The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 [Review]

A different perspective

Review: Beevor has produced useful antidote to any rose-tinted view of Spain’s civil war

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939
By Antony Beevor
Phoenix Press £12.99

This is a cracking read and it is no surprise that themes of tragedy and irony dominate the story. After a brief and schematic introduction to the build-up to the military rebellion (a period better covered in Durruti: The People Armed by Abel Paz) Beevor plunges into the action.

Here his book serves as a useful corrective to some of the unbalanced accounts many anarchists would offer, which give the impression that Barcelona was typical of the whole of Spain. In fact it was a-typical in that the anarchists there had taken the precaution of arming themselves and making contact with sympathetic people in the military who would be willing to resist the fascist uprising.

Consequently they were able in conjunction with other forces to stop it in its tracks, whereas elsewhere the military were either unopposed or hastily organised militias were unable to stand up to them once Franco’s Army of Africa had been transferred to the mainland.

Equally an attempt to forestall the rebellion by means of a peaceful general strike, as used in Zargoza, was brutally nipped in the bud by means of threats to shoot anyone failing to return to work.

Elsewhere those parts of Spain with strong regionalist forces, such as the Basque region and the Asturias rallied to the Republic – except where these took on a strongly reactionary hue such as in Navarre where Carlist forces joined the revolt.

This is one of Beevor’s strong points – he reveals the uneasy alliances that both sides went into the civil war with. These were coalitions inevitably became polarised once the centrist politicians failed to do anything to resolve the deep political, economic and social issues that were paralysing the country.

No single faction was anywhere near strong enough to impose its own solution, so the anarchists along with everyone else had to find partners to prevent them being destroyed by opposing forces, whilst trying to implement their own agenda. Needless to say the result was a whole series of compromises, which the Nationalists with their strong and ruthless leadership were better able to co-ordinate compared to the internecine battling on the Republican side.

In particular the “left” were hamstrung by Spain’s lack of indigenous resources – raw materials for industry, oil for transport, food for the people – which made them dependent on imports to be able to continue the war. The Nationalists had the support of both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany who willingly supplied arms and ammunition plus “volunteer” fighting men.

The left had to rely on the Mexican and Russian governments as other possible suppliers imposed a “non-intervention” blockade – which somehow failed to stop the importation of valuable supplies to the Nationalists. Some 12,000 trucks, 40,000 bombs and petroleum were all brought in by US firms,

which was as important as the weaponry supplied by Italy and Germany. The Republicans had to buy most of their weapons from Soviet Russia, which inevitably came at a terrible political price with the previously inconsequential Spanish Communist Party catapulted into a position of political power.

The party used their new found clout to sideline and victimise those to the left of them such as the anarchists and the POUM, whilst ensuring the International brigades and communist divisions got the bulk of the weapons. This meant they often suffered the bulk of the casualties as they were used to fight often militarily meaningless “propaganda” battles, and it allowed the party to suppress libertarian collectivisations.

Yet without the Soviet military equipment it is unlikely the republican forces would have been able to survive as long as they did, as the alternative sources of supply were private arms dealers who were only interested in the money. Hence they CNT often got sold third rate obsolete gear which proved of little value in the front line and served only to line the pockets of men such as Hermann Goring, who profited from selling arms to the republican forces at the same time as the Nazi Condor Legion was fighting them. Doubtless he felt that some worthwhile combat practice would do them and his bank balance some good. The irony of the CNT buying weapons from Nazi Germany need hardly be spelled out.

But then the Civil War was full of irony as far as the anarchists were concerned. Several leading anarchists accepted positions in governments, which they rationalised as being the price they had to pay to get the hands on the means of defending themselves (collectively) from the inevitable repercussions of a Nationalist victory. The pressure on this score was all too obvious as in areas where the military took power they imposed a savage repressive regime that saw thousands of political opponents rounded-up, jailed, tortured and shot. In view of this, one shouldn’t be surprised that many leftists were the first to volunteer to fight for the Nationalists as a way of saving their lives.

Not that everyone else in Spain was a willing soldier, whether it was a case of conscription, or being “volunteered” as some International Brigade members were to make up quotas, or even prisoners of war being used against their former colleagues. Equally desertion was a problem on both sides, with Civil Guard units nominally on the Republican side going over to the Nationalists, Italian conscripts sent by Mussolini deserting and joining Republican forces and so on.

That said there were also a great many willing volunteers to fight in Spain from anarchist and other anti-fascists determined to make stand against Fascism. There was a smaller number of fascist sympathisers too, such as 12,000 Portuguese volunteers and even 600 Irish Blueshirts led by Eoin O’Duffy (apparently these were withdrawn after only one action when they were attacked by their own side!) Equally there were many native Spaniards determined to settle matters one way or another with tens of thousands of union members – CNT and UGT – wanting to take up arms (many of whom had to be turned away due to lack of weapons) whilst the Nationalists had thousands of Falangists and Carlists eager to fight against their enemies.

Whilst reading the book, which chronicles the slow and inexorable advance of the nationalists to their final victory, one is continually wrestling with the dilemmas faced by the anarchists in the struggle and trying to work out how they might have done things differently.

Were the compromises with political principles worth the end result, could they have fought the war differently (but how would they have got the necessary supplies?) and so forth.

What is abundantly clear is that the CNTFAI were never in a position to take control of the situation and impose their own solution to it. Their attempts at setting up a libertarian communist society in the midst of a civil war met with much success in certain parts of the country, but could never be implemented in others. Self-management of factories and services proved viable, but without the necessary resources no such economy will survive, especially if it is surrounded by hostile forces.

One can also say that it is equally absurd to lay the blame on the CNT for the situation that developed in Barcelona during 1938-39 where food became scarce due to lack of imports and loss of key agricultural land in Aragon, and industry was at a standstill for lack of power.

Once one can see the bigger picture much of what happened makes much more sense. And it is this bigger picture that makes the book so valuable for those wanting a balanced view of the situation that the anarchists faced in Spain. Balanced because it situates them in the proper context, something many of the propagandist works fail to do, which somehow almost regard the war fighting as incidental.

The final question I suspect is: was the war winnable, could the social revolution have succeeded?

The intervention of foreign powers was decisive in what could have been a short-lived struggle - there wasn’t that much ammunition in the country to fight a prolonged war.

Without the aid from Germany and Italy it is unlikely the nationalist forces could have won the war, but equally without the Russian aid the Republicans could not have won either. Without that intervention maybe Spain would have continued in an unstable and conflicted way with localised expropriations and repressions.

It is ironic that the social revolution required a military uprising to trigger it off (although land collectivisation had been occurring in the early months of 1936 after the left’s victory in the elections).

One takes as axiomatic that societies can run successfully in a self-managed manner, but would they have been able to survive in the face of a hostile world?

Well I’ll leave the reader to ponder on those questions. This book is a well-written and well-informed read. There is only so much one can cram into a book and doubtless people will have wished for greater coverage of various aspects which hardly get a mention here. But as an overall picture of the Civil War it is as good as it gets.

Richard Alexander

From: Black Flag 230 pp34-35 .