The Spanish Civil War in perspective

In retrospect, it sometimes became difficult to remember why the Spanish Civil War had been fought at all. Francoists had assumed for decades after the war that Spain would remain what they had made it - Catholic, authoritarian, nationalist and centralist. They suddenly found themselves living in a society full of the features they had sought to eradicate. It was now pluralist, tolerant, federal and multilingual. Militarism disappeared. Instead of the Second Republic being an anomalous period of democratic experiment, it seemed as though the long

Franco regime was now the anomaly, separating two devolutionary democracies.

Things were no clearer to anti-Francoists. Democracy had somehow grown out of the dictatorship itself. There was continuity of economic growth and social transformation. Anarchism had disappeared. Nobody was a revolutionary any more. It was also obvious by the 1980s that the Spanish Communist Party was not a great force to be reckoned with. Everyone was a democrat. In what was soon labelled el gran olvido, the great forgetting, Spanish Socialists and Liberals turned their attention away from the repressive past of the dictatorship, and before that the polarisation of the civil war, to concentrate on building a modern, tranquil, affluent society. No one wanted to dwell on the painful memory of a bitter civil conflict. The wilder dreams of both extremes - Fascist and Anarchist, reactionary and revolutionary - seemed very distant.

The Spanish Civil War, however, should certainly be remembered. It represented for many Spaniards and non-Spaniards then, as it still does now, the first great, heroic confrontation between fascism and democracy in Europe. In this interpretation, the Second Republic remains a great cause that was worth dying for. It is quite possible to hold this view, while simultaneously recognising the Republic's political failures between 1931 and 1936, and the horrendous violence of the social revolution that erupted within it after the military rising of July 1936. It is also possible to feel repugnance for the harsh excesses of the military rebels and their subsequent dictatorship, while also recognising the fear and indignation that inspired their rebellion.

The very complexity of the issues at stake in Spain in the 1930s is itself a warning against over-simplification now. Men and women were caught up in confusing, threatening circumstances. Class aspirations, cultural identities and political ideologies criss-crossed in complicated and sometimes bewildering patterns. There were two sides, but many angles. Indeed, there were many different wars being fought within the Spanish

Civil War. From the vantage-point of the early 21st century, the experience of defeat looks as tragic as it ever did, but perhaps the completeness of the victory seems less sure.

In more strictly military terms, the Civil War occupies a very interesting position in the history of war. At one extreme, cavalry charges still sometimes proved effective, as in the Nationalist attack north of Teruel in February 1938. On the other, the use of air power, and the vital importance of supremacy in the air, pointed directly to the technology of the Second World War. One of the reasons that the Civil War lasted as long as it did is that air superiority oscillated between the two sides several times. Dominance in the air, such as the Nationalists enjoyed in the northern campaigns of 1937, gave an overwhelming advantage, but neither side enjoyed it all the time, or in all parts of the country simultaneously.

The nearly 3,000 planes engaged in the Spanish Civil War set a quite new pattern, especially in the context of Europe in 1936, when the Nazis were just beginning to implement their rearmament programme seriously, and Britain, still before rearmament, could boast only about 1,500 planes in the Royal Air Force. In strategic terms, it is probably in relation to the use of air power that the Spanish Civil War can most usefully be described as a small-scale rehearsal for the Second World War. Any contemporary observer of the resilience of Madrid, or the indignation at the bombing of Guernica, might also have suspected that relying on bombardment from the air to break civilian morale was misguided.

Several of the battles in Spain were reminiscent of the stalemate confrontations on the western front in the Great War. In successive initiatives by both sides round Madrid, defence proved easier than attack, and many lives were lost in order to advance

'Communism brings hardship, hunger, and ruin'. A Nationalist poster. The Nationalists produced fewer propaganda posters than the Republicans, and of lower quality. Throughout the war. the Nationalists called Republicans 'Communists' or 'Reds', just as Republicans called Nationalists 'Fascists'. Both labels were oversimplifications. (Author's collection)

a forward line a short distance, only for it to be driven back again, once more with high casualties, to within a few miles of where it began. Even the great Republican offensive over the Ebro in the late summer of 1938 petered out, and then turned into a determined resistance to the Nationalist counter-attack. The attack and counter-attack left both sides exhausted, yet the actual amount of territory in contention was small.

This pattern was also clear on a minor scale throughout the war in several battles for particular bits of high ground, as fighting to control or hold a particular hill, quite insignificant in peacetime conditions, claimed lives, limbs, and precious equipment. By the end of the war, many hills in Spain had been given the name 'Suicide Hill' by despairing soldiers. It is also true that the patterns of fighting changed during the war, as the militarily naive, urban volunteers for the Republic in 1936 learned that it was useless to brave artillery fire without protection, and accepted the need to dig trenches and think defensively.

On the other hand, there were some spectacular breakthroughs and rapid advances, most dramatically with the Nationalist attacking campaign into Catalonia in the winter of 1938-39, when defensive lines were pierced and the front virtually collapsed. In other battles, the use of tanks, artillery and air bombardment to prepare an advance were not yet blitzkrieg, but pointed towards it. The technology of war was visibly changing. Lessons were learned.

For a while in the 1930s, Spain seemed the centre of the world, the place where the great issues of the time were being decided. Most of the British volunteers who went to fight there were working-class men, often Communists, and usually already involved in class politics at home. Other pro-Republicans contributed medical knowledge, or money, to the Aid Spain campaign. Doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and secretaries went to Spain to support the Republic and care for the wounded.

Writers, journalists and photographers were drawn to it as well, and it has often been through their eyes that the war has subsequently been viewed. Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and Ernest Hemingway all went to Spain, and depicted the civil war as essentially an anti-fascist struggle. George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, analysed the divisions within the Republic from an anti-communist, pro-revolutionary perspective that was the basis more recently for Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom. The young British poets John Cornford and Julian Bell died in the fighting, and became symbols of the generous international idealism that drew so many to costly involvement.

Robert Capa's famous photograph of a lone Republican soldier being flung back by the force of a bullet at the very moment of death in August 1936 was published in major papers in several countries, and became the single most abiding image of the war. There has long been controversy over whether it was genuine or staged, with opinion moving recently rather more towards the conclusion that it was genuine. But whether accurate or not, it conveyed the central pro-Republican understanding of the war as a heroic struggle of ordinary, vulnerable, people against the military might of the rebel generals and their international backers.

In Spain itself after the war, the victors controlled the way it was depicted. In the regime's version of history, heroic Nationalists saved Spain from a rabble of murderous men and women, deceived by wild dreams of a classless Utopia. Until the 1960s, when censorship was somewhat liberalised, the regime even continued to claim that Guernica had been destroyed in a scorched-earth policy by the Republicans, rather than being bombed by the German air force. The dictatorship's constant propaganda and suppression of information made truth another casualty of the war.

It was for this reason that Hugh Thomas's monumental TheSpanish Civil War, published in 1961, was such an important book. For the first time, a comprehensive account of what actually happened during the war existed, and although the Franco regime banned it, copies circulated widely in Spain. Forty years of subsequent scholarship have enormously enlarged our knowledge not just of the military course of the war, but more particularly of the politics, culture, economy and daily experience of the 24 million Spaniards whose fate it was to endure the conflict. The passage of time has not made the choices they faced seem any easier, or their courage any less remarkable.

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