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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.
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!
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!