JANUARY SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Boadilla’ by Esmond Romilly

In 1936 Esmond Romilly, nephew of Great Britain’s ‘War Chancellor’ Winston Churchill and outspoken pacifist, went to fight with the International Brigades for the democratically elected Spanish government against the insurgent fascist general Francisco Franco. This is the unheroic, unsentimental account he wrote immediately after the fighting, fresh and personal like no other, spiced with dry English humor.

There have been other records of the part played by the British members of the International Brigade at the siege of Madrid. But Mr. Romilly’s is the most full. He is one of the two survivors of the original ten British volunteers attached to the Thaelmann Battalion in the early days of the war. So his book has its place in the annals of the contemporary struggle for liberty. He writes easily and simply. There are occasional breaths of Hemingway, but in the later chapters especially he displays a detached casualness—unusual in so young a writer (Mr. Romilly is nineteen)—that is genuinely dramatic and moving. Without heroics he conveys the feelings of those untrained enthusiasts (the author’s military experience was confined to refusing to join his school O.T.C.) suddenly plunged into a battle fought apparently at random. Caught between a cross-fire, the little group was almost wiped out. Their bodies were never found.

cover art and blurb via amazon and spectator

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As mentioned a few weeks in ago in This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 25: 1 -7 January 1937, the battles for Corunna Road and the fight to take the town of Boadilla del Monte, just outside Madrid, were chronicled by 19-year-old English volunteer Esmond Romilly.

The book starts off by promising to account the battle of Boadilla in a straight-forward fashion, as that it does. It tells a very simple story of what happened, all written while fresh in the author’s mind in 1937, as he holidays on honeymoon in France. Romilly came from a rich family, married in another rich family, but for a few months in late 1936 and early 1937, he fought to make ‘Madrid the grave of fascism.’ He had little stamina for the war, but he was an excellent example of unprepared men thrown into a poorly planned battle, so typical of volunteers in Spain.

The book starts with a background of all the main characters that Romilly met on the trip – Joe Gough, Harry Audley, Aussie Whateley, Jerry Fontana, Lorimer Birch, Arnold Jeans, Bill Scott, Tom Mann and Martin Messer. It seems in this short time, Romilly got to know these men very well. After the battle to claim Boadilla, he would go home alone.

The early chapters show him working to get by in France as he makes his way south, arriving in Spain by ship at Valencia. The Albacete training bases had been set up by this time. Romilly describes this as playing at soldiers. He had no idea how to use a rifle, couldn’t speak any Spanish and was constantly suffering dysentery. He met many Germans, Latvians and French men, as well as his fellow Englishmen, and the story tells of the usual difficulties marching with supplies and being hot, of the whole thing having a ‘field day’ atmosphere while away from the front. Romilly has given some people assumed names, most those who were German or went to Germany after the war (it was illegal for Germans to aid the Republicans. Those returning home were jailed).

One thing that stood out was Romilly being told by French communist André Marty that the Republicans needed three things to win the war – political unity, military leaders with experience, and discipline. They had none of these.

Romilly uses assumed names for the towns of his initial battles. Battle starts in chapter 5 when out of nowhere, Romilly finds himself under fire, his first reality in the civil war just south of Madrid. As soon as they hit the front at ‘Noreno’, Romilly gets lost under darkness, and ends up walking miles the wrong way, meeting up with others, and eventually making their way to ‘Melilla’ (thought to be Villaconejos. No one know why Romilly changed the town names). Though as dawn air raids strike, the men are lucky to have gotten lost and in the wrong town.

Romilly seems to run around, never really having a clue what is going on, where they are heading or what to do. Dysentery is the one thing everyone shares, and the bitter cold of being up on the plain around Madrid really hits home, with only those prepped by anarchists in Barcelona are ready for it, as the rest of the Thaelmann Battalion have to struggle on.

The battalion team up with the Garibaldi battalion and thrown into fighting in University City on the northern tip of Madrid. Romilly recalls seeing Moorish soldiers shooting into trenches were his comrades were, their bayonets slashing at those trapped but not killed. He details his time fighting in University City very well, saying the night smelled night ‘dead men, crackling flames and drizzle’.

Romilly soon is in Madrid at the Ritz, swirling brandy and bathing again. He gets eight days’ training in the town (now suburb) of Fuencarral north of Madrid, before heading back to Majadahonda, a village (now suburb) west of Madrid. Now the battles for Corunna Road and the surrounding towns are all on, and Romilly is sent to hold the tiny town of Boadilla. Under the air raids and against the well-prepped Nationalists, the whole battle falls into total chaos, of watching close friends die and running away in blind panic. One by one, as they retreat, Romilly’s friends are killed, not by the Moorish soldiers that anticipated, but by uniformed Spaniards.

Romilly is one of only a couple who survived Boadilla. He speaks of meeting English poet John Cornford along the way, another young Englishman, with his head bandaged. Cornford never made it out alive either. The few remaining living foreigners (just over a dozen volunteers from a combined Spanish and volunteer group of 15,000 at Corunna Road battles) made it to El Pardo (just outside Madrid) where they came to grips with the brutal losses.

Romilly was diagnosed with neuralgia, damaging nerves causing excessive pain, and was sent home, where he married Jessica Mitford, and then wrote the fresh accounts of the men left in the mud at Boadilla. Romilly went on to fight in WWII but died in 1941.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW NOVEMBER: ‘Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting’ by Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs was haunted by Velazquez’s enigmatic masterpiece Las Meninas from first encountering it in the Prado as a teenager. In Everything is Happening Jacobs searches for the ultimate significance of the painting by following the trails of associations from each individual character in the picture, as well as his own memories of and relationship to this extraordinary work. From Jacobs’ first trip to Spain, to the complex politics of Golden Age Madrid, to his meeting with the man who saved Las Meninas during the Spanish Civil war, via Jacobs’ experiences of the sunless world of the art history academy, Jacobs’ dissolves the barriers between the past and the present, the real and the illusory. Cut short by Jacobs’ death in 2014, and completed with an introduction and coda of great sensitivity and insight by his friend and fellow lover of art, the journalist Ed Vulliamy, this visionary, meditative and often very funny book is a passionate, personal manifesto for the liberation of how we look at painting.

