Friday, July 22, 2011

Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

Penguin Books of the Penguin Group in New York releases a paperback book entitled The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor in 2006. It originally comes under the title The Spanish Civil War published by Orbis Publishing Ltd in Great Britain in 1982. Peter Bedrick Books publishes it again in the United States a year later. Weidenfeld & Nicolson of Great Britain publishes the revised edition with a newer title simultaneously with Penguin Books in 2006. Beevor rewrites this edition in light of research sources that had not been available previously, like the German archives and the Soviet files (xxiii). The book divides itself into seven parts related to the history, the events, and the results of the war in Spain. It contains three sections of photographs, an extensive bibliography, meticulous notes, clear maps, and a convenient index.

I received this book from my father five years ago. He told me that I may be interested in it because I had been to Spain and graduated from college with a Spanish major. I took it with me as I moved from place to place, picking it up to read it from time to time when I got the chance. Life just kept getting in my way. When I did get the chance to read it, I got this sobering feeling and a sense of daze every time the book referred to places that I had been to. How could something so atrocious happen in such a beautiful country of people who only want to live? “It was the dehumanization of the enemy which made the war so terrible,” answers Beevor (425). (For a philosopher’s treatment of dehumanization, refer to this book.) I finally finished the book this year and I do not think I want to read another war history again.

From what I can glean from years of trying to read and finish this book, Spain certainly had it bad. Two groups vied for power while the majority of the citizens were stuck in between. In a nutshell, the conflict was between fascism and communism, the two extremes of political ideology spectrum. Having recently read The Communist Manifesto, a review you can read here, I understand why people looked to the Republic to confiscate lands from the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, centuries of culture and tradition were in danger of disappearing if republican reforms continued to be implemented. Had I been living in Spain, I would not have liked either of the political ideologies. I would have been like one of the Spanish intellectuals that “had gone into exile, appalled both by the nationalist right and the revolutionary left” (248).

As pertaining to Spanish literary production, Beevor understands the difficulty that intellectuals faced: “On the whole, the best known and the majority of those who had stayed in Spain supported the Republic. Literary output during the war was very uneven, with some strong poems and mostly disappointing novels” (248). That may very well be the case. I plan to read The Prison Poems by Miguel Hern├índez and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Both served as soldiers for the Republic. I believe my deeper understanding of the war will help me understand the interpretation of these works.

Back in 2004, I returned to Spain so I could visit some friends during spring break. While staying at a house of one of my friends, I got to know his parents and chat with them about Spanish culture and history. I asked the father about the Spanish Civil War, but knowing the answer was not simple, he merely told me that it was complicated. I wondered why the nationalists won the war when the Republic was a democratically elected government. Beevor set me straight: “Franco did not so much win the war: the republican commanders, with the odds already stacked heavily against them, squandered the courage and sacrifice of their troops and lost it” (429). Since the answer was complicated, I asked my friend’s parents what life was like during the years of dictatorship. They told me their stories, which are too long to reiterate here. When Franco died, there was a communal “sigh of relief,” as though they could start breathing again. A couple of years were difficult in the interim, but later things went better from there. It was fascinating to hear stories from the people who lived it.

I find this book a very thorough treatment of the Spanish Civil War, given the sources that Beevor has access to. I appreciate it for its historicity and information gathered from countless sources. I am not used to reading non-fiction, but that should not deter anyone else to peruse this book’s pages for information. A serious student or academician of Spanish history or literature will need this book in his or her collection. A casual reader may not enjoy this book, unless the reader loves war history or recognizes military weaponry off the bat. The narrator assumes the reader can keep historical figures and organizations straight.

Andrew

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