Keywords: History, Spain, fascism, anarchism

Title: The Battle For Spain

Author: Anthony Beevor

Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

ISBN: 0297848321


The Spanish civil war retains a mythic, romantic status that shows no signs of abating. It is seen by many in simplistic terms as a just war, a war between good and bad, between the forces of fascism and anti-fascism. On the one side there are the forces of the Republic, representing all that is good, and on the other the forces of General Franco and his fascist supporters Hitler and Mussolini. The truth is, inevitably, a good deal more complex, with little room for the romantic notions that have long been nurtured by those on the Left.

Those still harbouring illusions about the war will find that Anthony Beevor's 'Battle for Spain' is a hard book to read. His clear and dispassionate writing unmasks the brutal facts that were deliberately obscured both by apologists for the Communists and supporters of Franco at the other end of the political spectrum. The picture that emerges from this book is far murkier, more depressing and less amenable to simple-minded mythologising.

Beevor paints a vivid picture of the situation in Spain leading up to the outbreak of the civil war. Poverty-stricken, backward and with a long history of political struggle, Spain was characterised by violent social struggles that had been put down with varying degrees of viciousness by the Catholic-dominated state. While largely agrarian, Spain also had a militant and engaged working class organised into effective and powerful trades unions, particularly the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and the socialist-led UGT.

The victory of the Left in the general elections of 1936 led directly to a revolt of the army, led by a number of senior officers including General Francisco Franco. Beevor outlines the progress of the uprising, charting both how Franco succeeded in becoming the undisputed leader of the forces of the Right (Catholic, Nationalist, Monarchist and Fascist), and how they out-manoeuvred and defeated their Republic enemies.

Beevor devotes as much detail and attention on the Republican side as he does with the Nationalists. In particular he is explicit in describing the duplicitous, unprincipled and despicable behaviour of the Communist Party and the Comintern agents that Stalin despatched to Spain. At first the Communists adopted an explicitly counter-revolutionary line, appealing to the middle classes terrified of the militant working classes led largely by the anarchists in the CNT and FAI. For the communists the most important thing was to take control of the government - it was the prime aim, far more important than defeating Franco and far more important than the revolutionary activities of the CNT, and other's on the left, such as the independent Marxists of the POUM.

The bloody activities of the communists against the ranks of their opponents in the Republic are described in some detail. Even with their own forces the communists showed a brutality that Stalin would have been proud of. Those poor souls who had joined the International Brigades as an escape from German or Italian fascism where treated as utterly disposable cannon-fodder. For those on the left who still regard the Spanish civil war as a shining moment in history the truth is a bitter drink to taste.

Much of what Beevor has to say has been repeated many times before by anarchists and their sympathisers, such as George Orwell in his eye-witness account 'Homage To Catalonia'. But Beevor is not a starry-eyed idealist, he describes the confusion in the ranks of the anarchists as they struggled to reconcile their anti-state politics and the complex reality of the situation. That the communists exploited this weakness is only one part of it, the fact is that the anarchists felt unable to seize control of the state when given the opportunity.

Although the complex politics within the Republic are an important element of the book, Beevor also describes the progress of the war itself. He shows both the ineptitude of the Nationalists, who depended to a large extent on Hitler's Condor Legion, and also the deficiencies in the Republican ranks. And he does not shy away from describing the atrocities committed on both sides. However, it is also made clear that Franco's forces murdered thousands following their victory.

The Spanish civil war was a long, complex and bloody war. Beevor manages to navigate the maze of personalities, parties and factions, providing a narrative that has the ring of truth about it. He has performed a service in providing a non-partisan reading of history that manages to dispel those comfortable illusions that many still cling to.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published September 18 2006