Cover art and blurb via amazon

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Who doesn’t love a mystery? Especially one where the true answer may never be discovered. Author Michael Jacobs died in January 2014 from cancer at the age of 61. Jacobs was the type of Hispanist we all aspire to become. Everything Is Happening was not finished when he passed away and his friend Ed Vulliamy finished this book on his behalf.

Everything Is Happening is about the work of the great Diego Velázquez titled Las Meninas (Ladies in Waiting), painted 1656. The painting (see below if you are new) is what was supposed to be the artist painting the King and Queen, and instead they are only reflected in a mirror as the princess and her entourage are seen instead, along with the artist himself. The painting, widely recognised as one of the most analysed of all time with its unique perspectives, was to the author, the greatest piece of art ever painted.

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Diego Velázquez, 1656. Oil on canvas 318cm x 276cm

Jacobs first travelled from England to Spain 1968 and saw Las Meninas in Madrid first hand. In the dark days of Spain in the late sixties, Goya was one of the collections most often visited, yet Velázquez stole Jacobs’ heart. Nearly fifty years later, it is Las Meninas which has a long queue before it (trust me, I’ve been there twice. To be fair, Goya’s is still massive too). 

The painting is set in the artist’s studio in the Alcázar Palace in Madrid, to be a portrait of King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana of Austria. The painting instead shows young Infanta (Princess) Margaret Theresa, and her companions – her ladies-in-waiting, chaperone, bodyguards, dwarfs, and dog. Velázquez stands to the left as he paints.

It’s long been thought/assumed/theorised that the painting depicts what the King and Queen would have seen, rather than what the artist could see. But this book asks the questions of different perspectives – were the King and Queen ever there at all? Were they in another room, or looking from another angle? Was the artist simply looking in a mirror at himself and those who walked by?

The author of Everything Is Happening doesn’t agree with much of the analysis work done to Las Meninas, suggesting that the constant discussion of the work destroys much of the Velázquez mystery. The French 1966 analysis particularly gets criticism from Jacobs, who is angered by the view that the painting is merely ‘an audience looking a painting while the painter looks at the audience’. But from that opinion climbed to more intense and detailed opinions over the years, thus ruining the mystery. As a different take, Jacobs believed the painting is one that shows realistic children of the age, and of textures and colours that are completely authentic and lifelike.

Jacobs himself as about to enter the room where Las Meninas was originally hung when the books stops, his illness drawing this particular search to a close. But Ed Vulliamy, the book’s second author, assumed the book would have met Anthony Blunt, a tutor who taught Jacobs how to read paintings created during the reign of King Philip IV, Velázquez in particular.

Thanks to Vulliamy writing an introduction and an afterword on the book, despite the author’s demise, the book is one where suggestions and realism can work together to tell the story of Las Meninas. No need to be an art lover to understand and enjoy.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW OCTOBER: ‘Hell and Good Company’ by Richard Rhodes

This book skims the basics, which, in theory, should be good for newcomers. But with the omissions of this book, those new to the subject won’t get the full picture. Bonus point from me – New Zealand journalist Geoffrey Cox gets a mention, someone often missed. This book is suited to those looking for something specific, and in the style of the author. To enjoy, make sure that is you before you buy.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW SEPTEMBER: ‘­­¡No Pasarán! Writings from the Spanish Civil War’ by Pete Aryton

Hope, resignation, despair, sadness, humour, confusion, ruthlessness, compassion, kindness, generosity and love inhabit Pete Ayrton’s anthology of writings from the Spanish Civil War: there is little sense of certainty and still less of triumphalism among the bewilderingly diverse Republican and Nationalist coalitions, all shades of which are represented here. Previous collections privileged the writings of the International Brigades over those of the Spanish, sometimes excluding them altogether. ¡No Pasarán! corrects the balance: by far the largest contingent of its thirty-five writers are Spanish, including Luis Buñuel, Manuel Rivas, Javier Cercas, Arturo Barea, Joan Sales and Chaves Nogales. The remainder offer contrasting perspectives of participants in the conflict from America (among them John Dos Passos, Muriel Rukeyser and Langston Hughes); Italy (Curzio Malaparte and Leonardo Sciascia); France (Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux and others); Germany (Gustav Regler); Russia (Victor Serge); Great Britain (including Arthur Koestler, George Orwell and Laurie Lee); Cuba, Argentina and Mexico.

Pete Ayrton brings together hauntingly vivid stories from a bitterly fought war. This is powerful writing that allows the reader to witness life behind and at the front lines of both sides.

cover art and blurb via Amazon – released 2016

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¡No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War, is a selection of texts, mostly from Spanish writers, all brought together by Pete Aryton. The story of the SCW is so often told by foreign journalists and writers, and through the eyes of the International Brigades. This time it is a far more Spanish view of the war.

The book makes a strong start with Luis Buñuel with My Last Breath, which forms part of his autobiography. The chapter tells of when Franco arrives in Spain, when Buñuel was in Madrid. While Buñuel longed for revolution, the initial siege between Spaniards in Madrid is shocking for the artist. The book goes a long way to describe all the groups on the Republican side (Anarchists, Socialist, Communist, etc,) trying to come together to fight a far more organised enemy. Importantly, what the anarchists wanted for Spain – their own utopia-like society is explained and discussed. Buñuel is one, if not the best, voice in the book and the one who explains the war the best, from the beginning, and from the ideas of multiple sides.

