Stranded In The Southland

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Hugh Thomas and the Spanish Civil War

So, everybody who's anybody on the Spanish Civil War recommends Hugh Thomas's _The Spanish Civil War_ as the be all and end all book to read on the subject. It's nearly 1,000 pages long, all told, and since it came out in 1961, it has gone through a number of editions. I read the 2001 edition, with revisions and updates from the author.

Alas, I've been spoiled by years of reading WWII histories. Everybody writes about WWII, and so there's a certain requirement for a book to sing before it can sell. Furthermore, I've been reading mostly military histories, rather than political ones.

This put me in a bad position to appreciate Thomas's book. It spends several hundred pages warming up, with an introduction to 20th century Spanish history (certainly necessary to understand the SCW). Unfortunately, Thomas feels compelled to mention the name of everybody who did so much as fart the general direction of Spanish politics, making it a real chore to keep track of who is who and who did what.

This is considerably aggravated by the fact that many of the people mentioned die in the opening weeks of the civil war, or even on the opening day. Or sometimes, before it started. Yow. Names are dropped
left and right, extensively footnoted, but it isn't always clear why they were mentioned.

Then we move into the actually conflict. I'm so used to maps and exhaustively boring descriptions of action that I almost didn't know how to react when Thomas went on about the heroic (and propaganda)
importance of the defense of the Alcazar of Toledo, but devotes just a couple of pages to it, with almost no details of what went on. As usual, he has time to drop a few more names.

This pattern follows throughout the book, with almost no description of the action, but exhaustive descriptions of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering for power. We learn all about the communists, and even something about what was going on in Moscow, and who Stalin was purging at the time, but still don't know where the troops were. When this book was first written, in the early 1960's, Franco was still
in power. I have to presume that Thomas had to do a certain amount of sucking up to get access to his materials (and presumably, if he was an expert on Spain, he'd like to not be excluded from the country altogether for future research).

It certainly seems evident in the book (which was nonetheless banned in Spain until after Franco died). It is full of references to "Republican apologists" around the world, but never quite gets as exercised (or uses such strong language to describe) the folks supporting the Nationalists.

We get pages and pages about the horrors of the Republican communist purges, but only a page or two about Guernica, and not a particularly outrages couple of pages. I mean, he points out the suffering inflicted, the international outrage, and the Nationalist propaganda denying it for 30 years, but he never seems to get to exercised about it. Where's the outrage?

In a similar vein of seeing bias, and this is a problem I've witnessed before from British historians, he goes into painful detail about who dies in the British Brigade, lamenting the fall of "promising poet" after "promising poet", with a few novelists thrown in for good measure.

Yet, he only mentions the American dead (900 as opposed to 500 British dead) when a commander dies. Apparently, only wharf rats and bums volunteered from the States, but flower of young British artistic talent went over there.

Of course, there is many an American history that seems to indicate that we won the whole war, in both the Pacific and European Theaters, by ourselves, so I suppose turnabout is a bit of fair play. Still, if Thomas was a professor at Harvard while working on this, you'd think he'd have a chance to figure out what was going on with the American side.

On the other hand, I'm sure that this is an invaluable resource if you really want to know the natty-gritty of what went on politically. He footnotes everything obsessively. If you want to know why he came to a conclusion, you'll find it in the footnotes. Based on those footnotes, it is possible to determine where he's sort of guessing and where he's sure. And he'd pretty clear about that in the text as well.

I just wish that this was more of a military history, and described in more detail what went on, rather than the endless (and, on both sides, not very pretty) political maneuvering. Oh, well. At least now I know all about it.