The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Subtitled: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

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Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period.

My theory is that it takes at least fifty years before historians can tackle any period with the necessary objectivity to produce anything approaching “truth” – a term that will always be disputed in relation to history. Writers who lived through events are generally unable to avoid two flaws: firstly, they assume their readers are familiar with the people and events of the period and therefore often don’t explain them well enough for future generations; and, secondly, the closer to events a writer is, the harder it is to avoid personal bias and opinion from distorting the story. Having said that, Brenan does his best to avoid bias and for the most part does a good job, but sometimes it’s clear that, like most British intellectuals of the time, his sympathies were with the left, and he tends to forgive their excesses more easily than those from the right. A bigger problem for me, as a newcomer to the period, was that he often left me struggling to follow timelines, or to work out the political alignment or even nationality of a particular person – he obviously assumed his contemporary readership would know these things from reading the news.

Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. This left me with a much better understanding not only of the drivers that led to the Civil War, but also, in fact, of the current demands for independence from some regions which are still part of Spanish politics today.

Book 3

He also delves into the rise of the various factions on the left, explaining why some turned to anarchism while others adopted socialism, etc., again showing how this arose out of local rather than national factors. Syndicalism, a form of trades unionism that was effective in industrialised centres, was less well-suited to rural areas, for example. He explains the Spanish form of anarchism well, making it seem like a reasonable idea rather than the kind of extreme bogeyman philosophy it tends to be seen as now. He does the same for the right, but it wasn’t so divided and so is easier on the whole to understand, and I suspect Brenan was more fascinated by the philosophies underpinning left than right, so he writes about them more deeply and interestingly. He also explains the rise of anti-clericalism, showing how over time the Church ceased to be seen as the champion of the poor and became instead the paid instrument of the rich and powerful, helping them to maintain social control, and thus leading to the hatred that would result in so many atrocities towards clerics.

On occasion, he has a tendency to state an opinion as fact without supporting evidence, or to generalise about the “Spanish temperament” or the “Spanish psyche”, as if they were uniform things, which is a bit odd since the whole book is proving that Spain was a deeply fractured society at the time, region against region, philosophy against philosophy. And it’s easy with hindsight to scoff a little at those things he got wrong, as, for instance, when he suggests that Spaniards would never accept a dictatorship and that Franco’s regime would therefore be short-lived. As a right-wing dictator, he seems to see Franco in the same terms as Mussolini or Hitler, but future history would show distinct differences in Franco’s approach, which is probably why he survived into old age. But predicting the future is always difficult, and he doesn’t go too far down that line.

In the epilogue, Brenan explains that he is writing too soon to give an account of the war itself. He mentions the atrocities and, while accepting that the left participated too, claims the number of executions carried out by the right were far greater – a claim that I believe is now considered less clear-cut.

Gerald Brenan

Despite the small flaws I’ve mentioned, I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that has left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable. I highly recommend it – its classic status is well deserved. However, I was glad I had already read Stanley G Payne’s The Spanish Civil War first – because it is a more conventional history written much more recently, I had some prior understanding without which I may have found myself floundering too deeply at those points where Brenan assumed existing knowledge.

My thanks to José Ignacio from A Crime is Afoot, who suggested this one when I was looking for something to give me some background to the war – an excellent recommendation!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

32 thoughts on “The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

  1. There is a huge bias towards the Republicans: I think a lot of it’s to do with the romantic idea of people going off to fight for the International Brigades, but the way Franco’s regime turned out’s exacerbated it. Spain is so complicated – Aragon and Castile were only united even by royal marriage in the late 15th century, at which time parts of the south were still under Moorish rule, and then split along regional lines again during the War of the Spanish Succession and the Carlist Wars. Sounds like an interesting book!

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    • I think in general a lot of history is biased towards the left, mainly because so many academics and intellectuals are left-leaning even when they live in mostly right-leaning countries like ours. The complicated background to the SCW makes it particularly difficult for a newcomer, but the two histories I’ve read so far, this and the Payne, have provided an excellent introduction!

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  2. Unlike later historians, Brenan lived in Spain and experienced the horrors and atrocities (on both sides) as an eye witness. He didn’t turn a blind eye to the cruelties inflicted by leftists – I just revisited my post on his partner Gamel Woolsey’s account of living with Brenan through the outbreak of the war near Málaga in her book Death’s Other Kingdom (link to my post here if you’re interested: https://wp.me/p3oBGt-hQ), and she acknowledges that the crimes were not confined to any one side. In fact, she and Brenan sheltered a Falangist, aristocratic family in their house to protect them from the Republicans who were hunting down and killing supporters of Franco. It’s not so different from the polarities in modern USA. As for Franco’s longevity – that’s another story…

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    • The story about shielding the Falangists is actually mentioned in the introduction to this one, and I did feel he tried very hard to see both sides. But especially towards the end I felt he was giving, not exactly a free pass, but maybe a more tolerant understanding of the left’s atrocities, and also, like most people at the time, suggesting that the right executed far more people. When you take Franco’s post-war behaviour into account that’s no doubt true, but I get the impression from Payne that, before and during the war, there wasn’t much to choose between the horrors. Payne’s full-length bio of Franco is waiting on my shelf, so I’m looking forward to learning more about the post-war period from that. Thanks for the link – I shall pop over. Maybe I should add Woolsey’s book to my reading list…

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  3. It’s wonderful to see that you’ve enjoyed the book as much as you did. Great review. I agree that it is easier to look at a history which is far away into the past, but even that triggers controversies, just ask any two Tudor historians a question on reformation and you might get a 30 minutes argument.

