The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne

Distilled history…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On starting my personal challenge to get an understanding of the Spanish Civil War through history, memoirs and fiction, the first book I wanted was one which basically explained the historical background, laid out the events leading up to the war, introduced the main leaders, explained the factions and tried, at least, to avoid bias. This last point was the hardest – all the best known histories on the subject seem to be pretty overwhelmingly biased towards the Republican (left) side. After a couple of false starts, I settled on this one and feel I couldn’t have made a better decision. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. Every word in its short 286 pages counts, so that there’s far more information in here than in many a waffly 900-page tome I’ve struggled through on other historical periods.

Payne’s bias, if he has one, seems slightly to the right, though it’s quite clear he’s no more a fan of the regimes of the far-right than the far-left. He avoids any kind of romanticisation of the left – generally a recurring feature of British and American writing on the SCW, showing how much better the left were at propaganda, if nothing else. Indeed, propaganda and the role of foreign journalists and novelists in its dissemination at the time, and on public perception of the conflict even today, is one of the many subjects he addresses in the book.

Payne starts with a brief introduction, putting the SCW into the context of the many civil wars happening in Eastern Europe and around the “periphery” of Europe around that time. He notes that Spain was unique in being the only Western European country to have a civil war in the interwar years, and that, while the political upheavals in other western nations like Germany and Italy rose out of the aftermath of WW1, Spain had remained neutral in that conflict.

He continues by giving a concise and clear history of Spain, from the time of the Romans. This is done in a just a few pages, but gives the newcomer to the subject a very clear idea of the development of the social, political and economic conditions in the country just prior to the civil war. He discusses Spain’s failure to modernise at the same rate as other European countries, remaining more rural and socially backward, less literate, poorer. Out of these conditions arose the factions on left and right that would both eventually feel that a limited conflict would give power into their hands.

Book 2

Payne slows down a bit as he discusses the years from around 1930 to the outbreak of war, but it is still a very distilled account – no padding, very few anecdotes or character sketches, but everything very clearly explained. The profusion of factions on both left and right are the main reason I, and I’m sure I’m not alone, find the SCW more confusing than many other conflicts or historical events, and Payne takes the time to explain each in turn – how they arose, their affiliations to outside forces like the USSR or Mussolini’s Italy, their regional power bases within Spain, what they believed in and what kind of government they wanted to create. As he develops the history of events, Payne is excellent at constantly reminding the reader of where each faction stands whenever they are mentioned, so that I rarely found it necessary to turn to the included glossary of all those dreaded acronyms, like POUM and PCE and CEDA. In fact, by the end of the book I actually had a good idea of what all these terms actually meant – a considerable achievement, believe me!

Stanley G Payne

Alongside the narration of events, Payne includes themed chapters where he goes more deeply into one aspect of the conflict, such as religion or foreign intervention or propaganda, etc., and it’s in these chapters that he’s more analytical. He debunks some of the commonly held and somewhat romantic myths, explaining their origin, and replaces them with factual analysis, including plenty of statistics, on numbers of executions on both sides, for example, or the brutal atrocities carried out, again by both sides. He is critical of Franco’s skills as a war strategist, suggesting his failure to take decisive action at crucial moments led to a prolongation of the conflict. But his strongest criticism is directed at the shambolic chaos on the left, with faction fighting faction, and no clear plan of what they were trying to achieve. He compares the conditions in Republican and Nationalist zones, and suggests a major factor in the Nationalists’ success was their economic competence – indeed, their competence generally. The picture he paints is of idealism, factionalism and chaos on the left defeated by planning, pragmatism and organisation on the right. (Are you listening, America?)

My only caveat, and it’s a small one, would be that a basic understanding of the Russian revolution and of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini would be helpful, but I think he gives enough information on them in passing to prevent any reader from feeling too lost. So, in conclusion, great as an introduction for the newcomer, but there’s also plenty of analysis in here to interest those with an existing knowledge of events. Highly recommended – the perfect start to my quest!

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45 thoughts on “The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne

  1. It might be interesting to read something with a slightly right-wing bias. There was huge support for the Republicans here in North West England – quite a few men volunteered for the International Brigades, and there were loads of relief committees – so I’ve always had this “romantic” image of the Left, as you say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I believe there were loads of Scots who volunteered too, so I’ve always assumed the Republicans were the “right” side, but I think it’s one of those wars where in fact neither side was wholly right or wrong – just like a political debate that got out of hand. But because all the famous books, like Orwell and Laurie Lee, are told from the left, the heroic loser narrative still resonates. I thought this gave a much clearer picture and was pretty critical of both sides…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I found Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia very enlightening on the SCW. Orwell was clearly on the Republican side but the book shows his growing cynicism with the factionalism and infighting. It’s also very gritty, and illuminating about the life of a foot soldier in the conflict.

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    • It’s next up on my list of SCW books, and I’m looking forward to it – Orwell is such a good writer. But since it’s a period of history I know little about, I really wanted a book that would explain the ins and outs of it all at a historical level before I begin reading memoirs and fiction, and this one worked really well for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad this worked for you, and that it wasn’t too long, or an information dump, which sometimes happens with biographies or historical annalysis. I wonder whether being completely without byass or agenda is really possible? With the best will in the world, I guess everyone has prejudices of some kind or another, but it sounds as though this biographer made the best job he could of being nutral.

