The Battle for Spain, Anthony Beevor

Summary (from a well known online reseller)

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak, Antony Beevor has written a completely updated and revised account of one of the most bitter and hard-fought wars of the twentieth century. With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war-its causes, course, and consequences.

 

Summary if I had written it

A thorough study of the Spanish Civil War, destroying any pre-conceived romantic ideas you may have held on the topic.

 

Review

The Spanish Civil War is the poor cousin of our history classes. Stuck between the Great Depression and World War II, it is usually summarized in a few words, along the lines of « fascist uprising against a left-wing government; training ground for German and Italian weapons » and illustrated with either Picasso’s Guernica or Capa’s Fallen soldier.

I had of course heard of the International Brigades, but saw them as thousands of « gallant young democrats » joining an international crusade against fascism. I was vaguely aware of the presence of an anarchist movement but had no idea of its strength. And finally, I only became aware of the extent of communist control over the loyalist/Republican troops when reading Capa’s biography and his misgivings about it.

Beevor’s account is very detailed, a bit too much for my taste when it comes to battles description, and all aspects of the war are covered.

Quite a few of my illusions were shattered in the process:

  • international brigades men were not allowed to leave Spain,
  • anarchists were probably the most democratic of all the loyalist parties,
  • Republican forces did not lose just because the insurgents were helped by Germany but also because their commanding officers were useless,
  • the number of deaths is on a scale I had not even imagined.

The book is also very useful to understand current affairs, in particular Catalan and Basque nationalism. Without knowing what these regions suffered, it is hard to understand why they are so vocal about their particularism.

The (in)action of foreign countries is well-explained. The short-sightedness of Britain, also well-known, remains baffling. And although it is only the subject of a few paragraphs, the behavior of France towards the Republican prisoners is sickening. It is a strange feeling to discover that the little village where I spent my first summer holidays held a prisoner camps in 1939. Of course, this treatment of war refugees also has strange echoes nowadays. Looks like French welcome culture is as strong now as it was then.

Although frankly indigent at times, it is a very interesting study and I would recommend it to anyone with a fondness for military history. But maybe, Orwell’s Hommage to Catalonia would have been an easier read.

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