    The issue with the Spanish Civil War is, for me, that a lot of work was done by the left-wing historians and there are lots and lots of memoirs, there are interviews, ample research is already done. The right-wing historians (less in general) did not do the same amount of work and history is lost. Studying the role women played, it was incredible the lack of information of the 5th Column, the Falangist resistance in the Republican territories, even though there were thousands of women, risking their lives to save priests and so on. Or the reasons the Moors had to join Franco, that is another controversial topic, with not a lot of research done and, on this topic is mainly published in Arabic and Spanish, so not exactly widely read for those reasons.

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    • Ha, yes, or up here in Scotland ask two historians what they think of Mary Queen of Scots, and then duck quickly before the missiles start flying! 😉

      I find that history written by Brits in general tends to romanticise the left, presumably because academia in this country is considerably more left-leaning than the bulk of the population. I found the same when I was reading about the Russian Revolution. There was a lot of criticism of the Communists but the real vitriol was reserved for those on the right – not just the Romanov supporters, but those who sought some kind of compromise position. American historians however often feel to me as if they lean more towards the right. Sadly I haven’t read history written by people from other nations – I’d like to read a Spanish historian’s account of the SCW, if any have been translated into English…

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      • There is a Spanish author, Julian Casanova who wrote about the Spanish civil war and there are 2 books by him translated into English. I read A Short History of the Spanish Civil War and it is surprisingly unbiased for someone who was born when Franco was in power. I really enjoyed it.

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    • Thank you! It was exactly what I need to get a feel for the background. Glad to have your recommendation for the Thomas too. I had looked at it before but wasn’t sure whether to go for it or not, so I will now add it to my list. 😀

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  4. You mentioned one of the real challenges for those who write about history: bias. It’s very difficult to write a balanced history of an event or an era, etc., without any bias at all. It’s good to know that Brenan doesn’t do too badly on that score. What I’m especially interested in is the background he provides. It’s a complex history, and that particular war has so many different facets and levels that it can’t really be explored superficially – not if one’s going to understand it. I suppose that’s true of any war, but that one really requires some depth of exploration to understand it, I think. An excellent post, FictionFan, about a book that seems to do the topic some justice.

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    • Yes, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a history that felt completely unbiased and that’s not altogether surprising since none of us goes through life without forming opinions. I try where possible to read books from both sides of the bias spectrum if I can, so that I can decide for myself – i.e., allow my own biases to have a say! And it’s only if I feel an author is allowing his/her bias to distort the facts that I think a book is worthless – fortunately that only happens quite rarely. the detail on the background in this one is great – really gives a feel for the country and shows it as a variety of regions rather than simply two opposing sides.

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  5. This one is probably deeper than I feel up to right now, but I’m glad you found it interesting — for sure, I found your review interesting! The parts about the Church and anti-clericalism would be most intriguing to me. The politics? Not so much!

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    • I’m intrigued by the anti-clericalism too – it seemed to be very extreme in Spain. I’d actually like to find a book that went into it more deeply – either factual or fiction. I shall keep looking! Haha, I must admit Spanish politics seems a bit excessive even for this political geek! 😉

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    • It’s taking so long because of my slump last year, but I’m feeling enthusiastic about getting to some of the novels soon now I’ve got a bit of a handle on the history. I love doing these challenges on the blog because of the comments – it’s so great that people can recommend books and add to my understanding! 😀

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  6. This does sound like a fascinating read. History does shed so much light on the present (and perhaps future), but I would be one of those people floundering without a rudder unless I had the background info. Perhaps this and Payne’s book would be ones I’d give to my husband so I could read them at my leisure…..

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    • Yes, if I’m reading British history I have enough general knowledge to just dive in, but when I go further afield I really need to start with something that explains the background in relatively simple terms. These two books have been great for that – I feel that when I finally get to the novels I’ll get much more out of them now.

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  7. Great review, FF, of an area I’ve wanted to explore in a NF treatment. Ninety-five percent of what I think I know about this conflict I learned in For Whom the Bell Tolls. As you note, nobody comes away from that book thinking Hemingway’s view of the war wasn’t biased; that said, I might start with the newer one, to get a better understanding of the facts underlying his (and Jordan’s) sympathies and the basis for them. So thanks for this review, and the one by Payne. I’ll think it over before diving in. Cheers.

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    • Thank you! Now that I’ve read a bit of the history I really want to re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls – I’m sure I’d get even more out of it now. Certainly the history reading has made me feel that Hemingway’s depiction of it all was very realistic, both politically and in terms of the atrocities. But definitely left-leaning! If I was recommending just one, it would be the Payne – very succinct, very clear, and its mildly right-leaning tone helps to balance the mostly left-leaning fiction and memoirs.

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  8. This reminds me of the time I wrote a history paper on Italy in the early 20th century and one of my primary sources spoke of a promising young leader named Mussolini… This sounds like an interesting read though. I wasn’t aware for a long time that Spain was actually a lot of distinct regions and histories joined together.

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    • Haha, yes, it’s always dangerous to go on record too soon about a rising star, as so many people on Twitter have discovered. 😉 I’m ashamed of how little I knew about Spain. It’s so easy to view other countries purely in terms of how they impact on your own. This book was great for filling in some of the blanks!

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  9. Your theory that people need at least 50 years distance from an event to achieve true objectivity is totally on the mark. I feel that way about events in my own life for god’s sakes. Just think, how are we going to look back on the presidency of Donald Trump? Right now it feels like a horror show that’s ending, but who knows how it will impact us a decade from now…

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    • Exactly! I always joke about how nothing that has happened in my lifetime can count as history or historical fiction, but I am actually sort of serious about it. How can I possibly be objective about the Thatcher years, for instance, when I was so passionately against her at the time? Even my view of WW2 isn’t objective, because I grew up listening to my dad’s stories of his time in the army.

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