Book notes: The Spanish Civil War

This is part three in a project to review/respond to one book per week. By and large it will only include books I am reading or have read recently enough that they’re still stacked in a currently-reading-pile. Everything will be high level, mostly first impression, and hastily written.

This week’s book: Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War.

I’ve been reading this book in bits and pieces for over a year now. Most of my knowledge of the war previously came from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia which I think I read the first time under my desk in high school (it was Spanish class, after all).

After reading The Anatomy of a Momemnt about the 1981 Spanish coup attempt I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Thomas’s account is rich in details which on their own are unimportant but bound together paint an interesting if terrifying picture of the war. The war not just in battles and troop movements, but in political shifts years prior, movements, policy reforms, cultural divides, and a combination of intractable political divisions and unstoppable momentum.

Deep divisions and long simmering discontent

It seems obvious to remark but the civil war between Franco’s fascists on the one side and a motley mix of republicans, anarchists, socialists, communists, and never-Francos on the other was born of social, political, and economic divisions that had strained the country for years. It’s so easy from afar, both geographically and temporally to see just the major events and then draw pat conclusions.

Elements of the left had been trying to implement major reforms which, given the state of Spanish society at the time represented major changes. Removing control of the schools from the Catholic church, land reform, labor reforms. The church was not viewed favorably by significant swaths of the population, and it exercised significant power. We’re talking deep resentment at being locked out of economic and political power opposed not just by land owners but the religious leaders. It’s not terribly surprising that churches were looted and burned when the war broke out (actually before hand, too, as I recall).

It’s not so much that there were divisions and disagreement, but that these divisions were or were cast as so diametrically opposed that coordination and compromise “across the aisle” were never options.

Disorganized opposition

The Spanish left of the 1930’s sounds like the American left of today, or even all recent memory, in so far as it’s defined by sharp divisions and infighting.

The anarchists didn’t trust the socialists, nor did the communists, and nobody trusted the communists. The socialists had elected seats, the anarchists had real momentum, but the communists had the resources thanks to Uncle Joe. None of them thought highly of the non-leftist republicans and what might have been a powerful majority, or least plurality, had to stand separated against a forcefully unified right (by comparison).

Outside intervention

I knew from Orwell’s account that there was international involvement in the civil war. Orwell served in the international brigade of the POUM afterall, however briefly. But the scope and scale of international involvement, and uninvolvement, reads like a description of any major conflict today (e.g. Syria).

Nobody wanted a major war to spread beyond Spain’s frontier’s, so officially no material support for either side was agreed by the major powers.