anarchists). Thomas argues that Anarchism, coming out of Russia as a political philosophy in the late 1800's, nowhere reached the level of impact and strength as a political movement that it did in Spain, in large part due to the fact that it could be seen as a return to traditional, medieval village life, where the villagers had worked together with a significant amount of independence, in "a time when landlords … recognized fewer and fewer obligations towards peasants, who became increasingly a landless proletariat without rights." (p. 59) Also interesting to note is what little role the tiny Communist Party played in the Second Republic, until after the Civil War was well under way.

(Figure 1 below shows the changing political landscape during the Second Republic, up to the start of the war. It is not a scholarly picture of pre-war Spanish political parties and positions; I have created it as a rough representation based on what Thomas reports in his book. I have also simplified the party designations; each of what is shown here as a single, coherent party is actually a grouping of several different parties with often conflicting goals, whether it was the communists, the anarchists, the socialists or the catholic parties. And of course each of the individual parties also had their internal conflicts as the government, and the country, stumbled toward civil war.)

Figure 1: Political Parties and Elections during the Second Republic

The inexperience at governing of the first elected politicians of the Second Republic quickly revealed itself. The mostly liberal drafters of the new republic's constitution, instead of trying to find common ground and areas of compromise with the church, large landowners and wealthy businessmen, "blundered, identify[ing] the new regime with their own political views," (p. 72) and so wrote into the new constitution their ideal view of how the country should be run. This included "sweeping anti-clerical clauses [which were] ambitious, but foolish…." (p. 73) The Catholic church, which had held a central influence on Spanish governance, education and culture since the re-conquest of Spain from the Moors over several centuries ending in 1492, now found itself essentially disestablished. In addition, the new constitution eliminated titles of nobility and called for property to be expropriated for the social good. Thus, the first government of the Second Republic created powerful enemies in the Church and among the rich.

The Catholic Prime Minister resigned in protest over the anti-catholic clauses of the new constitution, and a Socialist Prime Minister was called on to form a new government. (Interestingly the resigning Prime Minister became the first President of the Second Republic, a position created as part of the constitution, but that was largely symbolic.) The new Prime Minister and his government were able to pass some of the progressive laws they had laid the groundwork for in the recently drafted constitution, but the right-wing parties were able to fight back, as the Church and the monarchists came together to mobilize the middle class against this sudden change in direction that they argued was counter to centuries of Spanish cultural traditions. Thomas describes how the growing support for the right culminated in the left losing municipal elections in 1933, causing a crisis in confidence that led to the resignation of the Socialist Prime Minister, and a call for new elections for the Cortes. The center and right, particularly the Catholic party politicians, won a large majority in these elections, in November 1933, leading to the formation of a new government.

With the center and right now dominating the Cortes, the President of Spain (serving a six year term, so unaffected by the elections and supposedly above the daily political fray) needed to ask a politician from one of the victorious parties to be Prime Minister and form a new government. Although a member of a Catholic party, the President distrusted the leader of the dominant Catholic party in the elections and so he asked the leader of a party of the center (the somewhat confusingly named Radical Party) to be the new Prime Minister. Although this move angered the more right-wing parties, as they had to settle for a few positions among the cabinet ministers, they initially tried to work with the new Prime Minister, and within the structure of the government.

According to Thomas "the history of Spain during the two and a half years after the general elections of November 1933 was marked by disintegration." (p. 118) The new government began by repealing or eviscerating many of the laws passed by the previous, more liberal, administration, enraging the left-wing parties and convincing many on the left that there was no solution to their hopes for Spain to be found through republican-style government. The right also struggled internally with a split between those who supported a republican style government, and those who wanted to return to a monarchy and so were against the government per se, whether ruled by the left or right. It was not long before the more extreme partisans among the far left and far right began resorting to violence --- a violence that grew as each side reacted to the latest provocation from the other.

The key point though is that support of the republican government shrank, as parties and their members on the extremes of both the left and the right lost faith in it and began breaking with it --- seeing not only their opposite extreme as the enemy, but also the government itself. A left-wing uprising in late 1934 (known as the 'October Revolution') failed at the outset everywhere but in Asturias, where it had some success before it was brutally put down by the army (led by a General Francisco Franco!). This uprising, and the reaction to it, further weakened the government in the eyes of people at both ends of the spectrum; the left feeling further disenfranchised, while the right seeing it as a harbinger of a coming left-wing revolution.

As the government slipped from one crisis to the next, its ineffectiveness is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that the Prime Minister who had formed the latest government, after the elections of November 1933, resigned in April 1934 over a dispute with the President, only to be asked in October 1934, by the same President, to again lead the government as Prime Minister. Eventually the situation became untenable, and, in 1935, the Prime Minister resigned (again). The president was heavily pressured to ask a member of the right-wing catholic party to be Prime Minister and form a new government, but he resisted, finally asking a close political friend to lead a care taker government that would prepare for a new round of elections.

In this third election of the Second Republic, held in February 1936, the center lost most of its support, the vote splitting between the left and right, with the left gaining a slight advantage in total votes, which translated into a clear majority in the Cortes. Thus, the left again took control of the government, and the Prime Minister was selected from the Socialist Party, leaving the right even more convinced that there was no use in continuing to participate in the government.