A great piece of writing is that of Dulce Chacón. Her chapter -The Missing Toe’, part of her novel The Sleeping Voice, is about a female prison, Prisión de Ventas in Madrid. The prison is run by guards and nuns and is vicious place to be.

One advantage of this book is the voice of José María Gironella, who fought for Franco and was Catholic. This way, the destruction of churches and burning of priests can be explained from the religious-minded and the destruction (in this particular case) by Communists. The Republican crimes aren’t glossed over in this book.

One excellent read is a part from Forbidden Territory by  Juan Goytisolo. In a rich part of Barcelona, Franco supporters hide in wait for safety. The writer’s family themselves are affected and killed. While Barcelona during the war is so often centred on the controlling Anarchist/Republican factions, an insight to the enemy side is confronting and sad.

A portion taken from The Wall, by Jean Paul Sartre, is short but essential. Pablo Obbieta is a Nationalist prisoner, threatened with death unless he tells info to his captors. But as Nationalists never keep prisoners and leave only bodies, nothing can end well.

The eternal voice of Arturo Barea is naturally included, ‘The War is a Lesson’ from The Clash. It focuses on the portion where Barea needs to leave Madrid for his safety, though never wants to leave the besieged Madrid, the centre of the battle for his country.

This collection by Pete Aryton is an essential read. It not only beings together Spanish voices, it can also be a literal reading list of other writers to look for, voices often forgotten in SCW reading lists. Other notable voices included are Lee, Orwell, Rivas, Cercas and Soler, while including lesser mentioned authors Rororeda, Atxaga, Fraile, Etchebáháre and many more, a total of 38 writers. Everybody needs this book.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW AUGUST: ‘Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí – Forbidden Pleasures and Connected Lives’ by Gwynne Edwards

Lorca, Buñuel and Dalí were, in their respective fields of poetry and theatre, cinema, and painting, three of the most imaginative creative artists of the twentieth century; their impact was felt far beyond the boundaries of their native Spain. But if individually they have been examined by many, their connected lives have rarely been considered. It is these, the ties that bind them, that constitute the subject of this illuminating book.

They were born within six years of each other and, as Gwynne Edwards reveals, their childhood circumstances were very similar, each being affected by a narrow-minded society and an intolerant religious background, which equated sex with sin. All three experienced sexual problems of different kinds: Lorca, homosexual anguish, Buñuel sexual inhibition, and Dalí virtual impotence. They met during the 1920s at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, which channelled their respective obsessions into the cultural forms then prevalent in Europe, in particular Surrealism. Rooted in such turmoil, their work — from Lorca’s dramatic characters seeking sexual fulfilment, to Buñuel’s frustrated men and women, and Dalí’s potent images of shame and guilt — is highly autobiographical. Their left-wing outrage directed at bourgeois values and the Catholic Church was sharpened by the political upheavals of the 1930s, which in Spain led to the catastrophic Civil War of 1936-39. Lorca was murdered by Franco’s fascists in 1936. This tragic event hastened Buñuel’s departure to Mexico and Dalí’s to New York and Edwards relates how for the rest of his life Buñuel clung to his left-wing ideals and made outstanding films, while the increasingly eccentric and money-grubbing Dalí embraced Fascism and the Catholic Church and his art went into steep decline.

cover art and blurb via amazon

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I can’t remember where I got this book – probably on one of my book buying binges (say that three times fast) – but it has sat unread on my shelves for to-reads. Since I wrote my Lorca 80th anniversary article just over a week ago, I thought I could dedicate this month’s book review to the man as well.

Federico García Lorca, Manuel Buñuel and Salvador Dalí are three very well-known men. All born wealthy around the turn of the century, by the early 1920’s they were already established in their fields: Lorca with his writing, Buñuel with plays and film creation and Dalí with his painting. Each was rare and unique in a world filled with many artists exploding onto the European scene at the time. All housed at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid to study, these three artists came together to bond, collaborate and touch each others lives forever.

This book doesn’t necessarily reveal any new information about the trio, rather tells details, big and small, in a clean, easy-to-read way. Four pages in I was already enjoying the book, with its interesting yet gentle flow of the lives of these men. The book does lean on info about Lorca a lot, but he was always a strikingly interesting soul. The book discusses Lorca’s love for Dalí in the 20’s, and doesn’t suggest impotent Dalí ever accepted any of the advances, but it doesn’t clearly say he didn’t either. These men have intensely interesting sex lives, each forever influenced (scalded?) with the Catholic faith. Lorca and his homosexuality interwoven with his depression, and pain of never having children, Buñuel and his religious thoughts that sex was sinful, even when married, and Dalí with his impotency, voyeurism and his wife’s need to find sex elsewhere. Every aspect of their lives is deeply shaped by what Spain was, and wanted to become.

Things became strained with the threesome in the late 20’s and early 30’s with Lorca leaving the country for some recuperation. Buñuel continued to live his strict, regimented lifestyle while pursuing films and abusing his wife, and Dalí continued to be a real dick (literally incapable of being a functional adult after a weird childhood), and showing off, plus his desire for fame and fortune totally went to his head. Lorca meanwhile continued to produce incredible works and establish his career. Then the war came along.

The outbreak of the civil war, and the state of Spain is well covered to the point the book needs, to show what the men faced. Lorca’s last weeks are well covered, from the moment he decided to leave Madrid for Granada to save his parents. Buñuel begged him not to go, as it would not be safe. Lorca’s time there and his attempts to help his beloved family are covered, along with his mysterious and tragic execution in the forest. There are many places in which to read about Lorca’s last days, but this book does a great job on the subject.

