Spanish Civil War. (Frontline)

By Preston, Paul | History Today, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Spanish Civil War. (Frontline)


Preston, Paul, History Today


THE LAST TIME THAT ANYONE did a serious count, there were over 15,000 books published about the Spanish Civil War. That was in 1968 and the counting was done by a team from Franco's Ministry of Information. The scale of the literature then was partly a result of the fact that, since 1939, the propagandists of the victorious Caudillo had been producing, on an industrial scale, books and pamphlets interpreting the war in such a way as to justify the existence of the dictatorship. In turn, this material had stimulated counter-efforts from both defeated Republicans in exile, their foreign sympathisers and independent scholars the world over. In the thirty-three years following the publication of that official bibliography, books on the subject continued to pour out. The death of Franco himself in 1975 saw a massive boom in previously banned publications in Spain. University departments began to sponsor hitherto dangerous research. The result was a further flood of publications that has taken the total nearer to the 20,000 mark and a notable roster of television documentaries and movies.

Expectations that intense interest in the Spanish Civil War would die out have not been fulfilled. There are currently a number of feverishly active internet discussion sites on the subject and a quick search will locate nearly a thousand websites devoted entirely or in part to the conflict. Even in the US, where interest in all things European seems to be dwindling, an embittered debate was triggered recently by the publication by Yale University Press of a set of documents about the war emanating from the Soviet archives. Edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War portrays partisans of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War as willing or inadvertent stooges of Stalin. Its basic thesis is that the Spanish Republic at war was little more than a Soviet satellite. This revives the Cold-War view of the Spanish Republic as the first Popular Democracy, comparable to those established after the Second World War in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It is an ahistorical argument that tears the conflict out of its chronological and geo-political context. Between 1936 and 1939, Soviet foreign policy was not what it was after the experience of invasion by the Third Reich and Spain was not Poland. Nevertheless, the thesis has been eagerly taken up by American rightists keen to remove the last jewel in the Communist crown -- the anti-fascist struggle of the Spanish Republic -- and equally enthusiastically refuted by others on the left.

What is remarkable is the scale of the passion these discussions have aroused in the US about a Spanish conflict that, after the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam, and the wars of the Middle East and the Gulf, seems a small-scale squabble. In Spain, such a situation is more understandable. Books on the war and its aftermath regularly top the national best-seller lists. Since last April, the top-selling title in Barcelona has been a book about the Catholic Church and the Civil War by a Benedictine monk, Dom Hilari Raguer, entitled The Gunpowder and the Incense. Public launches for books on the war invariably draw a crowd. There were four alone in Madrid in the last week in September. That month, the University of Leiden in Holland hosted an international conference on the Brigades. In Britain too, interest in the Spanish Civil War remains vibrant.

That was evident last July, when a large crowd gathered at the International Brigades' monument on London's South Bank, for the annual commemoration of the Brigades. In his speech, the International Brigades Association President, Jack Jones, announced the creation of the International Brigades Trust to continue the work of preserving the legacy of those who went to Spain to fight fascism.

On October 17th the dwindling band of British veterans headed to Lambeth, for the launch of a larger commemoration of the war. …

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