Book review-The Spanish Republic at War

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at
Tue Feb 11 13:06:02 MST 2003

The pain in Spain
The Spanish Republic at War. By Helen Graham. Cambridge University Press,
472 pp. £19.9

  History: 'Long live the men who bring us the rule of law!" These words,
writes Helen Graham, greeted a group of Spanish Republicans campaigning for
democracy in the crucial elections of 1931.

It is bitterly ironic that the Republic, which was declared weeks later, is
often primarily remembered today, even by some of its defenders, as a period
of great lawlessness. One of the tasks that Graham sets herself, in this
deeply researched and important book, is to show, in precise and convincing
detail, how Republican Spain went to great lengths, even when faced with the
monstrous terrorism of Gen Franco's advancing rebel armies, to preserve
constitutional and democratic control of state institutions.

It was the impact of the war itself, she argues, which led to the violent
collapse of public order - indeed of the whole state apparatus - in the
Republican zone in 1936.

Senior republican politicians, she points out, risked their own lives by
personally patrolling the midnight streets of Madrid to curb the arbitrary
killings by militants, incensed by the military rebellion, in the first
weeks of the war.

She traces the painful reconstruction of the rule of law in
republican-controlled areas in the ensuing months and years and attempts to
demonstrate that the resurgent extra-judicial violence of the Republic's own
forces in the last terrible months of the war was more due to near-famine,
and legitimate fears of the Fifth Column, than to the planned imposition of
"Stalinist" repression.

This is, of course, passionately contested territory, to this day.
Libertarians and Far Leftists still speak darkly about the "betrayal" of the
Republic by the Moscow-dominated Spanish Communist Party, a view shared by
some centrist democrats; the Communists, and many others, blame the Western
democracies for failing to support a fraternal democracy against fascism;
conservatives argue that the violence and disorder they associate
exclusively with the Republic made Franco's rebellion inevitable, even

To the heat of this debate, Graham brings a great deal of welcome light.
While this book is not an easy read without some previous knowledge, anyone
with a nodding familiarity with these debates will find her work both
exciting and illuminating. Seasoned historians will find much to challenge
in her analysis, but she has set the bar of excellence high enough to ensure
that such challenges will be on her terms.

What is extraordinarily fresh, in one of history's most visited landscapes,
is the orientation of vast amounts of detail into a complex but clearly
articulated and coherent picture.

On the origins of the war, she holds that the Republicans failed to mobilise
their own natural constituencies in a politically effective way. The
"people" were certainly often on the streets, but they were also frequently
out of control. Then, instead of finding legitimate ways to channel the
understandable popular impatience for radical reform, this new regime often
responded with very heavy-handed police methods, alienating its natural
supporters from parliamentary democracy.

While the Right howled about the breakdown of "public order", the Left found
that bullets fired by the Civil Guard under the Republic had much the same
effect as similar bullets fired under the old regime. This alienation was
intensified by the conservative economic ideology of the Republican
leadership, which could not satisfy the aspirations that the abolition of
the monarchy had unleashed.

Meanwhile, the Republic wilfully helped to mobilise its own enemies, not
least through its gratuitous anti-clericalism. It was one thing, Graham
argues, to insist that Church and State should be separated, and curb the
power of a religious establishment which was openly hostile to democracy. It
was another thing, wrong in principle and disastrous in practice, to ban the
ringing of church bells and stop processions in honour of much-loved local

The author moves into more contentious territory as she analyses the
Republic's titanic struggle to remain true to its democratic origins and
simultaneously win a civil war. Franco, needless to say, was unfettered by
any corresponding constitutional or humanitarian constraints.

Graham rightly insists that there were not two "equivalent" terrors in the
Civil War. Terror in the Republican zone was largely spontaneous, and
usually repudiated - and repressed - by the whole spectrum of the
leadership, including many figures in the much-maligned anarchist CNT.
Terror in Franco's territory was explicitly approved and fostered by the
rebel administration as a matter of policy throughout - and indeed long
after - the war.

She gives much space to the controversial predominance of the Spanish
Communist Party (PCE) in the Republic as the war progressed. Her argument is
that this was much less due to Comintern conspiracy than to the party's
great skill in mobilising diverse social groups, and to its acute
understanding of the necessities imposed by the war. She also marshals
impressive evidence to show that the Socialist Party prime minister, Dr Juan
Negrín, was never a dupe of Moscow, but an astutely realistic leader trapped
in one of history's most tragic corners.

Those who take issue with these points - and I personally think she does
have blind spots regarding the viciousness of elements in the PCE and the
Comintern - will have to do a lot of new homework to win the argument.

They will also have to take account of her meticulously fair analysis of the
blackest stain on the PCE's problematic record - its illegal and blatantly
slanderous persecution of the left-wing communists of the POUM.

She does not, however, elevate this group to the moral pedestal erected for
it by George Orwell and, more recently, the film-maker Ken Loach. Indeed,
one of the real pleasures of her analyses is the frequency with which she
unstitches the simplistic right/wrong, either/or polarities with which
Spanish Civil War histories are littered.

This book is also enriched by Graham's multi-faceted approach, which gives
weight to cultural and psychological factors alongside politics, economics,
and military logistics. It deserves a place among the half-dozen
indispensable volumes in the huge literature on this war.

Paddy Woodworth's book on the Basque conflict, Dirty War, Clean Hands, has
recently been published in paperback by Yale University Press

Paddy Woodworth

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