Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

This is a book review of "The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" By Anthony Beevor. (This is my first shot at doing a book review so feel free to tell me if I do a horrible job or not I'd also like to hear how I could better review a book.)

For a book that has 432 pages of reading material the book has many ups and downs. During some parts of the book it is impossible to put the book down. Other parts get kind of dull and can be confusing at times.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the very beginning, Anthony Beevor (AB) does a great job of laying the political, class and economic landscape to show how events led up to the seeming inevitable chaos that would become the Spanish Civil War. By listening to the drawn out constant arguing between leftist, many factors of the war are left out and AB does a good job of filling many of these gaps.

The book is overall very informative and mainly un-biased despite a few comments which are baseless and pure attacks on communist, and later in the book he also starts calling the nationalist "brave" and things of that nature. Funny considering the Italian's practically won the war for the Falangist. But for example the author writes that while the fascist killed many people: "....if the Republic would have won , how many would have been executed and might have died in their camps? As several historians have pointed out, the winner of a civil war always kills more than the losers. Everything would have depended on the Republican regime which would have emerged. If it had been a communist regime, then to judge by other communist dictatorships, it would have been very high because of the paranoid nature of the system"(page 405-406)(1)

This is strange to me since in the book he says that around 200,000 people were killed and executed during and after the war by the fascist(page 94) he goes on to quote nationalist General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano as saying to the Republican forces: "on my word of honor as a gentleman that for every person that you kill, we will kill at least ten."(page94) And to prove a point further about how no one probably would have killed as many people as the Fascist Falangist did, again on page 94 he quotes Franco as saying when asked if he forgave his enemies: "I have none. I have had them all shot."

One thing the book confirmed for me is that the anarchist were not the angels that the modern day anarcho's paint them as. This is not to say that they were evil but the picture most anarcho's paint is that in the anarchist controlled areas that everyone was free and that it was pretty much a Utopia of classless freedom. This book is more realistic painting the CNT as a multi-tendency which at times acted childish not wanting to work with communist and republicans and at other times the CNT and UGT were the only organizations that were standing up for the poorer classes. I never knew that the CNT was a union that had both reformist and revolution Anarchist in its ranks. Untill reading this book I never realized how small of a roll the FAI actually played in the war as I thought the CNT and FAI had the same amount of influence.

It is strange how the anarcho CNT seem to support the republican one month then switch the next month. On one occasion Caballero invited the anarchist to form a government with out the communist and the anarchist refused. Not to mention that a anarcho leader was quoted as saying: ".....there is a foreign ambassador in Madrid who is interfering in Spanish affairs. We warn him that Spanish affairs only concern the Spanish."(all info on page 146) This is a lovely display of internationalism if you ask me (not). Not to mention that ambassador was the one helping to arm the different armies and militias. The book points out many times how without USSR weapons and ammunition, aircraft and artillery that the civil war could not have lasted three years.

In fact in one case some CNT members arrested both communist and CNT members for simply fleeing Madrid to escape death AKA for retreating. I think this display helps show that even libertarian socialist, anarchos etc can be authoritarian. They eventually release the soldiers on persuasion of the CNT national council. (page 171) But not to play one side of the field it should be said that the communist were more so authoritarian and made many useless arrest and some crazy generals would kill their soldiers for little or no reason.

But I don't mean this to demonize the Anarchist CNT as they did give an invaluable sacrifice against the nationalist/religious/fascist movement. At times even giving up their own wants and needs to better combat the fascist, something the POUM was not capable of doing. In-fact the book points out how even the POUM was getting weapons from the USSR until the POUM started critiquing the CNT/Communist party and the USSR.

History, as time has gone on has painted the POUM incorrectly and I think that AB does a good job of clearing this up. Most Trots and Stalinist claim that the POUM was a Trotskyist organization. However the author correctly points out many times how this was just assumed as time went on even though there is no basis for this other than the fact that the USSR called them "trotskyist fascist" and the leader of the POUM (Andres Nin) used to be good friends with Trotsky himself.

