By Paul Preston
W. W. Norton and Company, 2007
Reviewed by Randall Radic
In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler wrote: “With this enters the age of gigantic conflicts, in which we find ourselves today. It is the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism…. The Chinese call it Shan-Kwo, the period of the contending states.” Spengler was not writing about the Spanish Civil War, of course. His perspective was purely historical and not specific to one event. Nevertheless, his statement provides an explanation for the Spanish Civil War.
Jesus took the long view, too, when he said, “There will be wars and rumors of wars until I come again.” Indirectly, his words provide another explanation for the Spanish Civil War. Something along the lines of “that’s just the way people are.”
Paul Preston, the author of The Spanish Civil War, wanted a more specific answer, so he wrote a book in which he examined the causes and effects of the Spanish Civil War (SCW). A war, according to Preston, that set the stage for World War II. In the first chapter of his book, Preston implies that – generally speaking – the SCW was the result of growing pains – “the struggles of a society in the throes of modernization.” The SCW was “the culmination of a series of uneven struggles between the forces of reform and reaction which had dominated Spanish history since 1808.”
In other words, there were two groups of people in Spain. Those that wanted to change things and those that wanted things to stay the same. The reformers wanted to modernize Spain, pushing it out of the past into the 20th century. Like most people who are afraid of change, the reactionaries liked things the way they were. And they liked it even more if they got to be in power. That way they could make sure the status quo was preserved.
In chapter two, Preston begins breaking his general explanation for the SCW down into specific factors. The reformers, called the Second Republic, were liberals with wonderful ideas that they couldn’t implement effectively. Their failure caused them to revert to “revolutionary solutions.” And that’s when everything went to hell in a hand cart. Preston details the conflict and its aftermath in the succeeding chapters.
Before reading Preston’s book, the reviewer’s knowledge of the SCW was scanty to almost non-existent. After finishing the book, the reviewer would like to know more, especially about General Franco, who led the Nationalist forces to victory – if one wants to call it that – and set himself up as dictator for life. The reviewer would also like to read more about the 3000 Americans who took up arms and fought against Franco. What motivated men whom, for the most part, had no military experience, to take part in the civil war of a foreign country? Preston merely writes, “the volunteers went to Spain to fight Hitlerism.” The reviewer suspects there’s more to it. He also admits that the subject probably commands a separate book, dedicated to the topic.
Preston does a remarkable job in relating the story of the SCW. His presentation and knowledge of General Franco is stunning. To the reviewer, it appeared that without Franco the outcome of the civil war might have been different. For Franco did whatever needed to be done to win. He was ruthless, driven by an inner energy, which the Republicans could not muster. Franco’s mantra seemed to be “kill, kill, kill.” And although a little simplistic, his willingness to kill provided the crucial advantage to the Nationalists.
Previous reviewers have accused Preston of “leftist bias.” In the book’s preface, Preston himself acknowledges that he has no sympathy for the Nationalists. He writes, “it is not a book which sets out to find a perfect balance between both sides.” He then explains that he lived in Spain during Franco’s domination. In other words, Preston is not writing history from his penthouse suite at the Ivory Tower Hotel. To this reviewer, that means he knows what he’s talking about, because he actually experienced it. And that means his book tells what really happened. Which is called “the truth.”
Truth is a bias only to those who want to believe a lie.
All in all, The Spanish Civil War is essential reading for a better understanding of the dynamics of history as it occurred in Spain just prior to World War II.