But, the left wing members of the government had also lost significant support from their own side of the political spectrum. The socialists split into a group that held power in the government, and another that believed in a more militant approach, joining, despite fundamental differences in other areas, in agreement with other left-wing groups such as the Anarchist Party and the still minor Communist Party. The right-wing parties mostly abandoned the government, seeing it as a left-wing tool.

Over the next few months the violence continued to escalate. The far left did nothing to dampen the right's fears that a revolution was on the way, seeming unable or unwilling to control the growing extremism, leading Generals in the army to begin preparing a preventive coup. The government, essentially reduced to a group of ministers from the center-left, with token participation from some other groups on the left and right, was left holding the bag when the rebels, lead by a group of generals including Franco, began their coup on the 16th of July 1936. The government and the more militant left-wing parties formed what was at best an uneasy alliance against the rebel uprising; Thomas describes the feeling among the far left parties that it was important to set aside their differences and join together to first defeat fascism, before again focusing on the particular goals
of their party.

At this point it is helpful to clarify some names:
The side of the government in the Civil War was referred to as the 'republicans', in the sense of those who supported the republican form of government; they were also referred to as rojos (reds) by the right, to paint them as communists.
The side of the uprising was referred to as the 'nationalists' (nacionales, literally translated 'nationals', in Spanish), because they argued for a return to traditional Spanish values; Thomas also refers to them, particularly when discussing the period immediately after the uprising, as the 'rebels', in the sense that they were rebelling against the government.
At the moment of the start of the uprising the country split in two, in many senses. Geographically each side controlled roughly half the country, and the population; on each side were caught sympathizers of the opposite camp. The army also split, many of course joining the rebel generals, but some supporting the republican government, though even here Thomas points out that a few of those joined with the government out of expediency (having been on the wrong side of the line when the fighting started) were later revealed to be traitors, in either their explicit actions in support of the nationalists or by making the republican side's military effort less effective.

In terms of the two armies, the nationalists, with a majority of the pre-war Spanish army on their side also enjoyed an advantage in military tactics and discipline. Although the republican side had some effective military leaders, and some pre-war soldiers, the majority of the republican army was made up of armed civilians, with little or no experience. An interesting aspect of the war that Thomas points out is that, even with outside help, neither side had sufficient material resources to fight more than one major battle at a time. Thus most of the 'front lines' were made up of tiny, thinly spread defensive formations, with key areas (for example, cities such as Madrid) more heavily defended. One side would then mass its troops at a point on the front line where it wanted to attach, and the other side would gather to defend that spot.

Both sides had the participation of foreign troops on their side. For the nationalists it was especially Italian troops (Mussolini looking for glory for his military on Spanish soil) and German advisors and some soldiers (testing out equipment and military strategy such as the Blitzkrieg). For the republicans the famous International Brigades became a critical part of their army, with citizens from many western countries joining in the battle "to stop fascism."

In fact, a key role in the Spanish Civil war was played by foreign powers, and Thomas goes into particular detail about the Non-Intervention Committee, formed with an eye to develop a unified European response to the Civil War. It was made up of all the countries of Europe except Switzerland (due to the Swiss "code of Neutrality" (p.382)), but was most heavily influenced by England, France, Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. Thomas' description of the committee is damning, saying it "was to graduate from equivocation to hypocrisy, [and] was to last out the civil war." (p. 382). As he repeatedly documents, the Germans and Italians (under Hitler and Mussolini) used the committee to appear to be looking for a common solution to European involvement in the Spanish Civil War even as they continued to provide significant military support to the nationalists. Stalin and the Soviets did the same in support of the republicans. The English and French tried to use the committee to strengthen their ties with German and Italy in an early version of appeasement as they worried about the Spanish Civil War triggering a European-wide war, and about the spread of communism. The republicans for their part pleaded with the French and the British (and the US) for aid, largely unsuccessfully (with limited exceptions in the case of the French) and actually found themselves hoping that they could survive long enough to see the widely expected war against Fascism that would force the hand of the non-Fascist countries in coming to the aid of the republicans against the nationalists.

Also critical to the outcome of the war were the differing levels of coordination between the various supporting groups on the nationalist and republican side. On the nationalist side there were some divisions and conflicts among these groups, particularly between those who hoped to install a fascist government similar to Germany and Italy, and those who hoped for a return to the Monarchy. Franco, however, was able to quickly take over the leadership position about the group of generals in the leadership of the coup, and effectively subordinate both the generals and these conflicting political groups to his control. He held the Monarchy at bay, and used the fascist Falange party as a cover for his bid to become the supreme leader of Spain. On the left, despite the growing strength of the communists, there was no such consolidation; the anarchist, socialist and communists were constantly at odds, between one another and even internally, over issues of political, industrial and military policy.

As mentioned earlier, the Communist parties had little impact in Spanish politics before the start of the Civil War. It's expanding influence over both the government and the military in the Republic during the war was a direct result of the delivery of significant military aid and numbers of military advisors to the Republic by Stalin, as he saw an opportunity to both fight the spread of fascism and establish a communist ally in Spain.  Thomas describes the role of the communist parties on the republican side in detail, showing it to have both positive and negative implications on the war effort.

