Commentary Magazine

The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939, by Gabriel Jackson; and A Poet's War: British Poets and the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939.
by Gabriel Jackson.
Princeton University Press. 578 pp. $12.50.

A Poet's War: British Poets and the Spanish Civil War.
by Hugh D. Ford.
University of Pennsylvania Press. 327 pp. $7.50.

Historical convention has it now that World War II began when Hitler's Wehrmacht moved across the Polish border. A more accurate date would be July 17, 1936, when the garrisons of Ceuta, Melilla, and Tetuÿn rose in rebellion against the Spanish government, or July 19, when a majority of the people (and a large minority of the military) proved by armed resistance their loyalty to the Republic.

Once it was obvious that the pronunciamiento had failed, the insurgent generals were forced to call upon Hitler, Mussolini, and Salazar. They received ample aid. The Republic was less lucky. Leon Blum, Socialist premier of France, went to London and was told that aid to the Republic, which Blum had already begun to provide, had to stop if the French expected British support in opposition to Hitler and Mussolini. Blum acquiesced. The Non-intervention Committee, dominated by Great Britain, deplored Soviet violations of the Non-intervention Agreement but could not credit reports of Italian intervention—which Italian newspapers proclaimed in headlines. Lord Plymouth, always a gentleman, refused to pay attention to Mussolini's boasts of a new era of Roman conquest.

Neville Chamberlain's dismal visit to Munich has become a comfortable symbol of appeasement. Comfortable because the first betrayal was in Spain. Anthony Eden resigned from Chamberlain's cabinet, seven months before Munich, in protest against Mussolini's Iberian adventures. But the Conservative party has forgotten its early enthusiasm for Franco's Movimiento National, and Americans remember Munich rather than the embargo we imposed contrary to treaty commitments and, in the long run, contrary to our own national interest. To remember the Spain of 1936-1939 would be to raise troublesome questions about Spain today, and tomorrow.


But not everyone has forgotten. For millions who came politically of age in the 1930's, the Spanish Civil War was a personal tragedy and a wound from which recovery will never be complete. It is hyperbole to say, as Gabriel Jackson does, that “an entire generation of Englishmen and Americans felt a deeper emotional involvement in that war than in any other world event of their lifetimes. . . .” It is no exaggeration to say that Jackson's book, written with a fine and forceful combination of personal involvement and professional detachment, is what Hugh Thomas's overrated history was taken to be: the first comprehensive and trustworthy account in English. The book is much more than a chronicle. It is also an interpretation of the Republic's place in Spanish history, an interpretation comparable in its excellence to Georges LeFebvre's celebrated study of the French Revolution. We are not likely for a long time to have a book that better deserves the cheapened adjective definitive.

The Republic established in April of 1931, when municipal elections convinced Alfonso XIII that he had lost the trust of the people, was essentially Liberal (in the classic sense) with strong support from the right-wing Socialists under Julian Besteiro and Indalecio Prieto. The dominant personality was Manual Azaña, moderate leader of Acción Republicana. Azaña's government made major reforms in the military, greatly improved primary education, and struggled with chronic economic problems intensified by the worldwide Depression. Except for the slowness of progress in land reform, the inexperienced government succeeded remarkably well. Had the problems of Spain been economic, the Republic might have survived.

But Spanish Liberalism, like French and unlike Anglo-American Liberalism, faced a powerful and intransigent Church. “Whenever the governments of the Constitutional Monarchy had reduced the Church's monopoly,” writes Jackson, “the hierarchy cried persecution.” The hierarchy cried persecution when confronted with the Republic's Constitution, but now the hierarchy had justification for its fears. The Church, long endangered from below by the Anarchists for whom it represented perennial oppression, was now the victim of an official policy of legislative anti-clericalism that alienated President Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, Gregorio Marañon, Miguel Maura, and other Catholic supporters of the bourgeois Republic.

The Catholic response was a coalition of Center-Right parties that won the election of November 1933 over the opposition of a badly divided Left. (The Anarchists, disillusioned by a Republic of compromises and gradualism, abstained from the election.) When the Center-Right coalition opted for reaction rather than reform, the revolutionary Left attempted to seize power in a rebellion disingenuously referred to, in later polemics, as a general strike. The rebellion fizzled everywhere except in the Asturias, where Socialist and Anarchist miners fought bravely and gallantly, and were overwhelmed and massacred by forces rushed in from Morocco. The government had then a chance to act as magnanimously as Azaña's government had acted when General Sanjurjo sought, in 1932, to overthrow the Republic. The government chose misrepresentation and bloody repression.

