The war in the war

Book Cover: The Spanish Civil War by Antony BeevorAntony Beevor: The Spanish Civil War is highly readable, as are all his books (Stalingrad and The fall of Berlin are the most well known.) The Spanish Civil War was a war that is often described as a prelude to and training ground for WWII, with an elected democratic Republic fighting a Fascist army, the latter with decisive German and Italian support – especially the Condor Legion, German pilots who notoriously bombed the Basque town of Guernica, rendered famous by Picasso’s painting of the same name. The history of war is written by the winners, says Beevor, but for this war, the story was written by the losers – and the reason they lost is rather complicated.
The Fascist side was called the Nationalists, an insurgence led by Franco in a conservative alliance between officers, landowners and the Catolic church (which really has some explaining to do and excuses to make for their role in the conflict.) The Republicans, on the other side, consisted of Socialists, Anarkists and Communists, the latter of whom were better organized than the others and managed to co-opt both the Anarkists and Socialists organization, sometimes to the point were there was a “civil war inside the civil war.” Most of the time, it seemed the Communists were more interested in that they would win that that the opposition should lose, so weapons were withheld from allies and tactics were decided for progaganda reasons rather military, resulting in grievous losses for no military purpose.
The Spanish Civil war was a conflict between centralization and decentralization, feudalism and socialism, and religion and secularism. The Nationalists managed to keep their internal feuds internal (mostly by clever maneuvering by Franco), whereas the Spanish Republic never was more than a coalition of groups united only by their opposition to the Nationalists, and sometimes not even that. Extremism won out on both sides, resulting in tragedies and atrocities both during the war and after – events that haunted Spain for the rest of the century.
One aspect that struck me is that in the story of Spain lies much of the key to how Hitler could come into power in Germany – the opposition on the left was destroyed to a large degree by their own internal strife, allowing an initially small group (Franco started with 30,000 legionnaires from Morocco) to take over a country because the majority was split into groups that would rather lose than see any of their allies get credit for a victory.
I wonder if not the Spanish Civil War should be taught more in schools – its is more overviewable and allows less for demonization of the enemy than that of Germany. The political forces and internal machinations are more visible and more understandable. Extremism wins out when centrism cannot offer a unified and clear voice – a dilemma which we still haven’t found out how to counter, at least not in the short run.

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