Review: The Spanish civil war - Anthony Beevor

A good review of the book on the Spanish Civil War by renowned military historian Anthony Beevor, which was later republished as The battle for Spain.

Submitted by Steven. on April 9, 2013

Originally published in 1982, this work has obviously been re-published to take advantage of the success of Antony Beevor's later work Stalingrad. It is a good thing that it was. Beevor has produced an exceedingly good, if short, work on the Spanish Civil War. Unsurprisingly, his account is primarily a military history, but do not let that put you off -- he clearly understands the role of the revolution in Spain and how it impacted on the course and nature of the war (and in the conflicts in the Republican side).

Beevor attempts to analysis the Spanish Civil War from three angles: class interest, centralism versus regionalism and authoritarian rule versus libertarian instinct. Unsurprisingly, this means he discusses the
anarchist movement (indeed, he places it at the heart of the story). His accounts of anarchism and the social revolution during the war are excellent. For example, he defines anarchism as a "structure of co-operative communities, associating freely" and which "corresponded to deep-rooted traditions of mutual-aid, and the federalist organisation appealed to anti-centralist feelings." He makes clear that the anarchists were the main part of the labour movement as well as their key role in defeating the fascist uprising. He discusses the collectivisations that occurred in a positive light and notes the disastrous effect on the morale of the anti-fascist side when they were undermined and forcibly disbanded. Its nice to see a historian state the obvious as regards the Aragon collectives: "the very fact that every village was a mixture of collectivists and individualists shows that peasants had not been forced into communal farming at the point of a gun." He even mentions and discusses the Mujeres Libres and quotes Malatesta when discussing the anarchist critic of reformism in syndicalism!

From an anarchist perspective, his account of the failings of the Popular Army makes interesting reading. Beevor argues that it was unimaginative in its tactics, with its (usually communist) commanders blindly following instructions even when circumstances on the ground made them inadequate. The army allowed its commanders "little initiative," a dangerous condition when the lines of communication were disrupted by fighting (as was the habit of the commanders lying to their superiors in and after battles to save face). Used to centralised, top-down structures, the communists re-created these in the Popular Army and the results were the exact opposite of the efficiency and success promised. Ultimately, the Communist and Republican principle of "unified command" and a regular, orthodox (bourgeois) army became a "bureaucratic tourniquet" which was defeated in almost every battle in the war. Indeed, Beevor accounts how its battle plans were usually drawn up simply to gain prestige for the Communist Party.

In this, his account is a useful antidote to those who argue that the militarisation of the militias was a necessary step in winning the war. As history clearly shows, the Popular Army was a disaster. As for the International Brigades, while acknowledging their members courage, he also paints a horrific picture of Communist Party control (which included the shooting of about 500 Brigaders, nearly a tenth of the total killed in the war) and mentions a few rebellions in their ranks.

While the militias were hardly perfect, it comes clear from his account that the Popular Army was not a good replacement. Beevor stresses that much of the problem with the militias, as George Orwell also argued, was due to their lack of experience rather than their libertarian nature. Beevor even argues that electing leaders was "not so much a difficulty as a source of strength" as it "inspired mutual confidence." The question was how to federate the militia columns, not to abolish them. This solution, however, was dependent on whether the revolution would be successful.

Beevor gives a fair account of the dilemma facing the CNT after they had put down the coup in Barcelona. The dangers of isolation internally ("Madrid had the gold") and externally (unofficial sanctions by governments and companies) and the fate of their comrades in other parts of Republican Spain obviously played a key role. However, he quotes Garcia Oliver's comments that the alternative was either an "anarchist dictatorship, or democracy which signifies collaboration" without any analysis. Made in 1937, these comments are both historically and logically defective. On July 20th 1936, the CNT leadership decided to not mention libertarian communism until Franco had been defeated, yet his argument, if it was valid, was as much applicable to a post-Franco Spain as it was on that day. Ultimately, Gracia Oliver argued that representative democracy is more "democratic" than self-managed communes (hardly a valid position, particularly given the authoritarian and repressive nature of any capitalist democracy and the Spanish Republic itself in the 1930s). His argument simply reflected the CNT-FAI leadership's attempts to justify their collaboration with the state rather than a coherent and accurate argument.

Of course Beevor's work has its weaknesses. His account of the decisive CNT plenum on July 20th, as noted, is one. Similarly, his account of the uprising and suppression at Casas Viejas is wrong, relying as it does on accounts disproved by Jerome R. Mintz in his The Anarchists of Casas Viejas. Similarly, his account of the conflict between the radical anarchists and the treintistas is somewhat confused chronologically, but at least he does not paint the usual picture of the FAI seizing control of the CNT by conspiratorial methods. He does suggest that the FAI advocated sudden and fragmented uprisings while, in fact, most of the early uprisings were spontaneous and the later ones co-ordinated by the CNT itself (his account of Casas Viejas fits into this false picture of FAI activities). Ultimately, it would have been nice for the work to be referenced more completely, allowing the reader to investigate for themselves aspects of the Spanish Civil War and Revolution that Beevor discusses in too short a space!

However, be that as it may, Beevor's account is to be recommended. His account of the first days of the revolution, when workers armed themselves when the government refused, is excellent. His summary of the collectivisations is positive. The role of the allied governments and foreign capitalists in stabbing the Republican government in the back is clearly shown. He even discusses the post-war resistance against Franco and the part played by Spainards in the French resistance.

All in all, an informative and interesting read.



11 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by Steven. on April 9, 2013

Posted this in here because if there wasn't an anarchist review of this book I was going to write one, having just read The battle for Spain.

Basically, The battle for Spain seems to be substantially the same as the previous book, however it has lots of additional information about Soviet intervention in the Civil War gleaned from declassified files from the USSR, which is very interesting.

One thing this review omits is that Beevor does say that the militias were ineffective fighting forces.

One thing I didn't realise before, despite reading quite a lot about the Spanish Civil War, was that apart from the initial uprising the Republic pretty much had no offensive victories (only one minor one at Guadalajara).

He does point out that the militias were inexperienced and importantly desperately lacking in arms. Initially due to the Republican government refusing to on the workers, and later the Communist commanders denying non-Communist-led units weapons.

But his military view was that the lack of a single command structure in the army was a weakness (although of course you can have central coordination in a libertarian way).

From a tactical point of view, he basically says that the Republican strategy should have been to establish strong defences right from the get go, and instead of set piece larger offensives (which were all ineffective against superior artillery and air power) they should have engaged in widespread guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines and short, sharp offensives at the front to keep Nationalist forces busy.

Although really with the Nationalists engaging in a war of basically complete extermination of Republicans in the Nationalist sector (they talked openly about shooting up to half the population) I can't really see how this type of guerrilla warfare could have been maintained in a substantial way.

Really it seems like the working class was doomed from pretty early on…