What I've been reading
It took me a long time to read this book, not because it was bad, but because I had just zipped through a bunch of shorter and, frankly, less challenging books and I needed to get back into full-on historical reading mode. Plus, we went to Disneyland for a week, so I didn't do much reading. But I finally got through it, and while I didn't love it, Beevor does a nice job sorting through the morass that was the Spanish Civil War.
Most of us, I would surmise, don't know much about the war. We know about the bad guys (the fascists, who should be more correctly called the nationalists), the good guys (the republicans), the fact that the Nazis used is as a training ground for their weapons, that Pablo Picasso painted a masterpiece depicting the destruction of Guernica, and that many literary luminaries, such as Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, fought or worked for the republican side. That is, if we even know that. I knew all that but not much else, so I figured it was time to learn more!
Beevor is certainly exhaustive in his research. This book was originally published in 1982, but years later, Beevor went back, looked at newly available archives, and reworked the book. It's an extremely thorough examination of the war, which is nice to see. Beevor doesn't focus on one side over the other, as he does a fine job getting inside both the nationalist and republican governments. He goes back to the nineteenth century to explain the context of the sides, especially the Carlists, who traced their origins back to the 1830s. He spends as much time with the society and culture of the opposing sides as he does with the actual war, which helps us understand why the nationalists were able to triumph beyond just the fact that they were militarily superior to the republicans. The nationalists probably would have won the war anyway, but Beevor does a good job showing that the republican government didn't do their fighting forces any favors.
Beevor's sympathy lies with the republicans, but what's nice about the book is that he never shies from showing the dark side of the Spanish democracy. It's easy to believe the atrocities committed by the nationalists - we're conditioned to believe that about fascists, after all, and General Franco was allied with Hitler, after all - but Beevor does a good job delving into the terror perpetuated by the republican side. The republicans were an odd melange of communists, anarchists, Marxists, and Basque and Catalan separatists, which were occasionally right-wing and therefore had more in common with the nationalists politically but didn't buy into their vision of a united Spain. The nationalists, of course, were a mix of monarchists (those who followed the traditional line of Alphonso XIII, and the Carlists, who wanted the cadet branch of the Bourbons to take over) and fascists (the Falangists), but they had the advantage of Franco, a powerful personality who could bend them to his will, for instance in 1937, when he merged the Carlists and Falangists. Beevor makes it clear that the republicans were ill-equipped to deal with the war, mainly because they had no one like Franco who could take over. As the war progressed, they committed several atrocities against nationalists caught in the republican zone, while the communists gradually took over and purged the government of anyone who disagreed with their ideology. Despite his sympathy with the republican side, Beevor still manages to be even-handed when he discusses their crimes.
This may be because the republican side, as it became more and more communist, also became the obvious puppet of the Soviet Union. Throughout the book, it's clear that the biggest crime of the war was the way the Western powers ignored the plight of the republican side because of the irrational fear of the Soviets. Many of the high-ranking officials in France and Britain were even pro-Franco, despite fearing Hitler's Germany. Hitler, of course, sent in the Condor Legion to test various weaponry (it was the Condor Legion, mainly, that carpet-bombed Guernica), and although he wasn't particularly subtle about it, the British and French governments looked the other way. This was at the height of appeasement, of course, and the republicans happened to be involved in a war at precisely the wrong time. Franco was desperate to win the war before the greater European war erupted, not only because he'd lose the support of Hitler and Mussolini, who'd be pre-occupied elsewhere, but because he would be lumped in with the Axis powers and be a target of the Allies. As it turned out, he won the war with about six months to spare (although the outcome was known for about a year before it actually ended) and then, even after declaring neutrality in World War II, still assisted Hitler and drew no ire of the Allies. This legerdemain was one reason Franco managed to stay in power until 1975.
This is a difficult book to get through because of the large cast of characters and even political parties. It's fascinating, though, because of what a mess Spain was during these years. Beevor points out that communists foolishly engaged the nationalists in pitched battles simply for propaganda reasons, which weakened the republican government even more and hastened its demise. He also shows that Franco may have been a dictator, but that democracy in Spain was weak even under the republican coalition of the early 1930s, so who knows if it would have survived. Beevor wonders if Spain would have gone the way of Stalinist Russia had the republicans won, and he feels that Stalin's interest elsewhere during the 1940s might have mitigated that influence somewhat. The book shows that the Spanish Civil War, which seems simple on the surface, is much more about the common folk who suffered during it than the warring sides, neither of which were particularly good for the country. War always takes it toll on the non-participants. In the case of the Spanish Civil War, that seems more pertinent than in others. That's the tragedy of it - even if the "good guys" had won, the common people would have lost.