The book states many sources for how Nin had broken with Trotsky and how Trotsky and his fourth international criticized the POUM many times. Including how Trotsky himself repudiated his former colleague in furious articles. The fourth international attacked the POUM personally for joining the popular front in the elections to beat the Carlist, royalist and the nationalist.(page 262) But as time went on in the civil war the POUM was still discredited and attacked by both the fourth international and Stalinist alike until it was suppressed and its leaders arrested by the republican government. (page270)

Now I want to bring up Stalin in this civil war, I have heard him be single-handedly blamed for the lost of the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact that the USSR was very poor and had little to give in weaponry at the time. The book goes to great lengths to explain how Stalin and his people in Spain had very different ideas for Spain. In-fact many Russians who served in Spain got executed for their actions in Spain.

Stalin was afraid to enter into the Spanish Civil War because he thought that Hitler would see this as a time of USSR weakness and that his nation would be attacked. But at the chance of proving Trotsky wrong (Trotsky wrote an article attacking Stalin for not intervening in Spain) he decided to send supplies to Spain. But it was the Russian workers who saved the day, forming up discussion councils and giving donations to help fund the supplies to Spanish militias to fight the fascist.(page 139)

Stalin said to his advisers going to Spain: "....Always remember that, in spite of the great solidarity which now exist between the Spanish people and the people of the USSR, a Soviet specialist, being a foreigner in Spain, can be really only useful if he stays strictly within the limits of an adviser and an adviser only." (page 256) He goes on to quote Stalin on page 257 that Spain should become a democracy.

The book makes it seems as though Stalin wanted one thing for Spain; a democracy and self-determination while his advisers and Comintern members wanted one thing; a communist ruled Spain.

One reoccurring theme through out the book is that AB says how the USSR and the Spanish Communist Party was paranoid of nationalist and fascist infiltration. And how they were practically crazy for being so paranoid about this "fifth column". Only to later in the book to go on to confirm that there was many fascist, nationalist and loyalist infiltrators into the republican army. (page 388, 390, 391)

The book overall is informative with a very in depth history leading up to the events of 1936. But the book is well written in some areas and in other parts the book is very poorly written. If you have a hard time concentrating then this book may not be for you. It jumps around dates and events that at times seems like a bi-polar kid hyped up on red bull. It is very hard to follow is what I am saying. AB jumps from date to date so fast and often that some times you have to re-read multiple pages to reassure yourself that you know what is going on.

The battle chapters (where he describes the battles and gives the layouts of the battles) are horribly written, unless you are an expert in Spanish geography you will mainly have no clue what is going on. There are no good maps in the book to really help you know where he is talking about. Only a few maps of battles and one map of Spain that labels the capitals are the maps you get, making it hard to know what and where he is talking about in many battles. However if you are an expert in Spanish geography then I'm sure you will love his descriptions of battles. He does give deep details of the battles to his credit.

Let me say that one thing that had me angry is the ending to this book. This is not structured or sold as an opinion book but as a history book. So there is no real need for a good ending or conclusion. The last sentence of this book reads: "Conclusions are much too convenient." So is laziness, there is a conclusion; The Republicans, Communist, Socialist, Anarchist and Independence movement's couldn't stop fighting among themselves long enough to fight the right wing forces. The nationalist, fascist, royalist/carlist Italian and German coalition forces won, the Falangist consolidated power, killed almost a quarter million people and denounced both Fascist Italy and Germany when it was obvious they were going to lose their wars. The Falangist ruled with an iron fist until the 70's. The conclusion isn't hard to come up with.

Overall I would give this book a five out of ten.

(1) Which Historians say this? And can one in a history book really claim that the winning side ALWAYS kills more? Not to mention the statement about communist is completely biased and a baseless claim almost as to humanize the fascist regime by saying 'well the communist would have been worse'

Written by: Dustin Slagle


  1. I highly recommend Ronald Fraser's "Blood of Spain" if you can find a copy. It's a kind of an oral history with tons of testimony taken from participants from nearly every faction.

  2. I read this book some years ago, I totally agree with your comments, hard going at times but good in places. As far as the quality of your review goes, very good, keep it up. I have heard comrades really slate this book because it criticises communists. Your review however was much more balanced, I look forward to more of the same. Keep up the good work comrade.

  3. Thank you for your comments, I will put Blood of Spain on my long and growing "to read list."

    Thank you for the complement Bloodwulf I was actually afraid to venture out into doing book reviews for the blog. This is the first review I had ever done and was nervous that readers wouldn't care or would hate it. Glad someone liked it!