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    • Yes, I think every historian brings their own bias to the table, and of course so does every reader – sometimes I’m happy to go along with the bias if I happen to share it, which is a bit hypocritical, I suppose! But in the SCW almost all the memoirs and fiction seem to be on the side of the heroic losers, and I was glad that Payne was able to lay out the pros and cons for both sides. It gives me a basis now to understand the more biased stuff better, I hope.

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  4. I know next to nothing about this subject, but I’m often put off my huge historical tomes. This sounds very approachable size-wise and impressive that it still does a good job too! No excuse for my ignorance to continue now…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can struggle through huge historical tomes, but this one made me realise how unnecessary a lot of what’s usually included in them actually is, for the casual reader at least. The concentrated approach though meant that I had to pay attention to every word – no places where I could zone out and skip a few paragraphs!

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  5. It is rare, FictionFan, to see a book that combines plenty of information with a matter-of-fact style that the reader can follow. I’m glad you found that to be the case here. And it’s so hard to avoid bias when discussing the SCW (and a lot of other events, too!) – doing that is a feat in and of itself. Untangling that period of time isn’t easy, and I’m glad you felt Payne did it well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed! Some history books are so packed with detail it’s actually hard for the reader to extract the important elements, and that’s what it felt as if Payne had done for us. I believe he’s written many books on the subject over his long career and this felt like the summing up of all that work. He’s also written a well-regarded biography of Franco, so that’s made its way onto my list…

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  6. This book sounds great – those acronyms are killers and anyone who clearly delineates them is a marvel! I was taught the Spanish Civil war by someone at college who was a marxist and got about a B minus for my essay on the causes of the civil war. Unfortunately, not for political reasons I think it was just a bad essay! It’s an incredibly complicated bit of history. I found books with good maps and pie charts very useful.

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    • Yes, there were only a few maps in this but again they were to the point, and I have a much better feel for the whole thing now. I’m pretty sure from my limited reading so far that there wasn’t a “right” side in this particular war, unlike for instance the war against Hitler, so historians really have to try to show balance, and I felt Payne did.

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  7. This does seem a perfect introduction, great to not get bogged down in anecdotes and waffle. I can see myself building up to this after reading accounts by Laurie Lee and Orwell and that strange Catalonian novel I read last year – Death in Spring!

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  8. I just saw another positive review of this book a few days ago! A blogger I follow in Liverpool is studying this period in school and she’s shared a number of interesting books she’s read. It’s a period I’ve not thought much about before, but I’ve been convinced to add a few she’s read to my wishlist.

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    • It’s a more interesting conflict than many exactly because both sides had some right on their side, and equally both sides behaved atrociously. I guess that’s why people still argue about it a century later, unlike WW2 where everyone agrees Hitler was the bad guy!

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          • I’ve added this to my wishlist. Another I put on there is Doves of War by Paul Preston. Maybe 2021 will be my year for the Spanish Civil War. 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’m meaning to read something by Paul Preston too at some point, but he has a reputation for being super-biased towards the Republican side, so I wanted something more balanced to start me off. It seems very odd to me that so many Brits support the Communists in the SCW and yet would never support them in Britain – I blame Orwell!

              Liked by 1 person

            • Anca’s complaint has been that most authors are extremely biased. I believe one of the women in the book represents the other side, if I remember correctly. And I can’t remember which way Anca leans, herself. (She was born in communist Romania). Left and right, republican, all those terms can mean different things in different places!!

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            • Yes, I think the fact that the left in the SCW is usually referred to as Republican is highly misleading – very few of them wanted the kind of Republic we think of when we use that word. Most of them were communists or anarchists or leaning that way, and I can’t quite see how that’s better than being a fascist myself! But Payne reckons the left were far better at propaganda than the right, and that’s why the international community felt that they had the moral high ground. And most of the histories in English are very definitely biased towards the left, which always leaves me suspicious as to how much of the “truth” I’m getting…

              Liked by 1 person

    • If he’s interested in the period then I think he’d certainly enjoy this one. Payne has also written a well-regarded biography of Franco, so that promptly made it’s way onto my bookshelves too. Avoiding too much bias when it comes to these right-wing authoritarians is a real plus – it makes it more understandable why people so often support them.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sounds like a great overview! I’ve just started a novel set around the time of Isabel and Ferdinand and it’s making me realize how little I know about Spanish history at any point in time!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow well done on reading what sounds like quite a meaty history and I am pleased great it was a good start to your personal challenge to get a better understanding of the Spanish Civil War. Happy history reading whatever you choose to read next for your challenge. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • With all the anxiety of the last few months it’s been a struggle to concentrate on anything more weighty than a vintage mystery, so I was pleased this one was so good! I’m looking forward to reading some of the SCW fiction now that I have a better understanding of what it was all about… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow this sounds extremely thorough, how many pages FF? I’m excited to be learning about the Spanish Civil War alongside you, clearly it requires some general knowledge about a lot of different places/times in history to all make sense but this is going to be more of a journey than a race isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s remarkably short considering how much is packed into it – just under 300 pages. It certainly is going to be a journey – it’s such a complicated conflict. Can’t wait to get the history properly sorted in my mind so I can move onto the fiction though… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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