Opinion shifted again, and cooperation among the parties of the Left led to the electoral triumph of the Frente Popular in February 1936. Both ends of the political spectrum now turned on the Republic. Jackson's account has a tone of almost Thucydidean sadness: “While the Marañons and Mauras, Besteiros and Prietos, talked of ending useless strikes, stopping attacks on churches, restoring public order, the exaltados of both the Right and the Left rolled up their sleeves. When the feeble parliamentary bourgeois government had been discredited, the future would be theirs.”

And so it was. The generals revolted and the Republic perished between the Monarchists and Falangists for whom it was too radical and the left-wing Socialists and Anarchists for whom it was not radical enough. The miracle is not that the insurgent minority was able to win but that a divided government and a handful of loyal officers were able to put together an army and, with some aid from Russia, resist for three years the Foreign Legion, the Moorish regulars, the Luftwaffe, the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, the hierarchy of the Church, and a substantial segment of the Spanish people.

Jackson's account of the war itself is a model of historical narration. He does not handle military history quite as well as Hugh Thomas, who taught at Sandhurst, but he is clear and sufficiently detailed enough for all but the specialist. No other book, except perhaps La Révolution et la guerre d'Espagne, by Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, analyzes the political complexities of the two Spains with a clarity and acuteness equal to Jackson's.

The Republic moved from a Liberal-Socialist coalition led by José Giral to a left-wing Socialist government under Francisco Largo Caballero. When Largo Caballero, “the Spanish Lenin,” refused to sacrifice the social revolution to the war, the moderates, with, the strong support of the newly influential Communists, forced him out and replaced him with Juan Negrín, an eminently decent and even noble man who preached resistance and restraint. Negrín and Azaña (who had become president in 1936) placed their hope in an intervention by the democracies. The hope was vain. When the war seemed lost, in the bitter winter of 1938-39, Colonel Segismundo Casado formed a junta, seized the government of the Republic long enough to seek honorable terms for surrender, and, when honorable terms were refused, gave up the struggle and relied on the mercy of a conquistador who turned out to be all but merciless. From 1939 through 1943, 200,000 men died in Spanish prisons (Jackson's estimate)—twice the number who fell on the battlefield.

The true test of Jackson's skill is his treatment of the Nationalists. He shows them to be a gaggle of factions, from traditional monarchists to outright Fascists, unified by General Franco's genius into a ruthless political machine responsive to Franco's direction and to no one else's. Where the Nationalists were humane, Jackson praises them; where they were not, he documents the full extent of their brutality.

Except for the inadequacy of the pinch-penny bibliography, the book is hard to fault. Errors of fact are almost exclusively typographical (e.g. Quadrogesimo Anno for Quadragesimo Anno) . Jackson has tried, perhaps too hard, to reverse the emphases of most historians and to “expound the history of the Second Republic and the Civil War primarily as seen from within Spain.” Jackson sketches the European scene, and makes a few feeble gestures in the direction of Washington, but his focus remains always on Spain. He does not attempt to show how and why the Spanish war became, for the generation of the 30's, the last great lost cause.


Small matter. Others, of whom Hugh D. Ford is the most recent, have written of the international aspect. Poets' War is a specialized monograph devoted to the responses of one small but important group. Despite a good deal of unnecessary historical background, Ford succeeds very well in his effort to account for every poet and for every poem. He deals not only with the major writers of Auden's Oxford circle but also with minor figures, with the work of lesser poets who actually fought (and often died) in Spain, and even with Roy Campbell's mean-minded pro-Franco doggerel. Although Ford's book is organized as the literary history of a political event, he tries, unfortunately, to evaluate the poetry as though literary excellence were his main interest. The result is a sloppy mix of extremely useful information and extremely dull criticism. Where the poems are good, they are simple and need no explication. Where they are bad, Ford pontificates: “No doubt the strict confines of the sonnet form proved too limited for the fuller development which this theme needed. Such compression is technically pretentious and hardly constructive to ready comprehension.” Much as we want to know what the war meant to the men who are traditionally supposed to speak for all of us (or, at least, for the best of us), we don't need this kind of talk.

It is a pity, therefore, that Gabriel Jackson did not, as Hugh Thomas did, make Spanish and foreign literature a part of his subject. . Perhaps it is from a sense of what he has omitted that Jackson, ordinarily quite sober and even prosaic, struggles toward poetry in his conclusion:

It is a terrible, and repeated, human dilemma that at times men have no choice between submission to tyranny and a war which will in all likelihood destroy many of the institutions they set out to defend. In July 1936 the Spanish people faced the alternatives of submission or resistance. They chose to resist, and like Spaniards over the past two thousand years, they fought magnificently. . . . The majority fought to preserve Spain, and Europe, from tyranny. They were conquered, but they were not humiliated in their souls. The moral grandeur of a generous Republic and a titanic struggle for liberty will serve their spirit well in the future.

Writing these sentences, Jackson must have known that he has himself well served that generous Republic.

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