Buñuel went into exile in Paris, much different from Lorca’s need to jump headfirst into Spain’s crisis. Dalí was the opposite; he turned his back on his country and went off making money from rich Americans. When he was ready, Dalí and his wife returned to Spain as fascism lovers, supporting Franco, since that was the in-vogue thing to do. His life fell apart, and being so, well, douchey, Dalí had it coming. Buñuel too had moments of bad behaviour, though his art never suffered for it, continuing to create films on his own terms. In many, many writings and interviews, Buñuel continued to talk of Lorca, his work, and their time together, forever touched by their connection. After Lorca’s execution, Buñuel and Dalí unsurprisingly grew apart, and Dalí’s feelings for his murdered friend never really made sense, or could be trusted.

As I said, this book covers the lives of well-known men, so information isn’t necessarily new, but it does bring all very important parts together in one book, and shows the intertwining links of these three men, and the things which separated them. Never has Spain had such a generation of artists, and maybe never will again. A wonderful read.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 2: Fiction

Following on from yesterday’s post –SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 1: Non-fiction, here is part two, novels based around the Spanish Civil War. It is a particularly difficult task to pluck suggestions from so many books on offer, so I stuck to just a few of the books I have read, and only ones in English. I included my own book because… well, I can! Great to have a selection of female writers, as part one was sorely lacking. If you have an suggestions, let me know.

All cover art and blurbs are via their amazon links

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BLOOD IN THE VALENCIAN SOIL: LOVE AND HATE HIDDEN IN THE LEGACY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Caroline Angus Baker

Pleasure is as fragile as glass… Spain, March 1939 – the Spanish Civil War is coming to an end. Five young Republicans in the small town of Cuenca know they are on the losing side of the war. History only recognises the winners, and the group know they could die, all destined to become faceless statistics. They concoct a plan to go to Valencia in search of safety, but not all of these young men and women are going to survive? Seventy years later, bicycle mechanic Luna Montgomery, the granddaughter of a New Zealand nurse who served during the Spanish Civil War, has made Spain her home. A young widow and mother of two little boys, Luna wants to know what became of her Spanish grandfather. He is one of the ‘disappeared’, one of the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who were murdered and hidden away during and after the war. On a quick trip to Madrid, Luna forms an unlikely friendship with an intelligent and popular bullfighter, Cayetano Beltran, but as Luna presses on to delve into Spain’s history for answers, Cayetano struggles with truths he wished he had never found out. In an ever-changing society that respects and upholds family ties, betrayal by the people who Luna and Cayetano hold dear will hurt them more than they could have realised. There are old wounds that have yet to heal underneath Spain’s ‘pact of forgetting’.

This is my first book series based entirely in Spain, and this is the first book in a three part series. The first book is based during the war, the others during and at the end of Franco’s reign. See my Secrets of Spain category for all the details. 

51acqUu++xL._SY346_WINTER IN MADRID by C J Sansom

1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatised veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories. Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged on a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

In a vivid and haunting depiction of wartime Spain, Winter in Madrid is an intimate and compelling tale which offers a remarkable sense of history unfolding, and the profound impact of impossible choices.

Winter in Madrid is one of the most popular civil war novels available. I found some of the characters annoying, but I suppose that’s proof the author can make people authentic. Read my review here

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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving, and wise. “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” Maxwell Perkins wrote Hemingway after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.” Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.

THE Hemingway war novel. Just read it – why haven’t you already? Read my review here

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ALBERTO’S LOST BIRTHDAY by Diana Rosie

A little boy and his grandfather embark on a quest to find the old man’s missing birthday in Diana Rosie’s debut novel, Alberto’s Lost Birthday.

As a child, Alberto lost his birthday in the Spanish civil war. Now an old man living a simple life, he rarely thinks about his disappeared past.

But when his grandson discovers his Apu has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, and never received a single card or present, he’s determined to do something about it.

As the two set off to find Alberto’s birthday, they have no idea it will be a journey that takes them through Spain’s troubled past, to places – and people – that Alberto once knew.

But in a country that has vowed to move forward, looking back can be difficult. Will they be able to find the memories they’re searching for?

A sweet and interesting take on historical memory in Spain.

51rvAH5wS2L._SY346_GUERNICA by Dave Boling

n 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself on the wrong side of the Spanish Nationalists, so he flees to Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basque region. In the midst of this idyllic, isolated bastion of democratic values, Miguel finds more than a new life-he finds a love that not even war, tragedy or death can destroy.

The bombing of Guernica was a devastating experiment in total warfare by the German Luftwaffe in the run-up to World War II . For the Basques, it was an attack on the soul of their ancient nation. History and fiction merge seamlessly in this beautiful novel about the resilience of family, love, and tradition in the face of hardship.

Guernica is a widely loved novel based in the Basque region and its unimaginable destruction in the late 30’s. A place mostly untouched by the world became the testing ground for misery.
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SOLDIERS OF SALAMIS by Javier Cercas

In the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, fifty prominent Nationalist prisoners are executed by firing squad. Among them is the writer and fascist Rafael Sanchez Mazas.   As the guns fire, he escapes into the forest, and can hear a search party and their dogs hunting him down.

The branches move and he finds himself looking into the eyes of a militiaman, and faces death for the second time that day. But the unknown soldier simply turns and walks away.

Sanchez Mazas becomes a national hero and the soldier disappears into history.  As Cercas sifts the evidence to establish what happened, he realises that the true hero may not be Sanchez Mazas at all, but the soldier who chose not to shoot him.  Who was he?  Why did he spare him?  And might he still be alive?

Another hugely popular book translated into English, and well worth the read. Read my review here

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DEATH OF A NATIONALIST by Rebecca Pawel

Madrid 1939. Carlos Tejada Alonso y León is a Sergeant in the Guardia Civil, a rank rare for a man not yet thirty, but Tejada is an unusual recruit. The bitter civil war between the Nationalists and the Republicans has interrupted his legal studies in Salamanca. Second son of a conservative Southern family of landowners, he is an enthusiast for the Catholic Franquista cause, a dedicated, and now triumphant, Nationalist.

