Wednesday, August 20, 2008

08.18 The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (1982) by Antony Beevor
Pbk, Phoenix, 479 p.

I love reading military history and when I saw that Beevor's Spanish Civil War book had been reissued I knew I wanted to read it. I have always wanted to find out more about this period of history and I'd read Beevor's Staligrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945, both incredibly well written books.

It is, of course, an immense task trying to place an entire country's war in a single book. His other histories were much more focused either on a single battle or a single year. The Spanish Civil War took place during a period of immense geopolitical consequence especially within Europe. In the Soviet Union this was a period of industrialization and collectivization in addition to the Great Purge being carried out by Stalin. Germany and Italy were on the rise and beginning to flex their muscles within Europe and Africa. The US and the UK were both coming out of difficult economic times and trying to find their place within the world.

The genesis of the Spanish War was very complex and Beevor takes his time to explain the historical context. In 1936 a tightly fought general election as won by a coalition of the left (socialists, trade unionists, communists and anarchists) leading to a rise in agitation by paramilitaries of the right. Something of a poorly planned and executed coup d'état then occurred by the military using The Spanish Army of Morocco. Although the opposition on the left was fairly fractured and unorganized they fought tenaciously and the country became divided into Red (left-Republican) and White (right-Nationalist) zones.

At this point some of the worst atrocities of the war occurred while each side purged their respective zones of influence. By some estimates a minimum of 37,843 executions were carried out in the Republican zone with a maximum of 150,000 executions (including 50,000 after the war) in Nationalist Spain. Initially, Franco was one of a number of Generals leading the coup. He quickly consolidated his power base unifying the various factions on the right and declaring himself Generalísimo and Caudillo ("chieftain").

The Republican zone covered the majority of the country and included the capital, Madrid. Support for the left came from Mexico (mainly food and oil) as well as the Soviet Union. There was also strong international support for the Republicans. Roughly 30,000 foreign nationals from possibly up to 53 nations fought in the various international brigades. These were mainly made up of people who were anti-fascist, communists or trade unionists. At the time popular support for the Republicans was strong in the US and England however both countries governments opted for the Nationalists. The US gave Franco trucks, oil and credit while the UK (along with France) forcibly embargoed arms shipments to the Republicans. The Soviets were really the only ones to strongly support the Republican cause. At the beginning of the war US$500 million in gold reserves was shipped to Moscow and many felt that the Soviets overcharged and shipped inferior armaments to the left.

On the Nationalist side there was no shortage of support whatsoever. Italy and Germany openly supported Franco and sent troops, aircraft, and weapons. German bombers and fighter planes dropped 16,953,700 kilos of bombs and expended 4,327,949 rounds of ammunition over the course of the war and were decisive in Franco's eventual victory. It is likely that the Nazis Spanish involvement was both as a testing ground for new techniques and weaponry as well as to distract Mussolini from Hitler's designs on Austria who were allied with Italy.

Ultimately Franco's victory in Spain was a result of a range of factors. The Republican government became increasingly controlled by the communists over the course of the war. Over and over again the army of the left fought poorly planned battles that were more for propaganda purposes than strategic ones. Troops were concentrated on meaningless targets and often infantry fell far behind tanks. In addition, the German air attacks were often unopposed resulting in massive casualties. In the end, these factors combined with the almost complete lack of resupply to the Republicans resulted in their defeat.

Beevor's book is masterful in his ability to give a broad overview of the Spanish Civil War. I found though that this wasn't the history that I was looking for. He alternated many chapters between some key battles and the political situation that was taking place on each side. I realize that he could not give a complete picture of the war without the politics but it became, at times, tedious. Still, I now have a solid foundation of knowledge on this important and tragic period of history.


Buzby said...

This book is a long standing member of my 'on deck' shelf, but it always loses out to some other book. Your detailed and elegant review makes me want to pick it up! Nice.

Olman Feelyus said...

That's just a great summary of the period. I'm pretty ignorant of it myself, so just this blog post was very helpful. Well done.

What is the history you were looking for? Something less political?

Lantzvillager said...

Based on the authors previous books I think I was looking for a more detailed look at how each side prosecuted the war. In the end he really only described 4 or 5 of the major battles. I realize now though that you cant separate the politics from the fighting in this period.