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.

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SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘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 his 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.

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This book caught my eye while I waited in the entry queue at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid last year. Off to see the Dali exhibit, along with a trip to see Guernica and the civil war exhibition for a second time, I spotted this book in the gift shop as I shivered in the cold. Me – war book – sold.

Talk about finding a gem. Unlikely Warriors is a remarkable accomplishment, with solid five-star reviews for excellent reason. Baxell has taken research to a new level, and used archives and interviews in the UK and the Abraham Lincoln files in New York, and material not yet published. Interviews from the Imperial War Museum in London have been accessed to give a rich account of those who went to Spain to fight the righteous fight. The International Brigades have been fleshed out like never before, along with those who went to fight for various other factions, including those who went to serve Franco’s side.

The book starts off with the realities of life in the UK for those who heard the calling to Spain. While the stereotypes stated that volunteers were ‘radical romantics or middle-class Marxists’, the reality was far different. A large majority were working class, and no doubt imagined they understood the battle that Spaniards faced. However, the upper class, intellectuals and writers were littered among the brave men, from a great range of lifestyles across the class divide. What the International Brigades had was working class men fighting alongside those highly educated, for a common cause, and Baxell has written about these people in a fluid and enjoyable down-to-earth style. The men, the majority Communists, fought under the premise that if Franco won in Spain, Hitler would then go on to victory with his own endeavours. While Britain and France sat idly by, individuals were able to see past self-interest and faced a brutal reality for the common good.

The reality put volunteers at a disadvantage from the start, with many without military training, and provided with exceptionally little. With the International Brigades, just one part of many groups fighting together in an uneasy alliance for the Republican cause, leadership was haphazard, as was any type of planning, along with weapons and gear given. While many volunteers were Communists, those in power among the forces also had to battle against other leaders from other groups. It meant that those on the ground never genuinely formed a coherent group, unlike the united forces under Franco. The massive battles undertaken by British forces, such as Madrid, Ebro, Brunete and Jarama, were bloody affairs littered with an enormous death toll. Just the struggle alone within the medical divisions was horrific as they fought to save the lives of young men, whose cause became increasingly hard to identity. Fighting fascism is a broad notion, to be romanticised as men, gun in hand, throw themselves at the enemy, but Baxell does not subscribe to this notion. The author gives a more realistic and honest account of war, where individuals are convinced of one thing at home, and struggle when faced with the gruesome battles in Spain. Some volunteers were hopelessly inadequate for the war in Spain, due to age or experience, and some were there for the wrong reasons.

Unlikely Warriors doesn’t just cover what happened in Spain. The book explains how these volunteers suffered, and many were lost, but those who survived considered their fight to be one of the greatest moments in their lives. Many went home with little or no regrets. The May Day battles in Barcelona are well covered in the book, explaining how the communist sympathisers fought enemies on all sides. When international volunteers were all ordered out of Spain in late 1938, dreams of these men being able to live in Spain as citizens were not realised until long after Franco’s death. Tales of men held prisoner are told with clarity, showing what many volunteers endured through their time on the peninsula. While British men went home once their battalions got disbanded, they struggled to enlist to serve in WWII and some nationalities were either imprisoned or stripped of their home country citizenship. Their battles did not win the war, just as Europe fell into a state which allowed evil to flourish.

Baxell has created a book where those new to the subject can learn and understand, but at the same time, give more knowledgeable readers a more personal and vulnerable perspective to the battles. Many books on the war can read as stiff or academic, but Baxell has created a marvellous account which humanises but does not romanticise the role of international volunteers in a complex war. The book breaks down the struggles in Spain, to give a realistic account of what life was like for those who sacrificed for a cause which did not succeed in victory. Unlikely Warriors is a must-read for anyone interested in Spain and its recent history.

Richard Baxell is a research associate at the London School of Economics and a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Learn more about the author on his website – Richard Baxell

Purchase Unlikely Warriors on Amazon

On Wednesday 30 April, Richard Baxell will be appearing at Offside Librería bookstore in Madrid, giving a presentation on his work from 8pm.

Book covers and blurb via Amazon