Thomas argues that much of the growth of communist support was a result not of a simple attachment by Spaniards to traditional communist ideals: "... this was no ordinary communist party. If its propaganda harked back to the Russian revolution, its practice suited, and reflected the desires of, the small shopkeepers, farmers, taxi drivers, minor officials and junior officers who joined it between July and December 1936, without reading much Marx or knowing much of Russia, in the hope of finding protection against anarchism and lawlessness. The communists [in Spain] stood for a disciplined, left-of-Centre, bourgeois regime, capable of winning the war, with private industry limited by some nationalization, but not by collectivization, or workers' control. ... many army and air force officers, for technical [military] reasons, preferred the communists to the other parties and how, while some joined the party explicitly, many others looked on it with sympathy." (p. 629) Thus support of the communists was seen by many as the surest way to success in the war against the nationalists.

However, Thomas also describes how the internal bickering and outright fighting between the various parties (including the communists) involved in governing the Republic and populating the army distracted significantly from the war effort, both directly and through loss of morale. The Socialists had split into opposing groups with differing perspectives on whether to work with the Communists; the Anarchists were split into a group that supported working with the republican government (considering the first priority to be fighting the nationalists) and those who wanted to remain outside the government (considering any support with a central government and the military to be against Anarchist doctrine); and the Communists had split into a large group of Stalinists (strengthened by the critical support Stalin was providing for the war effort) who used their growing power to kill off the smaller, Marxist party members in Spain, in support of the similar persecution Stalin was engaged in inside the Soviet Union. In addition, the republican army itself faced similar divisions. It was made up of many brigades of citizen-soldiers, and some of these brigades were lead by and made up of people from particular parties, for example from the anarchist party or the communist party. Coordination between such units could sometimes be difficult, if a particular party and its associated brigades didn't agree with the miliary plans of another party and its brigades. Thus, there was on the republican side during the best of times an ongoing struggle to have a cooperative, common policy, and at the worst times a shooting war amongst themselves --- an internal Civil War --- in parallel with the Civil War against the nationalists.

Parts of Thomas' account are, of course, devoted to descriptions of the major battles of the war. It is a bit simplistic, but not completely unrealistic to summarize the fighting as an on-going string of nationalist victories, with an occasional set-back as the republicans at one point or another on the front push forward, with some initial success, that they were however unable to capitalize on. Figure 2 presents a sequence of 6 maps from Thomas' book, showing the changing areas of control of the two sides during the war. Although the outcome of a nationalist victory was not foreordained when the uprising started in 1936, the more limited support the republicans received, the lack of unity in their political and military leadership and citizenry and their lack of military experience at all levels gradually became too much to overcome. After two and a half years of terrible bloodshed, fighting battles in blistering heat and bitter cold, the collapse finally came suddenly in the early months of 1939, and on 31 March 1939, the Civil War ended.

Late July 1936

August 1936

March 1937

October 1937

July 1938

February 1939
Figure 2: Division of Spain during the Civil War (July 1936 to March 1939)

(Republican areas in white; Nationalist areas in grey)

Over a thousand pages, Hugh Thomas presents a detailed description and analysis of the years leading up to the Civil War as the government of the Second Republic lost its control of the situation in Spain, and of the conduct of the Civil War itself, including the involvement of the European powers. Overall Thomas seems to take an even-handed approach in his account, presenting the good, the bad and the ugly that occurred on both sides of the Civil War, as well as among the groups on each side that were supposedly fighting together but at times were also fighting complex and bitter internal battles. He does not hesitate to make plain the impact of events, and condemn actions that he finds morally or ethically wrong, but his conclusions seem justified by the ample facts he provides in making them. In what may be an indication of the cold war environment of the late 1950's in which the book was written, and reflection of the documented terror of Stalin's regime, Thomas does make the occasional disparaging remark about communism and communists, for example, in his comment that, though a group of Socialists "remained at one with the communists on some issues ... their friendship began to slacken, as friendships with communists often do." (p. 667) But, given what so many others have written on Stalin's regime (see, for example, Unforgiving Years, by Victor Serge), it is hard to find fault with the implications in such remarks.

The variety of prominent political parties during the Second Republic, and what seems like musical chairs in the positions of the Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers, can make the details of the history sometimes a challenge to keep straight. However, the pay-off to the reader is a deeper understanding of this critical period in Spanish history, and ultimately of Spain today --- where prejudices and hatred that arose from the war can still burn in places, under the surface.

Other reviews / information:
A socialist take on the role the Anarchists played in the Second Republic and the civil war in the International Socialist Review

A Basque view of Thomas' book and the Basque role in the Spanish Civil War at Buber's Basque Page

An essay on the reasons for and affect of British non-intervention in the Spanish Civil war by Louise Sian Phillips (Swansea College, Wales, UK)

Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For more reviews of books on Spain and its history, click a link to my bookshelf of:
Spain and Spanish History

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

No comments:

Post a Comment