This war has drawn international attention. In a dress rehearsal for World War II, fascists support the Nationalists, while communists have come to the aid of the Republicans. Atrocities have devastated both sides. It is at this moment, when the Republicans have surrendered, and the Guardia Civil has begun to impose order in the ruins of Madrid, that Tejada finds the body of his best friend, a hero of the siege of Toledo, shot to death on a street named Amor de Dios. Naturally, a Red is suspected. And it is easy for Tejada to assume that the woman caught kneeling over the body is the killer. But when his doubts are aroused, he cannot help seeking justice.

This is the first book in a series featuring the same characters. Great to see an author taking this line of fiction.

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THE CARPENTER’S PENCIL by Manuel Rivas

Manuel Rivas has been heralded as one of the brightest in a new wave of Spanish writers influenced by Spanish and European traditions, as well as by the history of Spain over the past seventy years.

A bestseller in Spain, The Carpenter’s Pencil has been published in nine countries.

Set in the dark days of the Spanish Civil War, The Carpenter’s Pencil charts the linked destinies of a remarkable cast of unique characters. All are bound by the events of the Civil War-the artists and the peasants alike-and all are brought to life, in Rivas’s skillful hand, with the power of the carpenter’s pencil, a pencil that draws both the measured line and the artist’s dazzling vision.

Originally written in Galician, this is another great opportunity for readers to enjoy Spanish (Galician) authors on the subject.

51s-joC4ONL._SL500_SX331_BO1,204,203,200_THE STUFF OF HEROES by Miguel Delibes

Set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, Delibes’s ( The Hedge ) plot chronicles the shifting fortunes of the De la Lastra family, which finds itself divided by politics. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of young Gervasio, who dreams of becoming a military hero. While Gervasio enlists in the Navy in order to fight the Communists, his father, a naturopathic doctor, is imprisoned for more liberal beliefs. The surrealistic horror of war, which directly touches every member of the family, is lightened by farcical domestic dramas. Gervasio’s haughty sister has her marriage to a homosexual annulled, only to find herself involved with a Fascist. Gervasio’s nurse, who tries to turn him against his family, outsmarts herself and is dismissed. As Gervasio daily comes closer and closer to battle, he faces his own conservatism, and finally must answer the question posed by Delibes: Which side of this bloody confrontation is indeed just?

This book can be hard to find, but worth it, being a little complex and quirky. Proof the war had few winners.

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IN THE NIGHT OF TIME by Antonio Muñoz Molina

October 1936. Spanish architect Ignacio Abel arrives at Penn Station, the final stop on his journey from war-torn Madrid, where he has left behind his wife and children, abandoning them to uncertainty. Crossing the fragile borders of Europe, he reflects on months of fratricidal conflict in his embattled country, his own transformation from a bricklayer’s son to a respected bourgeois husband and professional, and the all-consuming love affair with an American woman that forever alters his life.

A rich, panoramic portrait of Spain on the brink of civil war, In the Night of Time details the passions and tragedies of a country tearing itself apart. Compared in scope and importance to War and Peace, Muñoz Molina’s masterpiece is the great epic of the Spanish Civil War written by one of Spain’s most important contemporary novelists.

This book is quite a read, it took me months to get through it all. Epic is the only word I would use to describe the novel.

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SEVEN RED SUNDAYS by Ramón J Sender

The time is 1935. The place is Madrid, a city beset by labor unrest which has raised fears―and among some, hopes―of revolution. At an overflow meeting of workingmen, the military intervenes and three of the workers’ leaders and a member of the socialist party are killed. A public funeral ends in street fighting, sabotage, and the prospect of a general strike throughout Spain. From these events Ramón Sender has fashioned a novel of terror and beauty―one of the great unsung works of the 20th century. Behind the confused and conflicting theories of the revolutionaries who are the central characters of Seven Red Sundays, Mr. Sender discovers a sublime faith and a spirit of self-sacrifice. But whether these idealists with guns represent hope or despair is a haunting question which the reader must decide.

Another book that can be hard to track down. The books focus on the lives of ordinary people in the lead up to the outbreak of war.

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SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It is 1945 and Barcelona is enduring the long aftermath of civil war when Daniel Sempere’s bookseller father decides his son is old enough to visit the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There Daniel must ‘adopt’ a single book, promising to care for it and keep it alive always. His choice falls on The Shadow of the Wind.

Bewitched, he embarks on an epic quest to find the truth about Julian Carax, the book’s mysterious author. Soon Daniel is consumed by strange discoveries about love and obsession, art and life, and how they become entangled within the shadow world of books.

The Shadow of the Wind is a mesmerising love story and literary thriller, which twists and turns and enthralls with its cast of vengeful souls, threatening spectres and innocent hearts.

The Shadow of the Wind series is not to be missed. About more than just the war, its aftermath and a gothic mystery feel are added. While the second book in the series, The Angels’ Game, is less war related (but incredible), the third in the series is about prisoners during the civil war. Stop reading this and go and get these books. Now.

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THUS BAD BEGINS by Javier Marías

As a young man, Juan de Vere takes a job that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Eduardo Muriel is a famous film director – urbane, discreet, irreproachable – an irresistible idol to a young man. Muriel’s wife Beatriz is a soft, ripe woman who slips through her husband’s home like an unwanted ghost, finding solace in other beds. And on the periphery of all their lives stands Dr Jorge Van Vechten, a shadowy family friend implicated in unsavoury rumours that Muriel cannot bear to pursue himself – rumours he asks Juan to investigate instead. But as Juan draws closer to the truth, he uncovers more questions, ones his employer has not asked and would rather not answer. Why does Muriel hate Beatriz? How did Beatriz meet Van Vechten? And what happened during the war?

