August 2017        

Review

An unbalanced history of the Spanish war

Alex Homits

Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936–39 (2006).

Antony Beevor’s book on the war in Spain is an excellent starter guide for those with little to no knowledge of the general history of what led up to the war, the main actors, and the consequences. The book has great photographic references and a plethora of follow-up material for exploring in the index. For this it is commendable.
      The author attempts to present the Spanish Civil War as impartially as possible, but unfortunately he cannot hide his disdain or bias against communism and the USSR.
      The book begins by laying the foundations of the unstable and uneasy formation of a republican government and a transition to a parliamentary democracy. As can be imagined, this was a turbulent process. The ideas of nationalism, fascism and monarchism were still very prominent both in a European context and in Spain. At this time, two years before the outbreak of the fascist coup, the very liberal social-democratic government attempted basic agrarian land reform. The propaganda that the fascists, and also the Catholic Church hierarchy, spewed out was vicious. Violence instigated by the ruling class attempted to roll back some of the reforms, especially in areas where there was no desire to part with land and hand it over to poor peasants.
      We see how the forces of the right mobilised around a conservative, aristocratic concept of a pure Christian Spain and began to plot in secret among most strata of society. Simultaneously we see the UGT (the communist trade union) and the CNT (the anarchist trade union) mobilise their own workers and put forward militaristic rhetoric: they will defend the gains that this moderate move has made. The government collapsed and the right triumphed in the following elections; immediately they began to roll back the minuscule social gains.
      The trade unions began a slow and steady fight back through strikes. Similar to the events unfolding in Venezuela, assassinations of prominent trade unionists began to occur. Tit-for-tat confrontation all over Spain began to become more frequent; the new right-wing government had to act.
      It drafted legislation in late 1935 for the parliament that they believed would benefit them. To summarise, the legislation made political coalitions dominate the creation of government, even if their win was by the slimmest margin possible. What ensued was the complete polarisation of society, leading up to the 1936 election. Because of the legislation introduced, the parliament now favoured coalitions rather than individual parties, and what occurred from then onwards was the development of a polarised left-right divide.
      The election campaign was marked by an increase in militant rhetoric. Beevor states that both sides decided in effect that neither would recognise the outcome if it went against them. In this case he attempts to equalise the two sides, as if they are two sides of the same coin and equally guilty. This is fundamentally how Western historians distort history.
      Beevor attempts to paint the republican forces and fascist forces as the same, despite their being qualitatively different from each other in every single way. The republican forces stood for egalitarian values and progressive ideas, including the separation of church and state as well as comprehensive agrarian reform.
      Beevor is tries to demonise the USSR throughout the book and lay the blame for the fall of the Republic on the shoulders of the USSR, Stalin, and the Communist Party of Spain. For anybody well read on the subject this comes across as massively confusing and ultimately dishonest. It is especially dishonest when the author refers to the role of the Western powers in providing aid for Franco and the nationalists, as well as the huge role the Nazi and fascist governments of Germany and Italy played in technical support and also physical support on the ground.
      To conclude, the author provides a generally good overview of the Spanish Civil War. Fundamentally, however, the general thrust of this book is a narrative where there are in effect no objectively established progressive forces and everybody is painted as being guilty. This is highly typical in Western historiography. History is presented without context, and the hegemonic conceptualisations of socialism that exist in the West continue to be regurgitated.
      I would recommend reading this book after the reader has already familiarised themselves with the detail of the Spanish Civil War but would not promote it is as an introduction, as it actively distorts history.

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