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BOOK REVIEW: "The Spanish Civil War" by Paul Preston

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BOOK REVIEW: The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (revised and expanded edition) by Paul Preston (W.W. Norton & Company) 2007

Even if you are not a history buff with a keen interest in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), it doesn’t take long in reading his book to realize that author/historian Paul Preston, who wrote the engaging book The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge seven-or-more years ago, is one where the author sides with the losing side, that of the leftist Spanish Republicans.

And while they fought valiantly against General Francisco Franco’s military coup over the existing Spanish government (the reformist Second Republic) by engaging in this three-year long civil war that shattered Spain and Spanish life, leaving a scar that is still healing over 70 years later. The vain, remorseless Franco often boasted that his victory over the “Reds” had been successful in part that it eliminated the legacy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and other symbols of modernity.

As Preston wrote: “To his dying day, Franco vengefully kept Spain divided between the victors and the vanquished of 1939. This benevolent father of his nation regarded the civil war as ‘the struggle of the Patria (the fatherland) against the anti-Patria’ and the defeated as the ‘canalla (scum) of the Jewish-Masonic-communist conspiracy.’ The view of Franco as a magnanimous patriot is difficult to reconcile with the psycho-pathological language used by Francoists to depict their left-wing compatriots as subhuman – dirty, filthy, stinking depraved scum, slime, whores and criminals. This language justified the need for ‘purification,’ a euphemism for the most sweeping, physical, economic and psychological repression.’”

And Franco and his foul Falangists were utterly ruthless is their campaign of terror of the Republican side, including forced exile, torture, execution, and economic and social humiliation of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards after the war ended in 1939 with a bitter Nationalist/fascist victory that had the intention of installing a highly authoritarian, Catholic dictatorship. – one that cost as many as 500,000 lives.

The horrors were especially terrible in Spain’s south. Women were often victims of torture, writes Preston. They were raped, heads were shaved, they were dragged behind mules, had castor oil shoved down their throats, beaten and murdered. Children and the elderly didn’t fare much better. And the men, particularly those who were armed or thought to be allied with the Republic in some way met violent and gruesome fates. 

For instance, Preston writes that the fascists – allied with the far-right Catholic Church, Spanish conservatives, fascist governments in Germany, Italy and Portugal and with American big-business interests – were obsessed with obliterating “reds” – often socialists, communists or anarchists – while strangely fascinated with what made them tick.

As an example, Preston writes: “The defeated were denounced as degenerate, their children were taken away and military psychiatrists carried out experiments on women prisoners in search of the ‘red gene.’”

The Vatican and Catholic Church saw the Spanish Republic and its supporters as the vanguard for the beginning of the end of Christianity and the beginning of atheism.

And when it came to international public opinion, Preston writes that most people in European countries like Great Britain were on the side of the Republicans and not the military rebels. In the U.S., we took a hands-off, isolationist approach, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt declaring that the U.S. would “scrupulously refrain from any interference whatsoever in the unfortunate Spanish situation.” It's sad that FDR took this stance. Of course, America's entrance into World War II a few years later would splinter any notion that the U.S. was isolationist.

But because of  international solidarity with the Spanish working class and those fighting the encroaching Nationalists and fascists, International Brigades (Brigadas Internacionales) were formed and went to Spain to fight for land and freedom, with 20,000 or more active at any given time in the country. The most famous brigade from the U.S. was the Abraham Lincoln Battalion.

Among supporters of the Spanish Republicans back home were George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Woody Guthrie and Pablo Picasso, whose famous Guernica (1937) is a painting of the horrors faced by the bombing of that town in northern Spain by fascist warplanes from Italy and Germany.

The scale of the atrocity (at Guernica) was compounded by subsequent efforts on parts of the Nationalists to deny any responsibility,” writes Preston.

“Volunteers from all over the world flocked to fight for the Republic. Some were out of work, others were adventurers, but the majority had a clear idea of why they had come: to fight fascism.”

And the Republic itself was made up of different groups that did not always work well togethers. You had the anarcho-syndicalist trade union CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo), the socialist youth movement JSU (Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas), the Trotskyist and anti-Stalinist bolshevik vanguard party POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) and PCE (Partido Comunista de Espana), as examples.

And while these groups of varying degrees of radicalism were unable to save the Republic and remove class distinctions from Spanish society, while make it fair and equitable for all, after Franco’s death in 1975 a civilized, democratic-socialist society emerged. One can imagine Franco screamed just a little bit louder from his well-deserved corner of hell upon learning the news.

Paul Preston's The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge is a terrific read and certainly shocking in parts, particularly regarding the the brutality of the Francoist fascists. I would have liked more in-depth examples of specific battles, particularly leading up to Franco's entry into Madrid, which was the final step in his takeover of the Spanish government. What there isn't a shortage of is the human toll, lives lost and misery increased. Grim statistics, indeed.

And while not a completist book of just under 400 pages, it is a great introduction and overview of this civil war, long ago, which captured the imagination of the world with its tales of horror and idealism. 

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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