As Juan learns more about his employers, he begins to understand the conflicting pulls of desire, power and guilt that govern their lives – and his own. Marias presents a study of the infinitely permeable boundaries between private and public selves, between observer and participant, between the deceptions we suffer from others and those we enact upon ourselves.

This book, again in Marías’ flowing prose, is the author’ latest work, about a man digging in the his bosses war past and a bit of a journey into voyeurism. Read my review here

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NADA by Carmen Laforet

One of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain, Nada is the semiautobiographical story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona. Edith Grossman’s vital new translation captures Carmen Laforet’s feverish energy, powerful imagery, and subtle humor. Nada, which includes an illuminating Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, is one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe.

“Laforet vividly conveys the strangeness of Barcelona in the 1940s, a city that has survived civil war only to find itself muted by Franco’s dictatorship…The spirit of sly resistance that Laforet’s novel expresses, its heroine’s determination to escape provincial poverty and to immerse herself in ‘lights, noises, the entire tide of life,’ has lost none of its power of persuasion.”

This book is based in the aftermath of the war and one I couldn’t put down. Read my review here

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MAZURKA FOR TWO DEAD MEN by Camilo José Cela

The Spanish Civil War intrudes almost casually on the characters’ picaresque doings in Cela’s amorphous, bawdy novel, first published in Spain in 1983. Set in the mountainous region of Galicia and redolent with the Spanish countryside’s wild beauty and its inhabitants’ folkways, the work depicts a gallery of sinners, fools and misfits in overlapping yarns that span several generations. The plot involves Lionheart Gamuzo, who was shot in the back in 1936, and his brother Tanis, who in 1940 avenges the death with trained killer dogs. The blind Gaudencio, who works as an accordionist in a whorehouse, plays the same mazurka to commemorate these deaths, framing a sprawling canvas peopled with an enormous Rabelaisian cast, including jazz musician Uncle Cleto, who vomits whenever he’s bored; the widow Fina, who is fond of bedding priests; and Roque Gamuzo, who is famed for his colossal member. Winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for literature, Cela ( The Family of Pascual Duarte ) garrulously conveys the impression that “mankind is a hairy, gregarious beast, wearisome and devoted to miracles and happenings.” The musical translation captures his lyricism and colloquial flavor.

I love this author and all his works are worth taking the time to find and read. This book is a bit all-over-the-place but still worthy of attention.

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THE SENTINEL by Mark Oldfield

You can’t escape the past.

He was the cold steel behind Franco’s regime. The fear behind Franco’s power.

57 years ago, Comandante Leopoldo Guzmán disappeared without a trace. They know what he did, but they don’t know where he’s gone.

Madrid, winter 1953: the snow lies thick on the ground and Comandante Guzmán of the Brigada Especial is preparing a dawn raid. His job is to hunt down opponents of Franco’s regime and destroy them. Feared by all in Franco’s Spain, Guzmán takes what he wants: food, drink, women.

That is about to change. Guzmán is going to find himself on the wrong side of Franco, and on the wrong side of history. It’s not the first time Guzmán has been on the wrong side. But there’s no one left alive who knows about that… until he gets a message from a dead man…

Madrid, 2009: Ana María Galindez is a forensic scientist investigating a mass grave from the Franco era. Now she is hunting for the hidden ledger of secret policeman Leopoldo Guzmán – a man who disappeared without trace in 1953. But there are those who would rather the secrets of Guzmán’s ledger stay buried. Galindez’ pursuit of the past has revealed a battle for the present…

This is the first in a three part series, and a long read worth your time.  Read my review here. Book two, The Exile is also available. Read my review here

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 1: Non-fiction

After five years of the shaky Second Spanish Republic, on July 18 1936, a military coup started the Spanish Civil War. Lasting three years, and the bad guys eventually winning, not to mention being a WWII rehearsal, there is no shortage of books on the subject. Often called democracy vs. fascism, though in fact more right-wing and religious vs. left-wing freedoms, the Spanish Civil War is one of, if not the, most complex social battle ever fought. Overshadowed by WWII, which broke out in its immediate aftermath, the Spanish Civil War has lived on in Spain, first through a bloody dictatorship,  the lifestyle, laws, art and the brave hearts of those who lived through the Franco reign of terror. It is no easy subject to get started on for those looking to understand all the sides involved and what atrocities were committed, how Hitler and Mussolini gained so much power and how the western world sat idly on its hands. Volunteers from around the world flooded in, often defying their own government to do so (go intrepid New Zealanders!) and brother turned against brother in a fierce battle that still has victims being found today.

Here are some of my favourite non-fiction books on the subject, in no particular order. This is by far not a comprehensive list, otherwise it would have to include every single book Paul Preston ever wrote. I will do Spanish Civil War fiction in Part 2.

All cover art and blurb are via their amazon links

THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN by Antony Beevor

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak, Antony Beevor has written a completely updated and revised account of one of the most bitter and hard-fought wars of the twentieth century. With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war-its causes, course, and consequences.

This book is outstanding in terms of its depth and detail. A priceless timeline of information and with everything any reader could need when looking for the whole, complex picture.

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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION by Helen Graham

Amid the many catastrophes of the twentieth century, the Spanish Civil War continues to exert a particular fascination among history buffs and the lay-reader alike. This Very Short Introduction integrates the political, social and cultural history of the Spanish Civil War. It sets out the domestic and international context of the war for a general readership. In addition to tracing the course of war, the book locates the war’s origins in the cumulative social and cultural anxieties provoked by a process of rapid, uneven and accelerating modernism taking place all over Europe. This shared context is key to the continued sense of the war’s importance. The book also examines the myriad of political polemics to which the war has given rise, as well as all of the latest historical debates. It assesses the impact of the war on Spain’s transition to democracy and on the country’s contemporary political culture.

While this book is short, it covers all the major players without getting too complicated. Read my review here

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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE OF THE SPANISH REPUBLIC: A WITNESS TO THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Henry Buckley

In 1940, The Daily Telegraph correspondent Henry Buckley published his eyewitness account of his experiences reporting from the Spanish Civil War. The copies of the book, stored in a warehouse in London, were destroyed during the Blitz and only a handful of copies of his unique chronicle were saved. Now, 70 years after its first publication, this exceptional eyewitness account of the war is republished with a new introduction by Paul Preston. The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic is a unique account of Spanish politics throughout the entire life of the Second Republic, combining personal recollections of meetings with the great politicians of the day with eyewitness accounts of dramatic events. This important book is one of the most enduring records of the Spanish Republic and the civil war and a monumental testimony to Buckley’s work as a correspondent.

This manuscript was a truly precious find and a raw personal insight. So many great names are included in a truly rare observation into the battle. 

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HOMAGE TO CATALONIA by George Orwell

George Orwell went to Spain in late 1936, in his role as a journalist, but then, pretty inevitably, put down his pen and spent the next year fighting with the P.O.U.M (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) Militia against the Fascist forces under Francisco Franco. Homage to Catalonia, written immediately after his return and published in 1938, tells the story of his military service with the POUM, both against the Right and the Left, and, in quick succession, of his initial hopes for the classless society that he thought he had found on first arrival, then of his disappointment with the level of disorganization of the Leftist forces and finally of his disillusionment when pro~Stalinist “allies” began attacking Socialists and Anarchists who refused to toe the Soviet line. Orwell, who by then had nearly been killed when shot through the neck in battle, and his wife were ultimately forced to flee from Spain, to avoid Stalinist security forces, which had labeled him pro~fascist.

No one can question George Orwell’s commitment to the war and his understanding of the state of Spain. His first-hand account of Barcelona’s collapse before the enemy even arrived is such a big part of the war.

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THE ASSASSINATION OF FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA by Ian Gibson

At dawn on the 19th of August 1936 Spaniards murdered the man who most profoundly embodied the poetic spirit of their country. Federico Garcia Lorca was the victim of the passions that arose in Spain as the Church, the military and the bourgeoisie embarked on their reckless and brutal repression of “undesirables”. For Lorca was not a political man; he embraced Spain – from its struggling leftist movement to its most conservative traditions – with a love that transcended politics. His “crime” was his antipathy to pomposity, conformity and intolerance. For years the Spanish government suppressed the truth about Lorca’s death. In this recreation of the assassination, Ian Gibson re-dresses the wrong. Based on information only recently made available, this is an illumination not only of the death of a great poet, but of the atmosphere of Civil War Spain that allowed it to happen.

The killing of Lorca drowned out one of Spain’s greatest lights. A true tragedy for many reasons. An insight to how non-conformists were treated. 

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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Hugo Thomas

Since its first publication, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War has become established as the definitive one-volume history of a conflict that continues to provoke intense controversy today. What was it that roused left-wing sympathizers from all over the world to fight against Franco between 1936 and 1939? Why did the British and US governments refuse to intervene? And why did the Republican cause collapse so violently? Now revised and updated, Hugh Thomas’s classic account presents the most objective and unbiased analysis of a passionate struggle where fascism and democracy, communism and Catholicism were at stake – and which was as much an international war as a Spanish one.

To understand the war, the international soldiers and forces are as important as Spanish desires. Understanding the collapse of the Republicans is just as frenzied as them battling the enemy. It is hard to ind unbiased opinions on the war. 

SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS by Adam Hochschild

From the acclaimed, best-selling author Adam Hochschild, a sweeping history of the Spanish Civil War, told through a dozen characters, including Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell: a tale of idealism, heartbreaking suffering, and a noble cause that failed

For three crucial years in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War dominated headlines in America and around the world, as volunteers flooded to Spain to help its democratic government fight off a fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco and aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Today we’re accustomed to remembering the war through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Robert Capa’s photographs. But Adam Hochschild has discovered some less familiar yet far more compelling characters who reveal the full tragedy and importance of the war: a fiery nineteen-year-old Kentucky woman who went to wartime Spain on her honeymoon, a Swarthmore College senior who was the first American casualty in the battle for Madrid, a pair of fiercely partisan, rivalrous New York Times reporters who covered the war from opposites sides, and a swashbuckling Texas oilman with Nazi sympathies who sold Franco almost all his oil — at reduced prices, and on credit.

It was in many ways the opening battle of World War II, and we still have much to learn from it. Spain in Our Hearts is Adam Hochschild at his very best.
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This book is currently a #1 bestseller. A new release and a terrific American perspective, just some of many American stories to be told. Read my review here

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A CONCISE HISTORY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Paul Preston

An account of the Spanish civil war which portrays the struggles of the war, as well as discussing the wider implications of the revolution in the Republican zone, the emergence of brutal dictatorship on the nationalist side and the extent to which the Spanish war prefigured World War II.

No war in modern times has inflamed the passions of both ordinary people and intellectuals in the way that the conflict in Spain in 1936 did. The Spanish Civil War is burned into European consciousness, not simply because it prefigured the much larger world war that followed it, but because the intense manner of its prosecution was a harbinger of a new and horrific form of warfare that was universally dreaded. At the same time, the hopes awakened by the attempted social revolution in republican Spain chimed with the aspirations of many in Europe and the United States during the grim years of the great Depression.

‘The Concise History of the Spanish Civil War’ is a full-blooded account of this pivotal period in the twentieth-century European history. Paul Preston vividly recounts the struggles of the war, analyses the wider implications of the revolution in the Republican zone, tracks the emergence of Francisco Franco’s brutal (and, ultimately, extraordinarily durable) fascist dictatorship and assesses the way in which the Spanish Civil War was a portent of the Second World War that ensued so rapidly after it.

No one understands the war like Paul Preston. He has many volumes on the subject, each with a different perspective, to fully grasp all aspects of the battle. His Franco biography covers much of the war from the angle of the man who caused so much pain. Other books cover journalists in the war, others about volunteers, others about fascism and communism. Paul Preston covers it all. Here are just a couple I recommend.

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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: REACTION, REVOLUTION, AND REVENGE by Paul Preston

The definitive work on the Spanish Civil War, a classic of modern historical scholarship and a masterful narrative.

Paul Preston is the world’s foremost historian of Spain. This surging history recounts the struggles of the 1936 war in which more than 3,000 Americans took up arms. Tracking the emergence of Francisco Franco’s brutal (and, ultimately, extraordinarily durable) fascist dictatorship, Preston assesses the ways in which the Spanish Civil War presaged the Second World War that ensued so rapidly after it.

The attempted social revolution in Spain awakened progressive hopes during the Depression, but the conflict quickly escalated into a new and horrific form of warfare. As Preston shows, the unprecedented levels of brutality were burned into the American consciousness as never before by the revolutionary war reporting of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Herbert Matthews, Vincent Sheean, Louis Fischer, and many others. Completely revised, including previously unseen material on Franco’s treatment of women in wartime prisons, The Spanish Civil War is a classic work on this pivotal epoch in the twentieth century.

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DEFENCE OF MADRID by Geoffrey Cox

Goodies and baddies take some sorting out in this tale of the siege of Madrid by Franco’s right-wing forces supported by the Nazis and the fascist regime of Mussolini (the ‘rebels’), against the civilian population and its government representatives, just elected, who happened to be left-wing. Once sorted, Cox’s account of the city under attack, in one of the twentieth century’s first urban wars, has all too many echoes today. This new edition, with an introduction and selection of historical photographs, as well as samples of Cox’s journalism from the front, will confirm its position as one of the classics of twentieth-century reportage. It is being published for the 70th anniversary of the event.

Geoffrey Cox was a New Zealander who published his early experience of the war in Madrid. It’s tough to beat a first-hand account.  Read my review here

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Succinct and elegant, this is the classic depiction of the bloody, catastrophic, “brother against brother” war that brought the fascist Franco regime to power. It brilliantly illuminates the conflict’s causes and drama: the class and regional disparities in Spanish society; the pitiful weaknesses of the political parties battling Franco; and the way Spain became a battleground of international forces. “…a superlative command of a wide range of sources, economy of style…a sharp eye for obscure but significant detail, an awareness of cultural nuance, a firsthand acquaintance with the country and its people.”
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Raymond Carr was an incredible writer who was able to explain the war on a personal level. I recommend all his books on the topic.
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THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Stanley Payne
This book presents an original new history of the most important conflict in European affairs during the 1930s, prior to the events that produced World War II – the Spanish Civil War. It describes the complex origins of the conflict, the collapse of the Spanish Republic, and the outbreak of the only mass worker revolution in the history of Western Europe. Stanley Payne explains the character of the Spanish revolution and the complex web of republican politics, while also examining in detail the development of Franco’s counterrevolutionary dictatorship. Payne gives attention to the multiple meanings and interpretations of war and examines why the conflict provoked such strong reactions in its own time, and long after. The book also explains the military history of the war and its place in the history of military development, the non-intervention policy of the democracies, and the role of German, Italian, and Soviet intervention, concluding with an analysis of the place of the war in European affairs and in comparative perspective of revolutionary civil wars of the twentieth century.
With so many sides fighting the battle, one opinion is never enough. Stanley Payne gives readers a chance to read the battle from multiple angles.

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UNLIKELY WARRIORS by Richard Baxell

When a Nationalist military uprising was launched in Spain in July 1936, the Spanish Republic’s desperate pleas for assistance from the leaders of Britain and France fell on deaf ears. Appalled at the prospect of another European democracy succumbing to fascism, volunteers from across the Continent and beyond flocked to Spain’s aid, many to join the International Brigades. More than 2,500 of these men and women came from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, and contrary to popular myth theirs was not an army of adventurers, poets and public school idealists. Overwhelmingly they hailed from modest working class backgrounds, leaving behind their livelihoods and their families to fight in a brutal civil war on foreign soil. Some 500 of them never returned home. In this inspiring and moving oral history, Richard Baxell weaves together a diverse array of testimony to tell the remarkable story of the Britons who took up arms against General Franco. Drawing on the author’s own extensive interviews with survivors, research in archives across Britain, Spain and Russia, as well as first-hand accounts by writers both famous and unknown, Unlikely Warriors presents a startling new interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and follows a band of ordinary men and women who made an extraordinary choice.

This book gives an insight to British and Commonwealth volunteers who made a massive contribution to the Republican side of the war, in a way never seen before or since. Read my review here

51JYS5mX-dLFORGOTTEN PLACES: BARCELONA AND THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Nick Lloyd

A guide to Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, beginning in the 19th century with the conditions and movements which led to the revolution of 1936, and ending with the fall of the city on 26th January 1939 when Franco’s tanks drove down the Diagonal and set about destroying everything the Republic had built. Stories from the aftermath of the war, the exile and the Franco regime are also included.
In addition with dealing with the more obvious themes such as anarchism, the Spanish Republic, Catalonia, George Orwell, the aerial bombing, and the May Days, etc, the book also looks at themes such as the Zoo during the Civil War, the American Sixth Fleet in the city, Barça, urbanism, Nazis in Barcelona, Robert Capa, the Spanish in the Holocaust, poster art…

Intertwined in the text are contemporary quotes and a few personal stories of people I have met who experienced the war or its aftermath. There are also biographies of characters such as Andreu Nin and Lluís Companys.

This new release is written by Barcelona’s most knowledge and committed Spanish Civil War tour guide, who is also looking to open a SCW museum. Read my review here

Tomorrow in part 2, I will recommend my favourite SCW fiction.